February 16, 2017

Interview: The Courtneys

Find out what The Courtneys have been up to since their 2013 debut.

When you think about music that is inherently nerdy, there are certain themes that stick in your mind. Nerdy music can be all in the song structure; it can be as simple as staying focused on maintaining one specific time signature for the duration of a track. Nerdy music can also be in the lyrics; chock full of hyper-specific references to other musicians, favorite writers, and even odes to nights spent alone eating Cheetos and playing video games. But then there's this other form of nerdy music that's more difficult to pinpoint in terms of sonics and lyrical references. Nerdy music can also simply be just giving a fuck. In The Courtneys’ sophomore album, The Courtneys II, there's an attention to detail and desire to craft perfect music that's staunchly anti-apathy.

The Vancouver-based trio spent three years in between records, but not because they were attempting to overhaul their sound. In fact, before they had even released their 2013 debut, the band had already started working on their second record. During that three year "break," they definitely had fun: they got ramen, they goofed off, and they spent a really long time in the hot tub. But they also worked on tightening their sound and figuring out what makes a song irresistibly catchy. For example, they listened to a ton of Teenage Fanclub and deliberated the idea of a perfect album and what that would sound like, both in terms of structure and aesthetics. When I spoke with Sydney Koke, the band’s bassist and vocalist, we talked about the idea of nerd culture in music, finding a balance between working in science and being in a band, and finally, why it's super important to care about your music.

THE LE SIGH: So I’m wondering how your approach to music, both you personally and as a band, has changed in those three years between your debut and this new record? 

Sydney Koke: It’s funny when people are like, “Wow it’s been a really long time since your last record,” because we’ve been working on this record since before the last one came out. One of the songs on II was actually ready when we were recording the first record, but we decided it wasn’t quite at the level that we wanted to record it yet. We have this idea that we kind of need to wait on things for awhile to be sure we really like it. So I remember that [track] wasn’t really at that point, but we’ve just been writing songs continuously up until a year and half ago when I moved here and then Courtney also moved to L.A., so there’s never been any time where we weren’t working on this album, pretty much. It just takes us a long time because in Vancouver we were usually jamming once or twice a week and our main concept as a band is to be chill and have fun so we weren’t like, “We have to get this record done, let’s practice four times a week.” It was more like, “O.K so we’re going to go to yoga and then we’re going to go to the hot tub and then we’ll go for ramen, and like oh we’ll jam for like an hour or somewhere in there.” So it was important, but we would balance it out with other stuff too so it just took a really long time to write.

Different from the first album...we spent a lot more time revising and refining the songs and we were a little pickier because there was a lot more pressure, I mean like, not really real pressure but like tiny band pressure where people knew who we were suddenly so people were like,  “Oh when’s your next record,” and we were like, “Oh well when we put out our first record no one knew who we were so it didn’t matter at all.” But this time people have some sort of expectation, so we had to think a little bit about—I think the idea was just to give the songs the best treatment possible and give them the best chance to be the ultimate versions of themselves, so that required many different versions.

TLS: So it’s not necessarily that like, the way you were making music really changed, it was just more so really focusing on and making sure everything was super tight?

SK: I think so, yeah. I guess things come out easier when you’re a new band—and this has happened with all of my bands. You start, you write like a set—the goal is to get enough stuff that you have a set and then once you have that, you have enough that you can play shows and then it gets really fun. So then it’s like the next batch of songs that you write is a little different because you’re not just rushing to be able to be band, your like, “Ok now we’re a band and people kind of have an idea of what we are so what are we?” You have to think about it more.

TLS: Got it. So on this album versus the previous album, what kind of stuff are you playing with that’s different and what are you really excited about within that? 

SK: Well with the first album, it was the first thing I had done with Jen, the drummer and lead singer, since our previous band which was called Puberty or, I don’t know, we had a band that was at the same time as The Courtney’s for a bit. It was kind of an experimental no wave band, but before that we had a post-punk band so our habit together was to make post-punk stuff. With Courtney, we had never jammed with her before so we had no expectations, but the first songs we wrote were definitely more post-punk and a little bit more abstract in the structure. I would say that the structures of these songs [on the new album] are more like traditional rock songs or like pop. We were listening to a lot of power pop from the ‘90s, we were really into Teenage Fanclub and we started thinking about what makes an ideal structure of a song, like how to make a song perfect. Maybe not perfection but an idea of like, “If you’re writing a pop song the whole concept is simplicity,” but how do you take simplicity and do one little thing that makes it incredibly catchy or really irresistible to people? Trying to find that is a really interesting game, so I think we more focused on structure and less willing to just be like “Ok! we’ll do that part and then that part and it’s done!”

TLS: Can you give an example of a song where that kind of came together in a cool way?

SK: There’s a little trajectory because the first song we wrote was "Insufficient Funds," that song is really old, and then maybe "Mars Attacks"—I think those two were at the same time. The structures of those are a little more unusual, we were being a little more experimental with the way we wanted the structure to be. After that we wrote a bunch of songs in a group which were "Minnesota," "Silver Velvet," "Tour," "25," and "Country Song," those were kind of all at the same time and we were really thinking how can we try be as simple as possible and still make a song that's interesting. Our last song was "Frankie," which was really interesting to me because that’s our most grunge song, definitely the heaviest song when we play it live and I think that's a good example of a future direction if we were going to write a third album. So you have three different modes of songwriting within that one album. We just write so slowly that what’s when we put them together we found that they work, but it was really hard to get the order because you could kind of tell that there's three different modes. Like, how do we get these to fit so they sound like a cohesive thing? So the track listing was a big part of that.

TLS: Yeah, because I would have never guessed that was the way the album came together.

SK: Oh really? What would you have put first or last?

TLS: I don’t really know! I feel like you guys did a really good job, like it sounded really cohesive to me. 

SK: Thanks! I think the track listing really did that. That was a long conversation, it took us months to find a way to find the commonalities between the different songs that would connect them well enough so it would seem cohesive

TLS: Woah, very cool. So this is kind of a goofy question that I really wanted to make sure I asked you, but I saw on your Facebook page that you listed a lot of ‘90s shoegaze bands as your influences, like My Bloody Valentine. Was there ever a Courtneys does shoegaze? 

SK: Well, Courtney uses a really open guitar tuning which is a pretty classic shoegaze thing. That creates a really large guitar sound that can be really washy if you use it in a shoegaze sort of way, or it can be like, arena rock band if you use it in that way. We’re always going to have that shoegaze element just in this different guitar tuning we have, but all of us have been very affected by shoegaze. If you’re into My Bloody Valentine you can never get away from that influence.

TLS: Yeah, that’s basically my whole life except with writing about bands, I feel like all of the bands I choose to write about it’s like, at the end of the day they’re all somehow connected to My Bloody Valentine.

SK: One thing we were thinking of while writing this album is this idea of timeless records. Certain records are like completely perfect, there’s not that many of them, but Loveless is absolutely the example of a perfect record. I don’t think that’s like, debatable to anyone and that's inspiring to us. Since there are so few examples of that, you would definitely say that My Bloody Valentine could be an influence.

TLS: Haha sick. Sorry I saw that as I was poking around on Facebook and thought that was really sweet as a big shoegze nerd. 

SK: Well, anyone who likes guitar music can’t really deny My Bloody Valentine

TLS: Exactly and I think the guitars on your album are so good. So this is another question I wanted to ask you—and these aren’t connected at all. I know that, you’re kind of a big science person right? 

SK: Yeah, it’s true.

TLS: Which I think is really cool and I’m wondering how for you personally, since I’m just talking to you, how do those worlds collide when you make music, do they intersect at all?

SK: Oh man, they’re just always at a constant battle. Like science versus art, it’s not a dichotomy but the battle of my life. When I was younger I was a very dedicated scientist, my band stuff was pretty much the only social activities that I did. Every week I would just hang out in the lab all the time and my one time where I’d see my friends would be to go and jam or maybe play a show and that was for a pretty long times. Then I went to get my PhD in the states — I was at Duke, and it was really intense to be there at this fancy school and be at this level where you know you never get to take a break again. My adviser would like, walk around the lab and look at everyone, who would be at their desks working...and it would be like 4 PM on a Saturday.

I had a band when I was there and we had a secret jam space in the basement of my laboratory — it was awesome because there was like, a neurobiology department band and I was in it so I had access to the jam space. I was the bass player, which was crazy because the department head was the lead guitarist, my supervisor was the banjo player, and all of the other members of the band were like, post docs and faculty. So when you’re the bass player in a band like that and you’re playing in front of all of your colleagues, you can’t mess up. Bass is one of those instruments where if you mess up its really obvious, so I was like studying harder to be able to learn how to play “The Final Countdown” than I was trying to study for my exams

TLS: That's so funny.

SK: But anyways, I had the experiments that would run for like ten hours, and there'd be a part where you’d have to like, let something oxidize for like an hour so I’d set that up and go downstairs and play drums for a while. I started to notice that the balance between what I really wanted to do and what I was spending the most time thinking about was like shifting towards music. I had a super perceptive adviser who was also a musician (he was the lead guitarist in the band) and he was like, “You know, I took a bunch of time off to play music and people see me playing in the neurobio band now and think like, ‘Oh that dude, he’s so pathetic, he just plays guitar in his basement’,” and he was like, “No, I spent three years as a professional guitarist in San Francisco and it was really satisfying for me to explore that, and at the end I decided to explore science." But he was like..." and I have no regrets.” He told me that story and I just started crying.

TLS: Damn.

SL: And so he said, “You can take a break and we’ll still be here,” and I decided to take a break and that was like, six years ago. I still do science for my job, I edit academic papers in the field I was doing lab research in. That's why I can live in a different place because my job is on the Internet and I work for a company in Japan. There’s a chance I would go back one day but it’s been really fun to have way more freedom in my life. Since that time, I’ve also done a masters in sculpture and started multiple bands and toured and all that fun stuff. Ditching my career was a really good idea for me at that moment but it's totally possible I could go back, I have no idea. Some of my favorite musicians, like female musicians, are totally academics, like do you know the Scissor Girls?

TLS: No, I don't!

SK: They’re like the coolest band and are from Chicago and are this no-wave ‘80s-‘90s punk band. They were doing a lot of interesting stuff before a lot of other people. I think one of them is like, a PhD in biology and teaches in Germany.

TLS: That’s so fucking cool.

SK: So for me, I’ve always seen other people in music who could make it work. I’ve always been inspired by that but it’s definitely a battle to get the holes to fit in my life.

TLS: So something that really interests me is the idea of how nerd culture intersects with a lot of music, like people who really really love school and also really really love making music. Would you identify with that scene at all?

SK: Oh totally, but being a nerd has some interesting disadvantages too. You have a slightly different culture than cool kid culture. The whole point of being a nerd is that you’re not afraid to like stuff and really talk about and be into it. The whole point of being a cool kid is that you don’t give a shit about anything so those are really conflicting. You see a lot of people trying to manage both of those identities in the music scene because you know unless you’re involved in like, the Big Music Industry, you’re not making money. It’s not you’re job, you’re just doing it because you really like it and it’s really fun for you. So you care, but there’s all these people who are like, “Yeah I wrote all the songs and I’m going to play them for you but like I don’t give a shit what you think,” and it’s like yes, you do! Don’t pretend! If you’re into it and want to share, then be real about that, but if you’re like, “Yeah my whole thing is that I’m in this band but like I actually don’t give a shit about you guys or sharing my music with you.” So like don’t! Play for yourself in your basement, there’s no obligation to share.

I definitely have that complex with people where they’re like, “Wow you’re a serious nerd!” Like, yeah I am, it’s weird right? People care about stuff! And there has always been this thing about people not “getting” my culture, like yes, I hung out in a laboratory for six years, my social environment has been really different than yours and maybe I don’t want to do that thing that you think is cool. It’s hard to feel good about it sometimes when you’re surrounded by people who just don’t get where you come from. But most of the time I find that musicians are nerds, like musicians and artists, because they care about something enough to actually do it, and that’s really hard.

TLS: Yeah that apathy is definitely weird in how it manifests in music, I feel like you have to care so much in order to keep doing it for so long. 

SK: Oh yeah, you have to care so much, pretending that you don’t care is just a joke to me. I have a problem with that hypocrisy, like maybe you want your band to be a little well known, it's ok to be real about what you want! You know when someone gets off stage and you’re like, “That was sick!” And they’re like “No, it wasn’t I sucked.” Like don’t do that! That’s not nice, be nice to the person who just complimented you!

TLS: That is so real! What for you is the nerdiest thing then about your approach to music? 

SK: Well I’m hyper organized so I’m really into having a tech sheet and it's extremely detailed. I think a lot of sound people are taken aback because you get the classic, “Oh, you’re just a three piece, k cool I got it!” And I’m like “No no no there’s a tech sheet and you’re going to look at it.” 

TLS: That’s so sick.

SK: And then they’ll be like, “No I got it! I got it!” But it’s not as simple as it looks, the lead singer is the drummer, that’s really hard. That’s the number one most challenging thing in doing sound is if you have to get someone singing around a really loud instrument. We’re a really loud band! We all sing melodic stuff, but it's actually super hard to produce if you can’t hear your own voice. So getting all of the monitors on stage to be mixed in a way that everyone can hear what they need to hear but aren’t bombarded with noise is pretty tricky. We have a chart of each sound and on a scale of one to ten how much of that sound do you want in your monitor and I think some people are like, “Woah that’s intense.”

TLS: Do you ever get dudes trying to tell you that you’re wrong with your sound sheet? 

SK: All the time! With my sound sheet I was really lucky, this might sound like bragging but it isn’t because literally everyone knows this, but we got to tour with Tegan and Sara, which was like the funnest thing ever and of course they only hire like, cool people in their crew. That was like going to rock star camp and it was so awesome because there were all of these different people who had jobs that I didn’t even know existed in terms of assisting a rock band. They helped us learn all the stuff on how to be more professional and make things easier for ourselves to perform as best as we can.

I got their sound person to look over my sheet and do it in a way that would be really accepted by sound technicians but all the time, I feel like the biggest challenge we have is Courtney always getting her amp turned down. It's tricky because she has a tube amp and it will only distort at a certain level, so the actual tone she wants is sort of contingent on her being able to turn it up to a certain amount. Jen just always gets told to sing louder and it’s like dude! That’s not how it works! You gotta find a directional microphone and figure this out and do some frequency checks and get it sorted out because you can’t just be like “Well little girl! Sing louder!” it’s like no, [she’ll be like] moving all of [her] limbs to play the drums while singing the highest note that there is, so it’s like try harder, try a little bit harder! But I do think it’s getting better in terms of sexism, like the people who I interact with are getting less sexist, dramatically. When I was younger I’d be carrying my amp and get, “Are you the girlfriend of the band?” and I’d be like, “What do you think this is?! Like I’m wearing heels and carrying this huge thing like, this is for me, this is my amp, it is like the size of a fridge, like deal with it!” But now I’m noticing, I think people have just seen more female musicians and are just more respectful, it's so nice when people are nice.

TLS: It goes back to the whole stop being apathetic thing, like nice people are great. 

SK: Yeah, and especially because the staff at venues is still mostly male, which totally sucks. You can just tell when you have someone who is just like, “Female musician, I know about this I’m not going to be an asshole,” and then there are people who are just like, “Oh that’s weird,” Because of our touring history, we will play these huge stages and huge venues where we will just be rolling out of our minivan with like, messed hair and people will be like, “Who are these guys?” But seeing people’s attitudes improve, that's been really nice. 

TLS: Hell yeah.

Listen to The Courtneys on bandcamp.

S. Frances Kemp is a D.C-based freelance music writer. She's a student at Oberlin College where she studies Comparative Literature and French. You can follow her on twitter @sophiefkemp.