The Courtneys Are Slackers Leading by Example
The grungey Vancouver trio are still dislocated outsiders on second LP, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
Andrew Volk via PR
The only time The Courtneys look uncomfortable is when I ask them how old they are. It's difficult to put an age on them, as is the case with most bands who still dress like they're arriving at a college mixer straight from the library. At one point during our conversation they make reference to Microsoft Encarta (the '90s CD-ROM encyclopaedia) which is a giveaway that they're older than they look. The most prevalent theme on the band's new record, Courtneys II, is crippling, soul-sucking crushes—the kind of crushes you lose an entire month to, the kind of crushes more likely to be documented by Carly Rae Jepsen, the kind of crushes you have when you're too young to think about employment, insurance, life shit.
I want to know if it's OK to be thirty-and-a-half years old, hear 'Silver Velvet' (lyrics: "And nothing you say and nothing you do, can stop me from thinking about you/Doesn't matter if it's right, you're just the one I like") and think, 'These guys are on my level.'
"We're all, like, 31," says the only titular Courtney, guitarist Courtney Loove, over brunch in a Portland diner. "I'm almost 31," adds Jen Twynn Payne, drummer/singer and lead songwriter. Bassist Sydney Koke was born in '85, according to Courtney, but she's not here to speak for herself, and she wasn't onstage last night playing bass at Portland's Wonder Ballroom. The Courtneys aren't from Portland. They know very little about it and stick out against the denim-clad, craft beer-swigging locals, turning up in the same beat-up rags they wore onstage last night. They're here because they're taking a road trip to Seattle to watch a baseball game tonight (they used to have their own baseball team called, aptly, The Courtneys). So it made sense to do a one-off show en route.
Where's Sydney, though? Is she OK?
"Everyone keeps asking if she's sick," chuckles Courtney. "She's in France living it up, she's more than OK." Unbeknownst to most, Sydney lives in France, and has done so for two years. "She's just with a French guy there," says Jen. Courtney too moved to LA last November with her partner. Jen, however, remains in Vancouver where they all met. It's not a problem for a DIY band. They decide how it works. They possess a rudderless attitude to big decisions, a sense of anxiousness amid their carpe diem lifestyle that informs the songs on The Courtneys II.
"Country Song" and "Iron Deficiency," for instance, are about not knowing what you want and coming up with excuses to stall the search. "Story of my life," says Jen. "I didn't like where I was living or my job. I was physically assaulted on the street… it's a long story." Courtney relates too to this unattainable notion of having it all, a pressure increasingly impossible to satiate in the economy we live in. "Get educated, get your job, and then what? I still live in a college apartment that smells like cat piss and and all my shit's in boxes and I'm like, 'What now?' And the world says: I don't know."
While life is in flux, The Courtneys take each day as it comes. It doesn't make sense to fly Sydney out for one show, so they don't. They're going to see her in a few weeks anyway for their first ever European tour. In her place today is Hugo, from the Vancouver band Weed, part of their local scene, one that once included White Lung and Japandroids. Hugo got his fair share of crowd love last night as Courtney, a Graham Coxon-like wizard on guitar, noodled away smiling, and Jen hammered her kit while leading their saccharine tunes with a vocal that sounds like you need to press your ear up against a wall to hear it clearly.
"We refer to Hugo as 'Curly Courtney,'" says Jen. The band each have Spice Girls style nicknames: Sydney is 'Crazy,' Jen is 'Cute,' and Courtney is appropriately 'Classic Courtney.' Unlike the Spice Girls, they play like men. If you were to shut your eyes, you'd think they were an all-male ensemble with a female vocalist, something like '90s DC five-piece Velocity Girl or The Soft Pack, but just the three of them.
"That's the biggest compliment to me," says Jen. "I hate this idea that girlbands have a girlband sound or a certain performance style. I hate that so much. I love when people assume we're dudes." Via references to dude bands such as Pavement and Big Star, The Courtneys are leading by example without being overt, extending the life of the '90s slacker sound irrespective of gender. "We do rather than say," says Courtney. "In the beginning, people were always comparing us to Bleached and The Go Gos. We love them but we're trying to encourage people to look past the female, even though we're intensely feminist."
When setting out to make The Courtneys II, The Courtneys told Michael Schoonmaker, who mastered the record, that they wanted to sound like Teenage Fanclub on Bandwagonesque. It was a pursuit that took three years. The band weren't suffering from second album syndrome. They just had a lot of life going on. Firstly, they all hold down jobs. Courtney works as an animator, Sydney edits science papers, and Jen works on films. "I've always had this struggle with wanting to do the band but not wanting to feel like I need to work in a coffee shop or not have a job and be broke between tours," Jen says.
Their DIY ethos is essential to this. It also explains why they took their time after their 2010 debut. "We don't have a manager," says Courtney. "We don't think about the future. We played local punk shows for a long time and jammed once a week for fun. Sometimes we'd write new stuff, sometimes we didn't. After three years we had enough songs for a record." The band write collaboratively and their one commitment to each other was to jam once a week for two hours. "You can imagine it's a slow process at that rate," Jen says.
The fascination with Teenage Fanclub for Jen is largely to do with lyrics. She spent hours in the van yesterday on a Google deep dive trying to work out who they were about. "I've never heard another male band where the lyrics are so sweet about love but in this way that's not cheesy." Similarly, The Courtneys II is, in Courtney's words, a vehicle for Jen to pursue her romantic interests. Does she ever think that someone's trying to Google who hers are about?
"Probably," she laughs. "I've been wondering if potential love interests think, 'Oh man I don't wanna end up in one of Jen's songs.' I'd never write a negative song about someone. I'm only inspired to write songs when I have a crush. Love is my main motivation in life. Pretty much anything I do links back to that somehow. Sometimes it's torture but in an attractive way." I wonder what the craziest thing she's done for a crush is. Courtney pipes up: "She started this band."
The Courtneys' history is convoluted. The short version is that they've each played in a bunch of outfits and scenes. Sydney and Jen met while living in Calgary and started a band called Puberty. Courtney was their number one fan. "I saw Puberty play and thought, 'I wanna be in a band like this… no wait, I wanna be in this band." She met Jen in Vancouver via friends who knew Makeup Videotape, another band Jen played in with Mac DeMarco. All three wound up living in Vancouver. Before discovering an affinity for all things slacker, Jen and Courtney attempted a synth pop group called Girls In Love."We were supposed to have our first show and then we just didn't turn up," says Jen.
In Vancouver, The Courtneys and friends bonded over growing up in Alberta where the cities are so small people have no choice but to move. Vancouver, however, is also incredibly isolated and bands from there can wind up playing amid their own echo chamber. "You can't get across the border," says Courtney. "You can drive to Alberta but it takes twelve hours, the cities aren't as big and are full of rednecks. You could move to Victoria but it's expensive." Jen reckons the Vancouver scene is on the rise. "It's the punkest city in Canada. Montreal? No. Toronto? No. We have the grungiest bands."
The grunge sound is where the three of them agree. "It's like a Venn diagram," Jen says of their music tastes. Sydney, who plays in an experimental noise project too, is less a fan of Jen's tendencies towards contemporary country. "She gets mad," says Jen. "We had this country cassette that we'd play in the van. Sydney eventually had a breakdown and screamed, 'WE HAVE TO PUT ON SONIC YOUTH RIGHT NOW.' It was a big deal. That song can no longer be mentioned in her presence." Elsewhere, Jen is a shameless mainstream pop fan. Recently, while hanging with her cousin Sara Quin (of Tegan & Sara) in Vancouver, Sara put on the new Harry Styles record. "I was like, 'What is this? Is this the new Ryan Adams?' It's so good. Like, so good." She starts giggling, looking inspired. "He's cute."
Beyond Teenage Fanclub, the overlapping part of the Venn diagram is Britpop. In the past 24 hours, while getting jazzed about their impending European adventures, they've discussed covering Oasis. "We should wait till after the UK. They'll think it's lame," Jen says. The depends on the era, I suggest. "The first album. We don't like the other albums. I wanna do "Up In The Sky." That one sounds like Our Lady Peace [Toronto's Goo Goo Dolls]. Do you know them?" Unfortunately, yes.
The success stories of Vancouver—like the rest of Canada—are at once awesome (The New Pornographers, Ladyhawke) and limp (Bryan Adams, uh, Daniel Powter). The Courtneys look to be joining the former pile. "We're hometown heroes, Courtney says, hesistating. "Kind of." The sense of isolation is something they share in common with Flying Nun, their new New Zealand based label. "A lot of people say that New Zealand is the Canada to Australia's America."
That feeling of dislocation and eternal outsiderdom allows The Courtneys to keep their heads. It's something they share with Tegan & Sara. I spotted Sara at The Courtneys' recent LA show. Six years her senior, the Quin twins have always supported Jen but there's no artistic mentorship. "One day I was like, 'Look I have a band now!' And they were like, 'Oh!'" says Jen. Rather, they're there when she needs help working out how to navigate the whole band thing. Tegan & Sara have always been DIY, and remain so in ethos despite being a bona fide crossover act. It's a do-or-die approach. Calling the shots, steering their own business is how Canadian acts have to operate. "What are the huge Canadian labels?" asks Courtney, rhetorically.
It surprises Jen that more bands don't take control. "I think they think they can't, or something?" she says, puzzled. In some ways, being the brains and the band is the biggest form of teen rebellion. You can do whatever, whenever, wherever. I shouldn't have asked how old they are. You wouldn't ask Peter Pan that, would you?
Eve Barlow is a writer living in LA. Follow her on Twitter.
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