It’s debut album time for Dork faves Courting, and, it turns out, ‘Guitar Music’ isn’t quite what it says on the tin…
Words: Martyn Young. Photos: Em Marcovecchio.
Courting know precisely what it means to revel in the inherent ridiculousness of pop. They’re a mass of contradictions, conflictions, hot takes and questionable views on pastry (“It feels wrong sometimes that pies are savoury”). They are also rock climbing enthusiasts, lovers of classic sitcoms (especially Friends) and, most importantly, they’re a bit bonkers, a lot brilliant and undoubtedly one of the best new bands in the country. Their debut album ‘Guitar Music’ offers a thrilling insight into their own singular world.
We’ve long known the Liverpool quartet are something a bit special. They’ve always had a fun edge that sets them apart from their contemporaries, but that focus on playful disruption belies the deep thinking and passion that goes into making their music. As singer and chief songwriter Sean Murphy-O’Neill explains, “It’s so important to be really careful with your own music and know what it all means before you put it out into the world.”
Before putting this album out, the band had a few years to build their own universe from a patchwork of influences, big ideas and inspirations. ‘Guitar Music’ is very much three years in the making. “We very quickly realised what we wanted to do and were given the benefit of a long period of time to write it properly, rather than being in the unfortunate position that some bands find themselves in where they have to essentially record a greatest hits album in record time,” says Sean.
They’ve certainly put the work in to hone their craft. “I’d always say the only way to get good at writing songs is just to write an obnoxious amount of songs,” laughs Sean. “Every single one of them will be really bad until one day you write a good song. We must have written a thousand songs before we started making stuff that I think is good. I always think that the best way to measure how good your music is is how long it takes you to hate it. I don’t think I’m going to get bored or disappointed in this album for a long time.”
‘Guitar Music’ embodies all the dichotomies at the heart of Courting. They have the attitude of prime pop stars, yet they are also an incredibly hard-hitting and powerful indie band. It’s a winning combination, but it makes describing the music on the record almost impossible. An overwhelming insane rush of genres and mashed-up sounds, it’s something only the most creative minds could cook up. “We wanted something that was weird but maybe a bit more timeless than what we were doing,” says Sean. “Something that sat less in the circles of what we were making. We wanted to make a statement.”
From the harsh, industrial, Sophie-influenced, future pop clanging of the opening track ‘Cosplay/Twin Cities’, it’s clear that that statement involved no boundaries or filters. “Please don’t get too scared after the first song,” laughs Sean. “The whole intention when we wrote ‘Twin Cities’ was shock factor. We wanted to make something that when people put it on, it would be jarring and maybe throw them off from what they were expecting.”
There’s a sense from Courting’s creative process of both finding order in chaos and trying to find the chaos in the order. A fluid push and pull that drives the album and everything they do. “One way that we approached it differently was instead of us just writing songs and picking the best, we were really clinical about the process,” explains Sean. “We did a lot of research, me and Sean [Thomas], the drummer. We listened to three new albums every day because we wanted to really widen the music that we listened to. What that did for us is it allowed us to see not just in terms of a song but structurally what makes an album flow really well and is seen as timeless apart from just the songwriting.”
One thing they hit upon from this exercise was their desire to make the album a short, sharp and intense jolt. “We wanted to purposely build an album that was shorter. It didn’t matter if it was 55 minutes or 27 minutes. If it’s that tight and concise, then people will want to listen to it again and again. No matter how good an album is, if it’s really long and overbearing, it loses out on constant replay value.”
‘Guitar Music’ might be short, but it’s certainly not an easy listen. That’s precisely the point. It’s an album that keeps you on edge and supremely engaged, never knowing what might hit next. “It can often get to a place where on the second half of an album it picks a vibe and settles into it,” says Sean. “We never wanted to settle into a vibe on the album. We wanted it to feel like whiplash. You’d finish one song and be like, oh, I can see where this is going, and then at the last minute, it’ll flip back to something else. We wanted to keep people on their toes. Every song has its purpose within the album to either showcase a different element or bring something back.”
“If you’re calling someone a guitar band, there’s not much weirdness or artistic integrity in it”Sean Murphy-O’Neill
Then, of course, there’s that intentionally provocative album title. Courting have always been disruptors. Never afraid to poke fun at themselves or the scenes around them, the album title reflects their propensity for directness and silliness in equal measure. “I thought it was such a stupid title. I knew it would piss people off because it’s so simple,” laughs Sean. “The inspiration came from getting interviewed or reviewed by some magazines, and you’d release a song that you’d think was quite clever, and they’d be like, oh, they’re a guitar band, and it’s a guitar song. From my experience, I find that phrase not reductive but offensive. More often than not, if you’re calling someone a guitar band, there’s not much weirdness or artistic integrity in it.”
Weirdness is a theme they arrive back at. It’s a defining concept that drives the band. Others might be more commercially successful, but few will combine a well-worn classic aesthetic with a challenging experimental side in a way that’s so compelling. “We were trying to make something a bit weird. I didn’t want to be lumped in that box,” says Sean of his desire to break out of an established wheelhouse.
The brightest bands know it takes more than just the music to make an impression. Courting have personality and charisma by the bucket full and have cultivated a character that allows them to do whatever they want. They ramp up the pop nonsense, delivered through an album littered with jokes, celebrity references and an irreverent, idiosyncratic way of viewing life. “We tended to pull notebooks together from just stream of conscious thoughts, YouTube comments, that sort of thing,” says Sean of their lyrical process. “There’s a really interesting poetry book I read where someone has made poems out of Amazon reviews. That’s a similar style of writing to how we like to write about things.” “I approached this album with a sense of world-building,” he continues. “That’s why we had the album cover be the picture of the city. We wanted to create a small world these songs could inhabit as if they were different characters with different perspectives.”
Rather than attach deep meaning to their lyrics, Sean prefers to keep the process natural and off the cuff. “I really like the chorus on ‘Loaded’. It was more of an attempt at just chatting shit,” he laughs. “I think there are two really good types of lyricism. One is where someone knows exactly what it is they want to say and says it perfectly. The other is where you’re so good at chatting utter shit in a song that it is so up for interpretation that people can write paragraphs about it. There’s a very awkward middle spot between that where you write something that kind of makes sense and is kind of vague. I don’t really enjoy that school of lyricism. I either enjoy directness or being really out there.”
There’s a burning ambition at the heart of Courting. But it’s tempered with a realism that they may not quite yet take over the world. Regardless, they will stick to their principles and follow their own path. “What we want to do really is make something that’s interesting,” concludes Sean. “We don’t expect many people to follow or keep us in the scene. But we just want to make something that challenges people a little bit and opens people’s boundaries up to what a rock band can be without being incredibly technically proficient or writing stuff that is impenetrable. We’re trying to make pop songs that are interesting and an album that is very weird but fun enough that it doesn’t make people not want to listen to it.”
So, how can you possibly top an album as insanely creative and bonkers as this one? Well, you push things even further. “We just want to keep steaming ahead,” says Sean excitedly as he describes how they’re already deep into album two. “We’re not leaving this path, but maybe we’re going to alter it slightly. We’re going to make a record that’s tonally different but might reign in some of the things we do on this one and maybe bring in some other elements, bringing in more instruments.”
Who knows where that will lead? But with the brilliant creative minds in Courting, the possibilities are endless. “We’re just writing things that feel good to us, listening to as much good music as we can ingest and trying to make a really good product. We want to keep doing that until we no longer know what’s good or bad, and we produce the weirdest album ever.” ■
Taken from the October 2022 edition of Dork. Courting’s album ‘Guitar Music’ is out 23rd September.