Film School’s Bright Future: An Interview With Greg Bertens
Bright to Death, the new album from Film School brings together four members first heard on the alwaysnever EP, followed by the Self-Titled and Hideout full-length albums. Their new album continues on with the focus on lush and catchy rock’n’roll first explored on 2007’s Hideout and further perfected on 2010’s Fission.
Some bands just hit that spot in your being, the combination of bass, drums, synths, vocals and guitars creating chills throughout your body. Film School does that for me and, I’m certain, many others, the band’s songs bringing joy to many lives. They’ll be playing a few dates in California this November and hopefully bring their thrilling sounds to fans across the country soon. I spoke with singer/guitarist and original member Greg Bertens about why now the time is right to bring Film School back to the music-hungry masses.
What has been happening with you and the other band members? Have you all been in different bands? Raising families, working careers outside of music? How did the stars align to enable you to get the songs together for Bright to Death?
Yes, a whole lot of domesticity going on! And yes some other music projects. Everyone’s living multiple lives, I’d say 17 different lives happening simultaneously between the 5 of us.
The recording of Bright happened sorta randomly. We were having a family get together and I told Justin (Labo, bass) that I felt incapable of doing anything creative. I half-jokingly mentioned the only way I could write music at this point was by taking a trip to the desert. Two hours later Justin texted me that he got an OK for such a trip, and when were we going? Within a few days we booked a place in Joshua Tree. I think we were all desperate for a trip like this.
Bright To Death seems to be a continuation of the neon-lit songs from Fission. What is it about you and your bandmates that makes the Film School sound?
That’s interesting because Fission was a completely different lineup from Bright, which was different from Hideout. Jason and I have been the only constant.
For Bright it’s the original 2005 Beggars Banquet lineup (sans drummer Donny Newenhouse). Tonally and structurally Bright To Death reminds me a lot of the early Film School material, like Self-Titled and alwaysnever stuff, but a little updated and dialed in. I’ve always felt like this lineup writes well together – we’re able to hear each other and build together nicely. It feels instinctive. And it isn’t always that way, especially when trying to write collaboratively with others in real-time. Sometimes you’ll be in the studio just staring at one another. One person will play a part and nothing gets going, no spark. Or worse it’s mediocre so you keep trying and failing.
What did you do that was new in making Bright that you hadn’t done in the past? New pedals, new technology, new influences, new ways of sharing ideas, sound files?
We wrote in isolation. Just the band in a house with studio (Hi-Dez Recording) in the middle of nowhere Joshua Tree for 8 days. No work and minimal check-ins with the outside world.
Each day we’d wake up, make some breakfast, go to the studio and start writing until we couldn’t write anymore. We’d stop only for food and sleep. Like I mentioned, I think we all really needed this. Sometimes we’d work as a group, or sometimes solo when others needed a break. It was the most intensely creative experience I’ve been part of.
Once back in Los Angeles our long-time mixer Dan Long suggested we have Adam Wade play drums on the tracks, which was genius – Adam really got it and brought these tracks to life. Once mixed David Gardner at Infrasonic Sound mastered everything, including separate masters for the vinyl. The album start-to-finish was completely done within 6-7 months.
In the press release it is mentioned that the lyrics for Go Low were inspired by Blade Runner 2049’s Officer K. Are you a contemplative sort, thinking about your place in the world? K only had his hologram as a friend, but nothing was real. He hoped he was the child in the memories but he was just a replicant. You at least have your music as a form of expression and bring joy to the world. What does making music do for you and is there more you’d like to do with Film School?
That moment when Officer K was told he was just another replicant was a pretty powerful moment in the film. I think we’ve all had a moment like that – you’re special and then some new information comes in and you realize you’re total average. I thought it was interesting how much his perception of himself changed based on what someone else told him. Go Low is about a moment of self realization and where you go with that knowledge. It can be a messy process.
Regarding FS. I’m really loving what’s happening right now with the band. I feel like the songwriting is the best it’s been in years and we’re all healthier people. It’s a lot more fun to work on music now, probably because we all have some perspective and fuller lives. I can see now looking back that when I was younger I thought music was all I had to offer the world. I put a lot into it and expected a lot back, and when I didn’t get the response I wanted I got upset. I think that expectation was me just looking for validation. I care deeply about what we’re doing, but I don’t feel the need to be validated through music anymore.
All the songs on Bright are under four minutes. Was there an effort to write shorter, more concise songs? On Echodrone’s last album all the songs were 3:33, the perfect pop song length. Is this a challenge you set out for the band as well, to edit yourselves down to the core of what makes Film School great?
Didn’t realize that!
I’m not sure if we’ve consciously tried to shorten these songs, it more likely just be a result of years of songwriting. I do feel like a couple of our earlier songs in particular would have been stronger if we had edited them down a little.
I think a song is as long as it needs to be, but if it’s over 4 minutes there better be a good reason why. I’ve wondered if Morrissey ever wished he’d edited down How Soon Is Now?. It’s a great song, but goes on a while. My guess is he probably fell in love with that hypnotizing tremolo guitar. I get it! We’ve always struggled with song vs drone. We have strong pop sensibilities, but left in a room alone we can go on for hours just looping sounds and tweaking knobs. It’s transcending. But then you listen back the next day and think, is this something anyone would actually be interested in or is it just self-indulgent crud? When we first got back together I fantasized about writing a loose droney jam album, sort of like the Dopesmoker of shoegaze – ha. But as it turns out only one of our drones made it to Bright — ironically titled If There’s One Thing I Hate — and even that one was edited down. In the end we liked how this set of songs fit together, but there are definitely more FS drones out there.
What can you tell us about your bandmates’s personalities and musical abilities that you appreciate?
Justin Labo is originally from Detroit and the most punk of all of us. Whether it was just a few notes or several layered instruments he started off a lot of the songs on Bright. I’m really glad we’re friends and working together again, I feel like we do some of our best songwriting together. And running, we’re both runners now.
Nyles Lannon has got such an ear for tones. As far as I’m concerned his guitar is the glue that holds all the other instruments together. But he gets other tones too, we have a separate project together called Sacred Caves and I’m always amazed at what he comes up with. We call him the Sage, he’s a man of deep wisdom.
Jason Ruck plays synths and has been with me from the start. We’ve suffered all the FS ups and down together, including early days crappy acoustic guitar gigs in San Francisco. He’s got a good critical ear, I trust his judgment. He also played cover songs like Holiday on the piano at my wedding.
Adam Wade is our newest addition and drums very well. He just nails whatever you give him, it’s kinda weird. But he’s been in some pretty terrific bands so it makes sense. I’d say he’s the bonafide rock legend in the band. He’s also a softball legend in LA.
I first saw Film School opening for Swervedriver for their 2008 reunion tour at the Henry Fonda theater. What other highlights in your life and band come close?
Playing with your idols is about as great as it gets for a musician. Touring Europe with The National back in 2005 was also pretty magical.
Describe a moment while making Bright that got you excited, like creating a guitar melody or lyric or just vibing with the band. Maybe a memory from recording the album?
I didn’t really know what to expect when we first headed out to Joshua Tree. I thought we’d be in good shape to come away with 3 or 4 solid songs, but after we did that on day one I got pretty excited about what the rest of the trip had in store.
It was also nice to be in complete silence with the band at the end of the day and watch that massive fireball in the sky get extinguished into endless stripes of pink and purple mountains.
You’ll be playing a few shows in November. Do you have support bands yet and will you be booking more than San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco?
When we announced our “West Coast 2018” shows some fans pointed out that “it can’t be West Coast if it’s only California!” They have a good point, we’re going to do something about that. We should have more on that and support soon.
Bright to Death is available digitally on Bandcamp September 14th, 2018 and on vinyl through Cobraside Records in October. Pre-order the record on yellow or silver vinyl.
(by Bret Miller)