Hard rock still rules for Courteeners

The Courteeners never really went away, but they are making a comeback in a big way. Mark Butler spoke to lead singer Liam Fray.

If the general consensus is to be believed, it’s been a terrible few years for indie bands.

With mainstream music turning its back on guys-with-guitars in favour of slick synth-pop, earnest singer-songwriters, and clean-cut folk collectives, it seemed that the writing was on the wall for indie bands.

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The days when Oasis ruled the Britpop waves were well and truly behind us. Quite how The Courteeners fit into this pessimistic picture is anyone’s guess.

After all, the hard-rocking Manchester quartet have been a huge presence throughout this supposed lull, landing top five albums and amassing a colossal following at home and abroad.

In December, they performed a sell-out show to 17,000 fans at the Manchester MEN Arena.

Later this month they will head out on their biggest UK tour yet, calling in at 18 major venues up and down the country. Given the sheer swagger with which The Courteeners are bucking the downward rock trend, it’s hard not to wonder at the secret of their success.

“We were never the coolest band,” muses frontman Liam Fray.

“We were never top of any of the ‘Sound of’ polls. I think we were number 17 one year, actually. But when you think about all the acts that came ahead of us – where are they now? We’ve lasted because we were never part of a fad. We’re part of the furniture.

“Slowly but surely we’ve become massive – and I like that. We’re not going anywhere.”

It’s a hectic time for The Courteeners, so it’s no surprise when the conversation is delayed by 20 minutes. I’m expecting a typically rock-and-roll excuse from Fray. Did he oversleep after an all-nighter perhaps? Or was he busy signing photos for adoring fans?

Disappointingly for the reality, however, turns out to be less glamorous.

“I was in the middle of ironing,” chuckles the apologetic singer.

“It might not be very rock and roll – but the housework still needs doing.”

We’re talking just a few days before the release of the band’s third album, ANNA, which looks set to build upon the success of the first two Courteeners outings by retaining the infectious riffs and energetic attitude, while adding in some fresh and compelling ideas.

Lead single Lose Control offers a heady mixture of stirring dance-rock and moody post-punk, with Fray proclaiming it to be just one of many potent tracks the band has crafted for the latest album.

“We had a blast making ANNA,” he says. “The longer you do this, the more influences you pick up. It’s different from what we’ve done before, but I believe it’s the best record we’ve made.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to alter the sound. We never sat around with clipboards and had a strategy meeting. We just got in the studio and that’s the way it went. Some of the lyrics are quite dark, but I’ve always been a really honest person. I can’t believe that people actually want to hear what goes on in my head – but clearly a few do.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that one of those people is music legend Morrissey. Not exactly known for handing out praise lightly, the ex-Smiths singer and fellow Mancunian saluted The Courteeners for having “great songs full of hooks and dynamics”, before inviting them to tour with him.

“He knows what he’s on about,” quips Fray. “He’s got good taste that man.

“He saw us live and seemed to enjoy it. He’s a pretty quiet guy, he keeps himself to himself, but he’s been great to us.

“I was a big Smiths fan as a kid, so it’s a big box ticked to impress one of your heroes.”

Another box ticked, says Fray, is that The Courteeners seem to have amassed a truly dedicated following; the kind who sing the words of every single song back to them at gigs. And the singer can only marvel at the reception they’ve received as far away as Japan.

“We’ve had people give us presents when we’ve landed at the airport,” he says with puzzlement.

“It’s crazy to think that people on the other side of the world are into songs I wrote about being a young lad rejected by a girl in some dingy indie club.”

Those dingy clubs must seem a world away now, with the upcoming tour comprising a host of expansive venues, including the Leeds and Sheffield Academies.

“I can’t wait to get out there,” says Fray. “It feels like we’ve been caged up for a while, and we’re about to be let off the leash. We’re at the top of our game. Leeds and Sheffield are always unreal to play. You don’t ask people to go nuts. They just do.

“Most bands would give their right arm for that. We feel blessed.”

Given the frequency with which Manchester has produced such devotion-inspiring bands – from Joy Division to The Smiths; from The Stone Roses to Oasis – it’s inevitable that The Courteeners should be used to fielding questions about the reasons behind the phenomenon. And Fray has a surprising take on the whole issue.

“It’s the bad weather,” he quips. “If it’s sunny you go out in the beer garden, but if it’s raining you pick up the guitar don’t you?

For all the confidence and bravado that Fray emanates, he’s keen to stress that he never takes the band’s success for granted.

When asked what the The Courteeners’ career highlight has been to date, the singer shakes his head.

“Being able to record and write music, and make a connection with people, is the highlight,” he says quite simply.

Trajectory to stardom

Since achieving mainstream prominence with their debut album St Jude in 2008, the Courteeners have risen to become one of Manchester’s foremost rock exports, leading to a tour with Morrissey, a gig with Noel Gallagher at the Royal Albert Hall and a headline set at the Salford Lads Club.

“When we started out, I never thought about whether we’d get this big. I’m not really a planner,” says Liam Fray.

The new album ANNA is out now.

The Courteeners play Leeds Academy on Friday February 22 and Sheffield Academy on Friday March 15. Both gigs are sold out.