His Grinning Skull: Golden Teacher Interviewed

Golden Teacher's Sam Bellacosa helps Danny Riley get to grips with the nature of the 12-legged Glaswegian punk-funk-afro-sonic experimentalist party band as they come to the end of their UK tour

Photograph courtesy of Benjamin Segura

What time is it in your life?

Lying in bed at night, on the bus, or even in a nightclub, we’re all prone to those unexpected, disconcerting moments of existential crisis, when we fret about if we’re where we want to be, and wonder what the fuck we’re doing with our lives. Golden Teacher are a band to soundtrack these decontextualizing dancefloor epiphanies, an ideal rhythmic accompaniment to those gut-punching moments of self-realisation. Their most recent single, ‘What Time Is It’ (out on Boiler Room Debuts) sees disembodied, contorted vocal continuously posing that question over jagged, acidic house beats and queasy electronics, making for a slow, sleazy banger which explicitly addresses the listener. Born out of Glasgow’s fertile DIY scene, Golden Teacher are a 12-legged party monster who create driving, swirling mutations on disco and techno, taking in tangential elements of spasmodic punk-funk, mindbending minimalism, oblique afro-sonics and experimental noise in the EPs and singles they’ve been releasing over the past two years.

With a collective background in the seemingly conflicting worlds of dance music and noise rock, they’re the life-affirming hedonists to Factory Floor’s streamlined nihilism. Brothers Laurie and Oliver Pitt (formerly of mordant hardcore band Ultimate Thrush) cover drums and percussion respectively, whilst Americans Richard McMaster and Sam Bellacosa (of live house duo Silk Cut) take on electronics duties. Charles Lavenac of noise rockers Blue Sabbath Black Fiji and Cassie Ojay, the only Glasgow native in the band, provide yelped vocals and excellent dance moves. Having pricked ears in 2013 with kinetic Optimo releases like the heady Bells From The Deep End and the Dylan Thomas-referencing Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, last year saw the band in a flurry of live activity which, with their relatively new and semi-professional status, saw them having to adapt quickly to the level of interest. As Bellacosa told the Quietus: "Even now, I’d be amiss if I said we weren’t kind of green behind the ears. Last year we were kind of caught off guard, it was kind of a trial by fire."

This year the band are taking things a step further, with an imminent EP – self-released via the music distribution platform Rubadub, a 12" on Optimo featuring remixes from British reggae legend Dennis Bovell and an as-yet-untitled single. In addition to some European festival dates in the summer, they’re just coming to the end of a tour this month. These are all logical steps that the band seem more than ready for; as I interview electronics man Bellacosa, I get the sense that Golden Teacher are ready to make the next move: "I don’t know what it’s like for other bands on tour but for us it’s a fine line of trying not to get too drunk before every gig. We’re getting better at that."

So you’re reining in the hedonism then?

Sam Bellacosa: Hedonism’s easy, isn’t it? It’s pretty easy to get swept up in it.

Can you tell us a little about the formation of the band?

SB: Every one of our members has been through one of the courses at Green Door Studio [in Glasgow]. It’s vaunted as an all-analogue studio, though obviously nothing’s all analogue these days. It’s run by Emily MacLaren and Stuart Evans who I’m shouting out to. Not only are they our engineers, they’re also prototypical Golden Teachers, they support the band in whatever way. They’ve created this space which is part publically funded through Creative Scotland, creating opportunities for people aged 16 to 26. Richie and Ollie were doing a six-month production course, the point of which was to foster kids who’d been playing on the scene for a while, to foster new projects from some of those acts. Ollie had been playing in Ultimate Thrush with Laurie. Me and Rich had been playing together for about two years, Ultimate Thrush maybe four. Then it was kind of like, ‘Oh shit, what are we gonna make?’ I think Rich wanted to make a boogie record from the outset, and that became the first record. We’re re-pressing the first EP, going back to revisit this wildly amateur sound where we were kind of finding our feet. So maybe that’s why everything sounds like Liasons Dangereuses, y’know? It’s the same weird energy, the really constructive disagreements.

It continues to be way more than a recording studio – it would be flippant of me just to say it was just a springboard for the music. I think a lot of the apparent quality comes from there, from the technical details, a certain warmth, even a kind of attack in the performance. That just comes from being really considered and taken care of by Stuart and Emily at Green Door.

The group has described itself in other interviews as a party band. Is that kind of hedonism the main goal of your music?

SB: We say party band, I think that’s a pretty immediate statement! We’ve always been at pains to express that there’re lots of different kinds of parties out there. They can be ludicrously trite. We should make the distinction that it’s a non-generalised party band. Say you’re making a track that has particularly dark elements and you want to play those up, all of a sudden that track’s going to take a sinister turn. But that’s exciting too. At the kind of party we want to play there wouldn’t be a theme, it’d have some twists and turns. I can think of the favela parties in Brazil where the whole crowd separates and you get a kind of ‘trench of death’ – there are different degrees to parties.

I went to high school in Boston and was wildly excited by the hardcore scene there, which I guess even back then was pretty derivative; skate trash was the order of the day. Laurie and Ollie in Ultimate Thrush, that was very abrasive but very silly, self-reflexive hardcore cock-rock. If hardcore’s exciting to you you’re gonna dance, and throw your body at other people’s. So there’s so many different modes of expression for this kind of stuff. We don’t wanna be that kind of party music where everybody’s just got their finger in the air and is waiting for the big build-up; it should keep people on their toes, and certainly keep us on our toes. With the latest stuff we’ve been developing, we’re wondering how close to the edge we can get with this poppy sensibility as possible. We also just try to reconfigure stuff as we go.

There’s definitely some experimental, even disconcerting aspects to your music as well. Do you see any tension between the experimental elements and the fun, dancey stuff in what you do?

SB: Maybe the others might argue differently, but I don’t think that there need be any tension between something that’s accessible and something that’s more challenging. While it’s not a particularly huge influence on us a good example would be Severed Heads. We’re nowhere near as prolific as they are but it’s testing people’s expectations. You’ve got ‘Dead Eyes Opened’ which is a brilliant track for its time, but then you riddle the path with wildly varying releases. So it’s whatever mood we’re in. A lot of the tracks on the new record are quite old; we had them wrapped up by the end of last year. So they don’t have very much bearing on the sets we were playing over the summer which had a lot of wilfully feel-good disco-dance feel, which has come back into our recording sessions now. So it goes on whatever the general consensus is. The tension’s necessary to get whatever we’re aiming for in a track. We’re deep listeners of all sorts of styles, but there’s a general appreciation amongst us for tracks from the disco or electro periods which are so singularly strange that you just get lost in because of those strange elements.

What kind of artists and tracks?

SB: There’s so many. Stuff like Rinder & Lewis, who’ve had a surge in appreciation for their music recently. A record like Seven Deadly Sins: on paper it’s just a straight-up cinematic disco record, but there’s just something about it. Something very… I’m not gonna say alienating. A more straightforward example might be Black Devil, Disco Club. But it touches on all kinds of genres. In house music Ollie and Laurie particularly love Alias G. You can see currents in Melvin Oliphant and Traxx; bizarre, strange side projects like XX Art. It’s not an outsider influence – the kind of stuff we appreciate is what might have fallen through the cracks but now is in a rigid sonic template, that’s the stuff that sticks. Maybe we’re a little tired of all the Arthur Russell comparisons but that’s the best example, in all the players that he brought into his sessions. That’s a good example of someone not conforming to the sounds of the time. Obviously we’re a contemporary band, so no one’s really sure what the ‘sound of the time’ is now, unless it’s the top 40 of R&B trance or something. The landscape is so wild and varied. Certainly with British electronic producers we’ve gone past grime and dubstep, funky, and long before that breakbeat, so where are we at now? I think the UK is kind of schizophrenic in a very positive sense.

The internet has really helped for a kind of plurality of styles. We get put on bills that are pretty damn diverse. We played a big, I don’t know whether you’d call it a corporate shill event, but it was for the Commonwealth Games up here. We were first on the bill, and we had Jeff Mills, Nozinja from the Shangaan scene, Jackmaster. That’s fairly typical for us. It’s like: ‘This is contemporary’. I think it would be more of a disservice to the listener to put a tag on it.

Do you prefer playing more techno-oriented bills and club nights to gigs at rock venues?

SB: It depends. If we only played club nights we’d miss out on reaching different audiences and playing with other bands. Maybe our ideal shows are these hybrid night club-live things that go on for a long time. Also the way we approach certain sets, you look at who you’re playing with, what event it is, if you’re on tour, you tailor the set to the environment. It’s not a very concerted effort, and it also depends on what kind of equipment we can bring to the event, that determines a lot of it. We have two shows coming up in May with Sofrito, with Hugo Mendez and Frankie Francis, and we’ve always admired their compilations and total dedication to what they do. We were lucky enough to play with Hugo in La Rochelle in France last year, and that night we just said: ‘Let’s get you to Glasgow and let’s make something happen’. And Sofrito are known for hot, African dance music from the golden years of highlife and a whole lot more. So then you could say, ‘Oh, you’re this afro-dance band, since you’re on this bill’. But then we also played with Jimi Tenor last month, which was part of a Sähkö Recordings re-visitation as part of a short film festival here. Optimo also played, and JD Twitch played Slayer – these are the people that we’re coming up with, obviously we’re closely aligned with Optimo and Twitch, and they don’t do anything by halves, part of their appeal is that you get those ‘what the fuck’ selections. I especially love it when you show up for a gig and people are there for another act.

You’ve got those dub tracks coming up from Dennis Bovell – is that the British reggae musician?

SB: The man is prolific, and it was a totally out of the blue opportunity. JD Twitch just emailed us and said: ‘I’ve finally been able to convince Dennis Bovell to come up here and remix some tracks from the Optimo catalogue, and he’s going to be doing it at Green Door. Do you have any tracks you want done?’ So we gave him an unreleased track and the lead-off single from Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. And he just twisted them in his own special way. Maybe it’s a bit of novelty, but those tracks have really got his imprint on them. Bovell, from my knowledge of him, seems really instrumental in that weird, exciting British music from the 80s that was flirting with all sorts of influences.

I want to talk to you about psychedelia. I’ve read in interviews with the band that in the live setting you’re aiming to achieve this ‘beyond the body’ feeling. You’re named after a magic mushroom, and people have used the word ‘voodoo’ to describe you. How much stock do you put in this kind of thing?

SB: Ollie was asked that question very early on, and he said everything’s been kind of psychedelic throughout history. You have nuns seeing visions and transcribing those into images and music. With psychedelia as a general term most people think of a Bob Dylan poster for ‘Live At The Fillmore In ’68’, so I guess the power of the word psychedelia is trapped in a historical conception of what it looks like. It’s all kind of there in the title; in that sense we are a psychedelic band. The magic mushroom thing I want to downplay as much as possible; it didn’t have anything to do with any affinity we have for magic mushrooms. I’ll concede that the cover of the first record was pretty damn psychedelic in a very traditional sense.

But I guess with ‘golden teachers’ you’re thinking about these shining figures that tell you where you’ve arrived at in terms of your mental processes. Like I said, that’s why I said that our studio engineers Emily and Stuart are in a sense ‘golden teachers’. You know, have you had a teacher in school that was just that, they turned you on to a bigger sense of the world, a larger sense of yourself in that world? I had a teacher who, to get our heads around the idea of existentialism as a positive worldview, said, ‘every day, to remind myself of my own mortality, I look in the mirror and imagine that behind my face is this grinning skull’. That’s pretty psychedelic! I was 13 when she told me that. That’s the kind of psychedelia we’re dealing with.

Yeah, because I wanted to talk about your Boiler Room release, ‘What Time Is it’, with this direct lyric: "What time is it in your life?". It’s got that kind of life-affirming message. And you had the EP titled Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

SB: Yeah, that’s the Dylan Thomas poem, kind of an exhortation to his dad to not just slip away peacefully, you’re going to, ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. That could be a very emancipatory, powerful thing. Imagine a good death, that’s a cause for celebration, right? And I think when Charlie’s singing, ‘What time is it in your life? There’s a time to live, a time to die’ you can play that both ways. There’s an inherent darkness there – everybody’s getting older day by day, everyone’s getting closer to the other side of life. But that has a positive dimension to it, certainly, as dark as it is, we’re kind of relishing that. It’s also like a gothic idea, that celebration of the great mysteries of life. There’s a reason why the gothic style is so decorative and exuberant, so that’s like our gothic thing. But I guess it’s also kind of a direct reference to the ideas in early Chicago house, those direct addresses, that often had a social imperative or message there, there was a lot of this emancipatory language.

Going back to the self-released EP, I do get the sense that you like to maintain control over your releases. You do your own artwork as well, so is maintaining control very important to you?

SB: I guess it makes sense, because in doing that we’re also responsible for developing our own image. We’d complain no end if we were on a label that had a house style to its releases. With Optimo we’ve landed in the right place, because Keith [McIvor, JD Twitch] is indulgent to a good degree. Being so closely involved with the artwork is not a particularly interesting position to be in nowadays, there’s countless people doing it. With the self-released EP it was the only thing we could do to get the music out as soon as possible. I think it’s interesting to see a lot of backlash against Record Store Day just based on the issue between labels and pressing plants. So we hadn’t shopped the tracks out to get any interest with labels and get them on a release schedule, even with Optimo we’d still be facing many months of sitting in that purgatory between production and completion. It’s not out of any issue with working with record labels, it’s just that once you’re in the catalogue you never know how long you’ll have to wait. There’s maybe some concern with the economy of vinyl records, but it’s not a protest release.

So it’s not an ideological thing?

SB: No, because people who self-release for ideological reasons would probably be able to do it a lot better than we would, and like I said there’s six ideologies here. Six bickering individuals. But I wouldn’t want it any differently. If we were knocking out three-minute pop songs every week it would feel like something had gone wrong.

And there’re some strong personalities within the band?

SB: Yeah, even though we’ve kind of come up in the Glasgow nightlife community, with the small number of clubs and nights we have in that scene, it’s a very rich scene but it’s also very discursive. We’ve almost grown into our adult lives within that community, so we do share a lot of those experiences in common. Going to Optimo, Sub Culture or Nice’N’Sleazy, we’ve all gone through the same nights out. But though all of the stuff we’ve surrounded ourselves with is quite similar, everybody likes a different element for a different reason. So there’s a mutualism, there’s a unified approach, but part of that is, ‘Oh, I think this sounds like X’ but, ‘Oh, I think this sounds like Y’. Maybe that’s fairly typical, but that’s something to be celebrated, differences and differences of approach. It’s kind of like an idealised democratic practice.

Everybody has to have the space to argue for their position, but also to compromise on something. I guess the closest thing to that would be Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau’s idea of agonistic democracy. You’ve got to argue about things in order to get things through. But I’d rather say that we were just a boring band to try and curate these divisive terms, this idea to you that we’re these fuckin’ party animals. I dunno, a band like Fat White Family who played the Art School in Glasgow where I work, everybody came there expecting them to trash the stage and be absolutely outrageous. Surely this is kind of reactionary, you know? Maybe people still want wild destructive forces on stage… I think that can happen for us internally, it doesn’t need to spill out into destroying green rooms, I think that’s crass.

So is the social aspect of your music important to you?

SB: Oh of course, I don’t think that can be understated. It’s a big band, so there has to be a social aspect to it, you have to have a social intelligence to work with so many people. But I don’t think you should overthink that. When people just stare at DJs… having seen footage of us playing a lot of people do seem to be dancing with each other and maybe occasionally glancing up at the band, or closing their eyes in a moment of reverie. That’s cool, because that’s what I’d be doing. You can never say enough about just losing yourself in music. It’s that idea of standing outside yourself; euphoria is centred inside you. It’s kind of like losing yourself, and that’s definitely something we want to be carrying forward in the band, like, ‘Woah, who’s doing what?’ I don’t really know, and I don’t care. For the most part we’re just like one unit.

Golden Teacher Meets Dennis Bovell At The Green Door is out now on Optimo. Golden Teacher play Islington Mill in Salford tonight

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