English Teacher on being 2024’s hottest new guitar band

As their debut album arrives to universal acclaim, the Leeds band on why they refuse to be pigeonholed, and their love-hate relationship with guitars…

English Teacher photographed at a table situated on a messy set, photo by Denmarc Creary

English Teacher. Image: Denmarc Creary

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We catch-up with English Teacher just after the four-piece have returned from an “amazing but knackering” European tour that will shortly be followed by the release of the Leeds band’s debut album, This Could Be Texas. “I can’t wait now, I’m quite excited,” says frontwoman, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Lily Fontaine.

While Fontaine had many of the album’s songs for several years, she recalls that the turning point was when the band – completed by guitarist and producer Lewis Whiting, bassist Nicholas Eden and drummer Douglas Frost – started to write Albatross.

“I remember being in our practice room, at Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus, in Leeds, and trying to figure out the timing of that song,” she explains. “That was the moment where we thought ‘we should probably sit down and write an album.’” The fact that it became the first song on the record makes sense, as it naturally started the process. “I just think enough time had passed and we needed to kick it into gear,” Whiting reflects.

The album they ended up creating – which veers between Jockstrap-style experimentalism (the glitchy opening of Not Everybody Gets To Go To Space) and Wolf Alice epic-ness (particularly the swirling reverb-heavy The World’s Biggest Paving Slab) – finds English Teacher doing things exactly how they want. This creative freedom – to weave between multiple genres (often in the same track) – has long been at the core of the music that the band makes together, but such a pursuit hasn’t come without its challenges.

Figuring it out

Having released their debut EP, Polyawkward, back in 2022, the band say they initially felt a lot of pressure when it came to making a full LP. But this was largely due to industry pigeonholing and expectations. “I think we all did. It was quite a hard time, actually… there was a lot going on,” Whiting recalls. Such feelings resulted in, as he puts it, “a long look in the mirror to figure out what we were doing; it’s weird looking back, because it feels like a different era”, he says now.

Fontaine feels a similar way: “it was definitely one of the hardest times of my musical career,” she says. Although it was “still enjoyable, to an extent”, the band’s individual living situations didn’t help either. Some had stayed in Leeds and others had moved elsewhere, making it difficult for them to all get into the studio together at the same time.

After Whiting gave up his flat, they were left with no base at all. “We’d hop between Airbnbs, float about and get in the practice space whenever we could between touring,” he recalls. Feeling like ‘we need to do this’ didn’t help either,” Fontaine adds. “We felt that the record needed to be the best in the world. Because it’s our debut, we wanted to impress people”. These struggles, Fontaine says, made it hard for the songs to flow out naturally. But, always one to gleam a positive, she suggests “but maybe that’s conducive to producing interesting sounds.”

English Teacher, photo by Tatiana Pozuelo
English Teacher. Image: Tatiana Pozuelo

No boundaries

And that is exactly what English Teacher deliver in spades. While the band’s absurdist songs are often built upon the foundation of Fontaine’s drily witty and sharp short stories – “in the lyrics, I talk about what’s important to me”, she says – guitar and bass often lead at the same time. The latter is something that Eden says he would like to hear more of.

“That’s what I really like about those 90s sounds in songs by The Smiths and Blur,” he adds. “There’s so much melody between bass and guitar. I love that combination, where both instruments are lead or at least take turns.” Whiting adds that the band also share a mutual love of a melodic bassline that’s “very much at the forefront” of a track, rather than supporting the rest of the song.

Their debut album follows the same ethos. “There are no set boundaries on this album,” Whiting says; “it’s got ballad-y parts, slow parts, fast parts, slow and fast parts in the same song.” And some anthems, too, guitar chips in. “Yeah, there’s a bit of that,” Whiting ays modestly.

“We never really set out to be a particular thing” – Lewis Whiting

“We didn’t necessarily try to hit any specific genre,” Fontaine recalls. “There were external pressures to write certain types of songs to appeal to certain types of people, but we had to balance that with still figuring out who we wanted to be ourselves at the same time.”

Perhaps subconsciously, this has always been the aim of the band – to make music that is outside the box and, therefore, free of categorisation. Such an ethos was actually what encouraged Whiting, the last member, to join the group, having been in multiple bands locally before.

“Usually you would bond over three bands and then be like ‘right, we’re gonna do this,’” he says. However, it wasn’t the case this time; he recalls one specific writing session where one person said ‘we can’t do this, it doesn’t really sound like English Teacher.’ ‘What even is English Teacher?’ another replied. “That was the first time where it was a sense of having no plan, but in a really good way,” he says. “In my head, I had an idea of what it would be, and then it blew that out of the water.”

Creating in this sort-of improvised way, without any rules, massively opened up the doors for the band. “We never really set out to be a particular thing,” Whiting adds. However, he recalls that the group started being pigeonholed as “a very Windmill-esque post-punk band.” This album, he adds, “was very much our response to that” and, consequently, “we initially had a very love-hate relationship with guitars.”

Guitar heroes

Nonetheless, guitars remain crucial to the band’s overall sound. Veering from acoustic to electric, and varying in pace, Whiting says “we definitely wanted to have a range on the album; I like both parts – really noisy guitar, and more delicate riffs.”

“I find it hard to write on anything else because guitars are the only things I can play,” he says. Eden feels the same, however adds that some things he wrote were written on a computer and a keyboard. “Then they eventually found their way onto the bass, but the guitar is definitely my preferred instrument to write anything.”

Fontaine chimes in to detail the process in more intricate detail. “Nick often has his little acoustic guitar and writes bits on that and then sofa guy has those heavier bits, but then also, with Albatross, when we were listening to the Submarine EP, I feel like that’s the softest thing that you come up with on that album. And it’s one of my favourite guitar lines,” she praises him.

“We felt that the record needed to be the best in the world” – Lily Fontaine

In terms of individual guitar heroes, Whiting cites 90s rock names like Graham Coxon (“he’s a massive influence”) and Johnny Marr. Nick Zinner from Yeah Yeah Yeahs, too; “watching him was great; he managed to fill out so much space.” For Eden, Alex James of Blur, Chris Squire from Yes, Andy Rourke from The Smiths, Pino Palladino and Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath are all up there. Fontaine’s inspirations are also varied: alongside a general love of catchy indie, being a “massive Fontaines D.C. fan” and having had a big psych phase (“Melody’s Echo Chamber, and the melodic side of that sound”), she says King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard and Joy Division inspired the tonality of the riffs she wrote for The World’s Biggest Paving Slab and R&B.

As for individual instruments, Fontaine’s go-to is her Fender Mustang… “because I’m five foot two and every other guitar makes me look so tiny”, she laughs. “I love it. I feel like it’s diverse enough for me.” She adds that she misses her Telecaster and “will get it fixed up at some point and probably change back to it because it was really nice.” For now, though, the Mustang is “probably the best thing for the sound we have now.”

Whiting, meanwhile, recently bought a new classic player Jazzmaster. “I think I was in denial about that being what I needed for ages,” he says, having previously had a Fender Pawnshop Supersonic – which “looks fucking great” – for nine years. He also has a modern, thin-line Telecaster; “it’s a little bit cheap and unreliable, but it sounds great, especially for cleaner bits.”

Eden, contrastingly, is easily pleased when it comes to bass guitar. “I just like a Fender Precision Bass or a Jazz Bass, really,” he says. “Give me one of those and an amp and I’m really happy.” His dream bass? A Music Man Stingray…

Making something meaningful

Although English Teacher certainly want This Could Be Texas to impress other people, Fontaine says “I just wanted to like it myself.” The most important thing, she adds, was “to make something that’s got something to it and is a bit meaningful.” Now, however, she is “very conscious of hoping that other people will like it… no one likes criticism, really, do they,” she laughs nervously.

“I’m always gonna feel like we can do better and luckily we get to make another album, but for the place that we were at, I think it’s alright,” she says modestly. Eden is equally proud, although he’s “already thinking about the next thing.” And, although they’ve started working on what will follow their debut album, Whiting teases that “it’s too early to say much as everything is still in very early forms.”

Full range on display

Besides, their next few months will be spent touring their first record. For anyone who hasn’t yet been to an English Teacher gig, Eden teases “expect all sorts.” Whiting explains it more flippantly: “Do you want the full range? From jumping about, fun songs to ‘everyone be quiet, we’re doing very nice piano ballads, and everything in between.’” Fontaine chimes in, in a very tongue-in-cheek PR manner, to clarify that “it’s the full spectrum of human emotion… just because I’ll be laughing and crying on stage.”

As a band that was initially scouted at one of their live shows, they are passionate about preserving DIY scenes and doing their bit to help grassroots spaces. They put this ethos into action with a tour of smaller spaces as part of Independent Venue Week. “Those spaces are super important to all of us”, Whiting affirms. Fontaine adds that she noticed “these scenes are so important to the people who work there and, without them being a hub, it would be impossible for bands like us.” Eden adds that “the most genuine people you’ll maybe meet in the music industry are some of the reps of these venues. They really go that extra mile and are lovely people.”

Support your local

They strongly feel there’s a lack of support for local venues, though Whiting points out that it depends where you are. “There are definitely some deserts where it’s not really an option, which is what IVW is all about.” This was, retrospectively, one of the reasons that he wanted to move to Leeds. “I didn’t consciously think about it, but Leeds has got a very enthusiastic music scene.”

Fontaine agrees: “Where I grew up, there were a lot of opportunities to perform at open-mics and stuff like that, but there wasn’t much of a connection to the music industry,” she recalls. “I think London is just where it’s at and then, in the cities, you’ve got a bit more of that support.” In Leeds, she thinks it’s good “because there are so many venues and local promoters are active in trying to help new bands get into the scene”, citing the Music:Leeds initiative as well as local labels that are trying to get bands involved in the music industry. “It is really supportive in Leeds,” she confirms.

But it’s not always the case elsewhere: “Trying to get other smaller, regional places to that point is really difficult,” she says. “But hopefully it’s gonna happen.”

English Teacher’s debut album ‘This Could Be Texas’ is out now

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