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English Teacher: ‘Surrealism just makes me feel something, because life is so weird’

The Leeds four-piece tell Megan Graye why a post-punk revival is ‘obsolete’, why they want to back away from social media and how they’re planning for longevity

Monday 11 July 2022 07:14 BST
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English Teacher (l-r): Douglas Frost, Lily Fontaine, Nick Eden, Lewis Whiting
English Teacher (l-r): Douglas Frost, Lily Fontaine, Nick Eden, Lewis Whiting (Tatiana Pozuelo)

“I don’t actually have three testicles,” says Lily Fontaine.

The lead singer and lyricist of English Teacher is explaining the genesis of the title track of their first EP on a chaotic Zoom call with the band.

The track’s name “Polyawkward”, is derived from the term polyorchid, referring to someone with more than two testicles. Fontaine uses this idea as a metaphor to paint an image of her secret “social awkwardness”, addressing the sincere via the silly, seamlessly delivered between talk and song.

Around her double-edged lyrics, the band make wonky exclamations and theatrical riffs. It’s visual, driving and exciting, building tension then releasing it.

English Teacher are just off the back of three debut performances at Glastonbury. Formed in Leeds in 2020, the band consists of Fontaine (vocals, guitar, synth), Nick Eden (bass), Douglas Frost (drums, vocals) and Lewis Whiting (lead guitar).

They join me from different corners of the country as we contend with the usual dose of muted mics, bad connection and Frost’s cat Hector meowing throughout.

It’s quickly apparent that this band have more than musical synergy; there’s respect and love in the mix too: “It’s the most collaborative thing I’ve ever been in,” Whiting says, whilst Frost attributes the band’s harmony to their ability to give each other their own space – “we’re very comfortable with silence”.

Given their noisy guitars and use of “sprechgesang”, the band have unsurprisingly been caught up in the lazy labelling of a “post-punk” revival. Bands like Black Midi, Wet Leg and Sorry have all been assigned to this genre, which is problematic, given the stark difference in their sounds.

English Teacher are keen to disentangle themselves from this narrative: “I don’t think that the term post-punk is wrong,” says Fontaine, “I just think that if you put so many things that sound completely different into the phrase post-punk or any genre, then it just becomes obsolete.”

So what do they sound like? “Arts indie,” says Eden, before Whiting interjects: “silly noisy guitar music.”

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“That’s a less pretentious answer,” agrees Eden, before Fontaine diplomatically says, “I think both are right.” Finally, Frost throws his hat into the ring: “silly-billy wonky-tonky honkytonk,” he decides.

English Teacher are witty and self-deprecating about their sonic ambiguity, but there is no lack of talent. In fact, this soup of charm and originality makes them more endearing.

On their debut EP Polyawkward (released via Nice Swan in March) variety and juxtaposition are refreshingly key to the music; throughout the five tracks there are pace changes, humour and sincerity, surrealism and personal experiences.

While their lyrics are grabbing attention, the music is by no means taking a back seat, perfectly demonstrated in “Yorkshire Tapas”, where a spoken-word beginning and instrumental end enable both to get the attention they deserve.

Lyrically, though, Fontaine does have a knack for articulating both the deeply personal and the universally relatable, darting between wider issues and intimate experiences: “Keys in fancy dress as a sleeve cuff/ I walk into the night/ Try not to think about love/ And how it gets you home safe/ And then messes the house up.”

The words in “Polyawkward” address many topics, but especially articulate a worrying walk home from a party that Fontaine had left early due to social anxiety.

She remembers “wishing that I had someone with me” owing to the “scary” prospect of making the journey alone in the dark. Fontaine compares her “underlying secrets of things that I deal with in my brain” to the idea of “having that secret testicle hiding”.

The band’s knack for combining wit with candour is clear too in “Good Grief”, where swampy riffs are met with Fontaine’s lyrical poignancy. Observing the atrocities of the pandemic through the personification of the NHS app she shouts, “Track has seen enough this year/ Of everything and everyone but Trace.”

It’s just one example of the cynical yet playful storytelling we’ve come to expect from the band. Heavily influenced by surrealist art and prose – especially Franz Kafka and Salvador Dalí – Fontaine finds both inspiration and comfort in the concept: “Sometimes I think surrealism feels more relatable”, she says. “It just makes me feel something because life is so weird.”

That’s lucky really, because as fate would have it, the band have had to get used to the surreal. After coming third in Glastonbury’s rising talent competition, they were given the chance to perform at the festival.

The John Peel slot pushed Fontaine to tears. “It was all for publicity,” Frost jokingly muses, before Fontaine quickly tells him to “f*** off!” “No, it was such a special moment,” he says sincerely.

Fontaine recalls being given a polaroid picture of herself by a young woman in the crowd: “I was her! That’s the position I was in and I always wanted to be the one on the stage,” she continues. “It’s moments like that you just feel proud of yourself for actually going for it and trying to be that person.”

Frost agrees: “I never imagined myself playing on these stages, then suddenly, three years down the line we are and I’ve just kind of realised that!” He seems to be almost processing it as he speaks.

English Teacher’s debut EP ‘Polyawkward’ came out in March (Artwork_ English Teacher - Polyawkward.jpg)

With such huge opportunities happening so early on for the band, I ask how they push through the anxieties of such experiences, “I do a lot of poos,” explains Frost. “I thought you were going to say alcohol!” laughs Fontaine. “Oh yeah, booze! Booze and poos,” Frost agrees.

For such a self-effacing band, the growing hype is only adding to the anxiety: “It’s such a double-edged sword in that sense,” ponders Fontaine, “it’s a good opportunity and it’s amazing, I’ll never change it – but we are so small.”

Frost agrees: “Playing John Peel at such an early stage feels like more people are going to expect a lot from us, when really we’re still just trying to figure things out.”

We want songs that are going to make us proud of what we’ve made

This underlying pressure refers to the inevitable debut album, now with so much vested interest at stake.

The band are insistent they will take their time to get it right: “We want songs that are going to make us proud of what we’ve made,” says Frost, “we don’t want to just make what they want us to make.”

I question if these worries extend to their fans’ judgement: “I do worry about what other people think of it; it’s a big put-off,” says Frost. Fontaine agrees: “I think that’s one of the main reasons I struggle to write.”

It’s a powerful combination, though; a band as eager to please their listeners as they are to remain true to themselves.

This integrity even extends to social media, despite the new pressure on bands to be constantly visible. They are cautious of their presence online: “I’ve decided I want to back away from it personally, keep everything private.

“We’re only very, very slightly in the public eye at the moment, but I’m already not really liking it that much,” Frost says. “I know it’s coming, though,” comments Fontaine on the impending horror of forced TikToks. Frost interjects:

“But we’re not going to do it, because that’s not us. We’re not gonna follow trends, I can’t ever imagine us doing anything like that.” This distinct concern for authenticity is perhaps one of the most striking things about the Leeds quartet.

With so many bands emerging into the light post-pandemic, English Teacher rightly have longevity on their minds: “It’s going to be hard to wade through that and be one of the artists that stays for a long period of time. It’ll be interesting to see how it pans out,” says Frost with consideration.

But standing out doesn’t seem to be going badly for the band, testicles included.

Fontaine is keen to clarify that there’s nothing wrong with polyorchids, imagining a full circle moment if she met such a person: “Knowing me I’d romanticise it and think it’s fate,” she says. “In fact, anyone that reads this who has more than two testicles, hit me up.”

‘Polyawkward ‘is out now.

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