Film School Stays Creative and Looks Towards the Future with ‘We Weren’t Here’ (FEATURE)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as many musicians have struggled to adapt to being separated from their bandmates, shoegaze/dream pop-rock group Film School have been rather fortunate: with members split between Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2006, they’re already comfortable with writing and recording remotely, as they did on their evocative new album, We Weren’t Here (set for release on September 24).

This isn’t to say that they’ve been completely unaffected by the enforced isolation, however. Calling from his L.A. home, frontman Greg Bertens says that working on this album helped them cope with these trying times. “Being in lockdown, everyone wanted to try to do something productive, and wanted to connect with the band members in some way,” he says.

Even so, Bertens admits, that sense of feeling disengaged lingered to a certain degree, and titling the album We Weren’t Here reflects that: “All of us were in our own worlds, disconnected from one another and not present in the moment. During the pandemic, I started to see more of that, in my life and in other people’s lives, and the different things that we used to kind of not be present.”

This time, the band took a varied approach to the creative process. “A lot of it was going through some old demos, and old songs that had been completed, and seeing if there was anything workable, and then also writing a few new songs,” Bertens says, “so it’s a collection of some older ideas, as well as some newer ideas that brought it all together.”

The songs on We Weren’t Here feature the kind of evocative, ethereal, shoegaze-influenced rock that has made Film School so distinctive since their formation in 1999, though Bertens says this was not deliberate. “I don’t know that there’s any intentional Film School sound,” he says. “It just feels, to me, very organic in nature.”

It seems that Bertens’ entire career has evolved naturally, without any grand plan. In fact, he says, as he was growing up in Danville, California (a quaint suburb of San Francisco), he never even suspected that he’d end up with such a creative career.

“When I was a kid, I don’t ever remember thinking I could be a musician,” Bertens says. “Matter of fact, my sister was the singer in the family. She was the one who got the compliments for her musical inclinations. I remember I didn’t have a very good singing voice, so I just kind of wrote off music from a very early age, though I did have piano lessons.”

A turning point came when Bertens was about twenty years old, when he heard Nirvana’s 1994 album Unplugged in New York. “I thought, ‘I could do this!’ So I started listening to the songs and finding the chords on the guitar and singing along to [Kurt Cobain’s] lyrics. I thought, ‘This is cool – I’m really enjoying this connection to music and songwriting.’” Bertens adds that the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was also a big influence on him at that time.

Inspired, Bertens pursued music with “Brute force – just deciding I was going to do it, and then playing guitar in my bedroom for hours. Anytime I wasn’t working, I’d just be playing guitar.” But out of that work, he recalls with a laugh, came “A lot of really bad songwriting!” Still, he persisted because he felt “highly motivated to do something that was meaningful to me.”

No matter how hard Bertens worked, though, he never felt quite suited to the straightforward singer-songwriter style. “Then I heard Loveless,” he says of the landmark 1991 album by shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine. “It changed the way that I approached music and the way I thought of music. There was an art form to it that made me feel like it was an expansive landscape to explore.”

Blending shoegaze atmospherics with structured song arrangements resulted in a unique sound, and Bertens knew he was finally on the right track. He sought out like-minded musicians in the San Francisco scene, founding Film School in 1999.

There was a problem, though: by the late ‘90s, shoegaze music was considered completely passé. “Looking back now, we couldn’t have started this project at a worse time!” Bertens says with a wry laugh. “I remember people calling us ‘New Gaze,’ and it was an insult. We were taken to the woodshed by a couple of writers who were essentially saying, ‘You guys are just trying to rip off this genre; you have no business doing that. And by the way, this genre sucks.’”

Film School met this criticism with a stubborn determination to continue what they were doing. “Regardless of what the current trend was, we felt like we were part of a bigger collective of like-minded artists, and so I think that during the harder times, it just didn’t really matter what was being said about us because we thought of ourselves as part of a bigger musical history,” Bertens says.

The band released their debut album, Brilliant Career, in 2001. They followed that with a self-titled album in 2006, then Hideout in 2007 (which featured a guest appearance by My Bloody Valentine member Colm O’Ciosoig). Despite being out of step with prevailing musical trends, the band steadily built up a loyal fanbase, and by the time musical tastes finally swung back around to appreciating shoegaze again, they were considered leaders in the genre. They have retained this status through several more albums, EPs, and singles.

“It’s nice that there is now some recognition for our genre, and bands are starting to see some success,” Bertens says. “Like, I went to a Slowdive show in L.A. a few years ago, and I never thought I’d see that day where the place was sold out, big venue, and really excited older and younger audience. It was awesome to see.”

Film School are about to play some shows of their own – their first since the pandemic began. Bertens promises that for these West Coast gigs, the band will “try to hit on newer as well as older material,” which will be enhanced with an immersive visual experience via carefully-crafted videos that are incorporated into the show.

Even though the world is far from being back to normal, Bertens hopes that these shows – and We Weren’t Here – will help both Film School and their followers continue to find meaningful ways to get through it all. “Everything feels right on the album,” he says. “We want to get out and support it – and connect with fans.”

Photo credit: Steven Simko (@simkophoto)

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