Liam Fray (The Courteeners) Interview by Fergal Kinney
Louder Than War recently sat down for a long chat with Liam Fray of the Courteeners between his matinee and evening shows at Manchester Ritz, you can read Fergal Kinney’s extensive interview below. Accompanying the interview are photos shot at the gig on the day. All the photos are all © Hayley Taylor.
It’s Sunday afternoon and a one and a half thousand strong audience spills reluctantly from Manchester’s Ritz ballroom, blinking from the dark of the matinee into the daylight of Whitworth Street. Backstage, no sooner has Liam Fray finished his acoustic set in support of the new Courteeners record than he is sat, guitar in hand, rehearsing for the evening show. Whilst the Ritz gig this afternoon was met with rapturous appreciation, Fray is quick to point out that it was not without its errors. With touring keyboardist Adam Payne mistakes are ironed out, forgotten lyrics remembered, tempos debated and keyboard parts added, removed, then added again. Liam Fray is courteous (or bored) enough to grant Louder Than War an exceptionally lengthy interview about ‘ANNA’; a bold and diverse record set to surprise and delight the Courteeners’ profoundly devoted fan base in equal measure. It’s been some three years since the Courteeners’ second album ‘Falcon’ was released, an album which followed the success of 2008’s ‘St Jude’ and found the band selling out venues up and down the country, culminating in a sold out show at Manchester Arena at the end of 2010, a feat replicated at the end of last year to preview the new album. Clad in a Paul Smith polo shirt, blue Levi’s and brown Chelsea boots, the newly bequiffed Liam Fray is noticeably enthusing about the new record and the atmosphere backstage is one of brimming positivity and an air of relief. “I’ve got to say, it’s the happiest I’ve been after a record. I’ve always been fairly pleased, and I think that when it comes out is when you stop listening to an album but I’ve been listening to it loads”. Fray clearly takes what he does incredibly seriously – alcohol before the show is shelved in favour of a concoction of Chinese herb Loquat and honey (“George Harrison used to swear by it…I love a good celebrity endorsement”). Contrary to the popular perception of Liam Fray as somewhat bullish and brash, today Fray is self-deprecating, disarmingly frank and thoughtful – long pauses perpetuate the interview whilst Fray searches for the right words that don’t always come easily. Shades of the familiar confidence and intense self-belief are still present, but it seems that during the three year gap between albums Liam’s life has been not without tremors – something reflected in the moments on the album in which Liam turns the microscope on himself.
Louder Than War: To lift a maxim from one of your songs – what took you so long? It’s been a long gap between ‘Falcon’ and ‘ANNA’, what would you say the reasons were for this?
Liam Fray: Well, ‘Falcon’ came out in February 2010 and all that went right through to December with the Manchester Arena gig. To be honest with you, me breaking my ankle and having to sit on my arse for 4 months probably didn’t help. Do you know about this? I broke my ankle on New Year’s Day 2012, and it was a bad break – torn ligaments on the inside and out. I was playing football…this is going to play right into the NME’s hands! Anyway, I was playing football in the Caribbean. I was on this island for New Year, and there was basically shitloads of famous people there…I found it funny, I don’t want to go name checking but it was mental. Lou Reed was there. We got chatting and he asked me to play a little set, he’s got an arts club. So that was like “OK”. I was in New York with just an acoustic, Payney (Adam Payne, touring keyboardist with Courteeners) was there, so it was just us, a guitar and a piano. Lou Reed, Norah Jones, We Are Scientists…it was like a pissed up Open Mic night but with Lou Reed on the front row. So not exactly The Attic or Font Bar.
There’s not often many ex-Velvet Underground members at Font…
Exactly. Anyway, back to breaking my ankle. I went up for a header and I landed really awkward with it, and straight away I knew I’d done it. The doctor there gave me crutches, some painkillers and said it would be alright. I came back to the UK, it wasn’t in a cast or anything, and the doctors here said – eleven days later – “You’ve broke your ankle…it’s like hanging off your foot”. So then it was in a cast for thirteen weeks and I was just sat at home. We’d done a little bit, but it was good because I just listened to what we’d recorded a lot and decided that it needed to be…better. It enabled me to take a proper look at it. The night before your homework’s in didn’t you always think how much better it could be if you had just another day to do it. So that awarded us time. We became way better players for it. I look at us five years ago and all of us across the board were very rudimentary. We’re still fairly shit…but we’re much more competent players. I love being in the studio.
I think that shows on the album, it’s very much a studio album… Yeah exactly. In terms of it taking longer, we were very much our own bosses. No label breathing down our neck. Even management were just saying “Get it right”. A lot of bands have a limited shelf life and we were determined not to be one of those. We’ve never been the cool kids at the party. We’ve never been darlings of the press. It’s pretty difficult when national radio and the majority of national publications don’t back you. We got big through fans liking what we do and being into it. I think it’s a very rare example…and I don’t think we can be ignored for much longer. It’s very humbling, some people think of us as these arrogant lads swaggering around and that’s crazy. These words that I write – and it still baffles me that people are into it so much – but there must be something in it. I think there’s a touch of everyman in it, and being a bit of a dreamer – wanting to escape. Everyone still has to get a pint of milk and a loaf. I don’t live in a gated house in Kensington…yet. Where we are just feels like a really fortunate position to be in, we’re blessed. And you know what? Fuck the press. As far as I’m concerned it’s redundant – or at least the mainstream music media.
In the studio this time round, did it become a consideration that you’ll be playing those songs in venues of a certain size? Is the writing still very much for yourself?
The lyrics are for me – yeah, always. The tunes it has to be a consideration. We’re a live band; we’ve got to think about it. It’s like with this acoustic tour, five gigs in six days and we won’t make any money off it, but I just wanted to get out there. It’d be fun! It’s a celebration, the album’s out, I want people to join in. You obviously have to think about how it’s going to sound live, you know the venues are going to be of a certain size. This album wouldn’t sound right in the Night and Day but it also wouldn’t sound right at Wembley. The press always pick up on this, ‘stadium-sized’, it’s bollocks, it’s just that there’s some strings on there! It’s not that I especially want to play arenas, I want to play to however many people want to hear us. If that’s twenty I’ll play to twenty people. I have done before, it’s exhilarating. You get to see who’s talking! The second album was a test for us, it would have been very easy for us to do an album like ‘St Jude’ again…it would have probably done better. It was, straight away, never even a consideration. I want the fourth album to be different, and the fifth. We’ve a lot in the tank. The songs aren’t running out. The lyrics definitely aren’t running out.
With taking three years to put an album out I imagine some of the songs on there have been written for quite a while anyway? ’
Marquee’ and ‘Money’ are the newest; ‘Save Rosemary in Time’ is the oldest. I tell a lie! ‘Here Come the Young Men’ is the oldest. I had an old song – a really old song – called ‘Gin On Friday’. All about getting taxis and the gift of the gab and everything. It was very much about nights out but we felt we already had that with ‘Cavorting’ so it got left behind. It should have been a b-side, why wasn’t it a b-side? I kind of took the bones of that song, and also the theme. It went from being about us in the midst of the most exciting time of our life, from the age of sixteen/seventeen through to twenty, and I’ve got a real love for the song as it’s written about then from then. But now it’s kind of nostalgic, looking back over those years, but also saying that we’re not finished yet –the hangovers just last longer. The end of this album almost reads like a story. ‘Marquee’ is the break-up, ‘Money’ is “Well you do your think, I’m doing mine”, and ‘Here Come the Young Men’ is me going out at the end of it all. My favourite lyric on the album is on that song – “I’ll never show my back to the painting/youth encompassed, ready and straight in”. The painting in question is the painting of Audrey (Hepburn) on the sleeve of St Jude. That’s me saying that I will never ever turn my back on those years, what they stand for. Those are your formative years. When a band grabs hold of you in those years, you’re in it for life. And that’s me giving a little nod to then.
It’s a much darker record than people will expect, is this an accurate reflection of the experiences that shaped the album?
I’ve had a weird couple of years, man. You don’t want to become too…I think the imagery is fairly clear. I’m quite an extreme person, if I’m down I’m really, really down. But when I’m up I’m really, really up. I think I just take the band too seriously…and relationships suffer because of that. I’m married to the Courteeners. That comes first in my life. And then, I met someone and suddenly they were jostling for joint position with the band…and that was weird.
And did they win?
I think they probably did win for a while actually, yeah. Maybe towards the end of ‘Falcon’.
Did that contribute towards the gap between records?
Maybe. Yeah, maybe. This person and I went our separate ways and I felt eighteen again. The fire in my belly was unbelievable, an unbelievable feeling. I kind of ended up feeling liberated. Bands can be a pain in the arse, they take up all your time, but it’s probably the most joyous experience that I’ll ever ever have. There’s a lump in your throat when you go out there and those kids react like that, and when they get tattoos. But I just fell in love for a bit, and it shows in an artist, the songwriting took a much softer turn. But yeah, I was quite aware of it being darker. ‘Marquee’ – that is what it is. But ‘When You Want Something You Can’t Have’, ‘Lose Control’, they’re musically quite up. Lazy disco comparisons aside, ‘Lose Control’ is quite a heavy track.
A lot of what you write isn’t as much love songs as relationship songs, from ‘Please Don’t’ right through to ‘Marquee’…
I’ve never heard that, that’s good!
…what compels you to write about the dynamics of relationships in the way that you do?
I don’t know, maybe I’m just bad at them! That’s a really good question…I think typical boy / girl love songs are empty and hollow. There’s a few contemporaries guilty of that…they know who they are, we shan’t name names. I like to find inspiration in different things, I’ll watch people and that can give me ideas…I just think it’s interesting to explore why certain people think certain things. It’s love and lust isn’t it, and sometimes you can’t distinguish. I’m a big fan of both of those things…they shape our lives though don’t they.
A hallmark of a lot of your songs is how specific they are with the details, has that ever got you into trouble with the subject matter? Do people tend to notice?
Give me an example?
“You let me change the radio station in your car, do you remember that time…”
Yeah that’s specific, but some of them can be so inconsequential that they don’t even know. One thing that I have got to say is that I think of people that I’ve been with really fondly. I’ve never ended with anyone and really hated them. I’m not friends with them…that does not work for me…and I don’t think it does for many…but I do think fondly of them. A lot of people, people that have done me wrong, I still think fondly of. I’m quite forgiven. I think those details make it exciting. When I read a novel and it mentions a bedroom, I want to know where the curtains and the carpet are. And if I don’t get some of that I make my own assumptions – what if she falls over and cracks her head on a wooden floor and I expected it was a carpet? I think if you can give specific details but not give too much away…there’s nothing worse than a generic umbrella term. I like Simon Armitage. I like Morrissey. I like Jarvis. They go into detail – “woodchip on the wall” and such.
After a long week of reviews and doing the press rounds for ‘ANNA’, Liam Fray seems resigned to certain aspects of the relationship between the band and the British music press. “The press have never really gone for us but you know, they don’t like Morrissey either! When we toured with Morrissey, we saw people travelling around to every one of us his gigs going across 17 states. And he was doing that without any mainstream publications supporting him. That really opened my eyes. He just does what he wants – I may not agree with everything he says but I don’t give a shit! It doesn’t keep me awake at night though, I go to sleep soundly every night knowing we’ve sold 40 000 tickets for the next tour! A lot of people have made up their minds before having listened to the record. It’s weird, we shouldn’t have to put up with that, but it doesn’t bother us anymore. I’ve given enough now that the music press shouldn’t be talking about football or us being lager swilling or anything. I feel like I’ve given everything of me into this band. Would a ‘lad rock’ band be able to write ‘Marquee’? No, they couldn’t do it.”
“I’ve never been in the boat where I’ve been bothered by bad reviews of bands that I like. I never thought it mattered. I’m always a fan of the band as opposed to certain records – what they stand for, what they’re like as individuals, how they dress, how they are in interviews…I love certain bands. The Smiths, The Strokes, The Cribs, Interpol to a degree, The Kills, the Beatles, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs…I love them all and I’ve seen them all get bad reviews. It doesn’t matter.”
Indeed, the reviews for ‘ANNA’ have actually been amongst the most positive the band have ever received, yet though the tide does seem to be slowly turning there is a feeling that the Courteeners’ success isn’t exactly relished by some parts of the media. It’s an interesting conundrum and probably has more to do with the press’ reluctance to celebrate bands that they didn’t anoint in the first place – the Courteeners were in the unique position of bypassing the hype and going straight to the backlash before their debut was even released. It’s clear that Liam has an awareness of how much more exposed he has been in terms of lyrical content on the new record – and on ‘Marquee’ in particular, the album’s cornerstone and a painfully naked account of the emotional wreckage left in the aftermath of a broken relationship. It’s the uncompromised honesty of songs like ‘Marquee’ that pulsates through the best of Fray’s work, yet this honesty isn’t something that seems to be accredited in response of some national writers to the Courteeners. It’s one review in particular – in which the NME made positive noises about the album whilst branding them ‘the footie fans favourite band’ that Liam finds the ugliest misrepresentation.
“I just would like them to listen to the lyrics and appreciate that they are honest. I just think we’re brave sometimes doing this, I’m very exposed, I’ve just sung in front of over a thousand people, with no guitar in front of me, and sung ‘Marquee’. A lot of bands wouldn’t do that, and wouldn’t have to do that. I like doing it, I feel comfortable doing it, because I know people in that room want me to be there. We could release anybody else’s album but as long as the Courteeners was on the front cover, journalists have already made their mind up. But it’s alright, I’m ok with being seen as just alright in their eyes – nothing’s ever amazing for very long is it? It’s like those Sound of 2013 lists…the people who were above us in 2008…Joe Lean…what’s he doing these days, extras work? It doesn’t bother us anymore, it did kind of matter in the early days but people know what we’re about. Or at least our fans do. We feel like we’ve got too much going for our group to be put down by any journalist. But I do think the tide is turning, the NME review was surprising. If you’ve got a problem with the songs that’s fine, slag them off all day long, but if you’re making judgements about the type of fan that comes to our show – how dare you? How many Courteeners gigs have you been to? Were you at Reading festival seeing 24 000 kids going nuts in a tent? No, they probably had the Great British Bake-Off to watch that night.”
Whilst songwriting credits are still wholly Fray’s, ‘ANNA’ is much more the sound of four musicians in the studio than on previous albums. Whilst Fray’s songs are still the focus, there is much more musically of Cuppello (bass), Conan (guitar) and Campbell (drums) on ‘ANNA’, and the forays into synths and electronic music hinted at on ‘Falcon’ really come into fruition. Fray puts this down to the years the band have spent together – not just in their time as the Courteeners but as teenage friends.
“I gush about this band so much in my own head but don’t necessarily say it so people sometimes get the idea that things are frosty between us. We understand each other more as musicians now…the first album was more me saying “It’s an F chord now, a G, an A” whereas now they get where I’m going with it a lot more. There’s a lot more…understanding. General understanding. We spend a lot of time together. We text each other. We don’t live in each others pockets…but we have been mates since we were ten. A lot of people ask us if everything’s happy within the band, and I’ve got to say we’ve never been closer. People are aware that I write the tunes and give those tunes to the lads, and sometimes that means three or four weeks where they’re not doing anything. And that can be difficult for them, and I know that. It’s pressure on my part as they could easily turn around and say that something’s shit. And that would be a problem as I really feel like I’m on top of my game. If Conan came to me saying he’d written a song…I don’t know what it is, it’s just I’ve always wanted to just stamp my approval on things. I’ve always been aware that I’d be the captain of the team, but the captain can’t win the World Cup on his own”.
Perhaps one of the most striking differences on ‘ANNA’ to the band’s previous work is in it’s bold, reverb-heavy production – for this the band recruited Manchester’s Joe Cross on production duties; Cross co-produced the debut LP from ‘Hurts’ and has his own electro pop act ‘Performance’. The extent that Fray views each album as a test against the temptations of coasting is admirable, and the recruitment of Cross was key to this vision – even if this meant taking something of a gamble.
“I wanted someone our age. He excited me, it was fun. Being in a band should be one thing – fun. If you stop having fun… (sighs). I don’t want to be on easy street, it’s fucking hard work, but I love it. I met Joe one night at a party and he was asking if we had any new songs for the album so I said ‘Welcome to the Rave’ and ‘Lose Control’. He asked what ‘Lose Control’ sounded like, and I said it sounded like Ibiza…bear in mind I’ve just said that and ‘Welcome to the Rave’…I thought he was going to walk away thinking we wanted to make some mad dance record but he was really intrigued and asked if we wanted to meet up. So we went to the Raddison and had a cup of tea. We had a bit of a conversation, favourite albums and such. I was very aware that ‘Falcon’ was very mid paced, so I wanted this to be exciting, up-tempo…and if you take away some of the more electronic features of the record it’s very rock ‘n’ roll. A lot of guitars in there. I wanted it to sound massive live. The aggression was back by this point, and aggression is a good thing. I don’t mean getting in people’s faces, I mean guts, making it meaningful. It wasn’t really what he’d done before, and that was quite exciting, he’d done bits of Hurts and I love that stuff…I thought that I wasn’t like anyone he’d worked with before, and that he wasn’t like anyone I’ve ever worked with before, so it was very exciting. Something new. It was a great experience having someone our age as we could go out and have drinks with them, and talk about other stuff that wasn’t just the album. You can kind of carry on that the next day too. It’s not all about middle-eights.” Fray is immeasurably proud of the fact that the band have worked with “three great producers” over three albums, but also unambiguously confirms “we will definitely work with Joe again, that is an absolute guarantee”.
Fray is vocal in his tribute to Cross as a producer and it’s evident that the recording of ‘ANNA’ really brought something out in him. “I’m a lot more receptive now. I’m more open to let something in. And I think that was because I was a lot less confident in my own ability before, I knew that I had these sort of good tunes but I didn’t want to try anything crazy in case it didn’t come out right. But now I feel a lot more confident in the studio. It’s exciting. I think if we can do this, we can do anything.”
Do the lyrics come first?
Yeah, usually. I’ve done some lyrics for the next record.
On ‘The Sharks Are Circling’, lyrically that’s one of the more interesting tracks on the record, particularly in terms of the imagery used, what inspired that?
“It was a friend of mine who sent me a text when we were starting out, and the guest list gets longer, you recognise less and less people, and I just started to put my foot down. I don’t know who you are, if you want to come – buy a ticket like everyone else. And also, everyone wants to have a pop. Everything’s so widely scrutinised. We no longer even live in the age of immediacy, we live in an age where everything you do is microscoped. Everyone’s ready to have a pop, but we’re just trying to make records. I don’t know, I wanted to build a bit of a story out of that. I wrote it in someone’s house in the Canyon in LA…I like the idea of the canyon, dusty footsteps, I like the imagery in that song. I love that lyric ‘They cracked the whip/the acid tongue dripped from the lip/tut tut finger wag/it takes ten years to shake a tag’. Those two lines there, Campbell loves that and always brings it up.”
“It sounds quite paranoid and claustrophobic . We purposely spent a lot of time making the piano sound paranoid, like a Hitchcock movie or something. That’s how it feels, it’s a paranoid song. People sometimes stop thinking about people’s feelings, and don’t engage their brains before they say stuff…and I do that a lot more these days than I used to…”Tut tut, finger wag, it takes ten years to shake a tag”…Arcade Fire was a big influence on that track. We wanted it to sound quite incessant but also quite Hitchcocky, quite creepy. But yet the chorus is quite jovial. It’s kind of at odds with it.”
On the topic of Push Yourself, is that aimed at anyone in particular? There’s the Bowie reference, I’ve heard that get misconstrued…
Oh yeah, as if in the last fifty years the one artist who hasn’t pushed himself is David Bowie, ha. That just seemed the greatest barometer for me, Bowie. We’ve taken something from that, all of our albums being different. No-one expected ‘Lullaby’. No-one expected ‘Will It Be This Way Forever’. No-one expected ‘Welcome to the Rave’. Even ‘Are You In Love With a Notion’. It’s sort of industrial Motown…we were going to call it that as a joke! But it kind of is. I’ve always loved Motown. And the artwork was trying to convey that kind of elegance but a bit more industrial.
What was the story behind the artwork?
“It’s great, the guy who designed it, Paul X Johnson…very very good. Very beautiful.
My friend does an art website, and we were going through ideas for artwork. I wanted to get someone young and up and coming rather than going to some big designer who just churns stuff out for the sake of it. Funnily enough, my friend was trying to get hold of him and just couldn’t, it was like Banksy. And I thought I wouldn’t hear anything off him but then, I emailed him and heard back the next day about having a meeting. So we had a meeting, I explained what I wanted to do with the artwork…I always want to be heavily involved with every aspect. Last time round, especially with videos…don’t even talk about it…nothing to do with us. But with those videos were you not in a position where you could at least steer it a certain way?”
“I don’t really want to offend the people who worked hard on it, and aesthetically ‘Take Over the World’ is a very good video. But for what we’re about…it wasn’t accurate about where we were. I wanted a kitchen sink drama kind of thing, you know, like the Upper Room’s video for ‘Black and White’. It’s beautiful, it’s horrible, it’s quite touching. I feel more completed about this record, like there’s more of us in it. We feel very in control, it feels great.”
Do you write anything that isn’t lyrics, are there any writing ambitions for you outside of the Courteeners?
“Well I don’t know if you saw but I did a column for Q recently I thought writing it might have a been a big job but after about ten minutes I was really, really enjoying it. I think sometimes I have difficulty working out sometimes what I can say, I’m not the most articulate person off the bat, but writing down I’m better with words. I can find it difficult to even sequence what I say…you might have noticed, but when I’m writing I can take a bit of time, and I really enjoyed it. People loved it too. I sent it to our manager and a couple of press people and straight away they said they loved it. I thought I was going to have to do it again! It was really fun.
All we ever do is try to be honest, be passionate, and those things are underrated. Honesty and passion. I think the tide’s turning, people know now that we’re not this bunch of idiots. We’re not just your average two-bat, only-got-a-couple-of-songs…every song we play people go nuts for it. It confuses us half the time. They love b-sides, album tracks so much…you don’t get that with many bands. It’s humbling. And it is fucking really strange, but at the same time it is the best feeling in the world. Long may it continue Fergal. Long may it continue.”
All words by Fergal Kinney, all photo’s © Hayley Taylor. You can read more from Fergal on LTW here.