Film School @ Cafe du Nord
Bright to Death is Film School’s fifth album and first full-length since 2011’s Fission. Recorded over 8 days in November 2017 on the outskirts of Joshua Tree, this luminescent collection of 11 songs is the finest showcase yet for the band’s signature layered sonic tones, psychedelic atmospheres, and seductive melodies.
“When this lineup first came together in the early 2000s, I never thought we’d be doing some of our best work 15 or so years later,” marvels Film School singer and guitarist Greg Bertens. “Our [self-titled] album came out in 2006, when bands like the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand were in full swing. The music landscape was totally different then—shoegaze was a bad word. That’s changed.”
“Crushin,” the album’s dreamy, melancholy opener (and first single), is the kind of secret message you’d put on a playlist for an unrequited love, in between Beach House and Slowdive. “Don’t Send My Love,” a dancefloor-ready ode to post-breakup spite, is complemented by “Two in Sun,” with its washes of pure, enveloping atmosphere; and the Paisley Underground vibe of “Bye Bye Bird” is a catchy counterpoint to the propulsive rhythm of “The Celebration.” But for all its familiar touchstones, Bright to Death constantly surprises the listener as well, making the album Film School’s most compelling yet. Take the title track, a hypnotic, midtempo hip-shaker primed for an extended electronica remix. Or the menacing “Go Low,” with its layers of sound building over a distorted synth track to create a sonic dystopia, while the bouncy, stripped-down “Waking Up” sparkles like the prom song in a John Hughes movie.
The Joshua Tree recording session came about almost by accident. Greg was at a Fourth of July get-together in NorCal, grumbling to bassist Justin LaBo about musical writer’s block. Two years earlier, the original “Beggar’s lineup” (named after Beggar’s Banquet, the renowned indie label that put out the band’s self-titled LP in 2006) had reunited after almost a decade to record the EP June; but in the ensuing months, work and family responsibilities had zapped his creative abilities. Greg quipped, “The only way I could write is if I were out in the desert for a week.”
A few hours later, he got a phone call: Justin had the go-ahead from his wife and kids to actually go to the desert. Greg’s offhanded remark had awakened “a pent-up lust to make music the way we wanted to,” in Justin’s words. It wasn’t long before Nyles Lannon (guitar/backing vocals, also a dad) and Jason Ruck (synths) were on board, too.
The album gets its title from some text on an artwork Greg had seen, part of an exhibit by Chinese students on the topic of global warming. “Bright to death” popped into his head as the band was recording in sun-blistered Joshua Tree, and it stuck. In addition to four members of the Beggar’s lineup, the album features drummer Adam Wade (Shudder to Think, Jawbox) on several songs, and was mixed by Dan Long at Headwest Studios and mastered by David Gardner at Infrasonic Sound.
Each morning after Greg returned from his dawn run (he recently completed his second LA Marathon), the four bandmates would hunker down in the small outbuilding that functioned as a simple studio. “It was perfect,” says Justin. “We set up our laptops and fashioned a makeshift DIY recording setup. It brought us back to  when we recorded the Alwaysnever EP in Nyles’s bedroom.”
They spent all day and most of the night working, breaking only to eat and catch a few hours of sleep. “At some points we had two recording setups going simultaneously,” Justin recalls. “Greg and Nyles might be working on an arrangement or vocals, while me and Jason would be tracking keyboards and bass for another idea. We recorded for 8 days straight, right up until the very last moment.”
The band members agree it was a combination of their decades-long friendship and the unique, isolated surroundings that yielded such creative success. “It was a reconnection, to each other on the one hand, but also to a feeling of creating and enjoying the process,” Nyles says. “Outside the studio there was just this huge expanse, and somehow that sense of space and emptiness created a clarity of purpose and focus.”
Jason puts it this way: “It’s a keeper.