English Teacher on Leeds, Lancashire, and their debut album 'This Could Be Texas'

Interview English Teacher: Home Is Where The Heart Is

Since their inception, English Teacher have never been afraid to read between the lines, finding emotion and subtle beauty in everything from the pastoral to the pub. On their feverishly-anticipated debut album ‘This Could Be Texas’, they emerge as authors of their own winning tale.

Despite being consistently dubbed as such (in these here pages and beyond), in many ways English Teacher aren’t a Leeds band at all. Each member hails from elsewhere - Colne, Preston, Bedford and Guildford - and their music is often distinguished by its poetic ruminations on the Lancashire landscape and local characters. And yet this is the city where their shared identity was forged as music students, and where their live show gained legs via the city’s vibrant grassroots scene. They’ve found an adopted, collective home here, and so it seems almost fated that when DIY sit down for lunch with the quartet, it’s in the world’s most aggressively Leeds-themed cafe.

Well, Leeds United-themed, to be specific; the team’s slogan ‘Marching On Together’ is emblazoned on the shopfront, and we’re greeted by a couple of older fans who joke that it’ll cost us a 50p toll to sit down. It’s tricky not to stare at the LUFC memorabilia covering every inch of the walls, but we tear ourselves away long enough to choose from a heaving menu that has almost definitely never included avocado on toast. It’s just what the doctor ordered. “I just can’t face another meal deal,” lead guitarist Lewis Whiting grins.

It’s no wonder that English Teacher want to take a home-cooked meal where they can get it. When we speak, they’re just about to head off on a co-headline jaunt around Europe with Dublin punks Sprints, mere days after wrapping up their Independent Venue Week tour of the UK. Given that none of them are exactly city-slicker urban natives, IVW (for which they were 2024’s ambassadors) is a cause particularly close to their hearts, and the band have been outspoken about the vitality of supporting regional scenes in the face of enduring London-centrism and recent cuts to essential pipeline programmes like BBC Introducing. “It’s never really spoken about that much, but music is such a huge part of the UK economy,” notes Lewis. “It’s one of our biggest exports, but we never really value it in the same way we do other industries. As a band, we’ve very much felt the impact of the scene - we owe a lot to independent venues.”

Having played their first show in 2021 (for DIY’s socially-distanced Bank Holiday Weekender no less, back when the long shadow of Covid still loomed over live music), the quartet’s growth since has been exponential. The insightful, whip-smart lyricism and intricately layered instrumentals of 2022’s debut EP ‘Polyawkward’ marked them out from a tired post-punk landscape; soon after, they found themselves playing Glastonbury, runners up in that year’s Emerging Talent competition (“I can’t believe we only came third,” bassist Nicholas Eden laughs later, his tongue firmly in cheek as the band joke about headlining the Pyramid this summer).

It’s over the last 12 months, though, that English Teacher have begun to tick off milestones with the ease and speed of their namesake marking an A-grade essay. They released a single on cult label Speedy Wunderground; delivered a supremely confident Later... with Jools performance that’s worth watching for the parting wink alone; had stints across the pond playing SXSW, LA, and New York, and infiltrated the ears of footie fans everywhere via the EA 24 soundtrack.“I haven’t really processed it all yet, to be honest,” says drummer Douglas Frost. “I feel like that was literally just the first little hill too - we’re about to do a mountain.” He’s referring to the fact that the band’s first full-length, ‘This Could Be Texas’, arrives in April - a project that by all accounts is long-awaited, highly-anticipated, and set to garner them a whole new level of acclaim.

In particular, their ever-rising profile is an ongoing adjustment for vocalist Lily Fontaine, whose magnetism and striking stage presence make her unequivocally unforgettable. “I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to be someone who is recognisable - that my face and name are things that people will be able to Google search and stuff,” she muses, before bursting into laughter at the memory of what must be her strangest fan interaction to date. “At Green Man last year, I went into the women’s urinals,” she explains, standing up to better set the scene. “And you got recognised while you were having a piss?” Douglas interjects, grinning incredulously as the others laugh. Lily nods. “I was squatting down and there was this lady looking at me, and as we make eye contact over the barrier she just goes, ‘Are you from English Teacher?’”

English Teacher on Leeds, Lancashire, and their debut album 'This Could Be Texas' English Teacher on Leeds, Lancashire, and their debut album 'This Could Be Texas'

“I think subconsciously, a lot of what I write about is because of being quite displaced as a kid.” - Lily Fontaine

As the external noise has intensified, it’s in fact been a handful of internal adjustments which have proved most significant to the band’s evolution. Speaking about the period after signing to Island, Lewis explains that “with any step up, there are new pressures and expectations - from ourselves, and from external people. We had to do a lot of soul-searching and there was a lot to figure out; it was an intense time.” Namely, they were charting relatively unfamiliar territory in terms of artistic purpose: their creative impetus had shifted from writing for self-expression, to writing specifically for an album.

As a result, many newer lyrics are a product of Lily “thinking a lot about notions of success and trying to make things”. Take the heart-wrenching ‘Best Tears Of Your Life’ - one of many album standouts, which finds her jadedly observing, “You can take the girl out of her comfort zone / But you can’t put her back”. “I’ve definitely wanted to give it up so many times…'' she pauses, considering the full English in front of her. “There was a period where I didn’t live anywhere - I didn’t have any money to rent anything, so I was living out of a suitcase for like seven months, sofa surfing. And I just thought, ‘Fuck this, I’m 25 - I should have a flat, and maybe one day a dog’.”

She notes that a lack of permanence has been a bit of a motif throughout her life. “I think subconsciously, a lot of what I write about is because of the weird things I’ve been through, like being quite displaced as a kid,” she notes. But she also acknowledges that this part of her identity is well suited to the nomadic life of a touring band. “It can be tiring, but I feel like I do need a job where I’m constantly in a different place. I love that about it. It very much fits in with how I am as a person - living liminally.”

As a concept which also bears personal significance to Lewis, Douglas and Nicholas, it seemed apt when liminality emerged as the thematic cornerstone of ‘This Could Be Texas’. On the album, what Lily calls “a sense of being in between” is multifaceted and ever-present, be it in terms of the social (‘R&B’; ‘Broken Biscuits’); the interpersonal (‘Nearly Daffodils’); the locational (‘Albert Road’; ‘Paving Slab’); or the occupational (‘Mastermind Specialism’; ‘Not Everybody Gets To Go To Space’). It’s even there in the tracklist itself, where reworked versions of some of English Teacher’s oldest songs nestle among their new material.

‘Sideboob’ [which may be better known to long-standing fans as ‘You Won’t Believe How Beautiful She Is When It Has Snowed’] is one of my favourite songs of all time,” smiles Douglas, explaining why it felt important to include these archive tracks. “And I can say that, because it’s not mine, it’s Lily’s song.” “Yeah, it’s special for me,” she picks up. “I wanted there to be some throughline, and having them on there bolsters that aspect of the album. ‘Paving Slab’, ‘Sideboob’, ‘Albert Road’, ‘This Could Be Texas’ even - they all link back to Colne.”

“I’m happy with any Jarvis Cocker comparisons. Inside me, there’s a skinny white man.” - Lily Fontaine

Colne, Leeds, Texas - these places populate the album, all linked by the desire paths of English Teacher’s journey. Desire paths, Douglas explains, are “made when people or animals are trying to find the perfect route to a particular destination. I love that idea”. The phrase encapsulates a sense of moving forward with purpose, but also speaks to the notion of straying off the beaten track - to, as the LP’s title track suggests, ‘going through the heather’. “Its lyrics are kind of about writing an album - ‘The wisdom of the crowds, right?’” Lily affirms, quoting herself. “It’s about forging your own path and trying not to worry too much about what other people are doing. [The line] ‘Ignore the farmer and his pitchfork’ is basically saying that if the Pitchfork review is shit, it’s fine,” she laughs.

And in following these desire paths - in bridging the gap between old and new, origin and destination - English Teacher have been able to reconcile their individual roots with their shared ambition. The result? A band who curiously seem to defy categorisation. Math-rock, alt-rock, art-rock - whatever the prefix, the truth is that they’ve engineered their sound with scientific precision and imbued it with the emotion and poetic flair of, well, a literature professor. Their enhanced live set - which now sees Douglas seamlessly flit between drums and keys, and features Blossom Calderone on cello - is now stunningly assured, from the impressively elaborate basslines and meticulous guitar work, to Lily’s room-commanding vocal prowess. The powerful moments are dumbfounding, and the delicate ones devastating. Put simply, they just get better with each show.

Though they’re unsurprisingly modest when we put this to them, Lewis acknowledges that “we have pushed ourselves, especially over the past year, to just try and be better.” While Lily still feels to some degree tokenised by industry figures, being a Black woman fronting a guitar band, she too now recognises the importance of their music. “I’m actually quite proud of our live show now, and I enjoy it way more,” she smiles tentatively. “Even if I am tokenised, I know we ARE still good.”

Rewind

DIY put on your first ever show back in 2021! What’s one moment you’ve had since then which is a personal fave for each of you (and why)?

Lewis: Going out for a drink with Parquet Courts after supporting them at Paradiso in Amsterdam - well, that whole Europe tour really.

Lily: Coming off stage after playing La Route du Rock Hiver full of adrenaline and doing a shot with Shame, who were headlining the festival.

Nicholas: Having the opportunity to open the Woodsies (formerly John Peel) Stage at Glastonbury in 2022.

Douglas: It’s got to be playing on Jools Holland, obviously. What a man. What a day. Was I terrified? Yes. Did I go to the toilet an abnormal amount because of nerves? Yes. Was it one of the best days of my life? Absolutely.

On ‘This Could Be Texas’, English Teacher have bared it all, joining a lineage of great regional poets who, in mining the vast grey areas of quotidian Britain, truly put their home towns on the map. It’s a happy accident, then, that the title of album cut ‘Broken Biscuits’ unintentionally alludes to a prime example of such writing - Pulp’s ‘Mis-Shapes’. “I’m happy with any Jarvis Cocker comparisons… inside me, there’s a skinny white man,” Lily grins. “I’m gonna shed my skin like a Slytheen,” she pauses, putting her hands to her forehead to mimic the Doctor Who monster. “And inside is an incredibly problematic Jarvis Cocker?” Lewis finishes, as the table dissolves into laughter.

Silly as it is, the moment neatly illustrates the multiplicity of English Teacher: they’re simultaneously surrealist, populist, expansive, and nuanced. And it’s testament to their multi-modal storytelling that this is captured nowhere better than in the visual for album closer ‘Albert Road’, which brings together the record’s considerations of home, success and belonging (or lack thereof) in one final, poignant vignette. Co-directed by Douglas, the video is peppered with Easter egg references to their previous releases, small nods to their past which Nicholas describes as “a fitting way to tie together everything we’ve done so far.”

It culminates with a moving sequence in which Lily watches footage of her younger self performing onstage in a primary school show, which she says was “so strange to film, but so nice. I had two glasses of wine before I shed the tear - it felt a bit like therapy.” A full circle moment if there ever was one, the video - released on the day English Teacher announced their debut album - is the band’s artistic line in the sand: an uncanny mirroring of a group now standing on the brink of fully realising those childhood dreams.

‘This Could Be Texas’ is out 12th April via Island.

Tags: English Teacher, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the March 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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