Better Man: Liam Fray On The Return Of Courteeners
Courteeners are back, and they sound stronger and better.
Unrivalled by previous projects from the Manchester band, the sixth studio album ‘More. Again. Forever’ is full of ambition and depth. Dark and beautiful, it is an honest and personal record exploring existential themes with urgency and relevance. Behind the astonishing album is a story of personal struggle.
Clash caught up with singer and writer Liam Fray to hear what it was like when his efforts to write new material forced him to dig deep, deeper than he might have been prepared to go. It was a moment when depression paid a visit. But luckily, the frontman reappeared fully equipped to write again, and this time it was with renewed inspiration, force and confidence.
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You were in New York recently. Was it work or leisure?
I went over to watch The Strokes at New Year. I used to spend time there, my ex-girlfriend is from New York, I was back and forth.
It’s good when you don’t have to deal with anything, you can just walk around, and every time I’m there I fall in love with the place.The Strokes were due on at midnight, they were trying to time it so they weren’t actually playing then. They’re my favourite band and they can do no wrong.
The response to the new album has been positive, how much do you care about what journalists write?
You’ve done a great job, but you never know until the reviews start coming in. Then it’s not ours anymore, it’s theirs, the moment when you let go of it. I’d like to say that I don’t care, but it’s important.
People still read reviews. All the tastemakers of the industry read reviews and things can snowball one way or the other. We got off on a bad foot with the press when we first came out. We were hyped up. They wanted us to be the next Oasis.
It is true. That does ring a bell...
They tried to pigeonhole us, we tried to shake that tag. The reviews we got at the beginning read as if they had made their minds up before they had heard any music. It was difficult to swallow, if you spend time creating you want the reviewer to listen. The review would come loaded with misconceptions about our crowd and us.
People think you have a thick skin, but it’s the opposite, if you create anything, as a writer, an actor, you probably have thinner skin.
The songwriting process was different this time, can you explain how?
I felt burnt out. We never had a summer off, we’ve been doing it since we were twenty one, you grow up in the public. We’re not famous but everything that we do is judged, we never had eighteen months where we could disappear. It’s not an existential crisis, but we’ve been doing it since we were really young, gone straight from university with no responsibility.
Things happen while you are doing it, friends get married and have children, you continue to write songs, there’s no shame in that. Maybe, it was weighing on my mind, I needed to do more. But you’ve got live shows booked in, it pays the bills, we love doing it, but we’ve never had a warm summer where we could take six months off and relax.
There’s always an email, stuff came in dribs and drabs and that gets in the way of switching off, writing a record. When I went to write I realised I had absolutely nothing for the first time ever.
How did that realisation manifest itself? How did you feel?
I’m a quiet, shy person. People may think I’m bolshy but I’m not, I’m introspective. My songwriting went, it just wasn’t there. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block because it was more than that, it was a confidence thing. I didn’t even know if I should be doing it anymore, it felt serious and deeper. I know how much this band means to people, but it can be difficult to conjure up when you’re thinking about the songs. I had nothing for ages and that turned into boredom, which turned into depression.
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Sounds like a dark place to be. Was there ever a turning point?
I’ve always had bouts of depression and anxiety, I was an anxious kid, that’s been a constant, but the weeks turned into months where I didn’t do anything productive, you’re questioning everything. It’s the first time, I’ve had it between albums. This was deeper, it felt more serious. You start writing at your lowest point, when the curtains had been drawn for three weeks and you’re drinking more than you should, pushing people away.
Was this when you thought of collaborating with others?
I had been at the piano for six months, banging my head against the wall when the thought of working with somebody else came up. I had never done it before, not because of ego, I had never struggled before.
I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a struggle, at that point I needed to feel inspired. Once your confidence goes, you’ve got nothing. I could write something deep, honest, introspective, but I still need confidence. I started working with Rich Turvey who’s worked with James Skelly, The Coral and Blossoms.
How much did you enjoy the work and would you repeat the experience?
I saw him in Liverpool where we had a few days together, it was magical. We did a few songs, it was just brilliant, he was teasing bits out of me, it gave me confidence, it got the ball rolling. It wasn’t therapy, but it was what I needed. It felt like there was a big weight lifted off my shoulders, someone gave me a fresh starting point. We ended up with twenty songs for this record. It was good to work with other people, I would do it at the drop of a hat now. It’s not about wanting lots of 50/50 cowrites but about getting in the room with others.
It explains why artists choose to collaborate. It keeps things fresh.
I’m friends with DMA’s, we’ve talked about doing things. I feel more open to it. We had a bit of a chip on our shoulders because were out of the London loop. Even the term ‘Northern indie band’, what does that mean? It’s just derogatory. You can make a hundred different types of records with a drumkit, synths, piano and some guitars, but it has to be indie. It seems to happen to working class bands. It’s nice to explore other avenues.
‘More. Again. Forever’ sounds different. Who influenced it?
It’s anything from Caribou to Simon and Garfunkel, everything in-between. It might be part of our downfall that we never had a record sounding like this before. I put it down to scatterbrain and indecisiveness, I needed a spoken-word four track, I needed the trip hop beat on ‘Is Heaven Even Worth It’. I’d much rather work like that, I get too bored, I have a short attention span. We’re not writing to committee or ticking boxes, it’s about shaking off what people think we are and have fun.
You tackle themes like giving up alcohol. What led you to take such action?
You start going out during college at sixteen. Manchester city centre is on your doorstep. As a band we’ve always loved a party. I had never had any time off, but in 2018 I tried, I did six weeks without drinking. Not into preaching, but I was surprised about how the brain works, I was a different person, especially when I wrote lyrics. You’ve got more time on your hands.
I did the same again last year for seven or eight weeks. It felt liberating. There’s stigma attached in this country, the idea of this macho Northern rock star. I don’t just sit in the pub watching Sky Sports News. I like seeing my football team, but there is more to life.
Do some fans only acknowledge the masculine side of you?
There’s an element of that, I was like that when I was seventeen. Our fanbase has been generous with what they’ve given us. I read things about Courteeners fans, they have a certain reputation, it’s a generalisation. We’ve got some football lads, who should be allowed to have a few drinks, go and watch their team, there’s no law against that. But there’s another side of our audience that are into the introspective songs. We have a real cross section of fans.
What do you think of the younger generation of Manchester bands?
It’s a healthy place. When we were coming through we felt like real outsiders. Even if there had been three other bands, someone you could knock about with at the back of Night and Day. We came after The Libertines, there was a real hangover from that and the press didn’t take to us at first. Now, there are many bands with different sounds. If I was eighteen playing in a band I would love it because there’s a lot going on. I’m pretty jealous, I wanna go back.
I love that we are passing the baton. There’s a demand for a new band to come along. As long as someone has got the songs.
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'MORE. AGAIN. FOREVER.' is out now.
Words: Susan Hansen
Photo Credit: Lindsey Holt
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