The Courteeners Interview: “We’re The Biggest Underground Band In The World”

“You know what?” says Liam Fray, sipping a plastic pint cup of tea in a backstage Portakabin, a few hours before Courteeners headline Manchester’s Heaton Park in front of 25,000 rabid fans. “Our manager said the other day, ‘Fuck everybody else. Why shouldn’t you be saying that this gig is great and that it’s big? You’ve done this. You literally made the word Courteeners up in your garage and then you wrote some songs and now you’re doing this. Fuck ’em. Absolutely fuck them.'”

Apart from the British Summertime events in London’s Hyde Park that will be headlined by Blur, The Strokes and Kylie, Courteeners’ Heaton Park homecoming show is arguably the season’s biggest standalone gig. Though the field will play host to Parklife festival the following day, Courteeners managed to shift all 25,000 of today’s tickets in less than an hour, without announcing any support acts. It is, as Fray states with a pleasantly bemused look on his face, “mad” – and yet the band are still receiving pep talks from their manager to erase the shadow of public scepticism from their landmark achievement. “Nobody thought we’d be here,” says Fray, still compelled to silence the doubters. “Eight years in and we’re still here. It’s a vindication of our hard work ‘cos there aren’t many bands doing this.”

Solidly rehearsing for the past month, with a brass band joining them for the last week, Courteeners aren’t taking this crowning moment lightly. “It’s been intense, the hardest we’ve ever rehearsed,” says Liam. Backstage before the gig, the band are in good spirits but with their mind firmly on the task ahead. “Leading up to this it’s been a whirlwind, really,” says drummer Michael Campbell. “You’re concentrating and you’re rehearsing and your mind’s solely on the goal.”

“We did a soundcheck before and thought it didn’t look that big, then you go out today and realise it really is,” adds Fray. There are bottles of champagne in the dressing room but for now they stay firmly corked as the group (completed by guitarist Daniel Moores and bassist Mark Cuppello with keyboardist Adam Payne joining them for live shows) concentrate on getting in the zone.

Since they first emerged in 2007 with debut single ‘Cavorting’, the quartet have faced an uphill struggle to defend their reputation. Early features saw Fray – who always undertakes interviews alone – quickly hoisted as the next generation’s Liam Gallagher, a mouthy Mancunian not shy of an eye-catching bon mot (sample quote from 2008’s NME Christmas issue: “Lightspeed Champion’s a fucking div”).

“At the beginning, I think people needed someone [to be a mouthpiece] because it was all a bit dull,” explains Fray. “I wouldn’t say I played up to it; I’d say I was like every other person in the country after they’ve had five pints. I’m not an arsehole or rude, I’m just honest. People think I’m this bolshy guy and it’s very difficult to not do that when I’m on stage, because I can’t imagine going out in front of 25,000 people and staring at my feet. But offstage, I don’t feel I’m like that. I genuinely feel like I’m more of a bedroom loner at times.”

Fray insists that the band started when he “made these songs based on poems I’d written because girls wouldn’t take me seriously”, but the picture painted of the Courteeners in the media has often been rather different. “We got one out of five in one of our first reviews [in The Guardian] and they called me a misogynistic ‘troglodyte’,” says Fray, shaking his head. “It was basically a character assassination. I knew there’d be people who didn’t like our band but I never thought we’d get that. It takes a long, long time to shake that tag.”

The band have been fighting to justify themselves ever since, forced to cultivate a fanbase the hard way. “We’ve always had belief, but belief’s easy when you’re on the radio and people hear your songs 20 times a week. When you don’t have that much exposure, it all depends on a rapport that you build through social media and your gigs. They’re the only two things that we’ve really got. If you can go on social media every day and give people a window to who you are, they might go, ‘Actually, that guy’s not such a dick.'”

As he strolls casually around a backstage area free of the usual security lockdown and military procedure that takes over gigs of this size, Fray is affable and charming, joking that the band have finally got the full array of supermarket pastries on their rider that they’ve been requesting for years. Asked to remove his sunglasses for a photo option, he squints obligingly into the sun, despite the revelation that the shades are actually prescription glasses for his deteriorating eyesight. Fray is also excited about getting drunk with support band Peace later, revealing that he hand-picked them for the show after enjoying a recent gig of theirs (the same goes for the other supports Bipolar Sunshine and local boys Blossom).

“Liam’s a great guy,” enthuses Peace’s Harry Koisser. “I reckon if I walked up and asked him to borrow a fiver when he was onstage, he’d be like, ‘Yep sure, just give me a minute to finish.'” The Birmingham boys, who spend the time before their set showing off their new luminous clothing, might be a slightly surprising choice of support band for Courteneers, but there’s mutual love between the two acts. “I think they’re funny for a start and they don’t take themselves too seriously,” says Fray of Peace. “I liked the first record but I love the second one; I went to see them and they blew me away.” Harry meanwhile proclaims that Courteeners have “grabbed the North by the heart”.

The Heaton Park crowd is testament to their status. Tellingly, its makeup extends far beyond 18-25-year-olds lads. Keisha, 25, from Stockport has travelled down early to get on the front row, while 16-year-old Sarah from Stafford queued outside for three hours. A little way along the barrier are a group of 19-year-old Mancunian boys who hail Fray as a “lyrical genius” while a few rows back in the crowd a father and daughter, both sporting brand new Courteeners T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Did you go to Heaton Park? Did you fuck’ (a nod to the band’s old ‘Can you play guitar? Can you fuck’ merchandise) are both spill superlatives about the quartet. “They’re from the local area and this is like their back yard,” says dad Mike. “It’s their biggest gig ever, it’s gonna be the best thing in the world. The first time I saw them it was four of us watching them in a pub in Fallowfield about eight years ago. Me and my daughter have seen them maybe 20 times since then.”

It’s this loyalty that’s kept Courteeners steadily moving upwards, gathering momentum in the peripheries of public perception. Except for several coloured flares, smuggled through security checks that are almost airport-level in their thoroughness, the crowd tonight is proud and positive, much like Kasabian’s Leicester homecoming show last year. “All those people who have supported us from the beginning feel vindicated today,” says Liam. “Maybe they feel we represent them, a little bit. We’ve known each other since we were nine years old. We’re not making up this last gang in town thing – we’ve just turned 30 and we’ve annoyed each other for 20 years. That sentence in itself shows that we’re brothers, man. It means the bond is stronger and I think people find affinity with that.”

People clearly do. Strolling out on to a stage decorated with industrial shipping containers, with their name in giant glowing white lights behind them, Courteeners have the crowd heaving from the off. Fray descends into the front row during ‘Please Don’t’, where he’s swallowed up by grasping arms, while ‘Bide Your Time’ sees 25,000 people singing a word-perfect chorus for them. The newer tracks from 2014’s ‘Concrete Love’ are greeted ravenously and there’s barely a second of their 90-minute set for which the moshing relents, sweat-drenched kids rolling over the front barrier almost from the get-go. ‘Acrylic’ turns the park into a sea of flailing arms; ‘Summer’ inspires everyone to bounce in unison. And while ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ and ‘What Took You So Long?’ prompt the loudest singalongs, the crowd know almost every word to almost every song.

“This is unbelievable,” says Fray to the crowd at the end of the set. “It’s not just tonight, it’s for the last eight years – and it’s not just our night, it’s your night too.” When they finish, he jumps back down into the pit and spends a good five minutes shaking hands, handing out setlists and thanking people.

“I’ve got no words. That was just really fucking emotional,” says Fray after the show, physically bouncing around the dressing room like a caged puppy. Bassist Mark Cuppello emphasises that, for the band, this wasn’t just about the size of the show but its location. “I saw Oasis and the Roses here, but Heaton Park’s also where we used to come down on a Saturday when we were kids,” he says, chuffed to bits. As the champagne is finally popped, the general tone is of giddy, proud bewilderment. “About halfway through we realised that everybody that’s helped us from the last eight years is here,” says Fray. “Seeing everybody on the balcony, family and friends, and everybody on the front row too… people say it, but that’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

“This is going to take a long time to sink in,” adds Campbell. So what happens now? “I’m going out, I’ll tell you that much!” grins Liam. “I don’t want to think that this is [the peak] now, ‘cos that’s not how I feel. But realistically, it’s not like we need to do the cricket ground and Old Trafford; it’s not about the numbers, it’s about making another good record. I can’t digest anything at the moment, but I guess I have to just go back to my Moleskin, start writing some words and then it’s album time.”

Could he see Courteeners doing a Kasabian and stepping up from their own mega-gig to headline a big festival? Fray looks surprisingly unconvinced. “We still feel like the underdog, 100 per cent. We’re the biggest underground band in the world. But that’s not a chip on our shoulders, that’s a good thing. I don’t mind being the underdog because we’re underdog,” he says, pointing to the crowd of people noisily making their way out of Heaton Park. “I don’t want to play to 60,000 people if only 20,000 care. I’d rather play to 50 people in a room.” He pauses and and grins again. “Actually, that’s bullshit. Call it a steady 10,000.” Finally, a flash of the cocksure Courteeners swagger. Tonight, it’s fully justified.