All the world’s a stage, but Courting are not merely players: “We want to surprise people”

With their debut full-length, Courting set themselves up as indie-pop’s plucky new disrupters. As they return for its follow-up, ‘New Last Name’, they’re playing a much bigger game.

Words: Neive McCarthy.
Photos: Derek Bremner.

All the world’s a stage, but Courting are not merely players. No, though they are about to deliver the performance of a lifetime, the Liverpool four-piece are directors in their own right. A band well-versed in making their own rules already, as they return with their second album, ‘New Last Name’, Courting are the ones pulling the strings more than ever. 

They’ve never been ones for following convention, and on the follow-up to ‘Guitar Music’, they prove this with every unsuspecting beat. ‘New Last Name’ is an act of reinvention, but not in the conventional sense – it’s an alternate world to its predecessor, reinventing genre and long-settled rules and the very concept of an album itself. Through this avenue of newness, Courting more closely define who they are and their own capabilities at the core of this project. 

 “As a band, you’re never allowed points for style,” frontman Sean Murphy O’Neill says. “It always has to be like, ‘This is an album, it can’t be viewed as anything else’. In most Wes Anderson films, it’s a movie in a book in a play in another book. That does absolutely nothing for the plot apart from being an interesting stylistic framing device. As an album, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt that a lot of forms of art get with framing devices. If you watch a really interesting movie that did that, it would be considered high art. Unless the music you’re making is inherently really experimental, it is considered more of a lower-class type of art – it’s not as respected as a craft. Our idea was that as an album dealing with pop culture and being sillier and more playful, how can we inject a theme to the record that doesn’t take it away from being an album or turn it into a concept album but allows an extra frame to how the art is received?”

Sean, along with bandmates Josh Cope, Sean Thomas and Connor McCann, discovered an answer to that question somewhere along the way. ‘New Last Name’ takes the form of a play within an album – a cast of characters, hints and nods to a plot, cleverly packaged in a way that points to that theatricality without ever forcing it upon its listener. Citing the likes of ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ as an example of a conceptual album that doesn’t hammer home that concept, the band found a means to extend a hand into a more immersive world without dragging their listener in headfirst. 

“As a band, you’re never allowed points for style”

Sean Murphy O’Neill

“No one’s forcing narrative on you,” Sean explains. “You can choose if you want to be a part of it. The point is that you know this is meant to, in some way, be a theatrical play, but we’re not giving you any more information. It’s now up to the audience to interpret how they feel about whatever narrative they want to create through the album. The whole purpose of us doing that is to add a layer of depth. We wanted people to really read into this album. There’s definitely depth hidden within; we’re just not spoiling the fun of finding it.”

It’s, in a way, a natural follow-up to their debut while simultaneously being a complete departure. ‘Guitar Music’ was an exercise in maximalism and extremity, pushing things to the brink and seeing how long it would take them to tip over. ‘New Last Name’ is more refined and sees the band utilising far more restraint in each track. That common thread, however, is a commitment to keeping things new and fresh. ‘Guitar Music’ traversed uncharted territory, and ‘New Last Name’ continues in that trend.

“If you can predict a song, I don’t think it’s very well-written,” reflects Sean. “For us wanting to make pop music, our thought was, how can we make a pop song that has repeating sections but remains unpredictable and interesting to the listener? We wanted to keep people on their toes. The aim was to write pop songs with interesting structures that people couldn’t predict.” 

Lead single ‘Flex’ follows a structure the band favoured a lot on the album, where the song begins with multiple separate parts and continues to take them away bit by bit. The track riffs on ‘Mr Brightside’ breezily quiet to a hush before amping up once more. It’s all left turns throughout the track and the album as a whole. From the strings on ‘Flex’ to the pop-punk riff of ‘Throw’ to the pulsing synths of ‘Emily G’, there is no through line to follow – it’s a constant question of where they might go next. Entering a conversation with old loves and trying to rein in the maximalism they favoured prior, tracks like ‘Throw’ became an opportunity to find a means of reimagining and repurposing.

“The premise with ‘Throw’ was in the wave of bands taking pop-punk cliches from the 2000s and writing around that. Rather than being part of that cycle of nostalgia, we wanted to interpolate a cliché into an almost regular-sounding song. We wrote a song that was quite normal for us, the rest of the track, then we thought, how, 2 minutes 30 into a 4-minute song, do you completely change the tone? It was the thought of having that restraint and bringing in the riff there rather than writing a whole song around that riff. It could have been two songs, but instead, it gives a standout to the B section, and it gives the song a more multi-faceted way of being looked at. We thought that was really interesting. Instead of recycling an idea, how can we recontextualise an idea as casual relief in a song? I think the song is quite dense, and then when it breaks into something that’s almost a little childish, a little bit stupid, it’s like instant gratification.”

“There’s depth hidden within this album; we’re just not spoiling the fun of finding it”

Sean Murphy O’Neill

There are moments of near-whiplash trying to keep up with where they might go next, but that’s part of the goal for Courting. Keeping people guessing, invested, and admiring even when they’re in shock is integral to what ‘New Last Name’ sets out to do. 

“It’s to indulge what you really want to hear,” muses Sean. “No matter how pretentious of a music fan someone is – and I’m the first to say I’ve probably got quite a pretentious music taste – but if you’re listening to a really serious song and there’s something quite cliché or silly that happens, it catches your ear a lot more. The first song from the second IDLES album where it has the really slow post-punk section and ridiculous double-time bit at the end; I remember listening to the first part and thinking it was cool, but then the silly bit happens are you’re like, ‘Fuck, yeah, this is great’. I really liked that contrast. You can have the more pretentious elements and make people go, ‘This is an interesting concept for a song; this is clever’. Then, when someone’s guard is down, strike them with something really stupid. It’s almost like they can’t not appreciate it because they’re in on the joke.”

Getting into the heads of their listeners and pre-determining what might blindside them meant they had to position themselves in that role. What would they most like to hear? They pursued the things they loved and enjoyed, what might take them by surprise, what might elicit a laugh from their end. Centring themselves in the process proved crucial.

“It’s like pulling the rug out,” Sean continues. “We want to surprise people. A lot of it is just for ourselves, and I think if we’re doing anything that is meant to pull the rug out from under someone’s feet, the intention is that it would pull the rug out from under our feet if we were listening to it. We write with ourselves as the audience in mind. When I write songs, I write songs that I want to hear, and I think that’s the best way to do it. If you try to meet or defy anyone’s expectations of you, you fall into a lot of different songwriting traps. If all you’re doing is writing songs you want to hear, the only game is hoping that people share a music taste with you. A lot of our fans hopefully do.” 

Courting quickly got to work on the album before their first release was even out in the world, ensuring any outside opinions had minimal opportunity to filter in. That choice allowed them to fine-tune the album, sitting in those audience seats and critiquing it for as long as they felt necessary. It allowed them the space to create tracks like ‘Happy Endings’ – “probably us at our most us” – with its ferocious, fast-paced guitars and drum-and-bass leaning style, whilst still finding space for tracks like ‘Babys’ to sit alongside it. ‘Babys’ is coloured in shades of country but sits next to an early-2000s indie styled ‘The Wedding’. With each side of them shown, Courting become more confident in their ability to make deeply complex, capricious tracks. 

Though mostly self-produced, they did enlist the help of Gary and Ryan Jarman of The Cribs, a band they have long loved but also found a kinship with.

“When you’re shitting yourself about whether your record is bad and a band you’ve liked since you were younger say, ‘No, it’s great, don’t worry’, well if they like it, then it is good. It makes you feel a lot better. They inspired us to just keep pushing on what we wanted to do. As bands, we both come from slightly different angles of the same idea: how can you write complex and interesting songs that are still melodic and pop-friendly? Seeing pop songs as an art form rather than a commodity – how can I write a pop song that’s really good, fun and clever? I think they’ve always done that. Out of that 2000s scene of bands, The Cribs’ songs always feel really clever and complex, but they never abandon having a great chorus.” 

“How can I write a pop song that’s really good, fun and clever?”

Sean Murphy O’Neill

Courting have echoed that in their own distinct way. Though they have similarities, they are unavoidably on their own path. They shift so quickly but retain qualities that are unmistakably Courting. The constant touchstones of pop culture they hark back to, the ferocity of the guitars, the fine line walked between laughing in raucous fun and carefully considering every move – they all have come to mark a Courting release for the better. The album’s narrative is one that perhaps only they could achieve; the kind of outlandish, meticulously thought-out world is one only they could have made. 

Creating that world meant the visuals had to play a huge part, which has always been the case for Courting. With music videos of auditions and behind-the-scenes footage, and the paparazzi photos that opened this era, layer after layer was added, and the world of ‘New Last Name’ truly came to life. The fictional names for each character came from a bit the band embarked upon on their 2022 tour, a fitting representation of this play itself – it’s embedded in the intricacies of Courting as a band, spiralling out from there in an impressive feat of innovation. 

“The little inside jokes that make us work as a band and fuel how we actually conceptualised this record infiltrated the process,” concludes Sean. Where ‘Guitar Music’ sonically went to the edges of what was doable, ‘New Last Name’ goes to the edges of what an album can be. It’s a formidable second album from a band willing to put so much of themselves and ambitions into something new, exciting and refreshing. Whether another band could’ve pulled off such a feat is up to interpretation. Courting, however, do it with ease. 

Taken from the February 2024 issue of Dork. Courting’s album ‘New Last Name’ is out 26th January.


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