Band To Watch: Courting
Liverpool quartet Courting are following up their 2022 debut album Guitar Music with another debut album. This backwards logic is par for the course for a Charli XCX-covering, hyperpop-loving group trying to prove they’re anything but a boring British post-punk band. Their first rejection of such project pigeon-holing was naming their first debut album Guitar Music, inspired by lazy media characterizations of them as a rock group. The eight-song album was a glorious, glitchy, and unexpecting rabbit hole. Alongside corroded guitar melodies and road-raging drums, frontman and self-proclaimed “creative director” Sean Murphy-O’Neill deadpanned reference-heavy lyrics, ranging from David Berman to A.I. influencer Lil Miquela. Behind his sometimes pointed, sometimes silly allusions, Murphy-O’Neill penned sentimental reflections about beauty standards, aging versus growing up, and the relationship between cityscapes and financial division. The, at times outrageous, album was meant to be a bit outrageous by design.
“I feel like we have less to prove,” Murphy-O’Neill says, Zooming in from Liverpool, about their new album. New Last Name found them writing songs that they wanted to hear, rather than feeling the “need to have any shock factor in the songs.” It’s a masterclass in 2000s pop writing, drawing from pop-punk (think Fall Out Boy, maybe a little hellogoodbye) to indie (think Rooney and Phantom Planet). “In a way, it’s like a second debut album,” he says. “I know that’s cheating. But that’s how it feels. We kind of got all of that out the way and then we’ve made something that’s a bit more personal, a bit more natural.” Although the new LP from Murphy-O’Neill, Sean Thomas, John Cope, and Connor McCann might seem less complicated with its pop-heavy exterior — featuring production from DJ Sabrina the Teenage DJ and the Cribs’ Gary and Ryan Jarman — that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
New Last Name is not entirely a concept album, but it’s a play within an album. It’s even a bit confusing for Murphy-O’Neill to explain without giving away the entire bit. “I’m trying to figure out how to explain this,” he pauses. “I’ve made so much lore for the record that it’s confusing. The idea was that this is essentially a musical accompaniment to the theatrical performance that aids the narrative. We are performing the songs, but then acting in the play. It is told from one perspective, but there is a cast list. And then there are some stage directions which maybe change how some parts of the tracklist are interpreted throughout.” Not complicated at all.
The band’s origin story is far less complex. But the instinct to study graphic design at university, where the group came together around longtime collaborators Murphy-O’Neill and Thomas, is central to Courting’s dynamic presentation. (Lyrics aren’t their only reference–heavy forte.) “I can’t understand when someone can make a song and then go ‘but I can envision what this is going to look like,'” he explains. “I know exactly how I want it to look, what the book should look like, what the vinyl should look like. I think that’s more fun because it’s the whole thing. It’s not just a set of songs.”
After chatting with Murphy-O’Neill, it’s clear there’s an entire Courting universe in his head that is bound to come out. The 22-year-old admits he aims to have four albums out by age 25. “I can’t see a world where I’m not doing this. It’s too much fun. It takes up like 99% of my day,” he says frankly. “I don’t think I could go back to do something really boring after having my head so swarmed with this many ideas for a project.”
Below, Murphy-O’Neill goes into detail about the world-building of New Last Name, his lyrical style, and the band’s influences and goals.
When listening to New Last Name, I thought a lot about Turnstile’s last album Glow On and how they were mashing a bunch of genres together through their own lens. What was your mindset going into this project?
SEAN MURPHY-O’NEILL: For me, the album as a format, should keep people on their toes these days. It would be so easy for us to go into the studio and create 10 songs that sound very similar, recorded and produced similarly. And then you put them on a record, and then we play a game of, if people like that then they’re gonna really like the record because they like one song. Pulling off a record like that is really hard to do because then you might have three great songs and then seven awful songs. If you try nine different styles, and bring them into one cohesive body of work, wherever they make sense, rather than trying to appeal to one type of person, you’re casting the net wider. You’re allowing people to take different things from your art rather than focusing and maybe diluting one sound across a whole body of work.
Is that why you kind of clung to this loose narrative or concept as a centering point?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: To be fair, I’m fully expecting people to tell me that the album isn’t cohesive, but to me, it feels quite cohesive. The best way I can explain it is, if I was watching a film, outside of maybe the plot and cinematography, there can be a whole separate layer of — another type of language that can be added into a movie, which I don’t think you can get in music. I think people listen to music in a different way than how they take in most other art forms, or at least like un-poppy music. And what I wanted to do, by adding the narrative side, is to add an extra level of depth to the record so that if people wanted to view it in a more conceptual way they could, and if they wanted to view it just as a record, they could do that as well. The concept should never be overbearing upon the music.
The narrative affected how I was listening to the record a lot. I kept trying to reorient myself.
MURPHY-O’NEILL: It’s a tough one for me to try and explain, to be honest. We didn’t want to write like our version of The Wall. It’s not about the plot, it’s about the songs but, if people want to figure out the plot they can. We kind of wanted to approach that in the design of the record, physically and online.
The story is definitely told more through the tiny details at the end of songs and the sequencing, and also greater helped by some of the stage directions in the lyric sheet. When you’d get an old record on vinyl, and you could read the lyric sheet as it plays and maybe there will be little things that you’d go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” We kind of wanted it so that if you are reading that, it’s telling you slightly what’s happening, if this was a theatrical adaptation. So maybe there’s more to be gathered in that. But it’s definitely not meant to be easy to understand. It’s kind of told through, like tiny clues, so that people can make guesses without ever really being said what the record is actually about.
There is something about keeping that mystery preserved. And I respect that, but I’m curious why you think that’s important for your work.
MURPHY-O’NEILL: I’m kind of coming at it from the same lens as maybe with Twin Peaks, where David Lynch thought if they told everyone who the killer was people will stop watching. And I think that if you give away too much of what something’s about, maybe people stop trying to investigate what it’s actually about. Having kind of an open-ended mystery, it rewards people re-listening to the record, and maybe trying to get more invested in that world. As a musician, it’s kind of hard to world-build an album. And it’s even harder to make people really care about that. By keeping it slightly spoiler-free, people will then try and investigate for themselves and come to their own very open-ended conclusions on the narrative.
Have you gotten a lot of like responses from people about what they think it’s about?
We tried to not elaborate on it in various degrees of silliness [laughs]. The first two music videos had no relation to the plot. And we disclaim that in the music videos — this is actually behind the scenes or this is actually an audition — so that they don’t they don’t give away anything. Part of that is, well, obviously I know what the album is about to me, but like death to the artists, like people can make it up. That’s equally important. So long as people decide what it’s about for themselves, then I’m fine to let them speculate and not spoil it for them.
You created this other social media account for a band called the Throwbecks?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: [Laughs] The gimmick we were trying to do there is not so related to the album, but we were just trying to create loads of lore and be confusing and vague about everything. But the bit was that we realized when making that video, that if we were the actors in this play, we’d have written all the songs, but these songs are a musical accompaniment to the play, then we can’t act the play and also play the songs. So the only solution for our theatrical play is to then hire another band to play the songs whilst we act. But obviously, in this case, we are also that fictional band, or we are pretending to be a fictional band. That’s about as well as I can explain that.
It sounds like it was fun to conceptualize this?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: It’s very silly. About two years ago, we did a tour in Portugal. And I can’t remember how it came about, but we started assigning each other really awful fictional nicknames. This grew into kind of a full-time hobby, where we ended up with a list of about 600 fake names. When we started thinking about the album, we wanted to do maybe the classic David Bowie move of having fictional characters that we can create, to take away the personal aspect and make it more of a narrative concept. And it just so happened that we had 600 names to choose from. That’s kind of the point, we just wanted to commit to the bit. Make it a little bit more interesting and not be too serious about it.
In terms of world-building, how did you go from Guitar Music to this?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: Realistically what both of those albums come down to in terms of world-building outside of maybe like conceptual direction for the whole record is lyrically. I like to reference things. And I like to call back to things, because I think it makes songs more immersive. I know some people have a problem with reference-based lyrics because it feels like it can date a song very easily. But that doesn’t really fuss me. If someone is listening to a song and you mention something that they already know about, you can kind of bring them up to speed a lot faster. If I’m telling a story, and I say, “Oh, that red car,” versus, “Oh, that Toyota Yaris.” It’s quicker. In songwriting, you don’t have that many words. So if I can say something that can take a listener straight to what I’m talking about in two words, even if it dates the song, I don’t really care.
Once we have those references and ideas in place, narratively, it can be fun to kind of build around them or call back to them. There’s [reference] we do a lot in this album, where I keep coming back to the year 2009, both from different perspectives throughout the record from my past, present, future kind of thing. By doing that you build the songs into a collection rather than individual pieces. I think people listening will catch on to the connective tissue between the songs.
There’s an interview where you talk about collaging, as a lyrical style, how did that become something interesting to you?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: For me, as a lyricist, writing a song in one go is really difficult, and I don’t really enjoy it. For every one line that is really brilliant, if you speak totally from the heart, like 90% of those lines might be really shit or really cliched. I don’t have a problem with that but, for me, what is more fun is to write down every line that I’m really proud of that means something or I think is interesting. Then, when I come to write lyrics for a song I have so many. I don’t necessarily do the William Burroughs kind of cut-and-paste type stuff. I read through and usually it automatically highlights itself to me. The narrative comes together. It’s never intentional. It’s always just a total freak accident.
Usually, once I’ve got maybe like 10 lines plastered together that feel like they make sense, in a completely new context — the thing worth knowing is I’ve probably written these lyrics over the timeframe of a year, so what that meant to me a year ago probably means something completely different now — the narrative is so disconnected from what I intended it to be I’ve usually got something interesting to finish writing a song about. I like to take my time on songs. Usually where they end up when you let them reveal themselves to you rather than rush them, is a more interesting place than just whatever comes into your head first.
I didn’t think about it till now, but this album seems to be playing with nostalgia whereas I feel like Guitar Music was grounded the present or some near future.
MURPHY-O’NEILL: Interestingly enough, on “Throw,” or anytime on the album, where I mentioned a city, at least in my head, I was directly trying to refer to the one on the cover of Guitar Music. That’s how I connected it. They kind of exist in the same world. What I can tell you, because I say it in the physical packaging, is that the album is meant to be viewed in a narrative way that’s not necessarily linear. “Throw” serves as a prelude to this narrative flashback, maybe from like, “We Look Good Together” to the end of “Emily G,” when it does that weird time warp effect. And then it cuts back to the present day, at least in the plot, which we’ve split into two parts — the two parts are just the sides of the vinyl.
Maybe it’s worth mentioning that obviously, in terms of detailing, after “Happy Endings,” we have the audience clapping before “America.” And I outlined in the stage directions how that’s meant to be technically the end of the narrative of the record, with the last song almost being performed off camera. Or if it was a play, the curtains have gone down and it’s as if someone’s microphone has been left on. People in the audience are uncertain whether it’s a part of the performance or a freak accident, at least how I see. It’s kind of like an epilogue.
I was also drawn to “Happy Endings.” Is it on purpose that that song and “Throw” have lyrical call backs to each other?
I love that detail.
MURPHY-O’NEILL: There’s also kind of a sneaky little reference to maybe, I kind of wanted to do the Sgt. Pepper’s thing where they are a fictional band, they end the fictional band, and then just do “A Day In The Life,” and I thought that was funny. Having a clap track not on the last song is just a good bit. So I think it adds to the narrative a little bit, and maybe a little Liverpool inside reference kind of thing.
Does the band have major influences or is there a band longevity-wise you’d like to mimic?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: “Throw” definitely was trying to do a pop-punk song to the highest level of cliche fun. With the pop-punk revivalism happening, I found it really cheesy when an artist who doesn’t normally do a pop-punk song would just do a really shitty pop-punk song. We thought, okay, we’ll write a normal song and then have a section that is every cliche in one go as a bit of a joke. But deep down, everyone really likes that kind of shit. So when we wrote the pop-punky riff and the breakdown, it came from trying to take the piss with it but knowing that we really enjoy that. There’s a reason every 15-year-old likes pop-punk. It’s a therapeutic genre, because it’s all filled with hate presented in a silly way. And I really liked that. But we didn’t want that to paint our whole identity, but a song. This could be relief from the seriousness of the other parts. Obviously, we’ll do the riff half time, then double time, and then triple time, and take the piss with it and then see how far we can go.
Career-wise, and I’m very delicate with saying this because everyone makes this comparison and this one does slightly upset me, is that I don’t want to sound like the 1975, but I think they’re in a very admirable career position where they can do what they want. I respect that they have that many fans, and they take the time to do these strange detours and make weird double albums when they could very easily produce a 10-song album of shit. That’s very respectable. Another band that comes into that, for me, is maybe the Arctic Monkeys. They’re so content in doing what they want to do. And I think that’s the best position to be in as an artist. And that’s definitely what we wanted to do. We thought that by putting our weirdest album first, people would have no expectation of us to be a boring post punk band. And now we can just do whatever we want. And it feels like we’re doing whatever we want.
I also don’t want to offend you, but I do remember the band I thought of when hearing this album was Los Campesinos!
MURPHY-O’NEILL: That’s fair. We were listening to a lot of Los Campesinos! at the start. I was talking to Rob from Sports Team. I sent him our first album a few years ago, and he told me it reminded him of them. At the time I had never listened to them, and then I did. That was completely unintentional, but a little bit of that did come through to this record. That’s fair. We were listening to a lot of Wolf Parade. Let me look, I’ve got a playlist. It’s kind of all over the place. There’s definitely a bit of Fall Out Boy in there, but that’s kind of in a jokey way. Like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, lot of Regina Spektor, lot of Broken Social Scene. One person who’s colored a lot of our music is probably Frank Ocean. A lot of 2000s indie, to be honest. I guess it’s an album rooted in music from when we were young, coming back to the surface now that we can kind of do what we want. There’s a lot of inspiration from Frank Ocean in whatever we do. In the idea of being a pop star, making whatever you want, as weird or as popular as you’d like. I think that is something that he’s so incredible at doing.
Do you have goals in the new year, or like in the near future of what?
MURPHY-O’NEILL: With no modesty intended, I want to make so many big songs that we can headline Glastonbury. Like, that’s exactly what we want.