One of the UK’s best new bands, ENGLISH TEACHER excel in infusing everyday mundanity – the washing up, for example, or a particularly large paving slab – with magic. Now, they’re at the start of a whole new era. Check out the latest cover story for our New Music Friday playlist edit, The Cut.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Em Marcovecchio.
“The past few years have been a complete whirlwind,” says English Teacher guitarist Lewis Whiting. The band announced their arrival in 2021 with ‘R&B’, a wonky, fuzzy guitar-driven anthem that tackled racial identity, self-love and imposter syndrome. A string of equally compelling, surreal and pointed tracks followed, leading to debut EP ‘Polyawkward’ in 2022. They were rightly championed as one of the most exciting new bands in indie-rock. “At first, everything felt overwhelming,” continues Lewis. “I found it both really motivating but equally terrifying.”
Following the release of their EP, the band toured extensively before going on a deep dive of writing that helped them make sense of this strange new normal. “I’m happy with where the band is right now, and I’m proud of what’s to come,” explains vocalist Lily Fontaine. “We’re definitely in deeper with the project. It’s basically our whole lives.”
Standalone single ‘Song About Love’ was released earlier this year via Speedy Wunderground. “It’s a pop song about doing chores instead of doing someone else and how even songs with social or political themes that analyse contemporary discourse, rather than lyricism about tired themes like romantic love, still come from a place of love, or lack thereof,” explained Lily at the time. Now the band are launching a new era with ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’.
“It’s a strange first taste of what’s to come because it’s an old song,” says Lewis, with the track originally written by Lily for her university course and released under the English Teacher name before the band had been fully realised.
“It’s nice to give a song that had so much meaning a real chance,” Lily explains. “It’s always been a special song for us,” with the track a regular in their live sets. Originally ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ took influence from King Gizzard And The Wizard Lizard but has evolved alongside the band. “It’s very weird to go back to old music when you’re writing new stuff, but it’s definitely a different version now.”
While the music has been stretched, reshaped and polished, the lyrics to ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ have remained unchanged. “On the surface, it’s about me moving from a small village near Burnley to Leeds and reflecting on this weird little place where I grew up. It was full of interesting people, with some interesting political views that I’ve found myself in contention with, but set again this extremely beautiful rural setting.” That contrast has inspired a lot of the new music English Teacher have been writing in recent months, with ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ also exploring delusions of grandeur, feelings of inferiority and a false sense of celebrity.”
Recently, the rest of Lily’s family moved away from the village, so re-releasing the track now allows her to say goodbye to a chunk of her childhood, but she hopes the song speaks to others. “A lot of people are from small towns and villages that you never really hear about. Maybe people will be able to relate to the idea that their story is interesting, regardless of where they’re from.”
“I’m also very nervous about the reception to it,” she admits, even though a good chunk of their fanbase know the track inside out. “I like it, which is the main thing, but there’s always that little voice reminding you that your art is going to be perceived by other people. Perception is scary,” she continues.
Since the release of ‘R&B’, English Teacher have sat on the outskirts of the bubbling post-punk scene but have never fully committed to a singular genre. “We quite like that,” grins Lily before she admits, “we’ve never been able to figure it out either.”
“I don’t think that changes with the new stuff either,” adds Lewis. “There’s a real range to it, and we didn’t want to stick to some strict manifest of what we could do.” It’s one of the reasons he joined the band in the first place.
Originally, Lily, alongside English Teacher drummer Douglas Frost and bassist Nicholas Eden, played together in a dream-pop band pre-COVID, but when gigging stopped, their guitarist left, and they reached a “real low point with it”. They reset, changed their name and teamed up with Lewis. “The main aim was just to do something,” says Lily.
In those early writing sessions, the band were tossing around ideas but kept questioning if they made sense for the band. “I remember Lily saying, ‘What even is English Teacher’ which opened everything up. I really liked that attitude,” says Lewis, attracted to their no-rules approach. “It wasn’t intentional, but we’ve always just tried to make songs we like. This is just what comes out,” shrugs Lily.
After causing a lot of online buzz during lockdown, English Teacher played as many gigs as soon as they were able, too. “We felt like we had to take advantage of the attention,” admits Lewis. “I’m not sure what we had to prove, but it felt like we had to prove something. I suppose there was a little bit of imposter syndrome.”
I don’t think I’m funny, but I enjoy music with witty lyricsLily Fontaine
“There were a lot of important conversations happening at the same time with companies addressing their issues with racial inequality. I definitely worried that people thought the only reason we were having any sort of success was because I was a person of colour, fronting a band,” explains Lily. “I don’t feel like that anymore, but there is still this pressure.”
English Teacher can’t confirm where this new era is leading, but Lewis does tease that the band have “plenty of songs that we’ve been spending a lot of time on”, which should be ready “soon”.
“The whole process was us figuring out a lot of things,” he continues, with the resulting collection “going to different extremes quite quickly. It was a matter of expanding on things we’ve already touched upon and exploring different avenues.”
“It did feel like we went to the extremes,” adds Lily. “A lot of the songs I’ve written are because I felt like I had to write them to help process something. If I’m feeling a negative emotion, I write a song to convert it into something positive. It’s my therapy, in a way,” with the accompanying music also offering catharsis for the rest of the band. “Listening back, it just feels emotional,” adds Lewis.
Still, English Teacher aren’t trading in their sense of humour. “I don’t think I’m funny, but I enjoy music with witty lyrics, and I’m inspired by that,” explains Lily, with the artwork and music videos also an opportunity for the band to not take things too seriously. “Humour is a good way of getting across those more serious topics,” she reasons. A majority of the songs for English Teacher’s upcoming project aren’t political, “but there are some key themes that I’d like to be associated with,” explains Lily. “I’d like it if people thought about things after listening to the songs, and maybe our music could enact some sort of change.”
“It’s mostly us trying to make sense of how ridiculous this all is, though,” adds Lewis.
This new era for the band comes after a string of alternative acts like Wet Leg and Yard Act have gone on to have mainstream success. “It does feel like the goalposts have moved, and there are more opportunities for a band like us now,” says Lewis. “We’ll throw ourselves into things as much as we can, but it’s impossible to start listing ambitions. We’ve already done so many things I thought would be impossible a few years ago.”
“For me, seeing what Fontaines D.C. have gone on to achieve is really inspiring,” continues Lily. “In a similar way to Blur, they’ve been able to transcend genre and break through to the mainstream without sacrificing elements of their art,” she continues. “That’s the main goal, try to be relatable to different people without changing what you do to do it.” ■
English Teacher’s new single ‘The World’s Biggest Paving Slab’ is out now. Follow Dork’s The Cut Spotify playlist here.