Lost In Music: Golden Teacher interviewed

Glasgow's Golden Teacher will join the bill at France's Nuits Sonores festival and others this year, and they have a new record due on Optimo. We spoke to them about structure, aesthetics, and getting bare-ass naked

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 04 Apr 2014
  • Golden Teacher

Sitting outside the bar at Glasgow's Centre for Contemporary Arts with five of self-described “party band” Golden Teacher on a balmy spring evening, it quickly becomes clear that they are a group of musicians who strongly resist any attempts to categorise, classify or define them. They don't fully agree that their music is 'psychedelic,' despite sharing a name with a species of magic mushroom.

They resist being painted as another Glasgow Art School band, even though they are heavily involved with the Art School's new showcase event Pleasure Garden (more of which later). In fact, they have a tendency to sidestep each question asked of them, responding with a more interesting story than the one requested – the assertion that they have a psychedelic sound is countered with a story about the training methods of Samurai warriors, and references to hallucinating 11th-century nun Hildegard von Bingen.

Their stage show has a lot in common with the extended, improv-heavy electronic excursions of Factory Floor, but filtered through the gaze of Afrobeat, heavy dub and mutant disco and techno, with two vocalists, young Glaswegian singer Cassie Oji and Charles Lavenac, formerly of guitar noise terrorists Blue Sabbath Black Fiji. Infectiously dancefloor-influenced, and effortlessly experimental, their own description of “party band” is a pretty good approximation of their sound, although as “noise and electronics” player Sam Bellacosa underlines, “what kind of party...?”

Richard McMaster met Bellacosa on his first day in Glasgow, 7 years ago – they later performed together as Silk Cut. The remaining members of Golden Teacher met at the city's vibrant Green Door Studios, part of a loose collective of musicians that attended the funded courses in music production and other subjects available there under the stewardship of Emily MacLaren and Stuart Evans of The Rosy Crucifixion, and Sam Smith of Casual Sex, who run the studio and work there as engineers. This is where Golden Teacher's assertion that they are not an “Art School band” comes from. According to Bellacosa, “the difference between the Art School and Green Door is in terms of the networks for these bands – at the Art School it's like, 'Hey – lets form a band.' Whereas at Green Door it's like, 'Oh... we just formed a band.'”

With the majority of the band benefiting from classes at the Green Door Studio in music production, they were given the chance to experiment with different techniques and equipment, studying the techniques of famous setups like Sun Studios, Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound' approach, and Lee Perry's Black Ark. As the band members – most of whom are involved in other projects – began to meet and get on, they began recording together experimentally, and out of these sessions, they realised Golden Teacher had formed.

“Anything could have happened” in those sessions, according to McMaster, who also records with Tom Marshallsay, aka Dam Mantle, as General Ludd, and previously as Lovers Rights. “Loads of projects came from it and went through Green Door,” he says. “It would probably be a much more interesting interview just to talk to Green Door themselves – they've touched pretty much every band in Glasgow. We really only became a band because we were gonna do a record. It wasn't anything before, it was just this project we'd been doing. And then it solidified into this party music, I guess. But it could have been anything. We spent days recording literally all sorts of music. That was just the one that worked.”

The approach with Golden Teacher has always been to let the tape run and see what happens, with their songs frequently clocking different tempos at each gig. “Sometimes, when you don't think about it, the best results come out,” says McMaster. “Especially with recording – it's such a primal thing. That's the challenge – if you want to get lost in the moment, how do you document it? You have to get into the right situation. That's why we're so lucky there's a place like Green Door here. It's the only reason we can exist, as a band.”

After releasing two EPs on Optimo Records, and playing a huge number of gigs in Glasgow, not least last year's Optimo Hogmanay party at The Glue Factory, and with time spent on the road playing gigs as far afield as London, Sheffield (“most of the crowd got naked,” McMaster remembers) and beyond, the band are set for much wider recognition over the next few months, playing at specialist electronic music festival Nuits Sonores in May, and eyeing some high-profile support slots and tour dates around the UK.

How important was their formative experience at Green Door? “We've all, more or less, gotten free recording time there,” says McMaster. “It's way too good for what it is, they give you an amazing space to not worry about al the the tensions of normal band structure, and recording and practising – they don't exist there.” MacLaren, Evans and Smith he describes as “enablers,” saying: “It's just that thing where you're so comfortable – creativity is so accessible in there that you don't have to stress about it.” Bellacosa agrees: “It's like, 'jam in this room, then mix it all in this room, do both these things as freely as you want to.'” The band found their way there variously through word of mouth, and rumours floating around at the local Job Centre, in a story that recalls the famous youth training schemes that were so formative in creating the fertile ground in which many emerging Glasgow bands flourished in the 1990s.

“Sometimes the best parties are the weirdest ones...” – Richard McMaster

Back then, says McMaster, “everyone was on these job-seeker programmes, where essentially rather than going to the dole they would go to the studio. Lots of people who shouldn't have met, met, because they were all interested in music.” This was mirrored by his own experience of finding out about Green Door: “I was signed on – the lady at the Job Centre pretty much said it was the same thing... even though it totally isn't, and it's bullshit that those situations don't exist any more. In fact, they actively tried to make me not go to Green Door! They said it would take away from my ability to look for a job..." McMaster hails from New Jersey, and came to Glasgow to study art and design - he shared a student residence with Sam Bellacosa, a native New Yorker, and met Laurie and Ollie Pitt, originally from York, in and around the Art School.

The last two members to join were Charles Lavenac, who was looking for a new project a few years after moving to Glasgow from Paris, and was at that time touring regularly with Blue Sabbath Black Fiji; and the young Cassie Oji, who “pretty much left school and went to Green Door,” turning her back on a childhood spent singing in Gaelic choirs (she is a fluent speaker of the language) to experiment first with more “soulful” singing techniques, before looking for something more challenging.

Oji cops to being influenced by Grace Jones: “I knew you were going to ask me that!” she laughs. “Who isn't?” But she also insists that Green Door, and her bandmates are an even bigger influence: “Being at Green Door influenced the way I listened to music, and the way I sought it out,” she says. “I'm the youngest in the band, and when we're practising, someone will mention a song or an album. That – the fact it's always something new for me – is the biggest influence.” Importantly, her unique vocal style was found through experimenting, improvising: “There's no technical, correct way to do it – that's what I enjoy the most about it,” she says.

At Green Door, the band had the freedom to approach recording and rehearsing very organically. “They essentially make you think about how you'd want something to sound; why you like this music, then you figure out what is making it sound like that, and you can work towards it,” McMaster explains. “Whether it succeeds or not doesn't actually matter – most of the time it doesn't.” That freedom to explore vast sonic realms at their own pace eventually resulted in Golden Teacher. “Maybe the way I understand it is that it's not aesthetics, it's like... it's your limitations, it's what you've got, and what effect you want to have on people,” says McMaster.

That effect, apparently, is often close to the Glasgow summertime tradition of 'taps aff.' McMaster says: “When people watch us live, I want it to feel like a party at 1 in the morning when everything's getting as intense as possible.” Playing at Sheffield's Audacious Art Experiment, this resulted in much of the audience disrobing, allowing Lavenac to briefly live out his dream of a life of “dancing; the dancefloor; the singing; everyone going crazy, people taking their tops off.”

“Sometimes the best parties are the weirdest ones,” says McMaster. Bellacosa agrees: “That's something you want to have control over – the kinds of gigs you play,” he says. “It's important to play in these little concrete tubs, and realise you can make people go wild for two hours. That was unexpected. We didn't know what to expect when we showed up there. If people are taking their tops off and getting on each other's shoulders, and they have to bring an extra fan out to cool everyone off, then you know what you're doing is worthwhile.”

With no plans yet to leave Optimo, who they praise for their DIY setup and impressive reach, not to mention the sage advice of messrs. Wilkes and Twitch on all things musical and party-related, and with many musical adventures of their own on the horizon, the band are keen to keep things open-ended, reticent to make predictions about an eventual album or a label shift despite a few tempting offers. For many of the band, Optimo the club night was a formative influence, long before it played host to their early gigs. “I was an Optimo regular before we put out a record,” says Bellacosa. “I've been scared shitless at Optimo just by the music alone.”

“We don't want to be proscriptive,” says McMaster, and it could apply to their recording approach and their career equally. “There's no push to become something... There are ways for people to access your music, through the music industry at large. And it's nice that we live in this age where that industry has really self-destructed – so you can kind of avoid it. We're all only doing this because we really love doing it.”

The hypnotic pulse of Golden Teacher's music, played without the aid of computers, is rooted as much in boundary-pushing art-rock and the artful formlessness of deep dub as it is in techno, house and disco. Most importantly, it is rooted in an approach, a method, a willingness to explore, rather than a single asethetic. Each member of the band is as excited by their solo projects as they are the idea of Golden Teacher being able to tour more widely and make new music. Lavenac is making a film musical with a performance artist and another musician, which he describes as “”like guitar noise gone vogueing,” and Laurie and Ollie Pitt's Akashic Records will soon be releasing some late Blue Sabbath Black Fiji material on limited cassette - he and brother Ollie record for Akashic as Dick 50 with Ross Little, also of Ultimate Thrush, and Janine Benecke, formerly Lavenac's bandmate in BSBF.

The Pitt brothers, along with Julia Scott also DJ as Ghana Soundz, specialising in traditional percussive music collected from their trip to Ghana last year. Oji has a project with a friend (Alicia Matthews of Organs of Love) called Ladies as Pimps, with an EP planned for Clan Destine Records and due this month. McMaster and Marshallsay will also be releasing some General Ludd tracks on Clan Destine. Marshallsay, McMaster and Laurie Pitt co-run The Art School's Thursday night session, Pleasure Garden, a space where lesser-known Glasgow producers and DJs can play alongside high profile guests who “are trying to push the boundaries of club music,” says McMaster. Pitt says: “We're trying to build a scene,” part of which involves trying to address the gender balance of the usually male-dominated DJ lineups seen at many club nights.

Marshallsay, who by chance is in the CCA bar as we interview the band, chimes in on Pleasure Garden: "Our intent is to establish a welcoming, inclusive environment where all sorts of people can get down," he says. "We want to bring people together. The night seeks to welcome the huge variety of of artists, selectors and grassroots organisations that are nested in this city. Our aim is to avoid relying on big names to bring people in. So far we have been lucky enough to welcome Lucky Dragons from the US, Joe from Hessle Audio, and DJ Nigga Fox of Principe, from Portugal. The name is inspired by the memory of Epicurus' pleasure garden which sought to bring workers, thinkers, artists and people from all walks of life together to seek enduring satiation."

Back to Golden Teacher, who intend to keep delivering their unique brand of party music at the best and weirdest parties around. Join them - lose yourself. “Dance music's pretty Pavlovian – you go out and listen to the same drum beat all night,” says McMaster. “For most people, that's what it is. People take drugs and lose themselves. But for me when things go wildly differently to how you expect them too, or you hear something confusing or challenging; when something is different in the structure of the night than what you expected, that's really where it gets interesting. Some of the sounds we use are straight from the 1970s, some are more modern – but that's the challenge. To me, that's like... all it is.” He smiles and looks at his bandmates. “How do you negotiate that space?” To quote an old Hunter S. Thompson line: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

Golden Teacher's new single, Party People, is out soon on Optimo Records.

They play at Sounds From The Other City in Salford on 4 May, and at the Psychedelic Forest Disco at Kelburn Castle on 10 May.

Pleasure Garden runs on weekly Thursdays at The Art School. This month's guests are Archie Pelago, General Ludd, Cleoslaptra and Felix Welch (10 Apr), Ryan from All Caps and Letitia Pleiades (17 Apr) and Moleskin, Spiritual Fingers and Afrodesia (24 Apr) Check listings for more details.