Published on Blurt-online.com – Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2010
The acclaimed San Fran indie band has moved way beyond those early shoegaze comparisons. Deal with it.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
As far as Greg Bertens is concerned, labeling Film School as a “post-shoegaze” outfit is wholly inaccurate, if not entirely indolent. It’s a “lazy term,” says the frontman for the Los Angeles indie quartet, one critics use in order to define a band on the spot for “an impatient reading audience.”
“Trying to get people into categories or genres, it cheapens the music. It cheapens the experience for the listener,” says Bertens. “I wouldn’t use any genre, any overarching genre like that, especially the shoegaze genre.”
When you take into consideration the Film School catalogue, which includes 2001’sBrilliant Career (Me Too Records), the critically-acclaimed Film School (2006, Beggars Banquet), and Hideout (2007, Beggars Banquet), a handful of EPs and the brand newFission (issued two weeks ago on Hi-Speed Soul), it’s hard not to agree with him. While the troupe – currently consisting of Bertens (guitar/vocals), Lorelei Plotcyzk (bass/vocals), Jason Ruck (keyboards), Ken Bernard (drums) and Dave Dupuis (guitar) – has traversed the lands of brooding jangles, swelling soundscapes, ambitious sprawls, roaring walls of sound and reverb-laden finger play, it’s executed in such an inimitable way that applying a one-label descriptor is almost a disservice. But, rather importantly, it sets a level of confining normality and taut expectation and that’s something Bertens has no interest in living up to.
Take Fission for example. Film School’s latest effort is an experiment in diversity – an album that breaks away from the purported “shoegaze” genre and courts infectious dancefloor pop, lofty harmonies and shimmering, rhythmic build-ups. It’s a departure that can be best heard in its lead single, “Hearts Full of Pentagons,” a crazed dance number that was enthused by jam material and a friend’s Facebook status of the same sentiment, as well as its consequent description. According to Bertens, this change in direction can be attributed to Fission’s songwriting and recording process, which began in early 2009, when the band entered the rehearsal studio after touring all of 2008. Unlike Hideout, which was mainly written and recorded by Bertens in his LA apartment, Fission saw everyone’s hand in its pot, with each member (including then-drummer James Smith) not only contributing elements but also bringing in their own songs. “It was a lot of diverse material,” says the guitarist/vocalist, “so we decided to kinda go with it…We weren’t really concerned about trying to be different so much as trying to make sure that whatever we put out [was] capturing our own interests and that we were having a good time.”
But it’s not only the route of construction that influenced the way Fission would go musically – it was also the intent to explore new territory. What Bertens wanted to do with the album was craft songs that disobeyed “any one genre” and expressed a relatable “mood and a sense of songwriting,” rather fitting into “a box people can quickly define us by and label us.” “We were noticing that the slower tempo for us was kinda getting repetitive,” says Bertens. “I’m not really interested in rewriting the same album twice and I’ve felt that the last album, Hideout, was about as far as I wanted to go into the sort of sonic, shoegaze. I felt that I wanted to move onto a new direction. I wanted to experiment with a new direction.”
It’s also the first record for the band, which formed in the late ‘90s and has seen its fair share of line-up changes through the decade, that features a noticeable female vocal presence. Plotcyzk, who joined Film School after they started touring behind Hideout,sings on most of the record, with a few lead spots. It was another deliberate choice-admitting to always wanting more of a female presence in Film School’s music, Bertens felt, vocally, Plotcyzk was a “great addition,” and, because of that, there was the intention to write more music that was inclusive of her both as a vocalist and bassist.
Produced by Bertens and mixed & mastered by Dan Long (The Jealous Girlfriends, Ferraby Lionheart), Fission was initially meant to be self-released on July 20 because, as Bertens puts it, after being on Beggars Banquet Records for two albums, they wanted to refrain from working with labels and issue it own their own, directly to fans (they spilt from Beggars in late ‘08/early ’09, after it folded into its parent company, Beggars Banquet Group. “I think our relationship had just kind of run its course. We were ready to move on,” he says). But, earlier this summer, Film School signed to the Southern California-based indie label, Hi-Speed Soul, which, instead, put out Fissionon August 31 as a digital download and physical CD, as well as a limited edition vinyl that includes a poster and free mp3 download card. It’s a record company the band is more than familiar with – according to Bertens, Film School performed in-store at Hi-Speed Soul owner Eric Howarth’s old San Diego record joint, M-Theory, while touring for Hideout, and, during the set, wrecked it, literally. “I mean, we really destroyed it,” he says. “CD racks turned over, bottles through the windows, spray-painted cats on the walls. He loved it and signed us to his label.” (The Los Angeles outfit hits the road for their fall tour in support of Fission on September 19 in San Diego).
At its heart, the altered course that Fission represents can almost be seen as befitting for a band name Film School. Chosen by Bertens, the moniker represents the limitations of artistic outlets and the need for expression – one of three choices for a suburban kid looking to expel some creativity. “It sorta felt like you were on your own to figure this out and that, after high school, the choices were 1. Go to art school, 2. Go to film school, or 3. Maybe take a gamble and start a band,” says the frontman. “I chose to start a band called Film School.”
Film School 101: Film School’s Top Five Movies About California
Picks from Greg Bertens (guitar/vocals):
“Cop Steve McQueen tearing through the streets of San Francisco in a 1968 green Mustang Fastback – to this day one of the best car chases on film.”
“Also shot in San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area and heard about Harvey Milk’s murder and the Twinkie defense, but was too young at the time to really understand what happened. In the late ‘90s, I lived in the Castro Area for a couple years, but didn’t realize at the time I was walking by Milk’s old office and apartment almost once a week.”
Pick from Lorelei Plotczyk (bass/vocals):
“As the one member of the band who actually did go to film school, I would be tempted to name Sunset Boulevard, Rebel Without a Cause, or The Graduate. But I came of age in the ‘90s, and so I have to instead go with… Clueless! When this came out, I was a 15-year-old tomboy skater chick who dressed in insanely baggy and oversize clothes. The next day at school, inspired by the fashion in the movie, I wore a girly outfit that included a plaid “skort.” It was so out of character for me that I was continually mistaken for a new student throughout the day. Whatever, as if.”
Pick from Jason Ruck (keyboards):
Barton Fink (1991)
“I saw this before moving to California from the east coast (btw, I want to start a side band called Least Coast) and I was intrigued by the old Hollywood feel of it, albeit through the twisted lens of the Coens. I suppose I got a similar feeling after seeing LA Confidential, but, by then, I was in San Francisco and was not allowed to like anything about LA. Whenever I get writer’s block, I think of this movie. But then I think of John Goodman running down a flaming hallway yelling ‘I’ll show you the life of the mind!,’ and I get scared.”
Pick from Ken Bernard (drums)
Laurel Canyon (2002)
“I watched it because the actual band in the movie had Lou Barlow of Sebadoh and members of Red Red Meat. It made me kind of excited about being in LA because of the all the great imagery. The idea of recording in a house in the hills seemed like something small and insignificant to most, but it was a dream for me, so the movie kind of spoke to me in that sense. The soundtrack was really well done. There’s nothing wrong with having a little Mercury Rev for you musical montage!”
[Photo Credit: Andrew Yousef]