AFTER EIGHT YEARS, RIVAL SCHOOLS FINALLY RETURN, EVEN IF AT THE RISK OF RUINING THEIR LEGACY
“I’ll probably do at least one full breakfast while I’m here with any luck. It’s really delicious but right after I’ve eaten one I just want to fall asleep. As for everything else, I guess it’s just the normal things; tea, beer drinking-er…glassing. You know a little ultra-violence.”
As I sit in Atlantic Records’ rather plush top floor terrace with Rival Schools’ Walter Schreifels pointing out the nuances and pitfalls of British fine dining and culture, my adolescent self is having palpitations. After all, Rival Schools, and specifically the brilliant ‘United By Fate’, soundtracked some of my early love affair with music and music writing; train hopping across the border from North Wales to Manchester and Liverpool; unashamedly peppering my home phone in the AM hours with frost-bitten requests to come rescue me from extended city escapades.
It’s a fond flashback characterised by a desperate failed scrabble for Rival Schools’ reunion tour tickets just two years ago and the flying, caffeine-fuelled 140 mile death race from London to the Midlands to catch the searing guitar of ‘Holding Sand’ (well, the stripped down version), the anthemia of ‘Used for Glue’ and the sweaty image of a sinewy Walter straining every tendon to hit and hold his note engrained on memory. Sentimentally, sure, it makes for (hopefully) great copy but after all, it’s these people and bands that instil the love, and foster the reckless desire in all of us moved by a guitar chord, drumbeat or bass line to listen and write this meandering bollocks. Ahem.
In 2001, Rival Schools released ‘United by Fate’ and subsequently disappeared little over a year later. Rumours and conjecture abounded; side projects and other endeavours surfaced and the faint promise of a second album never fully emerged. And with that, the band created a legacy – a perfect example of ‘always leave ’em wanting more’.
A surprise reunion tour two years ago hinted at a new chapter, with the premise of the elusive second album to follow soon after, but in a seemingly sad parallel, we were left waiting. Wanting. Hoping for some closure. So with the promise of new album ‘Pedals’ set for official release early next year, it looks like we finally have it and Rival Schools have some explaining to do.
“It was always, for us, just a starting point to get touring again,” guitarist Ian Love begins. “It was surprising when we played the reunion shows and having people still into the songs that we hadn’t played for nine/ten years – that was pretty cool. It just makes us look at each song in a completely different way, like they’re really important to the history of the band.”
A lot’s changed in the near decade since ‘United by Fate’, and despite retaining a hardcore following, as evidenced by the reunion shows, the anticipation of the fans was met with the band’s sense of trepidation.
“I think there’s a natural apprehension picking up something where you left off,” says Walter, “and you start asking yourself what can we do with this, is it something for the future, is it just a reunion tour? We’re very proud of what we did with the band so we don’t want to do a disservice to it.
There’s apprehension with that but when we got in the studio and on stage, it felt pretty natural.”
It’s no surprise it does. With a hefty personal history and no definitive split ever confirmed, it seemed the reunion was born of opportunity as much as it was of time. With each member having explored their own individual paths, it seems the logical conclusion was to find out if Rival Schools had one of its own.
“I think we know it wasn’t the best career move at that point but at that stage we all just had to branch out and do those different things,” explains Walter. “For myself, I always thought it’s kind of a shame we didn’t follow up on that album but we didn’t draw it down or say we were totally broken up or say, “fuck Rival Schools”, so when enough time passed, and we did that tour, it was a case of we’re not getting any younger so why not give it a go, clear our schedule a little bit and just see how it feels.
“The way we look at it is we’re just four people who’ve known each other for a long time and enjoy playing and I guess we wanted to project into something futuristic. I think it’s cool we made an album then disappeared for a long time but I don’t want to release one album and disappear for another eight years. I think we run some risks of alienation but it could be genius, I don’t know,” he laughs. “I think we did a nice job of picking up where we left off but we’re also showing where we will go. We want to progress and that was something we didn’t really get to do. We owe something to ‘United by Fate’ and we owe something as a band to see what kind of album we make and what kind of direction we can take.”
It’s an internal commitment Walter and the rest of the band are focused on but comfortable with. Driven by the desire to do Rival Schools’ curtailed previous life justice, and with just one glorious point of reference, the comparisons between ‘United by Fate’ and ‘Pedals’ are an inevitability they’re prepared for.
“The way we look at it is we’re just four people who’ve known each other for a long time and enjoy playing,” says Walter. “It’s just about making a record of quality and there’s no way you could consciously, I think, say this is the solution.
“I think if you take stuff too seriously then yeah. [Adopts cryptic voice] ‘Listen, we have to transcend the legacy of ‘Used for Glue’… there’s 100 people in London whose lives depend on it!’ If you do, then you’ll end up fucking up.
“Naturally people are going to say the new album sucks compared to ‘United by Fate’ and then there’ll be someone in a chat room who’ll go, ‘No way! This sounds way better’, then someone else will go, ‘You’re a fuck, I hate you’, then the next person is going to say, ‘You’re a fucking racist’, then the next person will be like, ‘Really, Obama sucks.’
“Seriously, I think the album is going to have its champions but if you think about those things, you just can’t control it. If people say ‘United by Fate’ was the greatest album ever and it left this unattainable legacy, how can you make another album? It’d be impossible.”
However ‘Pedals’ is received, it marks a pivotal moment in the band’s chequered history. As a cliché, it’s about as difficult as second albums get but crucially, you can’t help but feel a lot’s riding on it.
Mirror the acclaim and success of its predecessor, we could get a glimpse of the band Rival Schools always threatened to be; underwhelm and it undoes much of the band’s mythology.
“On this record, we focused on the music a lot,” says Ian. “It was a case of making sure we really liked everything and that we could experiment as much as we wanted, and because we were in my studio, we could record and play whenever we wanted. It was nice to not have to rush everything.
“I think ‘Pedals’ has the same spirit, the same guys. The other day I wanted to listen to ‘United by Fate’ because I hadn’t for a while, and it was awesome. Then I listened to ‘Pedals’ and it held up. I can see people who loved ‘United by Fate’ getting into this but it might take a few listens.”
“I think with this record we had similar themes and went about it in the same way and some of the themes are going to be similar but not too repetitive,” Walter continues. “‘Ringing Out’ and ‘Travelling by Telephone’, the openers on both albums, are linked to relationships and have similar themes but there’s still that sense of accomplishment.”
And it’s a wholly deserved satisfaction. Where their debut had the safety net of Island Records taking care of the wider machinations of recording, licensing and distribution, this time the band were on their own. And the learning curve was steep.
“All of it was different,” Walter states. “We had to get all that back in place. From our perspective of just making the music, we were on point. We had all the music ready but everything else is important too. How do you deliver it to people? We can’t control all of that aspect… The last record we put out was nine/ten years ago and we had to sort of figure out what’s the best way to put a record out these days?”
“We had no producer and had to figure everything out ourselves and find the right way for us,” adds Ian. “And it was good to do it like that. It might have taken an extra year…”
“…But it’s a totally different world,” Walter confirms.
It’s a process that pointedly explains the stuttering nature of ‘Pedals’’ release and one the band, although extremely satisfied with their near total self-sufficiency, are eager to establish wasn’t part of the wider plan.
“The intention was definitely to get it out sooner,” Walter smiles, “but the way that it all worked, it was supposed to come out in the fall then it was due to come out in the winter… It’s maybe a cliché but these things work out the way they’re meant to work out. We could’ve recorded an album very shortly after we did the tour two years ago and who knows what that would’ve sounded like? But it took us time to find the right people, make some mistakes and get everything set up properly. Things have worked out for a reason and I think we have our game relatively tight so it was pretty much the only thing we could control. It definitely wasn’t by design.”
“We were actually preparing about two years before,” Ian explains, “but because we made ‘Pedals’ without a label, the record was done before we really knew what to do with it. I recorded it at my studio but once we found a label to put it out, that was another process. The record’s been done for almost a year and a half…”
“Jesus Christ!” Walter exclaims, “we did our part. I think as Ian was saying, we did this record on our own and the last record; we kind of filled a vacuum as the band. The label deal was already there but we had to rebuild everything ourselves and this time there was no-one holding our hand and we just had the desire to see it through. When you have that dynamic, it’s more important to you.”
In an age where the propensity to return and reform in whatever lineup can generate the quickest buck (however reduced said lineup might be) Rival Schools have returned older, wiser and prepared to risk a legacy they created almost a decade ago. It’s not the fact that Walter, Ian, Sam and Cache are still around that should fill us with sentimental optimism; it’s the fact they feel they’ve got something to prove.
“We’ve never been a heavy band or a band who you can go, ‘these guys are nu-rave’, and we never fitted into the emo thing first time,” says Walter, “and I think it’s more important than ever to hold onto your identity and nurture that integrity. Really all we can do is control the music and the effort we put into it. Once you’ve done that, all you can do is just let it go.”
“We were talking about starting to do another record and getting together in the next six months and trying to write another one,” Ian continues. “I think we’ve wanted to make a third record for almost a year now but it’s been on the backburner. I’m sure that’s what we’ll be doing in the next six months…but you can expect a record within eight years,” he grins.
By Reef Younis
Originally published in issue 24 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. December 2010