"People don't want us to fail anymore, which is kind of nice."
Liam Fray is considered and introspective when ruminating on the early days of fronting the Courteeners. The Manchester band had a quick ascent from their first shows in 2006, and less than 2 years later Fray was on magazine covers and attracting tabloid attention for his antagonistic remarks towards other bands. St. Jude, the band's 2008 debut, elicited praise from Morrissey, and the soaring, singalong choruses coupled with chugging guitars made them a constant on the indie circuit. Alongside this success, Fray's remarks at the time led to him being painted as a boorish, Liam Gallagher-style aggressor in the press. This resulted in the band being pigeonholed as, to put it bluntly, a group of angry young men from Manchester.
"We weren't really sure about it. We were like, 'Why has this happened?' [It's] because they need a target don't they, and maybe that was us for a while. That's okay. It makes you stronger, I suppose. You want to prove people wrong." It seems like it's easier for him to look back on it now, from the vantage of point of being on the cusp of releasing the Courteeners' fifth album. "You look back, and it was nine years ago, so it almost is a lifetime ago. You live and learn."
In the intervening nine years, the four-piece have played sold-out arena shows in their hometown and consistently honed their output. Their debut was frazzled and catchy, with songs about persistent groupies ("Was there are a dirty double-decker stage coach you just happened to miss?") and growing up ("You're not nineteen forever/Pull yourself together"). These early songs have been traded for a fuller, more nuanced sound that has gradually been built upon during each of the band's albums. Mapping the Rendezvous, the band's fifth album and first without bassist Mark Cuppello, was largely written in Paris.
"It was quite charged," says Fray when describing the atmosphere in the city. "We stayed in the 10th [arrondissement of Paris] and it was right where they had a couple of the attacks. We made quite a lot of friends when we were over there, and it's still really affected by it. You can tell it's still very raw. It was tough, but it was difficult to not be moved when you were there."
Did it affect your creative process at all?
"I wouldn't say so, no. On a personal level, it made you really realise how you lucky you were to be able to do what you want to do. A lot of people lost friends. People lost wives and husbands. You see things on the news and it doesn't register sometimes because you think it's so far away. When you spend a little bit of time somewhere and you get a feeling of the place it really hits home that people lost friends, wives, girlfriends and husbands. On a personal level it just made me feel grateful about what we're doing. [You need to] get up and live your days really. It's a privileged position to be in a band and be a songwriter, and to do it for a living. It was good being over there. It's one of the big ones: Paris, New York, London. So it's difficult to not be swept away in the romance of it."
"It's a privileged position to be in a band and be a songwriter, and to do it for a living."
Mapping the Rendezvous is a turning point in Fray's songwriting, where the typically autobiographical nature of his lyrics have become fused with some outlandish and eccentric scenarios. There's a freedom in the songs on this album, and the jaunty "De La Salle" combines memories of feeling constrained as a school student with an influx of famous characters making appearances on suburban Manchester streets. "My school was a De La Salle school. I remember being at school, and it seems like a different era now, but no one said to us, 'What do you wanna do, and what do you enjoy?'," he recalls.
Did you consciously have a moment where you went 'Look, I'm going to write about this', or did it just happen?
"Honestly, I wrote it hungover in 5 minutes. It's probably my favourite song on the record. My manager loves it. Campbell, the drummer, he loves it - he says it's his favourite. I think that's because the lyrics are almost... because I'm obviously not caring. You've got Elvis lives in Heaton Norris, which is a suburb of Stockport. I've got Steve McQueen getting on the school bus. I was just having a bit of fun really and then when I finished it I thought, 'Oh yeah, it actually stacks up here'."
A strong source of inspiration for the album came from Sebastian Schipper's film Victoria. The film was shot in one continuous take and depicts the exploits of a group of 20-somethings in Berlin who go on a late night bender that encompasses criminality, drama and a lot of weed. Fray described being "completely absorbed" by the film, and the urgency and euphoria of the film formed an important basis for Mapping the Rendezvous' closing track "The 17th". It's filled with propulsive drum rolls and glowing synths, as Fray laments: "The afternoon is peppered with regret/And all the things that you're trying to forget." He was initially uncertain about how people would react to a song that's such a departure from their usual sound, but it's garnered the most positive reaction out of their new songs so far.
"People are going mad for it. We played it at Reading and Leeds Festival and it was like it slotted straight in. We were like, 'Wow, didn't expect that'. I was a bit nervous about whether they'd go for it. But at the same time, there's only one of those style of tracks on the record so even if we did go, 'Well, we're not sure about this', it's like, it has to go on because it's something different and it's interesting. You have to take those risks. It's almost good it's there. It feels like [the album] finishes on a positive note, and I feel like that's where we are as well. It just feels like something's changed."
That change is clear from looking at the band's staggering trajectory. The morning of my phone interview with Fray the Courteeners had just announced a massive homecoming gig in Manchester's Emirates Old Trafford venue in May, with The Charlatans and Blossoms as support acts. It seems like they're ticking every conceivable music venue in Manchester off their list, but when pushed to pick a favourite hometown gig out of Heaton Park, Castlefield Bowl and Albert Hall there's clearly only one contender.
"I'd have to say Heaton Park. Just hearing someone say [all of those shows] is such a lovely thing, because 10 years ago Albert Hall didn't exist as a concert venue, but I just used to dream of those [shows] even being part of a sentence. So there's a bit of pinching going on, still. It still feels like we're still working towards something."
What do you have next to cross off your list? What's next after the big gig in Emirates Old Trafford?
"I don't know. There's a couple of football stadiums in Manchester, and they're pretty big. It's just one is a bit bigger than the other so I don't know if you do one then the next or what. I don't know if you'd play the blue one, I'm not sure. The Roses did it so..."
As it stands, the Courteeners are as inextricably linked to Manchester as the city's two rival football teams. When the band's success grew by the time their second album Falcon came out Fray was singing apologetically about "having an affair" with a myriad of cities but always being drawn back to his hometown. So has his relationship with his hometown changed after embarking on so many tours?
"We went travelling, and when we came back it was always a bit different because you've seen other things. So even though it's the centre of your heart, if you like, it's not the centre of the universe. You can go to other places and do things. So many people are all about their hometowns and home cities, they feel like you can't go and you can't leave. I've had no issue with living somewhere else."
I know Guy Garvey from Elbow gets a lot of flak anytime anyone gets the idea he'll move to London. Suddenly it's like, 'He can never leave, we won't let him'. You haven't felt that at all though, no?
"I posted a picture the other day of me wearing a white shirt that was tucked in, somebody was like, 'Tory, Southern...' and I was like, 'Are you fucking kidding? I'm wearing a white shirt'. It's just like you can't do anything these days without somebody having a go, but that's the nature of the beast unfortunately."
Fray's active social media accounts offer another avenue for gauging the negative and positive reactions from fans and trolls alike, but when asked if he faces much negativity online he sounds unperturbed: "I've gotta be honest, I'm quite surprised I don't get that much. I thought I'd get more."
So you were expecting abuse when you set up your twitter and Instagram?
"I really was. I had friends who said, 'Don't do it, don't go on it'. But I really enjoy it. It's lovely seeing people's stories that you would never get to see, like people getting tattoos of your band and your lyrics. It's like, 'Wow, that's incredible', and you get to see little videos of them playing songs and all that, and that's great. And then you get some idiot who's pissed on his own on a fucking Wednesday night who wants to let you have it. And it's like, 'Oh mate, come on there's gotta be something better for you to do'. It's a bit of a balancing act, but overall [social media] is worth having."
It's this connection that the Courteeners maintain with their fans, whether through social media or at shows, that's meant that their fanbase has never waned throughout the band's history. There's a combination of enthusiasm and disbelief in Fray's voice every time he's reminded of his band's success, and he constantly recognises the role that the Courteeners' dedicated fanbase have played in their ascent. The layered intensity of Mapping the Rendezvous isn't the sound of a band that's planning to slow down any time soon, and I'm sure the chorus of 26,000 voices that will fill the air in Manchester this spring will agree.