Music interview: Liam Fray on Courteeners' new album and Leeds show
Courteeners' fifth album, Mapping the Rendezvous, has arrived this month with some fanfare. Singer Liam Fray described it as their 'best and sexiest set of songs ever' and the record duly shot to Number 4 in the UK charts.
Reminded of his proclamation as the band prepares for a smattering of arena dates including Leeds, Fray is more self-effacing. “As soon as you say that you regret both of those things,” he chuckles, but nonetheless agrees that events of the past year or so helped the band to approach the album in buoyant mood.
“I don’t know about confidence because it’s just easy for that to be chipped away at, I think it’s dangerous to even have it any more, but it’s more a sense that I don’t think it matters any more what the detractors say,” he says.
“We’re just going to have fun, we’re just going to have a good time doing it – that kind of attitude gives you confidence, I suppose. But it’s just been a great ride, our biggest year yet, which is not something we thought we’d say nine years in. I guess we probably thought we’d be winding down but for some unknown reason it’s sticking and people can’t get rid of us.”
The facts and figures certainly stack up in Fray’s favour. A headline show at Manchester’s Heaton Park that sold 25,000 tickets in 40 minutes; seven consecutive sold-out nights at Manchester Apollo; supporting the Stone Roses at the Etihad Stadium all suggest a band with a fervent following as it prepares to enter its second decade.
On top of that they’ve outlasted many of their guitar-band contemporaries, few of whom even got the chance to make five albums. “A lot of bands just before us got big advances and when you can’t bring that back on a second record then it’s goodbye then it’s hard to bring that back on a smaller indie [label],” the 31-year-old singer says. “People say big budgets but all they do is spend a load of money then ask for it back. It’s like a bank that gets you on MTV, I suppose.
“We left Universal after two records then when we went to do the third album with PIAS it was ‘Let’s see if we can make this work’. [Now] we’re not going anywhere – I think we may have another five in us.”
Joe Cross, who has produced many of the band’s records over the years including Mapping the Rendezvous, has now become their touring bass player following the departure of Mark Cuppello. On the road they’re also joined by Adam Payne on keyboards. “It’s always kind of been a bit of a collective and there’s people behind the scenes you don’t see,” says Fray, adding he’s been “getting more and more” into the production side himself.
“The first album we did I didn’t even know how to turn my amp on whereas now I’ve learned a lot from [Joe], it’s opened a lot of doors. Now I feel like it’s almost like I’m pushing him in the studio.
“[But} whether it’s the girl who does the artwork or the management or the driver or whatever, there’s 15 to 20 people involved in a band and you take inspiration from all of them, so the better you treat them, they’re like family members. There’s a good vibe in camp at the minute, I guess.”
The first single to be taken from the new album, the keyboard-led The 17th, hinted at Courteeners’ poppiest direction so far. Yet Fray seems surprised it was picked up by mainstream radio. “It’s five and a half minutes long and there’s one chorus in there,” he points out. “Historically don’t they say you go with the chorus on second 51 – that’s the perfect pop song.
“There are two choruses, one is dropped down at the end, and as we were doing it we were almost making it as difficult as possible [to get played on the radio]. It just ended up sounding really nice. I’m not going to say it was an afterthought but it was a real curveball at the end of the album. I’d got a few demos like that knocking around that I’d been working on and when we finished it all I said, ‘Why don’t we put this out first? I reckon people will go for it’. It’s always good to challenge people. That’s when you’ve got their attention at the beginning. Even the phrase ‘fourth single off the album’, what does that mean? Everybody’s heard it by then. No one’s interested by single four unless you’ve got a pop hit that you’ve been sat on but in which case you’d release that first, surely. The model’s already outdated and it’s only been there for two years. It doesn’t work in my opinion, but I’m not the right man to ask.
“In terms of poppiness, I was listening to a lot of LCD Soundsystem while I was writing. I was going running in the morning and it’s good for running because the repetition is good, all the subtleties I found interesting – how you could get seven minutes out of a keyboard and a drum loop and build a crescendo. Whether it’s a tiny rap on the hi-hat or a little more open than it was on the previous eight bars, just build and build and build and you get that one pay-off. I’m really proud of that song and I think we’ve got some more of those in us.”
The theme of the rest of the record was “an insistence on carefree abandon”, says Fray. “An insistence upon ‘Let’s not second guess it, let’s not pore too much over it’. Obviously it has to sound good but there was a lot less of ‘Is this going to go down well? Are people going to like this?’
“It’s a strange one for us because we’ve got such a fervent fan base that the quandary is ‘Do you please everybody all the time? At what point do you push them?’ That point for me was Album Five. We’ve got to go now, we’ve got to push ourselves. Not that we’ve made the same record ever twice. We see what happens when bands do that, it doesn’t last very long. You have to keep what you’re about, which I guess is the lyrics, without sounding self-important. Try and be self-deprecating, try and make the boring seem a little bit interesting, put a bit of humour in there and try and rip off Pulp. There you go – it’s been the recipe for ten years.”
Looking back over their recent successes, Fray admits selling out Heaton Park was “mind-bending”. “We’re not the big boys – we’re not Arctic Monkeys, we’re not Kasabian, we’re not Muse. We don’t reach ten per cent of the people that those bands reach, I know that for a fact. If you’re on national radio ten million people hear you every day but we’re not. We’re basically the biggest underground band in the world. That’s how we feel. We can still do what we want, we’re not pop stars, we don’t get hassled, people leave us alone – great.”
Courteeners play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on Friday November 25. www.thecourteeners.com