“Six albums seems like a lot, that’s ridiculous!” laughs Courteeners frontman Liam Fray when discussing ‘More. Again. Forever.’, their latest LP. “We were like, ‘We won’t last a year – let alone six records’.”
Such humility is the last thing you might expect from Fray, a man whose reputation as a rent-a-quote motormouth landed him a similar infamy to that of Manchester’s other legendary Liiiii-aaaaaaam when they first arrived on the scene with their jangly and anthemic debut ‘St Jude’ back in 2008. This fact is not lost on Fray. “If you read any live review, apparently I never walk, I only ever swagger…” he smirks.
Watch our full video interview with Fray above
But since that first album, Courteeners have been fighting misconceptions. This time, they’re at their most vulnerable and most experimental, tackling depression, loneliness and self-improvement with a sound inspired by LCD Soundsystem, R.E.M. and hip-hop. It’s a loaded record, but that’s because the band have had to deal with a lot.
The campaign for the last album ‘Mapping The Rendezvous’ climaxed with the band playing to 50,000 people at Old Trafford in 2017, just days after 23 music fans were killed at the nearby Manchester Arena when a terrorist struck at an Ariana Grande concert. Asked if the weight of the experience influenced the new record, Fray replies: “Yeah, it’s probably shaped me and us. I’m protective over those streets. I don’t like it when a shop shuts down or a bus stop gets moved. When you see it all lined with flowers and stuff…” he pauses. “It’ll never leave me.”
Fray sat down with NME to tell us about fighting through the dark times, Matty Healy, misogyny and why you should stop asking him about the death of guitar music.
How do you feel as a rockstar in your mid-30s?
Liam: “I feel a lot calmer. We’ve had quite a lot of family members within in the band passing recently: Both my grandparents, Campbell’s father, Conan’s father – all since the last record. We’re best friends, we’re brothers, but now we’re closer than ever. The small stuff gets forgotten a lot quicker. I don’t give a fuck about the perception of us, which is ironic because it seems to be changing. I could have done with that 10 years ago. Maybe that’s symptomatic of us trying to kick out on the last few records. We’ve got the spikes on now and we’re on the running track.”
And that must have been a challenge. You previously told us this record was written during ‘the worst few years of your life’.
“It probably was. I still love the band and it’s literally the reason I get up. It’s a bit weird when you either don’t have it or it doesn’t feel like it’s going the way that it should do. The band is my life, and I don’t know if that’s sad or admirable, but when it’s not going great it means life isn’t going great. When you’re on stage in front of 50,000 people at Heaton Park for 90 minutes no one can touch me – I’m flying.”
on depression: “everyone can go through it. No one ever felt worse for talking about it, so I don’t give a shit”
But then you come off tour and crash?
“For the six weeks that you’ve got nothing to do, you’re at home and the curtains don’t get opened, no one hears about that. It’s tricky to get out of sometimes; especially when there’s a distinct lack of support network for musicians as a whole. Not least when your name is Liam, you’re Mancunian, and you’re in a band. Everyone’s like, ‘You’re the man and you’ve got it made’. No we haven’t. People haven’t. I’m not saying get the violins out. I have to be very delicate with this because I’m blessed to do what I do. I was listening to Danny Rose, the Spurs player. Footballers are the least likely people that you’d expect to be talking about it – them and male rockstars from up North who are supposed to be…”
“Yeah, exactly. It was a weird couple of years. You can’t really go, ‘Yeah I’m the lead singer of a band and I’m feeling a bit down about it’. People just go, ‘Piss off – what have you got to be down about?’ That’s part of the problem. Everyone is different and it’s relative. It’s tough for me to sit here with a mic and a nice jacket on saying, ‘Cor, being in a band is really tough’ but what I’m saying is everyone can go through it. No one ever felt worse for talking about it so I don’t give a shit. I’ll deal with that other stuff if it comes my way. It’s about finding out your way to deal with it. I’ve not got the answer, but sitting at a piano helps.”
Would you say that writing music pulled you through?
“My friend has this saying: ‘Hope through the rain’. I love it. I’ve had depressive episodes or whatever for like 10 years – ironically since the band started! I shouldn’t laugh because it’s no laughing matter. Even that is symptomatic of the stigma that surrounds it. I’ve had those things and I’ve got better at learning to deal with it and get out of it.”
“It’s hard to get out of. Not least when your name is Liam, you’re Mancunian, and you’re in a band”
In the early stages of recording, you told us that you were inspired by ‘excess, addiction and self-improvement’. Is this album a map of your road to recovery?
“That’s pretty accurate, but it wasn’t meant to be that way. I think I’m just too lazy to write about anything else than what’s going on in my head or in my heart. If I’m in love then you get ‘Take Over The World’, and if I’m not then you get ‘Take It On The Chin’. I hope this record doesn’t sound really depressing now. I like the idea that we’ve come up with something that came from somewhere that’s quite down and now sounds really hopeful.”
Did you throw many songs away for sounding ‘Too Courteeners’?
“There’s always an element of that. Someone once said to me, ‘You are in Courteeners so it’s alright’. I felt like they came for us with pitchforks on the first record because they built us up so much. It was always going to be difficult to live up to the hype. The first record was well-received by fans but not critics, so then you second-guess everything. If there was no one at the shows then we would have packed it in, but there were loads of people at the shows. I’d much rather appeal to these thousand fans than these six critics.”
You’ve never been bothered about the media then?
“Broadsheet journalists went for us, but maybe the band wasn’t for broadsheet journalists. It was for the 18-year-old kids at indie discos..”
Gerry Cinnamon has supported you on tour. He’s another who got huge without the help of the media. Does he feel like a kindred spirit?
“He’s possibly the best example of it. Just a guy saying, ‘These are my songs, I’m doing it my way, if you like them then you like them’. The kids have gone mental for him – and rightly so. He’s knocked it out of the park.”
“The kids have gone mental for Gerry Cinnamon. It shows you that it can be done. It’s a ray of light.”
Has playlist culture changed the way you write music?
“You’re always going to go and buy the album, and I like that – but thanks to curated playlists you can be on there next to Billie Eilish, Kendrick and different genres. People can just consume one track by you. On the last record we had ‘The 17th’ and a couple of other bits that were us stepping out, and this time we’re stepping out a bit more.”
So you’re now enjoying the freedom of technology?
“If we’d have brought ‘More. Again. Forever.’ out five years ago we’d have been finished. I think people’s ways of consuming music are changing, but I think a lot of it has to do with the relationship that we have with our fanbase and the trust that they’ve got in us. It does give me a good feeling that they can just be like, ‘No we trust you here’.”
Back in 2018 you hit back at The 1975’s Matty Healy when he said that young people “can’t understand why a lad their age wouldn’t be wanting to be in Courteeners”. How do you feel about that now?
“I have to be careful because I didn’t read the whole interview. Is he saying guitar music is dead? Did he not say ‘four white guys shouting into a mic’? We haven’t done the same record twice, ever. [Courteeners’ second album] ‘Falcon’ was me trying to be in Elbow, then I thought I’d tone it down a bit. Every one has been different but I took it as a compliment that we were on his radar – so we must be massive!”
And you’re a fan of The 1975, right?
“I think they do great things and that he stands for all the right things, so I was kind of disappointed because it felt like a little bit of a potshot – but I guess that’s indicative of where we’re at. It’s a tough one really, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.”
“IS the guitar band dead? Why does everyone ask that question every time? It’s classist. It’s mental.”
Are you bored of having the same questions about guitar music levelled at you?
“It’s classist. It does seem like it’s aimed at people from the North, more than people from the South: the guitar thing, the guitar band, is it dead? Why does everyone ask that question every time? It’s mental. Look at Declan McKenna, Inhaler, The Snuts, it’s definitely not dead, so why do I keep getting asked? It’s water off a duck’s back for me now, but it just feels insulting.
You’re headlining TRNSMT Festival next year. How was it getting swept up in the controversy over the male-heavy line-up?
“I don’t know. Obviously because we decided to say yes to a festival in Scotland, we’re misogynistic and all that! I was getting shit for it. I didn’t know what the line-up was when we signed up. It’s tough to swallow things like that. I don’t know if this is true, but I got told that Haim were going to do it but couldn’t because they were booked somewhere else or whatever.”
What did you make of organiser Geoff Ellis saying ‘more women need to pick up guitars’ if they want to be on festival line-ups?
“Again I didn’t read the whole thing. When you read something on Twitter, you don’t read the article and just get a soundbite. That’s a terrible soundbite but is it out of context? I don’t know. I can’t really comment. I’m pretty sure loads of girls are picking up guitars, so that is a strange thing to say. It’s difficult for me. I don’t want people to think I’m taking money from a festival that isn’t inclusive.”
“We still get treated as if it is still 2007. Musically we’ve changed, I’m a 34-year-old man now, I’m not a 21-year-old kid getting off his head six days out of seven.”
What else does 2020 have in store for Courteeners?
“We’re holding out on doing Glastonbury because we’ve seven out of the last nine. I love Glastonbury, it’s the best place on Earth. I will be going though, which is great. I can have a drink. We’ve got a few things planned, but I can’t say.”
Where do you go after Old Trafford and Heaton Park?
“A Number One album maybe. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? We’ve always been in and around, to use Match Of The Day speak. We’ve never been Number Two or close so we’ve got chance I think, weirdly. With the last couple it felt like it wouldn’t have mattered. This one does.”
‘More. Again. Forever’ by Courteeners is out now.
Watch our full and in-depth chat with Fray at the top of the page, where he goes in deep on the band’s evolution and friendship, the Manchester music scene, overcoming dark times, and what Disney Princess he would be.