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English Teacher on the power of diversity and how grassroots venues keep music from becoming boring

Leeds indie band English Teacher are on the cusp of great things. It's all down to the power of independent venues, they tell us

English Teacher - 2024's Independent Venue Week ambassadors

English Teacher are one of the UK's most exciting bands right now. Photo: Tatiana Pozuelo

On the verge of a massive year – with their debut album due within weeks, a huge tour on the books and backing from all the major arbiters of taste in the world of new music – English Teacher are the perfect ambassadors for this year’s Independent Venue Week. They’ve signed to a major label (Island – home to U2, The Specials and Drake) but are still embedded in the grassroots culture that is the engine of UK music.

When they catch up with The Big Issue to discuss the crisis in live music and our Venue Watch campaign it’s clear they viscerally feel the importance of independent venues in communities around the UK. They’re happy to join us in championing grassroots venues’ power to ensure a diversity of voices in our culture – in terms of race, region and class.

English Teacher – vocalist Lily Fontaine, guitarist Lewis Whiting, bassist Nicholas Eden and drummer Douglas Frost – met at Leeds Conservatoire and they were embraced by the city’s vibrant music scene. Their intense, intelligent lyrics, angular guitars and sludgy basslines have seen them bundled in with the new wave of post-punk bands that includes Black Midi and Black Country, New Road – but they’d really rather be called alt-rock or an indie guitar band. Whatever you call them, it’s been a meteoric rise, says Whiting: “To be honest, the whole time we’ve actually been a band I’ve always been playing catch up, digesting it all.” And it’s only just getting started. Ahead of their three live dates in support of Independent Venue Week, English Teacher explain why small regional venues are vital to make sure music doesn’t become boring.

I would love to start by talking a little bit about your lyrical references. I’m a big Manic Street Preachers fan, and one of the things I always loved about them is, I’d hear the lyrics, and then I’d have to go and look up a bunch of stuff. I had that experience with The World’s Biggest Paving Slab. You’ve got the Pendle Witches, John Simm and Lee Ingleby in there, but also mentions of men with links to the BNP who were arrested with a huge amount of bomb-making equipment. Tell me a bit about where those references came from…

Fontaine: I think it’s really interesting that you say that. I like that. I feel like this one isn’t interesting unless you do that. It’s just me listing people and iconic things from where I grew up, Colne in East Lancashire. But when you research, when you know a bit about who those characters are, and those places are, it points to a deeper meaning.

A lot of my writing comes from things that I’m inspired by, which a lot of the time is politics or social issues. With that one, specifically, it’s about delusions of grandeur, and inferiority. There’s a bit about the terrorist of Talbot Street. And the largest bomb haul found in the country was just like, in this guy’s house. And no one knows about it. It’s not saying that he’s a good guy.

Why did you want to support Independent Venue Week?

Whiting: It’s something that’s really, really important to us. We’ve all had experiences, in Leeds and where we grew up, with really important, independent, small venues. We literally wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing now without them.

Fontaine: I talk a lot about my hometown and the best bit about that was the music scene, all the small venues there and the grassroots music scene and how it supported kids, basically. Because I was like 14 when I started doing open mic. It give you something to do in an evening or on a weekend – to make music. And without that, you don’t do the next step. So it’s why we have our jobs now.

But I know they are struggling a lot. We were meant to play a gig in Bath, at Moles, and we had to cancel it because the place had just shut down. It’s really bad at the moment, so it’s especially important now to like make a big thing of Independent Venue Week.

Recent figures show we’re losing grassroots music venues at an alarming rate. When those places close down is there a worry that we lose some of the acts that we might have had coming through, particularly those from outside London?

Fontaine: I think it just breeds homogeny in music. If you take away the small regional venues, then you’re only going to get certain places where you can be a musician, and then you’re only going to get a certain type of musician. Which is boring and also not fair. Which are two things that I don’t like.

We’ve been talking already about how grassroots venues are finding it hard. But is it difficult for musicians as well?

Whiting: We’re in a really lucky position. But sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh my God, how are we losing money, still?’ It’s crazy.

Fontaine: I think the way that we’re paid is absolutely shocking, to be honest. I think we are lucky in that we don’t have to work full time and do the music. Because that’s literally impossible.

Whiting: That is the biggest barrier of entry to doing this really, isn’t it? Ultimately, you need time to even think about being creative. Never mind the time to put into a project. Again, we talked about homogeny in the music industry and how you often get the same people doing it. That’s also such a huge part of it. If you’ve got a bit of money, it’s a hell of a lot easier.

English Teacher standing in a dark field under a bright light.
English Teacher basking in the spotlight. Photo: Tatiana Pozuelo

I have to mention as well that indie is pretty white, right? Has race been a barrier for you?

Fontaine: It has actually, yeah. Not so much now. But for the majority of my teenage years, even up until I went to uni, I just didn’t see people who were not white in the scene. Like it just didn’t exist. So even though I played instruments and I like to write, I never put two and two together and was like, I could actually make that kind of music.

It’s like back in the day, maybe, you didn’t see many female plumbers. You didn’t see it, so you didn’t think, I can do that. It wasn’t for you.

But actually, it is for me and people who look like me. I’ve managed to find people in the scene that I can relate to on that level, which is really special.

Whiting: It seems like other music scenes tend to do better. I don’t know what it is about guitar bands. I mean, it feels like it might be getting a little bit better?

Fontaine: I think it is getting a bit better. On the gender side of things there’s starting to be a change. I don’t think it’s anywhere near what it could be. I’ve spoken to a few of my friends who are people of colour in this scene, and it still feels like that could get better – like, wildly.

Do you hope that when the next generation see people like you they might realise there is space for them?

Whiting: You’ve had a few people come up to you, which is so nice.

Fontaine: I think so. I mean, it is a lot of pressure to put on yourself. But also, if it helps – sick. I don’t want anyone to have those feelings that I had, and then not make music. Because I’m so glad I did. It’s also like, what kind of kind of amazing stuff are we missing out on? So, yeah, I hope so. I think more and more I’ve seen black girls in the crowd. Or sometimes, people bring their daughters to the shows. It’s really nice to see that happening.

What’s your favourite gig you’ve seen in a grassroots music venue?

Eden: It’s hard to pick just one!

Whiting: I had a really good time at Crack Cloud at the Brudenell.

Fontaine: Oh, that was amazing. I was gonna say that.

Eden: I was genuinely thinking that too!

Whiting: It was just after everything had started to open up again. It was one of the first gigs back. It was one of those nights where the whole Leeds music scene was there. It was like a big reunion. Everyone was really up for it. I just remember that being such a fun night and bumping into people in the crowd, jumping about, and being like, ‘Oh my god, hi, I haven’t see you in about a year.’ And it was such a good gig.

Eden: The songs felt like they were going on forever in the best kind of way. The sound was so good. And the jams in the end. And just the energy in that room.

Is that sense of belonging, and of community, important to you?

Whiting: It’s really important to all of us. It’s one of the best feelings. Coming away from that gig I remember feeling quite lucky that we’re able to have that. We also wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Leeds music scene and all the people surrounding it and supporting it, the venues and all the different institutions. 

Tell me a bit about the English Teacher debut album…

Whiting: I’m really excited for it to come out. It’s called This Could Be Texas. We were just chatting shit and it was a really hot day. And there was something about Kirkstall Road and you know that American thing where it’s like all car park? We were just like, ‘Oh yeah, this could be Texas. This basically could be anywhere.’ And then we wrote songs from it.

Fontaine: We gave meaning to it afterwards, which is a really weird to way to do it. It ended up summing up the themes of the album, like being in-between and uncanny.

What are you most excited about in this big year ahead of you?

Eden: For me, probably these festivals in Europe – Slovakia sounds amazing, Roskilde in Denmark.

Whiting: To be honest, the whole year is looking like it’s going to be a lot of touring, which I’m looking forward to. I’m also looking forward to writing more. I think the next year is really going to be the year where we finally become completely consumed by the writing and the touring and the playing… which is in no way a bad thing. I’m excited to go headfirst into it.

Fontaine: I couldn’t have put that better myself. That’s how I feel.

English Teacher play The Georgian Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees (31 Jan); Where Else?, Margate (2 Feb); and Bedford Esquires (3 Feb) as part of Independent Venue Week. independentvenueweek.com

English Teacher‘s new single “Albert Road” is out now. Their debut album This Could Be Texas is out on 12 April on Island Records. Details of their full upcoming tour can be found here.

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