Courting: ‘Even when we’re using cliche genre stereotypes, it’s for a genuine reaction, not a joke’

Sean Murphy-O'Neill of Courting discusses the band's intentional use of genre stereotypes to create a nostalgic yet fresh sound in 'New Last Name'.

Courting interview

Going into a conversation with Courting, you’re always really trying to make sure you seem like you get it. You listen to the music, you look at the supporting material, the weddings and artwork and playscripts and pap shots, and you know something cool, innovative and exciting is going on here, and you desperately want to make sure you’re on board.

But when you come out of a conversation with Courting, you’re just filled with gleeful excitement that you didn’t get it! And you get to go back and listen again and revisit all the bits you missed and dive in again! 

New Last Name is Courting’s second album, written entirely before their debut Guitar Music even came out, and it’s a delight. A wonderful, self-referential, witty, layered, bubbling pot of influence, style, and distinctiveness that sits totally apart from the band’s previous output (and totally apart from anything you’d dare slap a ‘post-punk’ label on, too). 

“[Guitar Music] was an exercise in clearing the slate,” explains Courting Sean Murphy-O’Neill. “We wrote that record as mission statement, a way to tell people who maybe expected a post-punk album. But once you’ve done that, you don’t need to do it again, and it put us in a lovely position where we all felt like we can actually write the music that we want to write now.” 

And that might just be pop music, which Courting have done before, and done well – but that’s not how they approached New Last Name. “’Jumper’ [Guitar Music’s most consciously poppy offering] almost a formula we didn’t want to go back to – a lot of bands, when they’re told to try and write a song that’s catchy, they’ll kind of put what they do into a pop song structure, or make a more poppy version of wha they do.

“And we wanted to, if we were shooting for pop, actually just make a pop song. It’s more interesting to do that, rather than dilute what you already do, why not just try and write a ridiculously catchy pop song? 

“That’s where ‘We Look Good Together’ came from, it was a challenge to ourselves. I think sometimes people maybe don’t get that – writing that song was more of a challenge to write for us than it would have been to just churn out another nine-minute weird thing. That was more out of our comfort zone, so that’s why we did it.”

Courting interview theatre

The best rom-coms love the fact that they’re rom-coms. They don’t send up the fact that they’re rom-coms, or poke fun – they are fun. That’s what New Last Name does with pop music, and what it does with the material it borrows from different genres too: there’s everything from post-punk to pop-punk and emo, hyperpop to noughties indie, but it’s all employed with intention.

“The best rom-coms, the 2000s silly rom-com movies are never purposefully ironic – they’re more aesthetically sincere, and only looking back to people appreciate it that way,” Murphy-O’Neill muses. “But it was only trying to fit what was silly at the time. And I guess we’re trying to do the same thing. I can see how people would see [New Last Name] through that ironic lens, but even when we’re using things like really cliche genre stereotypes, it’s for a genuine reaction rather than like a joke. For example, all the post-punk stuff on ‘Throw’; we were never doing that with the intention of it being jokey, we were more trying to provoke a similar reaction in a nostalgic way, that people felt towards those records they enjoyed when they were like 15.” 

Courting are aware of the way people react to things and interpret them, but not in a self-conscious way – hence writing the record before releasing their last one, so they’d be “immune to feedback, and it wouldn’t shape or affect how [they] wrote the album”, Murphy-O’Neill explains. They’ve thought very carefully about how people will receive New Last Name, culminating in presenting the record as a play.

Paparazzi shots, character sheets, a new pseudonym for the band, Courting have presented the album as one facet of a theatrical universe. “The whole point of the narrative and the concept is that we wanted people to be able to explore it more if they wanted to – but it’s not a necessity to enjoy the record. 

“We watched a ridiculous amount of movies last year. And in a film, a director will sometimes add a different artistic framing to their movie for no reason – maybe something Wes Anderson does a lot, like, this is a movie inside a book inside a play. And it’s completely pointless from a narrative perspective, but it adds layers of depth to those films. So we got really lost in the idea of framing the album as something else.

“I think people have a lot more long-lasting respect for different forms like movies and books than they do music, because most of the time with music and especially pop music, you can only listen to it, whereas a film can get points for style. We wanted to come up with a way that we could add depth to the record, get more people to delve into it, without creating a concept that was completely monolithic and overbearing.

“We wanted to give anyone who consumes the record a choice, of whether they want to find out what this is all about, or if they just want an album. But the real point of it was to be purposely vague, so people draw their own conclusions.”

Courting New Last Name
New Last Name

The attention to detail has extended across the album’s framing device, all the way to things as minute as the CD casing: “the album draws on a lot of themes of nostalgia, so it had to be in a jewel case. Pure 2000s, so romanticised – but it took us two weeks, maybe longer, to design, and we realised why no one does jewel cases any more. Because they actually suck! But the little details are so important in making a good record. And the CD has a booklet with a cast list, character names, the lyric sheet has stage directions, and that is really fun for us as a band to make.” 

“We’re really technically nerdy,” Murphy-O’Neill admits, before excitedly describing the process of creating the album’s artwork. “I want everyone to know it’s a big fuck off painting. People thought maybe it was a digital thing, but this guy Kyler Garrison painted the sword from a reference picture we shot. It’s like, a 10-foot painting. It’s massive. But obviously it looks somewhat digital and airbrushed, it’s a proper painted canvas with something that looks blurry and nostalgic – it’s exactly what we’re going for in terms of artistic crossover.” 

Photo credit: Charlie Barclay Harris

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