The Courteeners: 'Kids see passion in us'

The anthems, the bragging, the unwavering self-belief – Courteeners frontman Liam Fray has won himself a lot of fans, and a lot of enemies too

"There's not a lot of guitar bands around who are pushing it, but I think we are," says Liam Fray, as if the matter is beyond argument. Finishing the latte that's serving as both breakfast and lunch on this grey afternoon, the Courteeners' frontman contemplates what he's just said and adds: "The new album is by a band who believe in themselves. Why do anything if you don't believe in yourself?"

Immodest, you could call him, but his self-belief has been bolstered by thousands of fans who see the Courteeners as exactly the band they've been waiting for. With almost no fanfare, the three-year-old group from Middleton, just outside Manchester, have amassed a following large enough to sell out a gig at the 10,000-seat Manchester Central last December, and passionate enough to win them the Guardian's inaugural First Album Award (which was determined by a combination of fans' and critics' votes) for their 2008 release St Jude. Morrissey is so keen on them he had them open for him on his last American tour. If the post of People's Band were up for grabs, Fray and his compadres would be elected in a landslide.

In other quarters, though, the Courteeners are reviled, with much of the music press queueing up to take potshots. "Bilious, beefed-up skiffle", "Oasis wannabes" and "weak tea indeed" are phrases from the reviews of their new album, Falcon, which entered the chart at No 6 this week. The Guardian gave it two stars ("you just suspect the Courteeners could do better"). The NME, which has thrown its weight behind the band, putting them on the cover twice, reports that its readership is wholly divided on the subject. Associate editor Paul Stokes says: "Like all bands that appeal to large crowds of people, they get a mixed reaction. A lot of people see them as lad-rock and boring, but others see this as a genuine moment." Even other musicians have waded in to criticise – most recently, fellow Mancunians Everything Everything damned them as throwbacks from the mid-90s. Divisive? You could say so.

To Fray, it's obvious why they're loved: "Kids see 100% commitment in us, and passion – you can't turn passion on and off. They know we're genuine. Making music is everything to me." But he's less able to account for the opprobrium that comes their way, and is clearly stung by it. "Everything Everything said we're backward and fixated on Oasis. Well. I've never even heard Everything Everything, but I've heard they sound exactly like New Order, so that's kind of ironic. A lot of bands who are scared to wear their hearts on their sleeves have to put down someone else. They have to have a pop at the people at the top of the tree. Maybe there's a hint of jealousy." He sighs, momentarily deflated, then perks up again. "Mancunians are passionate people, you know."

He's being a bit disingenuous here if he thinks the Oasis comparisons are completely without foundation. As Stokes says: "It's tough for them because they have a singer called Liam and they're from Manchester and they have the ability to write an anthem or two. They do fill an Oasis-shaped hole [for NME readers]." He allows, however, that Fray is "a different beast – more thoughtful".

The interview is taking place in the bar of a hotel near the BBC's Maida Vale studios in London, where the group played a live session the night before. Tonight, Fray is due to present the trophy for best live act at the NME Awards, which he's anticipating with trepidation: "I can stand in front of 50,000 people at a festival and nail it every time, but the idea of going up and presenting an award makes me so nervous." Tucked away at a table on the other side of the room, wild-haired drummer Michael Campbell and the band's manager while away the time with a copy of a music magazine, open to a review of one of their gigs. "It's positive," Campbell says wryly, of the review.

You'd be forgiven for assuming the Courteeners are a one-man show: Fray writes all the music, does all interviews alone, and when NME ran a Courteeners cover story the other week, his was the only face on the cover. He claims his three bandmates (the others are guitarist Daniel Moores and bassist Mark Cuppello) "don't have a problem with me doing solo stuff. It's the same with Maxïmo Park – Paul [Smith] does them all alone, and you don't see the bassist from Coldplay doing many interviews, do you?"

But his confidence is contrasted by a surprisingly introspective manner. Despite the impression given by St Jude – an album that's essentially a homage to Britpop-era bloke-rock, with a dash of romance thrown in – he's not the Saturday-night lager lout you'd expect. He listens attentively and his replies are considered and articulate; the bolshiness that frequently arises is attributable simply to his steadfast belief that his band are brilliant. Fray is genuinely perplexed by those who don't "get" it – in his view, the Courteeners, formed after a brief stint as an acoustic singer-songwriter, are progressives who deserve to be seen as such. "It's strange that people think we're not pushing things forward. Have they heard the new album?"

As it happens, the new album is much more satisfying than St Jude. It's more nuanced and melodic, the result of having spent weeks crammed together on a bus during the Morrissey tour. "We had keyboards and shakers and guitars on the bus, and it was a really fertile, creative time for us." Thus, he's baffled by the lukewarm reviews it's received. "But it happens to everyone who's great, doesn't it?"

Braggadocio is part of the 24-year-old Fray's makeup, another characteristic he shares with Liam Gallagher. And, like Gallagher, he's not above gratuitously slagging contemporaries (the Enemy are "pricks", Hard-Fi's Richard Archer "a dick") or blowing his own band's trumpet – it was his idea to play Manchester Central, a highly ambitious step up from the mid-sized venues the Courteeners normally play, because he was "pretty confident" they could sell it out, which they did.

Having said that, Fray is cut from distinctly different cloth than Gallagher. The son of teachers, he did well at school, getting two As and a B at A-level, and studied economics and creative writing at university. "I didn't want to do music at university, because you're told to write songs in a certain way," he says. At any rate, he ended up leaving in his second year, when the band started to take off. (As a point of interest, if he'd known they'd be successful, would he still have given them a name as punning as "Courteeners"? The question surprises him. "I thought Courteeners sounded very sharp.")

He's fascinated by language; at the moment, he's reading Bill Bryson's history of American English, Made in America. "What's more interesting than where words come from?" he asks rhetorically. This leads to a discussion about the Courteeners' lyrics, which he considers the heart of their music. The need to broadcast them to as wide an audience as possible is the reason that he's in a band rather than plying his trade as an acoustic songwriter.

"I never set out to be a rock star. You say you do in interviews because it's part and parcel, but I'd rather just be able to listen to my album and be happy with it. I think I'm really good at sitting down with a pen and paper. I write poetry" – he looks a bit sheepish – "but I turn it into songs. On the first album, all the lyrics were written first, then the music."

Falcon's lyrics, like those of the St Jude album, are anchored in Fray's love of Manchester and its denizens. The songs flit wistfully from "Victoria Park after dark" to "Deansgate fireflies" to – on the very good single You Overdid It Doll – the plight of a hedonistic female friend of Fray's who's developed "dark rings around your eyes … fashionable till somebody dies". You suspect that, as a lyricist, he'd be delighted to be compared to Morrissey or Elbow's Guy Garvey, though the street-level observations of Alex Turner on the first Arctic Monkeys album are probably nearer the mark.

Nothing wrong with that, though – some bands strive for years to meld anthemic tunes with an eye for the tiny details as effortlessly as the Courteeners do. And, despite his protestations, he's a natural rock star. Or rather, he knows what it takes to make one. "A decent rock star? You need a decent haircut, good shoes" – his own are Christian Dior Chelsea boots – "a good coat and good songs. No, change that – great hair and great shoes. But I'd rather an awful haircut and great songs."

The Courteeners are at the Engine Shed, Lincoln, tonight, then touring.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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