Artist Spotlight: Courting

    Courting is a Liverpool-based quartet made up of Sean Murphy-O’Neill on guitar and vocals, Joshua Cope on guitar, Connor McCann on bass, and Sean Thomas on drums. All four members were still teenagers when they started the band, and having already earned a reputation as a live act in the Liverpool music scene, they released their debut EP, Grand National, in 2021. Though they’d originally been dubbed a post-punk group, Courting veered away from that genre descriptor on their debut album, Guitar Music, a relentlessly chaotic and ambitious record that managed to channel its experimental tendencies as part of a bizarre vision of both reality and pop music. Its follow-up, New Last Name, was recorded with Gary and Ryan Jarman of the Cribs, maintaining a similar melodic focus even as it’s presented as a “theatrical play within an album.” The songs are ridiculously tuneful and adventurous no matter how you choose to engage with the story or its slew of references, built with their own plot twists and moments of catharsis. It’s a world you can get tangled up in, but at the end of the day, Courting just want you to have fun with it.

    We caught up with Courting’s Sean Murphy-O’Neill for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the making of New Last Name, the narrative of the album, drawing from pop-punk, and more.

    You started writing New Last Name before Guitar Music was even announced. Do you think you’d have gone into it with a different mindset had you taken in the response from your debut album?

    Absolutely. As a band, we were very worried about writing an album after we’d already received criticism on the first record, because I think then we would, either consciously or subconsciously, be writing a record to fit the tastes of those who didn’t like the first one. Our plan was, if we could get straight in and write the second album before anyone’s even had a chance to listen to what we were doing, the second album would kind of resist the sophomore slump and be unburdened from whatever criticism or praise was put on the first album. So the idea was kind of to get ahead of the curve and write it completely from our influence and make an album that we wanted to make before people could really have their claws on it. A lot of our process as a band is just going solely off intuition, and I think we made the first record really intuitively, and the same with this one. But I guess you never know how you would have made something differently if you’d really taken the time to consider what people think about it. As an artist, it’s slightly dangerous to be that receptive to feedback and criticism because I think in some ways it damages the naturalness of a piece of art.

    I’m interested in how that intuitive approach is affected by bringing a narrative concept into it, which is what you did with New Last Name, in your words a theatrical play within an album.” Was that a vision you had from the beginning, or did you have separate songs and then had to flesh out the details for the story to make sense?

    It’s always a little bit of both. We had the record written, and it just happened to work and fit the concept that we were going for, and then we focused on the details and made everything link together. But as much as I talk about intuition as a band, we kind of do overthink everything we do, and everything is very detail-oriented. Then at the same time, sometimes someone suggests the album should be a play and that’s just the direction we take. We try not to think too hard about the decisions we’re making, because if you start really overanalyzing why you’re doing things or what it means, you can get lost in that and stop trying to make it actually a solid record.

    To what extent did the narrative and the characters of the album, as they were shaping up, also guide the sound of it?

    I’d say they came completely separate. The character design came from a bit of an in-joke that we have as a band where, when we were on tour last year, we kept coming up with these fictional names. I guess we committed to the bit so hard that it actually just seeped into our creative process, and we ended up with all these fake character names. That’s the thing – if your group dynamic has a joke for two years that you all enjoy, it’s going to seep into your creative process. Really minor things from your life might end up affecting what you’re actually making. I wouldn’t say it has any real influence on the songs or the style of music, but in maybe the presentation of the whole record, how we wanted to present it as something slightly silly, a little bit more interesting, a little bit more involved.

    I like this idea of a project coming together as a result of really just committing to the bit. There’s a joke on Flex that pretty much sums up the album’s protagonist:  “I went away for a while (I come back all the time)/ I can’t leave this town, I’m not a pop-punk band.”

    The joke on that as well is that song came out the same time as ‘Throw’, which is very obviously indebted to pop-punk cliches. Us writing a song declaring to not be something, then instantly release another song which actually follows genre conventions of that thing is quite funny, at least to us. We never really take ourselves too seriously. Obviously, we’re trying to make something interesting, but it should never take itself too seriously. We didn’t want this to become an overbearing concept album where you couldn’t just listen to the songs because you’re too worried thinking about how the plot is progressing from song to song. We wanted to strike that balance where you could listen to this record as a casual listener and just enjoy the songs, or if you want to really think about what it means and get involved in the narrative and details that we’ve hidden across the record, then you can do that as well.

    I feel like you lean into pop-punk tropes throughout the album, like on ‘The Wedding’. It’s funny how the press release calls a clear example of the band indulging in guilty pleasures,” when it doesn’t sound like genre is something you’d feel guilty about as a band.

    Yeah, exactly. I like to use the phrase “guilty pleasures” as kind of a focus point for maybe how other people see it, but that’s not to say that we find those pleasures guilty to indulge in. As a band, one thing that we’ve noticed is that there are a lot of genres that have been getting critical reappraisal in the last few years which people originally really hated, and I don’t know if that’s due to bands like 100 gecs – not poking fun, but bringing fun through genres that are inherently kind of silly, like American dubstep, pop-punk, nu metal. All those genres, there’s something almost primitive that makes you enjoy them – you could listen to constant IDM or whatever, but there’s some part of your brain that secretly wants to enjoy a Fall Out Boy song. Even through all its layers of silliness and cheese, it’s still really good songwriting, in my opinion, and that’s something we wanted to tap into.

    That was definitely the intention of ‘Throw’. Since that song came out, people have said, “Oh, this is just a pop-punk song,” and I don’t think that’s really true. I think most of the song exists as how we would have written a song anyway, but the joke to me in that track is that for essentially no reason, at the two-minute mark, it backturns into a riff that is far too ridiculous for the song. Not to sound cocky – I think a lot of bands maybe would’ve took that riff and just written a whole song around that, but the joke for us was to have not just the song and that cliche, but one of our songs that could then use that moment of cliche as a moment of relief within the song. There’s a level of catharsis involved in having something really silly in an otherwise serious song, and I think that’s what we aim for. We kind of do it a lot throughout the album, like ‘Flex’, the ending to me is really cathartic. That moment of catharsis is something that’s very important in how we write, and we often draw that from that idea of guilty pleasures and cliches from other genre conventions.

    Part of the reason I asked if the narrative shaped the sound of the album as well is because I feel like one of the themes here is a longing for simpler times, and a lot of us associate those genres with youth. That longing is almost mirrored in the poppiness of tracks like ‘We Look Good Together (Big Words)’, which is this flashback moment.

    You’re so right, we were definitely more inspired by music that we enjoyed when we were younger, rather than trying to make a statement that’s fairly clever. Even in the narrative of the album, ‘Throw’ serves as a kind of prelude to a flashback – if that sits at the start of this play and it’s present day, then ‘We Look Good Together’ is far back in time.

    Apart from ‘Throw’, you also experiment with the progression of a song on tracks like ‘Happy Endings’ and ‘The Hills’. Was it more of a challenge to find the space to take risks in the context of this album narrative compared to Guitar Music?

    I feel like the perk of writing Guitar Music as our debut album is it doesn’t really feel like any risk is off the table. I feel like we’ve kind of wiped the slate, and now there are no real expectations for us to be boring, so every time there was some creative risk that we wanted to take, there was never a moment of thinking, “Let’s not do this.” And again, it comes back to intuition. On ‘Happy Endings’, we weren’t trying to be necessarily clever in why we did that, there was just a naturally occurring thought of, “This song needs to do this, so that is the avenue we take it down.” Same with ‘The Hills’, I don’t think I could have planned to make a song like that. It just has to happen, and it just ends up there. You could spend forever thinking, “This first part’s gonna be inspired by this and this second part is gonna be inspired by this,” and pick all these really interesting influences, but what you end up with is a weird pastiche. I think we just absorb so much music that when part of your intuition says to add a drum ‘n’ bass section, it doesn’t feel that weird anymore.

    One thing that complicates the relationships in New Last Name is fame, which is a subject you’ve written about since the Grand National  EP. Has your perspective or interest in it as theme changed?

    I don’t know, I think the exploration of it across this album is almost completely fictional. For the play to work, obviously we have all these characters, but the premise behind that suggests that we, as real people, are some sort of famous actors playing these roles, which is influenced a lot of the direction of the record. When we did those first press shots with like the fake paparazzi, the idea was rather than being a smaller band, we were already ludicrously famous actors starring in this incredibly high-profile piece of art. I think it’s fun to pretend with stuff like that and add unnecessary layers of depth to things.

    I keep trying to find better ways to phrase this, but I think music and the album as a format is unfortunate in how it can be enjoyed, because when compared to maybe media like a film or a TV show, the album is just judged in one plane of existence. You’re being judged for the music, whereas if you watch a film there’s points for plot, points for style, this ridiculous range of things that make something a good movie. With music, people aren’t taking the time to give it the same level of appreciation to those other elements, so what we wanted to do was invent a world that this album could exist where it could have points for narrative, points for style, without making an overbearing concept record, essentially.

    I think a lot of music, especially music that falls into the pop bracket, falls back into what I was saying before, that unless it is already critically valued, it almost falls into the” low art” category. I think that’s upsetting, because you can make a film that is really trashy, but people watching it still see it as really valuable art because they can tell what point you’re making. But I think with music it’s harder to show where you’re being sincere and what point you’re trying to make because people are enjoying it in a completely different way. We wanted to build this foundation so that maybe the audience would be slightly better at being receptive of when we’re being more sincere, when we’re joking, when we’re playing with a different format. When we’re making something a little bit trashy or a little bit cliche, hopefully they can recognize that they’re in on the joke rather than it sounding like that is our total commitment to style.

    At the same time, you need to have that sincerity for a lot of that to work at all, which New Last Name does.

    I’d say it’s as sincere as we can be. There’s hardly any moment where it’s not personal in some way. Even if it is varied between different characters or a narrative plot, it’s a very personal album that has just been filtered through a narrative and stylistic lens rather than an ironic lens. Don’t get me wrong, everything we’re doing on the album is out of a pure enjoyment for it. We didn’t want the narrative and the world-building to take away from this just being a record which is essentially meant to be fun. We’ll always shoot to make songs that are just enjoyable. It should be fun to hear as it is to make.

    Gary Jarman of the Cribs, who you worked with on the album, described you as “a group of people who need each other, personally and creatively.” Do you mind talking about how that manifests in your day-to-day life?

    I think as a band, we just do a lot of work together. This is a very DIY operation, we have a very small team of collaborators, and we work together a lot of the time. We all went to university together, we design our own posters, we design things for our albums together, we work on the plot. I guess there are certain records where you can just tell the process is very involved, and I think as a band we are very involved with what we make. We’ve been doing this for a while, so it does feel like we’re all really in touch with what we’re trying to make. We know the game.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Courting’s New Last Name is out January 26 via Lower Third.

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