Through tour tribulations and member reconfigurations, San Francisco band Film School has endured.
Early summer. Friday night. Los Angeles
The opening band at the Echo's got a hot look -- beautiful guitars, a black female keyboardist with a Pam Grier afro, a singer pouring his heart into it, a bassist losing his mind -- but I'm not buying it. They may play with style and confidence, but the songs aren't built to last. The band doesn't look worn in and ready for crappy touring, years of playing without a record label really getting behind them, line-up shifts, bitter boyfriends or girlfriends who see them only when they're tired and burned out, jobs that suck out their souls, an album no one really cares about, and not having any money ever. Like many other fledgling bands, this band will be gone in one or two years. They'll be seeking shelter in grad school and more promising careers. More than ever in rock and roll, you have to be ready for the long haul. You might be wrapping up your dissertation by the time you release your first LP.
So what kind of band survives? What kind of band wants to survive?
Film School takes the stage next. It's the headlining slot and people are watching. This is the second-to-last show of the San Francisco natives' month-long US tour. The band's influences -- My Bloody Valentine, Pink Floyd, and the Cure -- are not entirely fresh, but the inclusion of the beautiful Floyd atmospherics help it stand apart.
A two-minute wave of guitar noise signals the beginning of the set. When the first song kicks in, the sound quality isn't perfect, but the band is unfazed. They've done this for years. Singer-guitarist-founder, Krayg Burton, stands on the right side, quietly overseeing the whole production. Dressed in black, he remains rather still for most of the set like a devout shoegazer. He's not emotionless, just calm. As songs hit their peaks, Burton thrashes wildly on his guitar in momentary energetic outbursts. Nyles Lannon, the other guitarist, is on the left side with a collection of pedals. He's always busy, sending the sounds of delay, bent notes, and trippy loops into the audience. Offstage, the drummer, Donny Newenhouse, rocks a happy-go-lucky, even goofy, demeanor, but onstage, he's all business, hitting hard and with precision. The most engaging member to watch is Justin Labo, the bassist. He stands in the center and plays his bass like a punk rocker, constantly on the move, dancing like a matador as he hammers down elaborate bass lines. By contrast, keyboardist Jason Ruck is pushed fully off to the left. He's so unassuming that you barely notice him, but when you really listen, you can hear his subtle keyboard threads tying together the rest of the loud rock sounds. In every song, he'll play that one sample or keyboard line that gives that song its character, the part that makes it stick in your head.
Halfway through its set, the band plays "He's a Deep, Deep Lake" and everything comes together: The sound clicks, the band locks into each other, and the crowd moves. The song begins with a hardcore introduction: everyone save for Jason is knocking up their instruments when all of a sudden the song descends into a hypnotic valley of keyboards and guitars paired with Burton's quiet singing. His lyrics, "We trusted you / To make up our minds / Colden our eyes / Quicken the time," are typical of Film School -- ruminations on bruised relationships and failed promise. The band sits in that sonic valley for a couple of minutes, slowly building it back up to the explosion that ends it. When the song is over, it's clear that Film School has conquered the room.
Saturday morning. Interstate 5, heading north to San Francisco
Lannon drives the Film School van while Newenhouse holds down shotgun. Newenhouse has big eyes, big hair and the type of smile that keeps a band happy when they've been on the road for four weeks. He and Lannon strike up conversations like telephones in Tokyo and don't let up until we stop for food. I'm on the rear bench, surrounded by guitar amps. Burton is next to me wearing a black hat, T-shirt and jeans, a pair of tired eyes and few days of facial growth. Labo looks edgy and fatigued on the bench in front of us. He takes out his laptop, puts on his headphones, zones everyone out and starts making electronic music on his computer. "I didn't sleep so much last night," Burton mutters. I can tell he doesn't want to be interviewed. But he is tragically nice, and his warm voice puts me at ease. As we hit a cluster of traffic trying to get out of L.A., Burton starts talking.
"At 10, I took piano lessons for a couple of years and played lots of ragtime and Mozart and stuff like that and then didn't touch an instrument again until 21. It wasn't until after hearing Nirvana that I thought I'd love to be in a band and, hey, maybe I could actually write music too. I'm not sure what clicked, but it became apparent to me at some point that I was spending most of my time either playing music, listening to music or working out melodies in my head, like at a job. Film School started in 1998 in San Francisco. It was my solo project at first. I had friends come in and put down parts on the first album [Brilliant Career, 2001]. Nyles worked at Epitonic.com, and they liked the first record. That's how we got in touch."
With Ruck and Lannon, Burton recorded a short but stunning bedroom-rock EP, Always Never (2003), which was meant to ultimately become a full-length record, but when they shopped it around, no labels returned their calls. A friend who ran a small indie, Amazing Grease, finally released it as a four-song EP. Fortunately, that friend happened to be Scott Kannberg (ex-Pavement), which helped give it exposure. The EP's mix of space-rock and catchy indie-pop became the band's calling card, and in San Francisco, a Film School show became "something to do" on a Friday night. When UK label Beggars Banquet showed interest, Film School signed a deal with it in 2005, after the National put in a good word. Alongside Rogue Wave and Deerhoof, Film School became one of the San Francisco bands to look out for.
The history seems standard enough for a band until I do the math and realize it was seven years ago when Burton started this thing. He could have become a doctor. Instead he chose seven years of working carpel-tunnel-inducing tech jobs to make the rent just to be one of the recognized bands in his hometown and land a record deal. He jokes, "I'm surprised I've stayed with it for this long. I don't even like music." He laughs. " What else could I be doing here? I could go to film school or become a writer."
Nevertheless he admits, "When we signed to Beggars we became a touring band." And with the release of the self-titled Film School in February 2006, the band hit the road for their first major US tour. Enter: Drama.
Seven years of work and all of your gear gets swiped on your first tour.
This was the year they were supposed to get on the map and all they got was a headache. "Getting our gear stolen struck at the moment when we had just started a tour, released a record, and we were fucked," comments Lannon. "The guitar I lost was 11 years old. I knew everything about it. I've never had that type of relationship with a guitar. Now I know to never take your best gear on tour."
"We got emails," Burton says. "A few people thought it was a publicity stunt, but I'd never wish it on our worst enemies."
As they tried to piece together the rest of their tour, reviews of Film School's first widely distributed album were hitting the press. Some were positive but others weren't: "Uncut wrote: An 80s rip-off that wasn't worthy of a Flock of Seagulls B-Sides collection'," Labo says. "I think they imagine us to be a band with black suits, black hair and white ties."
Burton adds, "Sometimes writers really get it. They listen to the album a few times, and they help you learn something about what you're doing. Then you get jackass writers who listen to 30 seconds of four songs and read other reviews online and then say the same shit they read."
Despite some negative reviews, the temporarily derailed band received support from other sources. Healthy amounts of press on music blogs and sites like Pitchfork as well as wholesale rates for new gear from Fender helped Film School survive its crisis and head back out, re-energized, for the summer tour. "The new gear probably changed us for the better," Lannon says, "because it forced us all to reevaluate our sound."
Saturday Night, San Francisco
We're at Slim's, the club where Film School will play its homecoming show. Lannon and I are slumped into the cushy couches of the Slim's green room. The show is in three hours. Lannon has a nerdy air about him: tall and lanky; rectangular glasses; a nasal, academic voice, not to mention an Ivy League philosophy degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Nerd or not, he gets his work done. Not only does he play in Film School, he also has two solo projects (the spacey-folk band, N. Lannon, and the electronic n.ln) and produces other musicians' albums. With his prominent use of distortion, delay and reverb in Film School I would have pegged him for a Kevin Shields disciple, but instead he draws inspiration from a band many Bay Area rockers are too quick to dismiss: the Grateful Dead.
"I buy into the whole idea of San Francisco, the summer of love and psychedelic music. I've been to 40 Dead shows. That's what I did in high school. Seeing Dead shows is how I came to relate to the whole live thing," he explains.
He cites three classic Dead albums, Anthem of the Sun (1968), American Beauty (1970) and Terrapin Station (1977), as his favorites, which makes sense: Anthem was an experimental masterpiece, Beauty was filled with tight, powerful songwriting, and Terrapin's title track showcased the band's ability to merge the two. This is also Film School's approach.
As Lannon explains the creative process behind Film School's most recent album, I get a sense of the band's flexible songwriting dynamic: " '11:11' and 'On and On' - those songs were done as jams all at once. 'Sick of the Shame' was an idea Krayg had on guitar and then I put all this electronic shit behind it. 'Pitfalls' was a loop I had on my pedal, and we built it around that. 'Like You Know' started off as a country jam Justin was playing on acoustic, and we made it a ballad with heavy droning guitars over it. I tend to come up with stuff in the moment when all five of us are jamming or in my studio all alone. Justin and Krayg will have a chord progression. They'll bring it in to see if it works."
Lannon loves writing and recording but complains about touring: "Tour is the most unstable existence. You have to turn off your life for two months, whether it's some job where I'm making money or my girlfriend. Everyone else moves on and I come back and I'm in the same place."
Late summer. San Francisco.
I'm in the Haight-Ashbury, one-time home of the Grateful Dead, now home to trust-fund hippies asking me for a dollar for some booze. Burton calls me up. He's down in L.A. with his girlfriend. I find a relatively quiet corner right off Haight Street. After the obligatory pleasantries, he cuts to the chase: Newnhouse and Labo have moved on from Film School. Goodbye rhythm section. Burton says, "With Justin moving to New York and Donny getting busy with a full-time job, we decided it wouldn't work out. I want people around who are going to be excited about working on the next record. It feels so much better now. Feels positive again and we're writing well together."
The band will continue on as a three-piece (Ruck, Burton, and Lannon) in the studio, perhaps inviting guest musicians to add rhythmic flourishes. Work on the next album, to be released on Beggars, will begin right away, now that the fall tour has been cancelled. Burton enthusiastically notes, "We just got a song placed in a movie called You Are Here with a soundtrack featuring Joy Division, Bloc Party and the Rapture. Not bad for local boys, eh?"
It's pretty clear to me why Burton soldiers on: because he can't live without it. And it's not just Film School who embraces this lifestyle; countless others are pounding the indie pavement deep into their fourth decade. Indie isn't just all-ages anymore. Burton says, "When you're not a huge band like Aerosmith, you have to learn how to adapt. That's the point, you have to learn how to adapt in order to move forward."