With a new full-length on storied UK label Beggars Banquet in their present and a European tour with the National in their recent past, Bay Area band Film School might be assumed to have the world on a guitar string. But think again.
When I last spoke to them two years ago, founder-vocalist-guitarist Krayg Burton was bemoaning his broke state to guitarist-vocalist Nyles Lannon, beneath the posters of Malcolm "By Any Means Necessary" X and the other righteous underdogs at Café Macondo. Film School's last recording, the EP Alwaysnever (Amazing Grease) had just come out, the tech bubble had burst, and the world was wide open, leaving Burton and Lannon to hawk their Web-related skills on their own.
Now here we are, in early January, tucked into the lamp-lit control room of drummer Donny Newenhouse's Middle of the Mile basement studio in San Francisco's Mission District, where Film School recorded about half of the new self-titled second album. The band has been awarded the gift-of-gab buzz at recent SXSWs, praised by NME, and described by BBC 6 host Steve Lemaq as his favorite new band. Next-level stuff. Now if only they can decide how best to approach a set list.
"We fight about the set list every night, every show," the laid-back Newenhouse says from behind the mixing board. He's the A/V guy of Film School, according to his bandmates. "It's like the A team – we're pretty cool, unified, but ..."
"We write the set list five minutes before we go on," interjects keyboardist Jason Ruck, Film School's class clown. So there's no room for dissention? "But then there is dissention, and we're discussing it onstage when we're supposed to be playing. That actually happened once in front of our label head." He looks pleased.
"It kind of ties into going to the next level," bassist Justin LaBo says, curled catlike in an easy chair in the corner. He's the guy most likely to be expelled from Film School. "Not being, like, I don't want to say, amateurs or rookies, but having your shit together, being confident and walking onstage knowing what you're going to play, and not arguing onstage."
You'd be more pro and more polished, but perhaps less ... interesting, I offer from the center of the Middle of the Mile booth. "That's been the argument the whole time," Newenhouse exclaims, miming an irate bandmate. "<\!q>'I don't want to be one of those fucking bands that has the same set every night and knows what they're doing when they get onstage!'<\!q>"
"I kind of like winging it a bit," Burton mutters, the "tenured teacher with the vodka in the coffee cup" at this Film School.
"I want to have a rotating set list, written in stone," Newenhouse continues, half-self-mockingly pretending to carry stone tablets engraved with songs to a stage. "<\!q>'Here's the 10 commandments' – straight down from the dressing room every night. It'll be like Spinal Tap's Stonehenge – we can have midgets dance around them."
Spitballs aside, it's comforting to know that some things never quite change – be it Film School's collective, self-deprecating sense of humor or their honest, exploratory doubts – even as one chapter ends and the band appears to be on the brink of graduating into some sort of big time.