“It’s a miracle this album got made, if I’m honest,” a disarmingly humble Liam Fray tells NME. Having gained a reputation as Manchester’s second mouthiest Liam, he’s brought Courteeners to a stadium-filling and festival headlining level. Despite a summer that saw them play to a 50,000 strong hometown crowd at Heaton Park and finally smash one of Glastonbury’s big stages with a party-fuelled sunset show, the band were readying their sixth album ‘More. Again. Forever.’ by processing some hard times. It was inspired by ‘excess, addiction and self-improvement‘ as well as ‘the worst years’ Fray had ever had.
“I just couldn’t get myself or my head together,” Fray admits. “My confidence completely dropped. I couldn’t write a riff. I couldn’t write a couplet. I had nothing, for the first time ever. I was like, ‘This could be it’. I was looking at properties in the Highlands of Scotland to get away and get my farm ready. Once you go down that road in your head, fucking hell – you can’t just call an Uber and say, ‘Come get me out of here’. It was a slow fucking process.
“People were coming in and trying to book you for festivals and saying, ‘Have you got a record?’ As the songwriter, it was on my shoulders. We’ve got three members in this band plus crew and touring festivals is the lifeblood of every band. The festivals pay your way. So yeah, it’s a miracle it happened, but here we are – headlining TRNSMT.”
With their first major festival headline slot set for Glasgow next July alongside Liam Gallagher and Lewis Capaldi, as well as the “triumph of finishing an album from a state of feeling like nothing”, Courteeners now have a lot to celebrate. Before the TRNSMT bill was announced and before the controversy around organiser Geoff Ellis’ comments about “women needing to pick up guitars” to score a place on his blokey line-up, a buoyant Fray spoke to NME about the mutual love between Courteeners and Scotland, their upcoming UK arena shows, and the experimental nature of their next record.
You’re headlining TRNSMT Festival. That’s pretty massive.
“It is massive, isn’t it? It feels a bit weird. We’ve been talking about it for a while, but I’m never certain of anything until I see the artwork. It’s incredible, but it feels like we’re ready. We played TRNSMT a couple of years ago and it really felt like the crowd were ready for it. We thought, ‘We could headline this in a few years – no problem’.”
There’s footage of you playing ‘Not Nineteen Forever’ at TRNSMT 2017 and the crowd are louder than you could ever hope to be.
“That was a real, ‘Wow, fuck me’ moment. It felt so good. Next summer is going to be fucking great. I’d play Scotland every fucking day if I could.”
Do you feel like you have a different bond with your Scottish fans?
“I don’t know what it is about the people of Scotland. They’re very genuine, and have been with us since day one at the first time we played Glasgow supporting The Coral at the sadly now-defunct ABC. Everyone had warned us about it because it’s so intense up there. We thought, ‘How different can it be?’ But I was wrong. It is different.”
“This is not an overnight sensation. This is the result of graft.”
Will this be your first major festival headline set?
“We’ve headlined Neighbourhood, Kendal Calling, Truck and Tramlines, but TRNSMT is pretty major. To be amongst names like Radiohead who headlined before is mad. Saying that, this has been building for about 13 years. This is not an overnight sensation. This is the result of graft. We’ve not had a year off. We’re ready for it and we think they’re ready for it.”
Will the set go a bit Radiohead? Your recent singles are a bit of a left turn for you guys.
“We’ve put the two weird ones out [‘Heavy Jacket‘ and ‘More. Again. Forever.’], and the next two are bona fide, top drawer singles. The last couple of songs are me just stretching my legs in the studio and keeping it interesting. I know what kind of songs I can write now, but if we’re not going to take a risk now then when are we going to do it? There are quite few curveballs on there.”
You previously told us you were going a bit ‘LCD Soundsystem‘ on this album.
“Most definitely on the title track. There are a couple more a bit like that. ‘More. Again. Forever’ is probably the weirdest thing on there in terms of what ‘the fanbase’ will like. That’s what’s great about putting things out there on streaming websites: you can showcase what you can do to other people and turn them onto your band. It affords you to be braver, rather than putting out the song that people perceive to be ‘you’ – whatever that means.”
So how far does it push the boundaries of what Courteeners can be?
“It’s hard to say because when I’m in the studio, I feel comfortable. I’m not saying, ‘We shouldn’t do this’. I’m doing what I want. I don’t care. Don’t write for committee, or you end up writing the same record five times. People aren’t stupid. They’ve got the whole world’s record collection in their pocket now. You have a duty to push it now, much more so than we first started out. I hate the idea of ‘indie’ or ‘rock’. Fuck that, I’m a songwriter. If you want a pop song I can do you one. If you want a ballad I can do you one.”
“I hate the idea of ‘indie’ or ‘rock’. Fuck that, I’m a songwriter. If you want a pop song I can do you one. If you want a ballad I can do you one.”
Do you feel like only the musical landscape of now has allowed you to make an album like this?
“People’s playlists are made up of all sorts. That’s such an exciting place for a songwriter. I don’t have to come in with an acoustic guitar and pander to what a certain person might want. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have had someone going in HMV or whatever to buy Little Simz and Aitch if they’re also into Blossoms. Now they’re all together on their Spotify playlists. People listen to everything and find something that they like. I’ll do the same and might turn it into something that they like.”
Do you see many other bands testing expectations like that?
“I heard some of the new DMAs stuff the other day and it’s great. They suffered a little bit when they first came out like we did, which is bullshit. It only seems to be ‘guitar’ artists that get this pigeonholing. Rappers don’t get it and folk artists don’t get it, but if you’re a guitar band then you get written off and that’s really unfair. Maybe I’ve just got a chip on my shoulder from the year 2007 and Telegraph journalists. DMAs’ new stuff is really dancey and it shows that bands are fair game. It’s just art at the end of the day. I wish people had a little bit more respect when they were reviewing it or describing it.”
“It only seems to be ‘guitar’ artists that get this pigeonholing. Maybe I’ve just got a chip on my shoulder from the year 2007”
What have you got in store for the biggest London show of your career at Olympia this weekend?
“Everyone just does Ally Pally. We wanted to try something different. It’s 10k capacity and it’s the biggest show in London we’ve done. We’ve done Brixton Academy so many times that we had to turn the screw. We’re playing with a string section. It just makes you feel so alive when they’re with us. It’s such a rich baseline to work with. We’re doing five or six tracks with them. A couple of them you’ll expect, and a couple you won’t expect. I just thought we’d do something a bit special.”
“When it comes to the treadmill of being in a band, I couldn’t even get in the fucking gym.”
Will we be seeing more huge shows from Courteeners in 2020?
“We still don’t know what’s happening next year. It feels like the rulebook has been ripped up over the last year. When it comes to the treadmill of being in a band, I couldn’t even get in the fucking gym. It’s been a bit of a mess to be honest and that’s probably my fault, but I don’t think anyone else gives a fuck. All they want is 10 songs and some shows. The soap opera that is everything else behind the scenes – is that really important to anyone?”
TRNSMT Festival takes place on Glasgow Green from July 10-12, and also sees performances from Ian Brown, Foals, Snow Patrol, Keane, Sam Fender, Blossoms, Aitch, Little Simz, Rita Ora and Twin Atlantic. Tickets are on sale now and available here.
Courteeners release new album ‘More. Again. Forever.’ on January 17, 2020. Their upcoming headline UK tour dates are below:
Saturday November 30, 2019 – LONDON Olympia
Saturday December 14, 2019 – MANCHESTER Arena