I don’t really have three testicles,” explains Lily Fontaine. The English Teacher singer and lyricist explains the genesis of the title track of their debut EP during a chaotic Zoom call with the band. The name of the track “Polyawkward”, is derived from the term polyorchid, referring to someone with more than two testicles. Fontaine uses this idea as a metaphor to paint a picture of his secret “social awkwardness”, approaching the sincere via the stupid, with no break between speech and song. Around their double-edged lyrics, the band makes wonky exclamations and theatrical riffs. It’s visual, catchy and exciting, creating tension and then releasing it.
English Teacher has just completed three first 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 battle the usual dose of muted mics, a poor connection, and Frost’s cat, Hector, meowing all over the place. It’s quickly apparent that this band has more than musical synergy; there’s also respect and love in the mix: “It’s the most collaborative thing I’ve ever been in,” says Whiting, while Frost attributes the group’s harmony to their ability to give their own space – “we are very comfortable with silence”.
Given their loud guitars and use of “sprechgesang”, the band unsurprisingly got caught up in the lazy labeling 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 vast difference between their sounds. English teachers are keen to disentangle themselves from this narrative: “I don’t think 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 punk or whatever genre then it just becomes stale. do they sound like? “Indie arts,” Eden says, before Whiting chimes in: “silly, loud guitar music.” “That’s a less pretentious answer,” Eden agrees, before Fontaine says diplomatically, “I think both are right.” Finally, Frost throws his hat into the ring: “silly-billy wonky-tonky honkytonk,” he decides.
English teachers are witty and self-deprecating about their sonic ambiguity, but there’s no shortage of talent. In fact, this soup of charm and originality makes them more endearing. On their debut EP Polyclumsy (released via Nice Swan in March) variety and juxtaposition are the refreshing key to music; throughout the five tracks there are changes of pace, humor and sincerity, surrealism and personal experiences. While their lyrics command attention, the music is by no means withdrawn, demonstrated perfectly in “Yorkshire Tapas”, where a spoken beginning and an instrumental end allow both to get the attention they deserve.
Lyrically, however, Fontaine has a knack for articulating both the deeply personal and the universally relatable, oscillating between larger issues and intimate experiences: “The keys disguised as a headline / I walk in the night / Try not to think about love. / And how it gets you home safely / And then messes up the house. The words in “Polyawkward” touch on many topics, but most importantly articulate an ominous walk home from a party that Fontaine had left early due to social anxiety. She recalls “wishing I had someone with me” because of the “frightening” prospect of making the trip alone in the dark. Fontaine likens his “underlying secrets of the things I process in my brain” to the idea of ”having this secret testicle tucked away.”
The band’s knack for combining wit with candor is also clear in “Good Grief,” where swampy riffs meet Fontaine’s poignant lyric. 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.” This is 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 solace in the concept: “Sometimes I think surrealism seems more relevant,” she says. “It just makes me feel something because life is so weird.”
It’s really a chance, because as fate would have it, the group had to get used to the surreal. After finishing third in the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition, they were given the chance to perform at the festival. John Peel’s lunge brought Fontaine to tears. “It was all for publicity,” Frost jokes, before Fontaine quickly tells him to “f*** off!” “No, it was such a special moment,” he said sincerely. Fontaine remembers being given a Polaroid photo of herself by a young woman in the crowd: “I was her! This is the position I was in and I always wanted to be the one on stage, ”she continues. “It’s times like that where you feel proud of yourself for going out there and trying to be that person.” Frost agrees: “I never imagined myself playing on these stages, then suddenly, three years later, here we are and I just realized it! He almost seems to treat him as he speaks.
With such huge opportunities coming so soon for the band, I ask how they deal with the anxieties of such experiences, “I poop a lot,” Frost says. “I thought you were going to say alcohol!” Fontaine laughs. “Oh yes, alcohol! Alcohol and poo,” Frost agrees.
For such a self-effacing band, the mounting hype only adds to the anxiety: “It’s a double-edged sword in that sense,” Fontaine reflects, “it’s a good opportunity and it’s amazing, I’ll never change it – but we’re so small. Frost agrees: “Playing John Peel at such an early stage makes it seem like more people are going to expect a lot from us, when in reality we’re trying yet to figure things out.”
We want songs that will make us proud of what we’ve done
This underlying pressure refers to the inevitable debut album, now with so many vested interests at stake. The band insists they will take their time to get it right: “We want songs that will make us proud of what we’ve done,” Frost says, “we don’t just want to do what they want us to do. Manufacture.” I wonder if these worries extend to the judgment of their fans: “I worry about what other people think; it’s a big delay,” says Frost. Fontaine agrees: “I think that’s one of the main reasons I struggle with writing.”
It’s a powerful combination, however; a band as concerned with pleasing their listeners as they are with staying true to themselves. This integrity even extends to social media, despite the new pressure on groups to be constantly visible. They are cautious about their online presence: “I decided to walk away from it personally, to keep everything private. We’re only very, very lightly in the public eye right now, but I already don’t really like that,” Frost says. “I know it happens, though,” Fontaine comments on the impending horror of forced TikToks. Frost chimes in, “But we’re not going to, because it’s not us. We’re not going to follow trends, I can’t imagine us doing something like that. This concern for authenticity is perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the Leeds quartet.
With so many bands emerging in the post-pandemic light, English Teacher rightly has longevity on the mind: “It’s going to be tough to get through this and be one of the artists that sticks around for a long time. It will be interesting to see how it goes,” Frost said considerately. But standing out doesn’t seem to be going badly for the group, testicles included. Fontaine is keen to make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with polyorchids, imagining a full-circle moment if she met such a person: “Knowing me, I would romance him and think it’s fate,” says -she. “In fact, anyone reading this who has more than two testicles is kicking me.”
‘Polyawkward’ is out now.
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