By Alex Hudson
VANCOUVER – When The Courtneys scheduled a weekend-long session with local producer Jordan Koop at his Noise Floor Recording Studio in fall 2012, they had no agenda beyond capturing a handful of their songs. They certainly never anticipated that the resulting debut album, 2013’s The Courtneys, would become an underground sleeper hit, turning the trio of singer-drummer Jen Twynn Payne, bassist Sydney Koke and guitarist Courtney Loove into one of Vancouver’s most hotly tipped indie pop exports.
“It surprised me,” remembers Jen, speaking with BeatRoute in Moja Coffee on Commercial Drive. “We had no expectations. We just wanted to record the songs we had. And then it took us quite far.”
So how did The Courtneys, who first formed in 2010, become so unexpectedly successful? Sydney, reached on the phone at her current home base in Strasbourg, France, cites “the moment that changed everything for us” as an article by Pitchfork, when the publication included them in a feature about under-the-radar bands.
The added exposure meant that accomplishments came quickly. The album sold out of three consecutive vinyl pressings through Vancouver-based label Hockey Dad Records, buzz band Wavves tweeted lyrics from the single “90210,” and the group scored deals to release and distribute the album internationally. They also landed high-profile opening gigs touring with Tegan and Sara and Mac DeMarco, respectively. (Jen is Tegan and Sara’s cousin, and she previously played in DeMarco’s old band Makeout Videotape.)
The lengthy 2014 tour with Tegan and Sara was a particularly pivotal moment for the three-piece. “Touring with a bigger band, you learn a lot from them,” Jen says. “It’s like a business, how they run their crew, and then getting to play these big venues.” Suddenly, The Courtneys found themselves playing in front of crowds of thousands in prestigious theatres and ballrooms throughout the United States.
Sydney recalls, “It was sort of like rock ‘n’ roll camp. They gave us a lot of advice on how to prepare our tech rider and how to talk to sound people, because we didn’t have our own sound technician.”
This professional advice has been valuable for The Courtneys as they rise in the music industry: Not only do they often face on-stage technical difficulties due to having a drummer for a lead singer, their all-female lineup sometimes attracts patronizing scorn from mansplaining sound guys. Sydney points out, “We’re this really basic three-piece band who are all girls, so of course the way that the technicians treated us sometimes was totally great and other times was with quite a bit of suspicion. We had to figure out how to act confident and know what we were talking about to at least communicate how we wanted to sound.”
As The Courtneys continued to rack up new achievements, they booked a scattering of days at Noise Floor Recording Studio. The drawn-out recording process took place over the course of years: lead single “Lost Boys” came out way back in January 2014, but the bulk of the new material wasn’t laid down until spring 2015. These sessions have now spawned the sophomore album, II, which came out in February. (Both Jen and Sydney clarify that, although the LP is sometimes mislabeled as The Courtneys II, the correct title is simply II. “The album title is kind of a reference to Led Zeppelin and Mac DeMarco,” Sydney says.)
With its wonderfully straightforward combination of fuzzy slacker-rock guitars, luminescent pop melodies and witty lyrics, II recaptures everything that made The Courtneys so addictive. But it’s also a more ambitious effort, with many of the songs riding surging, hypnotic grooves that become more engrossing with each listen.
Opener “Silver Velvet” is a chugging, pastel-tinted daydream that begins the album with squeals of feedback and the blissed-out opening lyrics, “The day is getting shady / Laying in the aisle / There’s nothing in this life to do / But stay here for a while.” The seven-minute “Lost Boys” contains quirky lyrics about a “vampire teenage boyfriend” and ends in an extended jam that highlights guitarist Courtney’s stormy fretwork, while “Tour” climaxes with euphoric refrains of “It’s time for us to let go / Slack off and hit the open road.”
Jen points out that these new songs are more emotionally complex than the band’s past work, describing the process of writing lyrics as “my therapy.” Although some songs are about goofy subjects like aliens (“Mars Attacks”) or a love for television (“Virgo”), others concern relationships and other autobiographical matters.
“On the first album, everyone was stuck on saying that we were a summer band, and it was beach-y and summery,” she says. “We have that sound, but I read this review yesterday that was saying that the songs [on II] were kind of sad. That made me really happy. Oh my god, they get it! They don’t sound sad, but they are in a way. They go deeper than what is first apparent.”
The album came out on Flying Nun Records, an iconic New Zealand label that has long been an inspiration for the group. Sydney explains that The Courtneys had offers from larger Canadian companies who could have helped with grant applications and commercial wheeling and dealing, but they ended up choosing Flying Nun for its distinct indie aesthetic.
“It actually just makes sense for us to be on Flying Nun because our music sounds like the other bands on that label,” she says. “Even though it wasn’t going to be as good for our monetary music industry career choices, we had to do what makes sense for the actual music that we make and what seems like it’s going to be the most fun for us.” She adds that the band’s music is particularly well received in New Zealand, making it a logical choice for them to team with a Kiwi label.
With the album available now and already receiving enthusiastic reviews, The Courtneys are preparing for a North American headlining tour that will kick off with a Vancouver show on March 14. After the tour, their next move is unclear: These days, the band members all live in different countries, with Jen based in Vancouver, Sydney in France, and Courtney in Los Angeles. They all work jobs outside of the music industry and have no intentions to pursue the band full-time. “Our whole thing is kind of that we don’t have a career,” Sydney observes.
Most importantly, they’ve made an album that they regard as timeless. Although they continue to embrace inspirations like ‘90s alt-rock and Kiwi indie pop, II is much more than simply the sum of its influences.
“I don’t know if we totally care what other people think about the record, but I do think that we all really like it,” Sydney reflects. “I’ll be proud of that forever, and the validation of it being released on Flying Nun is really, really satisfying for me. I feel great about it and I think the others do too. If people like it and we get more opportunities in our lives because of that, that’s really cool, but it’s hard to know what opportunities we will accept and what we’ll do next. We just have no plans and that’s how it’s always been.”
The Courtneys perform on March 14 at the Biltmore Cabaret and on April 11 at the Cobalt.Biltmore Cabaret, Cobalt, The Courtneys, The Courtneys shows, The Courtneys Vancouver