Courteeners’ Liam Fray: “I’m trying to be a better man… whatever that is”
The chorus of Courteeners’ recent single Better Man summarises singer Liam Fray’s attempts at self-improvement and the imposter syndrome he feels about his band’s status as one of the last rock & roll stadium outfits left standing. Fray tells John Earls how these issues informed their dazzling latest album.
Courteeners’ album More. Again. Forever. should win over many doubters. It’s retained the trio’s gift for melody and singer Liam Fray’s empathetic lyrics, while being bolder, adding in spoken-word disco, lithe funk and IDLES-style punk. But Fray is wary of overselling his band’s sixth record. “I’m supposed to say in interviews, ‘We’ve completely reinvented ourselves and I’m a new man!’” he laughs over a pint of IPA in a near-deserted craft pub near Manchester Piccadilly station. “But I don’t know if we have or if I am. All we’ve got is 10 new songs.”
Since previous album Mapping The Rendezvous in 2016, Courteeners have played to 50,000 fans at a homecoming Manchester show in Heaton Park, headlined festivals and cemented their reputation as one of the few British guitar bands whose fanbase is still growing. But, 12 years after debut album St Jude, Fray knew that was no longer enough. He scrapped an album’s worth of material after Mapping The Rendezvous, admitting: “I was writing songs for ‘the fanbase’, knowing as I was writing them the songs weren’t good enough and thinking, ‘You’re better than this.’”
For the first time, Fray sought outside help, writing with Rich Turvey, a producer for Blossoms and She Drew The Gun who Fray knew through The Coral singer James Skelly. “I seem to have this reputation as someone who doesn’t really like doing anything with other people,” says Fray. He looks slightly baffled, before shaking his head. “I’d never really said no to any offers, but if you don’t put yourself out there, no one is going to come banging your door down. Before working with Rich, I did think in the back of my mind, ‘Don’t write with anyone else, don’t try to ask for help.’ And being with Rich was brilliant, so cathartic. We wrote four songs in six days.”
Asking for help is a key thread in More. Again. Forever., whose title was inspired by The Recovering, a book on sobriety by Leslie Jamison which Fray discovered while on tour in Oregon. During our three hours, Fray has a couple of pints and admits, “I can have a laugh and a joke about drinking”, but he’s increasingly aware of the trouble alcohol can bring. “If I have a drink, I’m not getting anything done,” he says. “If I’m hungover, maybe I can write, but when the drink is out, it’s ‘put those notebooks away’. I love a drink, but I love having a serious detox, too. Maybe that’s about control, but I do enjoy having a clear head. I gave up for seven weeks at the start of 2019 and I think it’s something I’ll do every year – a lot of this record was written then, and that’s telling. The clouds dissipated and I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
If Fray likes a pint, he also loves reading, his voracious book habit leading to novelist Emma Jane Unsworth writing a story Courteeners’ videos for More. Again. Forever. are based around. He also eulogises Florence Williams’ self-help book The Nature Fix, revealing he and his bandmates, guitarist Conan Moores and drummer Michael Campbell’s main way of staying in touch away from the studio and touring is going on nature walks. “People clock us and go, ‘What are they doing here?’” Fray laughs. “It’s a good way to spend time together and I’m a massive walker, a National Trust member, the works. Half an hour in green space, everything just lifts a bit.”
Being a rambler is not the image you’d expect from the laddish stereotype that unfairly still clings to Courteeners. Their gigs are a communal celebration where everyone is welcome, but they’re also a frenzy. “Our crowds are so manic that, sometimes, me and Campbell are guilty of worrying too much when the crowd aren’t all big limbs,” says Fray.
For the first time, Courteeners didn’t take a break from touring before going straight into working on the new album. It made trying to change up the sound difficult. “When you play a festival, you see people go, ‘Waaargh!’,” notes Fray, doing a fine impression of a fan bouncing away. “Then you go into the studio the following week. You’re trying to tear up the rulebook, but it’s hard not to think, ‘That festival went so well, shall we just write 10 more versions of Are You In Love With A Notion? or 10 more Cavortings?’ That was a constant struggle, but I trust in our audience, that they’ll see that, at the core, these new songs are still about sincerity and openness.”
Sincerity and openness has been key since Fray gave up a creative writing degree at Salford University when Courteeners began to take off. He can only think of one character study song – 2014’s Has He Told You That He Loves You Yet? – with the rest of Courteeners’ music being at least loosely autobiographical.
Fray’s thoughtfulness was initially overlooked, partially thanks to the cocky interview persona the singer adopted at the start of Courteeners’ career. “I’ve always been self-reflective,” says Fray. “But you’re expected to go from the insular, close-knit bond you’ve got with your friends in the band to speaking about that to the world. And that’s a totally different job. At first, it’s ‘Can you be open and honest and write songs that mean something?’ and then you’re told, ‘Can you look good and sell it?’ At the beginning, I was mouthy, annoying and I’d get leathered, giving the press this creation they thought I was. I’d read our interviews back and be heartbroken, thinking, ‘That’s not me! Why am I slagging off other bands? We should be supporting each other.’ But the truth is, I didn’t just fall for that, I dived in headfirst. And I’ve been clawing that back ever since.”
Taking it on the chin
Courteeners’ albums have always been planned as two sides of a record, even though their debut album St Jude was released in 2008, before the vinyl revival kicked in.
“If you line our records up, you’ll see they’re quite similar in how they’re meant to affect the listener,” says Liam Fray. “For me, the biggest track on our albums is always the opening song on Side Two: you need another big tune there. Track five is always a slow song to end the first side, then track six has to be a really big punch again. That’s certainly true of Previous Parties on the new record.”
What does Fray make of Go-Betweens singer Robert Forster’s theory that bands hide their weakest song on an album as the penultimate track? There’s a huge laugh from the singer when he realises the catchy Take It On The Chin is song nine on More. Again. Forever. before he states: “I know where he’s coming from. I don’t want to fully agree with him, but Take It On The Chin is the most indie song on the new record. The solo is good. The lyrics are good. But I’ll give Robert that. If pushed, out of the 10 songs, yeah: Take It On The Chin excites me the least.”
Fray’s own introduction to vinyl came via his mum’s collection of Beatles singles, which she gave to Fray on his 21st birthday in 2006. He revisited them recently when Courteeners producer Joe Cross came to his house. “That was a cool night,” says Fray. “The romance of two sides of vinyl felt really special, choosing which single to play next.”
Fray is friends with a handful of other musicians: Blossoms, Miles Kane, Hurts, DMA’s, but that’s a recent development. During Courteeners’ early career, none of his close friends outside his bandmates were in music. That didn’t help his self-doubt at being a musician one iota. “I struggle with impostor syndrome quite a bit,” he admits. “I shared a flat with a close mate who had a proper 9-to-5 job, had his head screwed on. If you’re in the arts, you’re afforded the luxury of going out on a Tuesday and getting wrecked, and I’d constantly be on at him – ‘Let’s go out! Let’s go out!’ But that nags at you as well, knowing that you’re not being responsible and thinking, ‘When am I going to grow up?’”
If anything, Courteeners’ huge headline show at Heaton Park last June only brought home how fragile the band’s success is: they can play to 50,000 people in their hometown, but they only did their first arena show in London last November, at the 10,000-capacity Olympia: Courteeners aren’t as yet a national stadium band, let alone an international one. “If you’re doing 50 stadium shows around the world, like Muse or the Arctics, it’s fine if two are iffy,” Fray reasons. “But if you’ve got one show that big and that’s iffy, you’ve fucked it. There’s so much riding on that one show, it’s insane. And after a huge show, you might not have anything to do for six weeks. What are you meant to do then? I wind myself up during that time off and I hate it. I’d rather do 40 2,000-capacity gigs. If we weren’t playing Heaton Park, I’d be playing at The Dry Bar in Manchester on a Wednesday night and have no qualms about that whatsoever.”
Really? That one?
It should be noted that Fray’s doubts are conversational rather than a stream of neuroses. He says he’s always found it easy to talk about his worries as well as put them in his songs. Certainly, for a band of Courteeners’ stature, there’s no sense of Fray having his guard up or that he’s desperate to sell his artistic vision: he’s happy to let Courteeners’ songs do that, as content talking about his favourite comedians (Nish Kumar, Sara Pascoe, Diane Morgan) and favourite podcasts (The Two Shot Podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, Quickly Kevin, Will He Score?) as he is the minutiae of More. Again. Forever.
Fray’s burning ambition to be a global superstar ended when Courteeners’ second album Falcon stalled at No.6 in 2010. “Before our second record, I’d thought, ‘Maybe we can be this much bigger next,’” he recalls. “When it didn’t happen, I realised that, so long as we can keep making records and doing shows, that’s a fantastic position to be in. How successful you are isn’t really down to the quality of your songwriting.”
Fray knew the new album’s disco-inflected lead single Heavy Jacket would be a big tune live, but he’s been proved wrong on that score before. “I thought Welcome To The Rave off our third album Anna would be massive and it just didn’t click,” he shrugs. “On Concrete Love, the record after, I thought White Horses would be our Foals moment – massive tune, big riffs. Didn’t happen. But there are some songs people ask for in the set which I feel a bit, ‘Really? That one?’”
If he’s stopped second-guessing Courteeners’ fanbase, Fray is aware of the effect his music can have on them, especially since the haunting International on Concrete Love was written when “I was right at the bottom, totally in the pit.” Fray continues:
“Four or five people on Twitter have since written to me: ‘That song saved my life’ and that stops me in my tracks. When you read that, you think ‘Just keep writing like that. Be vulnerable, let your guard down’ and say to people, ‘It’s alright to feel like this’. That’s better than holding onto stuff.”
Having gone through the mill to get to More. Again. Forever., Fray appears unlikely to be so frustrated before album seven. He wants to maybe do side-projects – he and DMA’s are talking about making “a dancey record” together and Fray would also love to work with Bipolar Sunshine – or write a coffee-table book based on Courteeners’ lyrics.
“I know we can’t just keep on doing album seven, eight, nine and 10,” he reasons, finishing his beer before meeting up with the band for rehearsals. “The band are doing great, but we need to keep on our toes. What we’re doing now, I already know we can do this. So let’s try something else. Why not learn the cello? Or the trombone? My grandad was a painter who did calligraphy and I’d love to try that.”
There’s another ready smile. “Trying new stuff never hurt anyone, did it?” That right there is the essence of Courteeners’ new record: trying new stuff because, well, wouldn’t you? It’s worked out brilliantly for them. Whatever happens next, it won’t be more of the same again forever.