International Teachers of Pop: Flying the flag for eccentric electronic music in Sheffield
International Teachers of Pop are a kinky saucepot of fun. Having spent some personal time with this gorgeous group in a post-lockdown beer garden, I can firmly say that they are nuts, but also wonderful people with honest ideas and strong artistic values.
Their incredible disco-pop banger Pop Gossip, released during the dark depths of national lockdown, provided listeners a much-needed feeling of musical liberation; one spin and it whisked you away, dancing wildly, feet hitting concrete in the bowels of a dirty, dank club somewhere dangerous. After recently following that up with a second EP, Drive All Night, they’ll be bringing their impressive back catalogue of throbbing beats to the Leadmill in August, so we thought it high time to catch up with the ITOP crew: Adrian Flanagan, Dean Honer, Leonore Wheatley, Katie Mason, and new(ish) band addition DIMITRI.
There’s a tune on the album called ‘Don’t Diss the Disco’. I’m curious: what happens if we diss the disco?
Adrian: I’ll beat them to death with something very pink and very large!
Katie: You get a smack on the bum!
The dance routines… just how do you come up with them?
Katie: Me and Leonore used to live together and have known each other since we were little. We’ve always just arsed around; we really push each other to make each other laugh like good friends do. I guess when this all happened, it was just like, let’s have as much fun as possible. We get people coming up to us saying they’ve been practising your routines. It’s infectious, and I’ve got an opportunity to be a Spice Girl.
What do you love most about Sheffield?
Adrian: I love that it’s got a lot of green parks and you’re only 10 minutes in any direction to the countryside. Not that I’m an advocate of nature; I can’t bloody stand salad!
DIMITRI: Sheffield has a great many transport links to my nightclub, which is just off the M1 motorway, near the township of Rotherham. Please contact DIMITRI if you know anyone who is looking to buy a nightclub.
Katie: I’m from Nottingham, live in Manchester now, but Sheffield’s always been like a cheeky place for me because I’ve been there, I’ve met people, left it and probably thought I’d never be in Sheffield again. But it’s been like that for years and years so it’s kind of weird; we’ve had some of our best nights out ever here and I’ve always loved coming to Sheffield. I never thought I’d be in a Sheffield band, but I love it, and everyone’s really wicked. It’s different to Manchester in the sense that it’s like it does feel like a big village – everyone knows each other.
So Adrian, Dean and Leonore formed the original ITOP lineup. How did Katie and DIMITRI get involved with the fun?
DIMITRI: DIMITRI met ITOP during the great winter of 2019 when I supported them in Manchester, UK. It was in that moment that they became aware of my hybrid man-machine electronic drum fusion prowess.
Katie: I just barged my way in because I just follow Leonore around, and if she’s doing something I need to be doing it too.
Adrian, explain to us the teleology behind ITOP.
Adrian: I’m an electronic pop music fan and wanted to make music that was quite inclusive to both your ears and an audience, but also subversive and cleverer than the average indie pop berk. Live electronic music specifically performed by laptop dickheads I find incredibly dull; it’s like watching some twat in the office do spreadsheets – all you can see is them scratching their head every 10 minutes, or sucking their cheeks in like they are some kind of virtuoso whilst they press the space bar on their MacBook Pro. So it was important it wasn’t that.
What was it like releasing Pop Gossip in the midst of a pandemic?
Adrian: Personally, I found managing it and doing all the admin was a fucking nightmare. We finished the album late summer of 2019, then had to sort a label to release it, then once that was sorted we had schedule in a bunch of singles between Nov 19 – May 20. So, yeah, sending and fielding emails and calls between eight people at the label/distribution company, five people at the radio plugging company and a couple of press agents, plus your live agent and all the venue promoters!
Live electronic music specifically performed by laptop dickheads I find incredibly dull; it’s like watching some twat in the office do spreadsheets
What makes that album different to the debut? Did you approach anything different on a technical level?
Dean: On a technical level, in terms of equipment and studio, it was pretty much the same process using the same kind of gear, analogue synths and FX, etc. The musical direction was slightly different: we were going for more of a club-friendly style, more beat and bass driven. Whereas the first album was more of a psychedelic pop record… I think.
One artist, dead or alive, who would fit nicely into an ITOP track collab. Who is it?
Leonore: I’d love to hear an orchestral works of the album. Imagine the melody and hook to ‘Red Dots’ played by strings? Now, that would be something to hear. So I’d probably have to go for the Russian composer Schostakovich, as not only did he write some amazingly heavy-handed pieces in the last century, but his compositions were banned by Stalin for being too avant-garde. He’d fit into ITOP.
With the pandemic still developing, and people grappling with fear, uncertainty and doubt on a daily basis, how do you plan to draw people to your gig at the Leadmill in August?
Adrian: You can’t make people do what they don’t want or something they are uncomfortable with, but if it’s any consolation I too am risking my life – but for music and putting a smile on someone’s face. And if it helps for people’s mental health for an evening and brings a bit of joy and normality to us all, then that’s a good thing. We can’t stay in forever!
Katie: They’ve got to come because if you don’t, you’re never going to see it again. We’ve not had a proper chance to play these songs and because we’ve waited so long; it’s just going to pop off. DIMITRI has added something to the band that’s like a cool, young sexiness.
Adrian: It will be a really fun and ace night. We have Japanese Television supporting us and a new solo project that Dean and I have produced some tracks for, an artist called ‘Wet Man’, which is my pal Jack Clayton, who used to front Mysteron.
Got a favourite track on the record? Mine is ‘Beats Working for a Living’.
Adrian: I think ‘The Tower’ and ‘Flood the Club’ are mine. ‘Beats Working for a Living’ was a little abstract interlude Dean and I did, our little tribute to my old friend and well-respected Sheffield music journalist Martin Lilleker, who passed away a few years ago. He wrote a book about Sheffield music of the same name.
Katie: I really, really love the whole album, which sounds a bit knobby, but ‘The Tower’, I think, is one of my favourite ones. ‘Flood the Club’ is gonna be a classic in like 50 years. We’ll really tour it then.
As fully grown-up International Teachers of Pop, what were you like at school? Is the name a reflection on how you see yourselves in the electronic scene today?
Adrian: I came up with the name. I thought coming in with a bold and bigheaded moniker was important: I wanted a name opposite to all them South London bands. I don’t know what they are called… Shame? Sorry? Wank? Bastard? I found an old school report the other day and the music teacher had put: ‘Adrian has a real natural ability and a great ear for music, but tends to lose interest in lessons quite quickly, which leads to him leading the class in to disarray!’ When I was in school there was no such thing as ADHD and learning difficulties – you were just presumed a thicko or a troublemaker. I should probably see a doctor about it, but imagine after 20-odd years of tirelessly making loads of music, always having many projects on the go, people calling me a genius, bastard, madman, hilarious, hyper, sensitive, sweetheart, rubbish – and it turns out to just being ADHD. What a fucking disappointment to myself that would be!
You’ve been involved with some brilliant artists over the years: Working Men’s Club, Maxine Peake, Jarvis Cocker, Sleaford Mods, and many more. Why is it important for artists to spread their net and collaborate? Do you intend for anymore big collabs in the future?
Adrian: Between our various projects, Dean and I have worked with all those and many more – and sure, I personally love collaboration. Jason Williamson from Sleaford Mods we worked with on the ITOP tune ‘I Stole Yer Plimsoles’. Though I don’t think ITOP in the main are his personal cup of tea, he was smart enough to get the sentiment behind the track and hammed it right up for the recording. He’s a good guy and a good sport! That for me is what a good collaboration is: juxtaposing people from opposite ends of the music spectrum, taking people out of their comfort zones.
Leonore: Possibly my favourite lyric from the album is taken from that track: ‘Windswept, cigarette, always in a cold sweat. Look at you, 32, walking round without your shoe.’
How can Sheffield be better a place for electronic artists?
Adrian: It’s funny. Whenever I talk to industry people in London or wherever and they ask where I’m from I always reply with “Sheffield, the home of electronic music!” And it’s true: Sheffield is equally as important for electronic music as, say, Detroit. From the Cabs to The Human League, Moloko and Roisin; from Warp Records and Rob Gordon to the Eccentronic Research Council; or ITOP to producers like Parrot, Ross Orton, our own Dean Honer, and the CPU Records – they and many more have all been flying the flag for electronic Sheffield and eccentric electronic Sheffield for years. Those people are all still very much active on the frontline of some of the best and freshest electronic avant-garde pop dance music coming out of the UK right now. So swivel, naysayers!
International Teachers of Pop play The Leadmill on 21 August. Tickets and more info available here.