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Escape Velocity

Classy Bastards: An Interview With International Teachers Of Pop
Patrick Clarke , January 15th, 2019 11:56

Patrick Clarke takes a trip to Sheffield to learn a thing or two about perfect pop, with Professors Wheatley, Flanagan, Honer, Mason and Westley

Photo courtesy of Adrian Flanagan

“I’m three and a half pints away from pneumonia,” says Adrian Flanagan as I meet him off the train in Sheffield. He’s come down with the flu, but hides it well behind his fisherman’s hat, dark glasses and coat.

I’m here to spend the day with his new band, International Teachers Of Pop, the latest in a string of supreme musical projects he’s been involved with alongside Dean Honer. The two of them, with an occasional hand from Maxine Peake, made up The Eccentronic Research Council, which in turn gave birth to The Moonlandingz, a hectic, histrionic rocknroll powerhouse fronted by Fat White Family’s Lias Saoudi with contributions from Saul Adamczewski.

It’s no surprise he’s feeling fatigued. “They didn’t just burn the candle, they set fire to the house,” he recalls of The Moonlandingz’ first phase. “Plus for the first year and a half I was basically managing the project during some pretty dark times, then when we properly took off I was managing the whole tour across Europe, the UK, America – dealing with mountains of admin and still doing a large proportion of the promo and interviews, as well as writing and recording and pretty much being a ‘senior’ part of the whole creative side from beginning to end… It does start sending you a bit doolally.”

Last time I was in Sheffield, it was to interview The Moonlandingz. Like today, Flanagan was waiting for me, his arms behind his back as he peered over his glasses. As he led me to meet the rest of that band, it was more than a little frightening; they were strangers then, and they repeatedly hinted that they were going to bury me on the moors. I squeeze once again into Honer’s car, parked around the corner, but this time it’s a seat among friendlier company – the band’s frontwomen Leonore Wheatley and Katie Mason. While The Moonlandingz discussed torture methods as we made our way deeper into the wilderness, The International Teachers Of Pop compliment my nail varnish as we head towards a fancy new food hall in the newly gentrified Kelham Island district – once the city’s industrial heart. “We thought we’d ease you in,” says Flanagan, “in case you’re missing Hackney.”

En route, we pass Church, a bar owned by Bring Me The Horizon, on the walls of which someone has graffitied the word ‘GAY’ in big white letters. In the food hall Adrian stands flabbergasted as a woman takes multiple pictures of a pie with an expensive camera. He swiftly orders a beer for his lunch (he’s got a butty in his bag for later) while the rest of us settle for high-calibre, high-cost sushi.

Courtesy of Adrian Flanagan

Whatever Flanagan’s gripes with edamame and the art of pie photography, his new band is defined by a sense of inclusivity. Their gigs are stratospherically fun, loaded with relentless, juddering pumps of synth from Honer and Flanagan, over which Wheatley and Mason throw weird, awkward shapes, rehearsed in the pair’s shared flat in Manchester. Their self-titled debut album is superb, a lithe and direct blast of brilliant British pop that shows off some of its members’ finest writing to date.

That inclusivity extends to our interview; “It’s time for your first lesson!” says Flanagan, as we leave for what appears to be an old factory. It looks rusty and abandoned, and combined with a number of references from Flanagan on our way over to torture equipment, has me a little nervous. They open the door, however, to a warm and inviting studio, where Rich Westley, their drummer, awaits to teach me the drums. My final presentation of ‘Billie Jean’ is sublimely passable, but my evident failure to comprehend Honer’s modular synth masterclass causes Wheatley to wade in. “When I’m teaching kids,” she says calmly as I frantically mash keys and twist dials at random, “I tell them to start with a simple three note melody…”

Wheatley is a full-time music teacher at a girls’ school in Manchester, hence a touring schedule that slots neatly into half-terms and holidays, and regular trips across the Peak District to rehearse after a full day in class. “It was funny to have two middle-aged blokes and an actual teacher doing music, so I thought let’s call us International Teachers Of Pop,” Flanagan says as we settle in to The Shakespeare, a pub further into the city. “Being international sounds quite big, doesn’t it? It makes all other bands sound shit and irrelevant. I don’t think there’s a better band name.”

“We’re not really international, though, are we?” says Wheatley. “You know when you go down the market and they’ve got a rip-off of Gucci jeans called Guggi jeans? It’s a bit like that.”

She is also a member of excellent Nottingham exotica-psych-pop project The Soundcarriers, albeit in an entirely separate role. “That’s very non-interactive and about the music,” she says. “With them I’m concentrating so hard on playing two types of keys and singing at the same time. When I first joined this band I wanted to be behind a synth.”

“I said no!” says Flanagan.

“To just be out there behind a microphone was terrifying to me because I’ve always been hidden behind keys. I’m a bit more confident now though. It’s easier when I know I can be stupid and silly, and it’s allowed to be that way.”

Picture by Duncan Stafford

Mason is an important presence when it comes to nailing the art of silliness. Always an ally of Wheatley’s musical projects in one way or another, she joined the band after their formation and the pair’s longstanding chemistry soon became vital. “We make up dance routines at home, we’ve done that since we were little,” she says. “I suppose I came in to help with that! If the stupid dancing wasn’t a part of it, I’d be way too scared. Because the music’s dead fun, and really loud, you can get really into it. Because we can look at each other the whole way through we can zone out and have a laugh. People like seeing us be a bit silly cos it makes them feel relaxed. Sometimes watching people on stage at gigs you don’t know where to look. It’s nicer if everyone’s having a good time, and it’s easier to be funny than cool!”

“We’ve had a few lovely things that people have said,” adds Wheatley, “and one was that it makes people want to come on stage with us. You don’t get that a lot, there’s such a wall between the band and the people there sometimes, you have to watch them like a telly screen, whereas we break that wall.”

That said, Flanagan makes quite sure to insist that he’s the same whether he’s onstage or off. “I get in the shower with the hat on, I get out of the shower with the hat on. I go to bed with the hat on. Etcetera, etcetera.”

“He’s got the most luscious head of hair under that hat, you know,” says Wheatley.

“You’ve got to save something for Her Indoors! I store a bit back for my dog and my wife.”

The International Teachers Of Pop were spurred into life in something of a rush when they were booked to support Jarvis Cocker in a cave known as The Devil’s Arse (Peak Cavern, for the more proper) in Derbyshire. With four days’ notice they recruited Moonlandingz drummer Westley and a stand-in backing singer. “I think because of the novelty of the place people didn’t mind as much that it was a new band,” Wheatley recalls. “There was so much to take in and it was an amazing venue. The fact that we came on, and that the tunes are so catchy and you could see people were actually trying to sing some of the words and dance along.”

“And keep themselves warm,” says Honer. “It was minus 10 in there.”

By their third gig, the band were playing Somerset House thanks to an invite from Roisin Murphy, with words scrawled by Wheatley as she travelled back and forth between Manchester and Sheffield, music by Honer and Flanagan, and now with Mason on live vocals and dance routine duties. “I just liked her attitude, she’d say ‘I’m not sure about this set you’ve got’, and I was like, ‘Alright then, well you fucking do it!’” says Flanagan. “She really stepped up.”

“Katie’s really creative,” Wheatley adds. “She’s got really good ideas, and it’s good to have someone like that where you can go ‘What about this! What about this! What about this!’ And we get into 2am rants a Friday night – you can’t just do that with anyone.” Mason, it’s worth adding, is also the woman behind the sock-puppet versions of the band you can see in their new video for ‘The Ballad Of Remedy Nilsson’ (above). Flanagan’s voice for the puppet version of himself, I can assure you, is horrifying.

Courtesy of Adrian Flanagan

“Dean, Leonore, Katie & Richy are all a joy to work with,” Flanagan says. “It feels very natural, almost too easy - though that might change when it takes off a bit more and we’ve a few more tours under our belt - but ultimately I’m more likely to choke to death on a KitKat while doing star jumps with this lot than some cliched semi-fictional rocknroll death!

“The thing about this band is it’s not pre-meditated,” he continues. “It just kind of is what it is. I say I want to be all-inclusive but come up to me after the gig and I might tell you to fuck off. I can be a bit spikey on stage too, but that’s part of the fun – the contrast between those two best mates having a laugh and me, depending on the weather. Meanwhile Dean’s checking the football scores. Electronic music in general is quite boring visually, just some guy and his laptop not really engaging. I’ve always been for engagement.”

They are part, I argue, of a movement of sorts. There is a growing number of artists, from tQ favourites Audiobooks to Japanese ‘anti-cuteness’ girl band Chai and excellent Australian cheese-pop outfit Confidence Man, that consider the ridiculous to be as valuable as the sublime, and value humour with the reverence it deserves. “I love all those bands," Flanagan says. “Audiobooks are great, I went to see them in Nottingham recently. Evangeline Ling is a great frontperson, one minute Irish dancing around the stage and next looking like she might kill someone. I approve of that kind of juxtaposition, and David’s a great producer. Confidence Man are mates of mine, I love that lot, they kind of came into my life when I genuinely really needed cheering up, they should be on prescription. And Chai, again I saw them in Sheffield recently and they are a whirlwind of absolute total fun.

“In these politically and socially depressing times, when people are being bombarded by misery and uncertainty and war and death by the media and everyone’s skint and being laid off their jobs – I truly believe we and these kinds of groups are the antidote to the more tops-off, middle-class, sloganeering angry punks that seem to be everywhere right now. The last thing I want to do with my last twenty quid is go and see a bunch of sweaty-bollocked kids shouting from the safety of an O2 Academy stage about Brexit. In the 80s there were riots all the time – a real sense of communities sticking up for themselves and saying ‘We will not take it anymore’. Protest now has almost become a fun family day – a selfie in front of Big Ben with little kids and their parents holding up placards that say ‘I hate Theresa, not just in May!’ on it. Honestly, that’s about as much use as a chocolate fucking fireguard.”

Westley stands up and knocks over a pint glass which smashes on the floor, then takes some towels from behind the bar to clean it up. Before long, a disgruntled landlord storms up to our table. “I’ve got two problems with that,” he snaps in briskest Yorkshire as we sink into our seats, suppressing a nervous giggle. “Firstly that you went to get that towel from behind the bar, and secondly I don’t want you touching the glass. It’s shocking behaviour. Absolutely shocking!” He cleans up as we look sheepishly at our feet. It’s not unlike being told off at school.

What, I ask the teachers, were they like as pupils? Honer tells me of his time in a rough, all-boys Catholic school. “You’d keep your head down, set things on fire, fight the other schools. Our school and another school were separated by a golf course in the middle, so we’d meet on the golf course to fight each other. Once a year they’d raid our school playground and beat up the kids from our school and vice versa. You’d have teachers driving round the golf course in their cars, trying to round up the kids. It was anarchy.”

“I was terrible at school, absolutely terrible,” recalls Flanagan. “All my exams were unclassified. ‘Adrian is disruptive in music,’ I got that on my exam. I remember getting caned for throwing some hydrochloric acid at the school bully. He was bullying this Polish kid so I walked past him and ‘spilt’ some acid on his jumper. My least favourite teacher was called VD – Vincent Dixon. He talked like a psychotic Frank Sidebottom and had a little Hitler ’tache. I tried to walk out of an exam and he went adopts psychotic Sidebottom voice EEEEEEE, FLANAGAN! SIT DOWN YOU AIRY FAIRY!”

“Mine was Mr. Donlan, we used to call him Penfold. He was short, fat and sweaty and used to call all the girls ‘sparkle’,” says Wheatley, as the table shudders in response.

Photo by Duncan Stafford

Despite the tyrants, psychopaths and perverts that most of us must face in our schooldays, there are brilliant teachers too – teachers who inspire, console, or form boss electro-pop bands. “As a drum teacher I let my students come in and organically have fun,” says Westley. “I just let them hit the drums and play to music, and seep in the technical side. People think if you play an instrument you’ve got to do something with it. But I think in our society we lose track of the fact that it’s like reading a book, you don’t have to do anything with it, just enjoy it.”

“One of my sons actually learns drums from Rich,” says Honer, “and it’s one of the only things he doesn’t complain about.”

“As a music teacher you notice the cuts and the pressure, and times where schools think ‘Oh, easy, music! Just get them to sing some songs and they’ll get an easy GCSE!’” says Wheatley. “But what I love the most about my job is the outside of the lesson when you see girls coming in who might not even take music, setting up a band.”

Everyone sat around the table found similar refuge of sorts in their learning of the creative arts. They swap stories of hiding away in art departments, music departments and dark rooms as they ate their sandwiches.

“We’re all very similar, aren’t we!” says Wheatley to break a silent gap in the conversation. “Perhaps that’s what ties us together.”

Flanagan agrees. “We’re the school outsiders!" he proclaims. They've turned into excellent teachers indeed.

International Teachers Of Pop's self-titled debut album is out via Desolate Spools on February 8. To pre-order it, click here.

The band play Hebden Bridge Trades Club this Friday, January 18, with tickets and info here. They embark on a full UK tour in February, with full dates and tickets here.