The Courtneys: Toto's "Africa" is our tour theme song
Photo by Andrew Volk
Vancouver trio the Courtneys have fashioned a perpetual summer. It lives in the playful demeanor of their self-made workout videos, personality quiz and snapback caps. It lives in their ability to not take themselves too seriously. And it flourishes on the ramshackle joyride of their spirited self-titled debut. It can be hazardous for any band to act as a conduit of the not-so-distant past but the Courtneys reference Flying Nun-era slackers with a fresh vitality that rings strong whether they're gushing over Keanu Reeves or confronting inner turmoil with Slayer maxims.
The sounds may be optimistic, but depth is tangible and Courtney Loove, Sydney Koke and Jen Twynn Payne are grasping at something pure. Indie queens Tegan and Sara have a history of nabbing promising female acts as support and catapulting them into the success they deserve (e.g. Waxahatchee) and so it's no surprise that the Courtneys have taken this role on the band's current tour. Ahead of their Monday performance at First Avenue, Gimme Noise chatted with drummer/lead singer Jen Twynn Payne about life as a Courtney.
Gimme Noise: I read on your Tumblr post about the midpoint of the tour that you've only cried four times so far. Is that a good number? Have you guys ever been on the road this long before?
Jen Twynn Payne: We've already been on the road for about five weeks so far for this tour and the longest we've ever been out before was only like three or four weeks. I have indeed cried four times and they were all ridiculous reasons. I'd be crying and then laughing because I was crying and then I wasn't actually upset about anything anymore. It was pretty funny.
I feel like I learned a lot about the Courtneys through that list with both the cry count and the "Africa" by Toto play count (it was 33).
Absolutely, that is our tour theme song. We seriously listen to it every morning. Our tour manager recently changed his cell phone ring to be that song too so now we hear it even more often.
How have you had to adjust to being away from home in Vancouver for so long?
It's interesting. Before tour it's always me who is like "I don't wanna go" and I act like I hate traveling and just want to sit in my house and watch TV. I feel like I'm a homebody. But then once we get on the road I am usually very quick to adapt. I'm a Gemini and the other day we found this Gemini keychain and on the back it has all of these traits and Courtney was reading them and she was like "Oh this sounds exactly like you" and then Sydney read it and saw that it said "loves traveling" and it was the only questionable one. I think that I do love traveling, just not the idea of it. Once I'm on the road I'm the most adaptable. You can't get me to leave but then once you do I'm used to it right away. It's strange.
How do you think your music has been received by the Tegan and Sara fanbase?
The shows have been going really good. It's funny having a Tegan and Sara show and then playing these side shows that are just us. It's the complete opposite ends of the spectrum from each other. They both are amazing in their own way. Last night we played this all ages show in McAllen, Texas, and the scene here is really amazing. We're 20 minutes from the Mexican border right now and I guess not a lot of bands come down here very often so everybody was so thankful that we took the time to plat. On the other side of things Tegan and Sarah shows are this amazing event. There's like 2,000 people and their fans are something else. They are really, really dedicated. It's cool because we are opening and I feel like usually when I go see bands that size and there is an opener there is nobody there. But I swear their fans get there the morning of the show and start lining up because they want a spot at the front of the stage, so when we play it's already full. It's pretty crazy.
How did you start playing together initially?
Sydney and I are from Calgary originally and we were roommates there and had another band called Puberty. But then she moved away to North Carolina to go to grad school for Neuroscience. Then I moved to Vancouver and met Courtney there and I was going to school there. Almost a year after I moved to Vancouver Sydney dropped out of grad school and drove to Vancouver basically just to play music and start a band with me. And so I said we had to start a band with this girl Courtney. When she and Sydney got to Vancouver we jammed and that was like May of 2010 I think. At that point we jammed all summer but then Courtney got a job in Montreal so she moved there for about eight months. It wasn't until she came back that things got more serious and we played our first show.
Did it seem apparent that aside from geography that the project had potential?
I don't really think we were even thinking about it. We wrote a bunch of songs before she left and we recorded them in the jam space and then she left and I remember listening to them with my friend Pat and even though they didn't have vocals yet he was like "these are so awesome." It was weird though because when Courtney was gone Sydney and I actually started a different band and I didn't even think about the Courtneys. It wasn't even on my radar at all. When Courtney came home it was our friend's birthday party and we ended up playing it. We jammed for like two weeks and played it and we still didn't have vocals. We hadn't found what we are now yet, it was the very early stages. It took a few shows to really get an idea that we were going to continue with it.
How did you figure out how to incorporate vocals?
The first few songs we wrote and the first few songs we played we didn't really know who was going to be singing or, you know, what our aesthetic was. We were just playing these songs we had jammed out. At some point we started write new songs. It had been over a year since the originals. When we started writing those new ones we suddenly had this message and I started working on the vocal parts. The way we write songs is very collaborative. We get together and we all jam and talk about it and will start creating a song from something. Then once it's a structure we'll record and listen to it for a week and if we're still stoked on it we'll continue.
We throw a lot of stuff away. But if we keep it then I'll take that recording home into garage band and write the vocals for it. So it was when we felt we had the real vocal message that I went back and made vocal parts for all of the old songs. When we recorded the first album originally it was just going to be an EP that was really short. We were only planning on recording four songs. So we went over to our friend's studio assuming we were just going to record these four songs but then we recorded them very quickly so then he told us to record anything else if we had it. We ended up recording four more and it turned into the album.
Does it feel strange to have gotten such a response?
Not at this point anymore but when the album first came out a year ago definitely. The band to us has always been about having fun with each other. Jamming was fun. Writing songs was fun. Playing shows was fun. We never thought it would be much more than that. But our friend Ryan put it out on Hockey Dad Records and he had a pre sale of the record before it came out and it sold out before the day we even released it. We were like "Ohh. What's going on?" It's really interesting now thinking about our next record and sort of what we're doing with that. We are in a totally different mindset.
You all three come from very different realms of musical interest. How does it all fuse together to create the sound of the Courtneys?
That's one thing that we really value about our band. It also causes the most tension. We're extremely different, not just in musical taste, but in every way.
I took the "Which Courtney are you" quiz. I got Sydney.
[Laughs] Oh awesome! Basically, with the music it's like we all have different music taste but there is a tiny overlap. So we have all of these different backgrounds in music but there is this area that overlaps and that's where the influences for the Courtneys comes from. It's a lot of '90s grunge and Pavement and Flying Nun bands like the Clean and stuff. Courtney's favorite genre of music is '80s synth/goth stuff and then Sydney likes a lot of experimental noise music. She has another band Shearing Pinx that's more in that genre. And I like lots of stuff I'm really all over the place. I like a lot of pop music and metal. Sometimes there will be times where we each try to sneak in little things from these genres that just one of us likes and usually it either doesn't work or it causes some sort of really cool tension in the song.
What's the band's highest priority at present?
In short term it's definitely getting through the rest of the tour. We realized that we were a little bit confused about our Visas and when they end so we had a little bit of a change of plans at the end of tour. We were supposed to have our last show in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and then just drive back to Vancouver through the states. But now we actually have to be back in Canada the day after our Michigan show which means we're gonna be in Ontario and driving back through Canada is awful. It's just a lot longer of a drive. Now we're adding shows on in Canada so we can deal with it. Aside from that we have most of our next record recorded already aside from a few songs. That's kind of the first priority. Sydney's going to Europe with Shearing Pinx in September so we'll take a little break. Mainly it's the album.
Are you going to stick with Hockey Dad? I would imagine you have some choices at this point.
We are not sure what's happening with it. We're weighing our options. We're in the process of mixing the songs that are already recorded so we're using those as demos right now. We'll see what happens. Oh! OK before you go and before I forget I have a question for you. The venue we're playing at in Minneapolis is where Purple Rain was filmed? Is it true?
It's very true! Are there some Prince fans among you?
Yes! That's so cool! Sydney and Courtney are really into Prince so they're really stoked about it. We are so excited to play that venue.
The Courtneys. Opening for Tegan and Sara. $40, 7 p.m., Monday, June 16. First Avenue. Tickets.
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