Not caring is caring. Courting are here to help you made sense of the madness.
Everton Park is unusually busy for a Monday morning in September. Perhaps it’s the azure sky and foreboding temperatures leaning in from the afternoon, the kind of unexpectant heat that makes today’s autumnal attire regrettable. Or perhaps it’s the impending local lockdown coming into effect across Merseyside that’s drawing the numbers. From tomorrow no households can mix outdoors.
At the highest point of the park Liverpool’s city centre and Wirral face back across. The two land masses make up the backdrop of this natural proscenium stage. To the front, a collection of familiar characters enter left and right in this final act before the lockdown curtain falls. There’s the processional flyby of wheelie poppin’ kids, gaggle of aggressive dogs, loitering weed smokers and optimistic sunbathers. A light breeze nudges a flow of litter falling from parked cars absorbing the view.
For a more succinct encapsulation of this semi-lockdown, Hogarthian picture of Liverpool, a few yards away graffiti spells out “there is such a thing as society”. The active park tells you this much, even if a second lockdown is looming. Yet a few metres higher up there sits the scribbled retort: “wake up, Liverpool”.
It’s likely the characters passing us by are familiar to COURTING, who’ve made their assent to meet on the hillside. Some of these characters will have had lines in their kitchen sink sketches set to angular post-punk arrangements orchestrated by metronomic use of cowbell. Though their music is less grand theatre and more slick improv, such is the urgency of their sardonic lyrical observations and apathetic-cum-activist demeanour. It’s a ripe combination for a climate where nobody knows what the fuck is going on.
While Courting haven’t shied from broaching society’s bigger issues through a combination of guttural vocals and frenetic riffs, the five-piece are much more reserved in person. There’s no immediate desire to spell out right from wrong as we meet on the hillside. When our photographer begins to capture the scene, the pictures reveal a group of unassuming friends who are mostly still teenagers. Nothing seems particularly serious to them as they hide smiles for the photos. Conversation regularly tails off, noting how “Ringo is the best Beatle, isn’t he?”, or how two pigeons should sit atop the Liver Building as the true emblems of Liverpool.
The band have had a better 2020 than most. Since the turn of the year they’ve released two singles, received plays on BBC Radio 1, been playlisted on BBC Radio 6 Music and made the final eight of Glastonbury’s emerging talent competition. All the while still holding onto the freshness in their faces. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing from day one. It’s been a rise so quick they can vividly remember when the landscape wasn’t so welcoming to their brand of irony-clad post-punk just two years ago.
“When we started, we were really shit,” vocalist/guitarist Sean Murphy-O’Neill confesses, perched cross-legged in some tall grass at the peak of the park, his yellow shirt matching the wilted flowerheads dotted around. It’s an assessment reflected in the band’s early live reviews which were, well, damning. Yet, the band weren’t deterred.
As well as tightening up on stage in the following months to take the form of the band we see today, they took literal ownership of their perceived ‘shitness’ – printing less than favourable review comments on a range of merch. It’s a move that typifies the band; embracing and owning theirs and contemporary society’s shit state of affairs and rolling it into something less fatalistic.
“It seemed to work in our favour,” says bassist Sam Brennan.
“We spun it,” says Murphy-O’Neill, before adding with measured confidence, “and now I don’t think we’re really shit at all.”
Most of the band – including Sean Thomas on drums and Michael Downes on guitar – are friends from college. Newly-added guitarist Josh Cope, whose Yorkshire accent is the anomaly to the south Liverpool drawl echoing between the four others, joined up while at university. Of the five, it is the two Seans who are the designated “parents” of the band, as they put it to me.
Courting are still very much climbing the arc of their trajectory, but there was a distinct upward leap over the first half of this year. It’s one we reflect on, noting the transition from scathing review fodder to a band breathing down the studio glass of institutional radio waves. Although it still isn’t getting to their heads.
“It’s a real ambition of ours to make music that sounds like we don’t give a shit,” says Murphy-O’Neill, looking down at the grass with a prophetic air.
In terms of merch designs, the assertion is evident. Yet their early releases do little to back up this asserted lack of care. First singles Not Yr Man and Football reflect the purposeful, snarled societal countenances of Shame and Idles, with distinct shades of local contemporaries Eyesore & The Jinx in the barbed lyrical humour decrying the washed-out English Rose. If anything, the songs emit a confused energy through a collision of apathy and protestation.
Murphy-O’Neill notes how much of this feeling is centred on contemporary Englishness, with the rest of the band nodding in agreement. It’s a theme that places national identity in a frame of impassivity. A sort of headstrong carelessness in its day-to-day. “Let me be your Northern Rail/I wanna let you down”, he laments on the band’s first single Not Yr Man – a feverish two-and-a-half-minute stab at garish masculinity and lad culture.
The swipe at the English pastime of mundane repetition is picked up again on Football, their follow-up single released in January. “It’s a bit more of an observational piece,” says Murphy-O’Neill of a song that screams football over 50 times in less than two minutes. “I think the community sport provides in this country, and that whole pub culture that goes with it, is what we’re taking the piss out of. When you subtract the racists from that equation, there’s something quite romantic about [English] culture – when you can overlook the awful politics that are omnipresent.”
The pub culture, weekend casuals and casual racism Murphy O’Neill refers to serves as the centre piece for the band’s breakout single, David Byrne’s Badside, released in May. Taking aim at English exceptionalism, the song pulls up a sticky bar stool at your average local before listening in on the “I’m not a racist, but…” mantra swirling between walls adorned with bric-a-brac championing colonial victories.
“That was a big step for us. For the first few months, we were trying to do punky songs, then we wrote David Byrne’s Badside and thought ‘this is not very punk at all’, but it’s just as good,” he says of the song, which was released by indie label Nice Swan, where company has been shared by Sports Team, Queen Zee and Pip Blom.
Stepping away from the clattering riffs, the track dials down the distortion and borrows the sails from Doherty and Barât’s good ship Albion for a breezier nod to mid-2000s indie – complete with sax solo and sarcasm. “I think from that point onwards, we just kind of make whatever music we want, where we’ll try to leave some kind of touchstones between the songs. So, for us, the lyricism is really involved,” Murphy-O’Neill explains.
The lyrical touchstones, as the band elude to, coalesce around social discomforts. Personal discomforts for themselves – the social expectation to love football in a city defined by its loyalty to red or blue – and the wider communities of England. It’s well documented that the picture of little England is far from the sedate image framed on the walls of the Queens Arms, The Crown, Red Lion or The Ship. But the band don’t want to add to the barrage of sloganeering that’s caught hold of contemporary guitar bands. Instead, there’s only a deep-set irony worn as armour against the regressive tendencies of broken Britain.
“I think it’s hard-pressed being one of those bands where their mission is to, like, save the world and, and fix all these problems,” says Murphy-O’Neill. “We know it’s impossible to do that as a band or as an artist. But, if you can, you can maybe start a conversation and do it in a way that’s not so pretentious and not so harsh. I think that’s kind of the way to go.”
It’s a feeling that chimes well with Football, a song which questions so much of tunnel vision casual sports culture even when saying so little.
“The fact that it got adopted by, like, actual people who like football was quite amusing to me, because it was just meant to be a bit silly,” laughs Murphy O’Neill. “It was a bit of a joke at the kind of bands where the chorus is just one word being shouted over and over again, just because it sticks in your head. But people took that quite seriously.”
Seriousness is clearly something that goes against the raison d’être of the band.
“Our goal is to not take anything we do too seriously. Everything should be taken with just a bit of a hint of piss-take,” Murphy-O’Neill confirms.
“I think you can you can find that in most of our songs anyway,” adds Thomas. “The songs are centred on a topic which is serious, but then there’s other lines that will just, like, ease the tension of a bit.” Namely references to The Chase, the appalling reliability of Northern Rail pacers, or the possible ill temperament of indie-god provocateur David Byrne.
As Murphy-O’Neill stated earlier, there remains a fascination of English culture in Courting’s music. It’s one that draws on the jaded regression of contemporary politics and its tired rhetoric.
This inadequacy of England’s hit and hope, cavalier spirit has been fairly evident since 2016 and well-documented in cultural responses too. That summer aggressively tore what was an already frayed national consciousness in two. Two neat cantons were left. On one side of the line, thankfully, for the safety of the world’s ears, there hasn’t been an uptake in pro-nationalist indie-rock. Mainly just cry-arsing about whether a choral arrangement can shout about Britain’s colonial successes in late summer. But on the other side of the line there’s been a distinct rise in bands shouting about political injustice. Artists putting forward a charged antidote for the inherent blindness in Brexit Britain.
It’s a frustration that is likely to have captured those who voted against the outcome in 2016, and the hopeless trudge in attempting to overturn the outcome in the years after. But for those who couldn’t vote at the time, like Courting, it’s been four long years of waiting for the inevitable. No say either way. There’s no sense in shouting at deaf ears, so why bother? It’s an attitude that punctuates their political outlook. A move where apathetically looking on in disgust has emerged as the most telling form of protest and activism.
“I think there are a lot of bands who claim to be, like, politically charged, but they’re not really. I feel like it’s a bit of a label, isn’t it?” Murphy-O’Neill responds.
“It’s really easy for young bands to be, like, you know, ‘Fuck the government’. It’s probably even easier with everything happening,” Thomas chimes in.
It’s these charged affronts to the current socio-political dichotomy the band speak of that appear to miss the goal posts. Power is well versed in controlling aggression and outcry. Ten years of austerity and look where we are. Look who’s in power. Look what they’re doing to us. But it’s satire and humour that still offers an antagonistic retort which is beckoning ever more authoritarian censorship.
“I think that’s it, [our lyrics] are meant to be a bit cheeky,” replies Murphy-O’Neill, as we continue to dig further into the band’s defence mechanism of irony.
“A three-minute song where you’re just talking about politics won’t be as fun as a one minute and 52 seconds song where you shout the word football 50 times,” Thomas summarises.
The point does stand. You need only to look back to the acid house explosion of the 1980s for evidence of this idea previously in action. Eight bars of LFO’s seminal track of the same name offers are more telling two fingers to Tory rule than Billy Bragg has managed in his entire career. Allowing space for interpretation can often be the more compelling battle cry than an overt statement. Ultimately, space is the necessary essence for any movement or protest.
“It’s up to people if they want to read into things,” says Murphy-O’Neill. “If people want to think it’s just a song about football, we’re not bothered. We’re not going to get on some of artistic high horse and be like…” He clears his throat to put on a snooty voice. “‘No, no, it’s not about football, you have to think about the politics’. We don’t give a shit. Like, if you want to shout football, that’s the fun of it. If you want to consider what it means, you can. We’re not really bothered. Our music is less inspired by Brexit and this idea that England has suddenly become shit. It’s more inspired by the fact that England has been shit for a long time. And, you know, you’re kind of born into that.”
On a newly released 7” containing Football and David Byrne’s Badside, a small English flag is printed on the vinyl label. Innocuous as it may be, its presence in 2020 often suggests exclusion or xenophobic rebellion. But the band pin the flag to their lapel in the same manner they sincerely chant about the footy. “It sums up how we’re taking the piss,” begins Murphy-O’Neill, “how that flag is now a racist symbol. It’s seen as a bit nasty.”
“Yeah, if you have it in your Twitter bio or something,” replies Cope.
“That’s the piss-take,” says Murphy-O’Neill, “I don’t think we’re trying to reclaim the flag. I’m not arsed about the country as a country.” Its true presence is there to highlight the same contradiction displayed by those who celebrate the Georgian cross but practice casual racism and hostility to minorities, while ignoring St George was a middle eastern man.
Through this it’s further reinforced how ironic ownership is a defining aspect of Courting, a process of wearing the clothes and looking back in the cracked mirror to show the true sense of folly. It’s a move that’s typified the band’s visual aesthetic as well as the lyricism, notably on David Byrne’s Badside which is told from the perspective of a character with contradictory and racist tendencies.
“We try and play characters of people we don’t like,” answers Murphy-O’Neill when we press on the subject further. “I read an interview with Country Teasers where [Ben Wallers] said he likes to play like horrible, horrible people, and tries to sing from their perspectives. And I think that’s something we definitely took in mind on David Byrne’s Badside. I think we’ve managed to make it obvious, without just coming out and screaming what we’re against. An element of subtlety can actually make it hit a bit harder than if we were just really obvious.”
The 90s Scottish band Murphy-O’Neill notes where chameleonic shapeshifters of the unsettling and captivating. Fat White Family are clear descendants in their quest for an atmosphere of lurid smut. But it’s the former who controversially would look to scuff the line between character-led performance and harboured point of view. The effect can be somewhat galling when listening back. I ask Murphy-O’Neill if he ever fears wearing the mask will leave an imprint.
“There’s a line to it,” he assets. “For Country Teasers, the line is blurred. I’m not an advocate for how they go about doing it. But I think that at least considering the point of view of the person you hate is maybe a good way of thinking of things to write about them.”
He continues: “Listening to a band like Country Teasers can be incredibly difficult, which can be a good thing. Because when you listen to them, it kind of reminds you of your own morals, because you hear something so sickening, you think, ‘I’m glad that I’m repulsed by this’. Even though it’s coming from someone who is taking the piss, I’m glad it still bothers me. I’m glad I don’t listen to this in a complacent way when he says things that are so horrible.”
We’ve been sat on the highest point of the hillside for close to an hour. An invasive drone circles above, a police helicopter treading in the air even higher. At this point the effects of no sun cream are becoming evident. Solely in sense of weather, the summer has been a good one. Ironically, it was meant to have been one where football came home again. That was before the pandemic struck and Euro 2020 was cancelled. Before then it was meant to have been football’s first return ticket since the summer of 96, another summer typified by its searing heat and national let down. Not to mention Britpop, a bracket the band are now popping up in.
As genre tags go, the recent labelling of Courting as Britpop could seem a little reductive. Perhaps there’s similarities in sound on the steady chug and chorus led refrain of their most recent single, but Courting’s message is incongruent with the genre on the whole. Away from the time and place encapsulation of Definitely Maybe Oasis, or satirical social commentary of Pulp, they’re far from the Cool Britannia mould – a cut and paste factory line bearing the signature of faux-New Labour change. Britpop en masse is vacuous and dangerous apathy. As is ‘guitar music’. Courting isn’t so much apathy, more so standing your ground, observing the landscape in all its horror. I suggest Brexpop as a fitting tag, but they aren’t having it. The other genre tag, as Murphy-O’Neill states, offers up its own incentive.
“We’d like to reclaim the phrase ‘guitar music’ and take it away from being a dirty word,” he says with a cheeky optimism. “When I hear it, I think of the most boring bands on the planet. I want guitar music to sound interesting again. That’s what we’re doing. The tag will come more from the music than the lyrics. It’s our mantra, to stop guitar music from being a dirty word and turn it into something that’s good again. We don’t want to be labelled as landfill. We want to be thought of as interesting.”
Courting exemplify how not giving a shit is again inherently political. Or rather, they’re helping to shift the boundaries of protest: what it requires, who it’s aimed at, how it’s carried out. Shouting back at the Tory void will only lead to exhaustion. So many bands wear that tiredness. Capturing the miniature, the incidental, the idiosyncratic can reveal much more than making every song a political flag-bearer. Gyrating carefree to lashings of cowbell can be more rebellious than serving three chords and “fuck you” addressed directly to Boris Johnson. But even in this assessment it might be overplaying Courting’s aims. There’s lots of care in what they perceive is a lack of it.
“It is just a laugh, you know. I’m not doing this to put on my CV, we’re not doing it so that we can just be liked,” say Murphy-O’Neill. “But, at the end of the day, if you want to make your career out of having a laugh, you’ve got to make sure you’re good at it.”
“It’s a structured laugh,” replies Cope as we exit the hillside, the cast of characters still in their places. “It’s a laugh with some concern,” concludes Murphy-O’Neill.
Pop Shop will be available from 6th November via Nice Swan records.