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Film School grows better as it grows older -- shoegazer comparisons be damned

Wednesday, Jan 25 2006
I am one of those annoying people who, for the most part, like a band's earlier work better. Especially in this modern, accelerated era, where everything seems to have the half-life of a mutant atom, I find that many artists don't have the staying power I wish they had. For instance, the fact that, three albums in, the New Pornographers are still relevant is shocking to me.

S.F. noise rock outfit Film School is an exception to this rule. The band's been around in one form or another for the past eight years, and it's just hitting its stride. This is the point at which most groups slide down the chute to mediocrity, woefully searching for big-name producers to recapture their past glory or begging that Black Eyed Peas dude to guest on a track. And yet, Film School's new self-titled album, released this month on Beggars Banquet, is the quintet's best effort yet. Whereas past releases featured tracks with minute variations on a theme ("All hail My Bloody Flying Saucer Attack!"), this second full-length is hugely varied, with dancey post-punk shuffles, achingly pretty atmospheric ballads, and King Kong-sized feedback bonanzas. And each song ripples with addictive, winsome melodies.

"I love the record -- it's gorgeous, ethereal, infectious music," says Aaron Axelson, LIVE105's music director. "Of course, it's kinda true that their sound is one I have a serious affection for. Ever since I was the import buyer at Mod Lang ... shoegazer was a huge part of my world."

Ah yes, the shoegaze tag. Naturally, Film School doesn't like being lumped in with '80s feedback-sculpting acts like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. Hell, Mudhoney didn't care to be called "grunge," AC/DC loathed the term "heavy metal," and nobody understood what "alternative rock" was. Labels are just a way for lazy journalists to move the word count along. Ahem.

Besides, it's not like the members of Film School are obsessed with all those British bands of yore. No one has a tattoo of Kevin Shields on their inner thigh. In fact, guitarist Nyles Lannon spent his teenage years playing in "horrible metal-funk Rush cover bands," while drummer Donnie Newenhouse spanked the skins for metal acts. As for founding member and Danville native Krayg Burton, his first truly inspirational moment came while listening to Nirvana's Unplugged record.

"I think that was probably the first time I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to try to start a band,'" recalls Burton, 35, during an interview at his house with Lannon, 33, and keyboardist Jason Ruck, 36. "And I remember telling my dad that, and he laughed at me. 'What are you thinking? You can't start a band; you don't even know how to play guitar.'"

Undeterred, Burton moved to S.F. in 1995 and formed a short-lived group with Tim Mitchell (now leader of the Decoration). Soon after that act detonated, he started Film School with drummer Paige Weber of Van Gogh's Daughter, and the duo released a single that revealed a healthy similarity to Pavement and local Noise Pop act Oranger (i.e., catchy home-recorded pop with all the rough edges showing). Ruck and his girlfriend, violinist Finnoula O'Ciosoig, joined up in 1999, after seeing Burton perform at an African restaurant.

"I think that was a time when the band was trying to find itself," Ruck says. "We went through this phase where we would get tagged with the mellow, slow-core sound, because people would hear violin or acoustic guitar, and they would instantly think that that was what this was all about."

Eventually, Burton took his songs to Fuck's Kyle Statham and his Black Eyed Pig Studio. The sessions were a bit of a hodgepodge, with Burton inducing Mitchell, drummer Ben Montesano, Pavement's Scott Kannenberg, and his new pal Lannon to lay down parts. (Lannon had discovered their mutual musical interests in 1999, after Burton sent the FS 7-inch to the Epitonic music site, which Lannon co-founded.) The resulting record, Brilliant Career, was like a great big hot tub of noise, full of long, drawn-out guitar epics that you could sink down and luxuriate in.

"I think when Nyles joined it really started coming together," Ruck says.

In college, Lannon had played expansive space-rock with groups like Azusa Plane. "I've always played this atmospheric noisy guitar thing, and I've been doing that for over 10 years. So when I first played with Krayg and I'm sitting there doing my thing, and he's actually liking it, I'm like, 'Ooh, this works.'"

Thanks to the addition of bassist Justin LaBo and the securing of Montesano, the band was finally stable enough to tour. Thus started the rash of the usual gigs, from trips to CMJ in New York and SXSW in Austin to showcases at Noise Pop and three-week jaunts across the Southwest. Over time, the group drew well, played well, and sold OK, but it never broke from the pack of like-minded acts. During this period, I saw Film School several times, and, while the players were enthusiastic, their songs never seemed to stand out enough. Someone called them "Film Snooze," and the moniker kind of made sense.

Then, in early 2004, one of those typical good news/bad news situations occurred. Drummer Montesano quit the band due to family and work obligations, and, with only a few days remaining before leaving for SXSW, the band convinced Donnie Newenhouse, who had run sound for the group at Bottom of the Hill several times and operated his own recording studio, to join up. Suddenly, Film School had a dynamic thrust that had only been hinted at before.

"We've always had heavy songs, but maybe with him in the band it comes out more," Burton suggests. "The loud got louder and more ... not aggressive, but powerful."

"Ben's more laid-back and swinging; Donnie is more driving, more direct," says Lannon.

"I remember Scott [Kannenberg] said that at SXSW: 'God, you guys are really leaping off the stage now!'" says Burton.

With this newfound energy, the band went into Newenhouse's studio, re-recorded several old tracks, and sent them out to labels. In time, they caught the ear of one of the best and longest-running indie companies, U.K.-based Beggars Banquet.

It's easy to understand what the imprint saw in the band. Film School fits snuggly within the label's discography, ably rubbing elbows with the euphoric buzz of the Pixies, the evocative synthestry of Gary Numan, and the epic sprawl of Mercury Rev. On its own, the song "11:11" encapsulates the last 25 years of indie rock, featuring as it does LaBo's bouncy bassline and Newenhouse's strutting drum pattern, Burton's serpentine rhythm guitar riff and Lannon's spasmodic feedback soloing, all topped off by Burton's angsty Robert Smith moan. Other songs are more single-minded: The delicate ballad "Sick of the Shame" features heavily treated vocals and chiming, Cocteau Twins-y guitar intermeshed with gauzy feedback textures, and "Like You Know" showcases the kind of psychotic, slow-building guitar epic that must make LIVE105's Axelson get out his old Doc Martens so he can gaze anew at them. Elsewhere, there's "Harmed," with its catchy, cascading organ melody, and "Breet," with its near-New Order strut and psychedelic whirling keyboard part.

One of the reasons Film School surpasses its precursors is that it took so long to make, and therefore includes so many different facets of the band. "Even in the last two years, I've seen them reinvent themselves several times," Axelson says.

"We always do this thing where we write a song and then we'll react to it," says Lannon. "We'll say, 'We don't want to do a song like last time; we want to do something different.'"

Not only are the songs more diverse, but each includes distinct melodies that beg to be hummed. This concept -- complex, interwoven parts brimming with accessible melodies -- is what puts the new album over the top.

With two recent European jaunts under Film School's belt as well as a big upcoming U.S. tour, it seems that Burton's father doesn't always know best. As for the shoegazer tag, it's really not that applicable. Then again, if the shoe(gazer) fits ...

"The 18- to 24-year-olds have no idea who My Bloody Valentine is," reasons Axelson, "so if listening to Film School helps them listen to them or Ride or Chapterhouse, great!"

About The Author

Dan Strachota


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