“I feel like a total, total outsider”
Liam Fray interviewed, by Fergal Kinney
Over the last six years, the Courteeners have made the leap from regional sensation to one of Britain’s biggest bands. The band have just achieved their highest chart position so far with new album ‘Concrete Love’ entering at number 3, and Liam Fray sat down with Louder Than War’s Fergal Kinney ahead of a UK tour to discuss the new album, Alt-J, the darkness in his lyrics and how he’s finally managed to unite Morrissey and Marr.
It’s a Thursday afternoon in a central Manchester hotel, and Liam Fray – singer, songwriter and spearhead of the Courteeners – sips from his drink and indicates out the window at the building opposite.
“You have to be very careful in this city” he offers, “there’s a lot of glass buildings going up, but don’t forget about the grit and the smoke and the dirt”.
If Liam Fray seems a little romantic about Manchester, well that’s because he is; even the formative years of the band in his home city are spoken of with a mythological zeal usually reserved for referring to your favourite band. Much to his delight, Fray has recently been given the seal of approval from a fellow local – one Johnny Marr, recently having praised Fray as a lyricist.
I mention that a mutual appreciation of the Courteeners is perhaps the one thing Morrissey and Marr have agreed on since the Smiths’ split, and he smiles knowingly. “For me that’s game over, you can finish tomorrow and think ‘well he likes us, and Morrissey likes us’”.
Earlier this year, the Courteeners made the largely surprise announcement of an impending new album just a year on from their last’ once standard practice but now an increasing rarity. Following an incredibly successful summer for the band in 2013 – three sold-out nights at Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl, a support slot with the Stone Roses and packing out the John Peel tent at Glastonbury – Fray found himself flicking through fourteen weeks of empty pages in his diary, and began looking into venturing to Paris with producer Joe Cross for a while, intending hopefully to return with a few new songs demoed.
“I’ve wanted to go to Paris for ages,” explains Liam, “every time we’ve played there we’ve just had to get off, we’ve been in and out, so we went over there and found this apartment – really cheap as well. He (Joe) drove down and took his home studio, his computer, keyboards, guitars, bass… it was very different to how we’ve done it before. We just went for it, we had the bit between our teeth.”
To Fray’s surprise, nearly an album’s worth of material had emerged in Paris, and – after a December tour and short break for Christmas – Fray decamped to the coastal town of Whitby with Cross in tow to continue on the demo’s and, in his words, enjoy some real ale and get cold. Through Paris and Whitby, the album was written, extensively demoed and ready to take to the band to properly record in Manchester. Unlike ‘Anna’, which was largely written and recorded in Manchester, Fray feels ‘Concrete Love’ benefited from the change in scenery; “sometimes you write about home or whatever because you’re away from there, you’re not at home thinking about what time the shop shuts”.
Prior to the Courteeners, Liam Fray had started (and prematurely dispatched himself from) a creative writing degree, and was already establishing himself within Manchester as a gifted singer-songwriter, probably destined for a successful career as a solo artist.
In 2006, having just turned 21, Fray formed the Courteeners with three childhood friends – Michael Campbell, Daniel Moores and Mark Cuppello. The next year, the band were signed, and by 2008 their debut album – ‘St Jude’ – entered the charts at number 4. Still, the eruption that the band was widely tipped for, (and not just by its own singer) never quite happened.
“People at the label were saying we’re going to be this, we’re going to be that, and when they turned around and that wasn’t happening, there was a real period of reflection” explains Fray, “I was quick, I knew that we had to take stock, decide or go the way of pretty much every single one of our contemporaries from that time”.
‘Falcon’, the album that followed, was critically better received than ‘St Jude’, and for this journalist’s money is probably their strongest album. Indeed, their hometown agreed, and in the winter of 2010 the band sold out Manchester Arena (something they have done twice since).
A three year hiatus followed, and ‘Anna’ was released last year, markedly different from its two predecessors and the beginning of a relationship with producer Joe Cross that continues to ‘Concrete Love’. When in 2008 the Courteeners emerged at a national level, Liam Fray was obviously pulsating with a total ambition for his band – painting on the wall during a photoshoot the words ‘What the World is Waiting For’ in block capitals – and I ask Fray whether this is something that he still feels, or whether he’s at long last satisfied with the band’s current standing.
“I’m still very driven”, Fray concedes, “but I’m at a point now where I think ‘just let things happen’, the public aren’t given enough credits for their tastes by certain people around tables making decisions, they don’t know who we are or the people who come to those gigs.”
But is he happy about where they are? “Happy? That’s a dangerous term because I’m not happy, I was happy once in 2003”, Fray laughs, though I suspect he’s not actually joking. Satisfied or not, Fray certainly remains competitive with other bands, discussing Alt-J, he recalls someone asking whether he was a fan of theirs: “I’m not sure you can be a fan of this band. You can be a fan of the Cribs. You can be a fan of the Smiths. I’m not sure you can be a fan of Alt-J, what are you investing in? What are they investing in? I’m not saying it’s not worthy music but they just look so bored, it feels like a science project, and I’m not saying there’s no merit in the music, they look like competent players, the drummer’s great, but it doesn’t make me want to part with 20 quid and stand outside the Academy on a freezing cold Wednesday.”
Fray is also at pains to point out that he doesn’t only have negative opinions about bands, when mentioning the Heartbreaks he’s brimming with enthusiasm about the band he regards tongue-in-cheek as “the second best in Britain”, and is equally infatuated by Temples and the fast emerging Stockport psych band Blossoms.
On ‘Concrete Love’, the track ‘Dreamers’ is something of a call to arms against bands that Fray typifies as ‘lawyers having a gap year before choosing their employers’, I ask what he was referring to here. “I just like looking at a lot of people who are perceived as…what we look towards… I mean I feel like an outsider, like a total, total outsider…”…in British music? “In British football” he laughs. I comment that it’s interesting to see him frame it as a class issue, and he agrees. “It seems like a vast number of journalists are middle class, identify with middle class bands and write those opinions for certain readers. I’m not just saying it’s a class issue, it’s a taste and a fashion issue too, but you can’t tell me that it’s not there, because it is. At the same time, it’s quite powerful, because with Twitter and the internet the power isn’t with those people anymore, they think it is, but it isn’t.” This, I point out, has certainly benefited the Courteeners. “I think it has, yes. Fifteen years ago you couldn’t survive if the NME and Radio 1 don’t like you, now not only do you survive but you headline their stage and you flourish. So it’s pretty bizarre.”
Despite a reputation that once earned him the moniker ‘gob almighty’ in the NME, Fray makes for a curious interviewee, and certainly different from the unfailingly confident figure he cuts onstage. When we meet, he tells me “I’ve been dreading this for about forty eight hours”, and he confesses that early on in the band’s career he worried that in interviews he “probably didn’t have anything worth saying”.
In turns opinionated yet reticent, bullish yet self-defeating, there’s clearly something of a duality to Liam Fray, a duality explored on ‘International’ from the new album. “It’s not an easy song to write” he explains, “it’s not an easy song to sing, and it’s not an easy song to talk about sat here.” In the song, Fray refers to himself as an ‘international worrier’, describing the ‘ghosts of doubt’, and a ‘private hell’ with ‘no sign of slowing down’.
“I spent the most time on that than any other song, I spent a long time going through it, the first time I played that acoustic I was playing it and I just felt something that I’ve very rarely felt before, I just felt very bare and very exposed and I didn’t like it at all. It was difficult.”
Much of the Courteeners’ enduring appeal can be attributed to how candid a lyricist Fray is, the bulk of the four Courteeners albums are wholly autobiographical, often with a kitchen sink humour but equally often with a darkness that would surprise many unfamiliar with the band.
Having watched Fray perform ‘Marquee’ last year – a track from ‘Anna’ concerned with a gruelling relationship breakdown that still looms large over Fray’s writing – it’s easy to understand exactly what he means when he describes the difficulty of becoming so exposed onstage (and not in the Iggy Pop sense). “I give everything to those songs and sometimes it just drains me, there are days when I think, not that I can’t do it, but to sing ‘Marquee’, it’s hard. And I don’t know if I can do it anymore”.
‘How Good It Was’, the first single from the new album and the band at their crooning, ferocious best, comes from a similar place of self-analysis and raking over ones past. Is there something in Fray that’s drawn to nostalgia? “You know what, I wish it wasn’t. I’m kind of aware of it now because I’ve read it in a few reviews, I wasn’t really aware of it until a couple of people brought it up, I don’t want to feel like I’m dwelling on the past but it’s quite a lonely place being a songwriter, you don’t really, I don’t know, maybe it’s because I write on my own.”
One thing that certainly brings out a less verbose side of Fray is when I ask whether a solo career for him is inevitable. There is a long pause. “I don’t know about inevitable”, he finally begins, and I mention that last year alone he completed two nationwide solo acoustic tours. “I don’t feel…in a perverse way it’s probably more pressure with the band. Because I’m not carrying this juggernaut…and if I decide to get fucked one night that juggernaut is crashing, you can’t stray can you? When if it’s me on an acoustic I can do what I want. It’s a…free-er existence. I do enjoy it, but no, it’s not…in…the plan…to…do…a…solo…record…and… if… that happened I don’t know what I’d do, I’m not going to lie to you I feel with the Courteeners…I write all the music and the lyrics, it’s not like I don’t listen to what they say, first and foremost they’re my friends, but ‘Falcon’ – for instance – or ‘Anna’, or ‘Concrete Love’, all could have been side projects because they’re so different”. There is another long pause. “It is strange, I have thought about that.”
Leaving the hotel, I’m reminded of a recent Billy Bragg interview in which he described his audience as “an excluded middle; outcasts from the rock and roll aesthetic who are as mystified by the appeal of Metal Machine Music as they are the top forty”. For a band seemingly on the perpetual verge of a big breakthrough, always the bridesmaids but never the brides, the Courteeners have managed to do rather well out of what Fray refers to correctly as their outsider status. If nothing else, their audience knows the Courteeners to be theirs; the potency of this cannot be underestimated.
Words and interview by Fergal Kinney.
All photos copyright Hayley Taylor.