By William Michael Smith
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By Sonya Harvey
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I am one of those annoying people who, for the most part, like a band's earlier work more. 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.
The San Francisco noise-rock outfit Film School is an exception to this rule. The band has been around in one form or another for the past eight years, and is 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 January 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-size feedback bonanzas. And each song ripples with addictive, winsome melodies.
It's best to step right up and confront the dreaded "shoegazer" tag. Naturally, Film School doesn't like being lumped in with '80s feedback-sculpting acts like My Bloody Valentine, Ride and Slowdive. Of course, 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 along the word count. 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 his 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.
"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 San Francisco 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 (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 Kyle Statham (of San Fran local heroes Fuck) 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 seven-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 such as Azusa Plane. "I've always played this atmospheric noisy guitar thing, and I've been doing that for over ten 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 okay, 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 made sense.
Then, in early 2004, one of those typical good news/bad news situations occurred. Drummer Montesano quit the band because of 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.
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