Great Sounds Great:
The Courtneys Keep the Kiwi Poppin’
It’s no overstatement to say that Canadian indie rock trio The Courtneys have lived the dream since their second album, II, was released in February by New Zealand’s legendary Flying Nun Records.
To put this band and label partnership in perspective, it’d be like a contemporary country singer signing with RCA back when that deal came with a chance to work with picker and producer extraordinaire Chet Atkins. Or maybe it’s more like today’s extreme metal purists inking with Metal Blade at its peak. Shoot, they probably feel the same as all the ‘90s devotees that end up on Sub Pop, Matador or some other giant indie label from their youth.
Flying Nun is a big deal for bandmates Courtney Loove (guitar), Sydney Koke (bass) and Jen Twynn Payne (drums/vocals) because, from their earliest mentions in press, the trio has been likened to many of the great New Zealand bands that are now their label mates. It’s a true D.I.Y. success story, earned by the persistence and hard work that have always made the bands on labels like Flying Nun so endearing.
“I think we perpetuated that ourselves because we posted we were a Flying Nun influenced band on our Facebook,” Koke says. “I think it still says that, which is hilarious. The first song Jen the drummer and I played together in band, like three bands ago in a house we lived in together, was ‘Point That Thing Somewhere Else’ by The Clean. It’s totally part of our deal, for sure. It’s something we had in common when we met Courtney, as well.”
Flying Nun was founded in 1981, offering an independent label home for the blossoming music scene in Dunedin and other New Zealand cities. The weird, lo-fi genius of Chris Knox, The Dead C, The Bats, 3Ds and numerous others made for one of the most stacked and influential rosters from that storied period of do-it-yourself labels. It’s the label that Burger Records, Captured Tracks and other modern tastemakers aspire to become. After a three-year stint as Warner Bros. property, the label was acquired in 2009 to a group led by founder Roger Shepherd.
The Courtneys’ appreciation for such kiwi pop legends as The Clean is obvious, but they’re just as influenced by indie tastemakers, and fellow Flying Nun devotees, Pavement. While they don’t sound exactly like those two bands on any song, those are as good examples as any to describe a sound that crams ’90s guitar rock artistry into simple, pop-accessible song structures. It’s a sound that’s developed at its own pace, as the group has concocted a sound that pays homage to their favorites without ripping them off.
“The earliest Courtneys songs had less of a pop song structure,” Koke says. “They were more like post-punk. One band we all really like is Pavement. We also like Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr. and stuff like that. That influences Courtney’s guitar playing style, which is kind of big.”
Prior to The Courtneys, Koke and Payne played in multiple bands together, including a frantic post-punk band and a gothy outfit featuring Patrick Flegel from Women.
When Loove (nee Garvin) entered the picture, she brought an obvious band name with her. What’s different with this band? Courtney’s different! Plus, it’s a name that’s easy to associate with the ‘80s and ‘90s. Indeed, the average 20 or 30-something probably knew one Courtney for every three Michaels during their school days.
The only downside has been the number of curious people who wondered who all shared the band’s name, or whether the one actual Courtney is the band’s driving creative force. It’s sort of like how Allie Hanlon of Peach Kelli Pop says a lot of people assume she must be Kelli.
“It’s been really confusing for people because they think Courtney is the leader of the band sometimes, but then they realize that Jen is the singer,” Koke adds. “We tried to deal with that for a while by all calling ourselves Courtney. We had our Spice Girl Courtney names like Crazy Courtney or Classic Courtney or whatever.”
The Courtneys’ first self-titled album (they’ve stuck with a Zeppelin-esque numbering system so far) arrived in 2013 via Hockey Dad Records, a small label from their Vancouver, BC, Canada hometown. It was fun and loose indie-pop, with songs like “Dead Dog” sounding ready-made for a trip to your friend with swimming pool access’ place.
A fan email sent by Payne to Flying Nun resulted in a pretty sweet overseas distribution deal for the first LP, furthering the reach of an album that netted a relatively new band enviable spots on Mac DeMarco and Tegan & Sara tours.
Next came the first of two life-affirming tours in Australia that included brief stays in New Zealand. There, they first connected with their dream label.
“When we met (Flying Nun), we thought they seemed like really cool people to work with, so we asked if we could send them our next record,” Koke says. “They said, ‘Yeah, send it over.’ That was so exciting to hear that they’d be willing to listen to it. When we sent it, we were interested to hear what they’d think and were totally thrilled when they said yes.”
What Flying Nun received in the mail was a fuller, sonically mature evolution of the still-developing Courtneys sound. The dreamy, fuzzed-out sound of “Minnesota,” “Silver Velvet” and other standout tracks was great enough to make The Courtneys the first foreign act added to the Flying Nun roster.
Although the band has spent minimal time in New Zealand, logging just six days total across two visits, their favorite overseas tour stop has lived up to the hype. Koke got to meet and share the stage with one of her bass playing inspirations, Mikey Young of Eddy Current Suppression Ring. At that show and others, the sold-out crowd sang along with their favorite Courtneys songs,
“It’s really cool when you’re influenced by music from a certain place, then you go to that place and you find out that the people there really get you,” Koke says. “No one there thinks of us as copying them. They can tell that we love (kiwi pop) the same way they love it.”
Moving forward, the group has already started working on a new batch of songs. “We just had our first bunch of songwriting sessions, and it’s going really well so far,” Koke says. “It’s our first time writing in a chunk, where we have a few sessions in a row. In the past we did just a few hours every week. It’s cool to see how much time you save by not having so much time between sessions because you don’t have to try to remember what you did or listen to recordings to figure it out. We can move a lot quicker on ideas. We’re hoping to do more sessions like that, maybe some in New Zealand.”
These potential New Zealand plans involve writing songs in the same context as The Clean would have done. “So far, we’ve been picking up the culture and the vibe of that type of music from afar.” Koke says. “All of our songwriting has occurred in Vancouver so far. We’re not really here much anymore, so it’ll be interesting to see how being in a different place shapes our songwriting.”
Do these sessions, regardless of where they’re hosted, make The Courtneys’ routine of trimming elaborate song ideas down to simpler, pop-accessible structures easier or tougher? “We’ll definitely be less prone to ‘demo-itis” because we won’t have weeks in between sessions to get attached to a particular version of a song, which is great,” Koke says. ”But at the same time, we have an understanding that in order for us to know if a certain version of a song is right, we have to listen to it quite a bit for maybe a month.”
In the meantime, the band’s current album tour offers a chance to spend a little time in the South at a bucket list destination.
“We were really sticky with our booking about our need to go to Dollywood,” Koke says. “We’ve been trying to go for a few tours now, and it hasn’t worked out. We’re touring with this amazing band called Versing, and they’re going to meet us to start the tour at one of the roller coasters in Dollywood. I forget which one.”
Does this giddiness about Pigeon Forge’s hottest tourist destination mean the Courtneys hold country music in high regard? Not really, aside from the singer. “We all appreciate her, but Jen is a big Dolly Parton fan,” Koke says. “That’s her hero.”
Hopefully, the next handy happenstance in Courtneys history finds Parton mulling around her own amusement park while Flying Nun’s hot new act happens to be on the premises. That’d be almost as cool as finally meeting The Clean.
Photo by Andrew Volk.