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Catching Up With The Courtneys

Pic by Andrew Volk
23 October 2017

Photo by Andrew Volk

For one of the hardest working trios (they have been on a perpetual tour since the release of their sophomore LP, II back in March), being the first band signed to Flying Nun Records NOT from New Zealand, is not only an honor but, also a nod to all of their hard work. Courtney Gavin (guitar), Sydney Koke (bass) and Jen Twynn Payne (drums/lead vocals), hail from Vancouver and are kiwi transplants in spirit with the breezy, catchy melodies of a Look Blue Go Purple while conveying not-so-sunny thoughts on love and longing. II’s material is even crisper live where the band’s senses of humor and gritty panache (similar to Ex Hex), are just as prevalent as their recorded output.

JB: Congratulations on releasing your superb second record. How did the tour with Jay Som go overall? Any good road tales you care to share? I think most of you were fighting colds when I caught you in SLC, or was that only Jay Som? You have some festival dates coming up this summer. What are some of the pros/cons to playing festivals compared to touring around smaller venues? 

Courtney Garvin: Thanks! The tour with Jay Som was one of our very favourite tours ever, even though we almost all had that gnarly cold. I will admit that I was the first one to get it and infected everyone. I like festivals because of how social they are. You get to meet musicians from all over, and catch up with ones you already know. Road life can be a bit more low key, although it’s nice to have the time to sink into the zone of tour. The performances benefit from that I think.
Jen Twynn Payne: Yeah, Courtney was patient zero, hahaha. I love festies because you get to lay in hammocks with your other friends who are touring and also maybe get a massage.
Sydney Koke: The tour was SO FUN because Jay Som are the sweetest most amazing humans; I truly love each member of that band. It was a dream to get to know them a bit.  Festivals are great because there is a little community set-up and you get to see lots of pals from all over. On the flip side, it’s hard to travel a bunch to just play once or twice. I’d like to do a tour where we play exclusively festivals.

JB: Did the band’s approach to writing and recording differ at all between your two records and, if so, in what ways? I read that work had begun on this record (conceptually) when you were recording your self-titled debut. (Funny, I’m listening to “Tour” as I write …). Was it a matter of having more time to be a little pickier with what songs/sounds you wanted on the second album and/or did life get in the way? Do all three of you contribute to songwriting duties?

CG: We write our songs collaboratively, so it can be tricky to create as everybody needs to be ‘in the mood’ at the same time, in the same place. But I think this process is really rewarding even if it’s a bit slow. There’s a sense of urgency in this industry and I’m not really sure why. We just take our time and try to enjoy it. Our approach between records didn’t really change. But we played so many shows and grew a lot as musicians in that time so our songs probably reflected a bit more intention or something.
SK: I think we started to see new possibilities with our songwriting process and so we pushed ourselves a bit to spend more time on each idea and to make the best versions of each song. 

JB: I think it is so awesome that you are now a Flying Nun band! How did that relationship come about? You must be pretty psyched to be the label’s first non-kiwi band? Such a great fit for The Courtneys I think!

SK: Thank you, we think so too! We love Flying Nun so we reached out to them. It’s been a great fit for us so far!

JB: The band was listening to a lot of Teenage Fanclub during the recording of Courtneys II but, there are some nods to no wave and post-punk. What essentially helped you decide on simpler power pop structures for this album?  Who would you cite as major influences on the band, (not necessarily music)?

SK: The three of us have quite different musical tastes, but I’ve noticed that when we tour we end up listening to a lot of hits from the 80’s and 90’s like Alanis Morisette, Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor, Bjork, etc. I think it’s really interesting to listen to an amazing hit pop song and try to figure out what makes it so great. Pop is such an interesting genre because it involves making something really engaging using very simple components and structures.  I think we were inspired by the idea of simplicity when writing II, trying to do as much as we could with as little as possible.

JB: I have seen a lot a comparisons to surf music and The Courtneys on the Internet but I don’t really hear that, (especially lyrically!). Maybe certain vocal arrangements but overall the guitars are very big sounding and melodically similar to The Clean and Able Tasmans (no wonder Flying Nun signed you!), but with a slightly punk-ier edge. How did the band manage to rein in the tracks on II without letting them break away? For instance, I could easily sit and listen to an ending of “Minnesota” that stretches on for 10 minutes! Or “Country Song”… god, that was so great live; I never wanted it to end!

CG: You might enjoy our 10 minute version of “Minnesota” called “Minne-slow-ta”. We only play it in private though. We just play “Minnesota” as slow as we possibly can. It’s really zen.
JTP: I really don’t understand the surf label that we get. Probably the songs don’t get too long because they’re pop songs? I’m not sure, it wasn’t hard to reign them in. For example, “Lost Boys” is out longest song, and we deliberately planned to have an open ended jam at the end of the track.

JB: Sydney, is the itch still there to go back and get your Ph.D? A friend of mine obtained his Ph.D. in English before starting his band The Black Watch back in the ’80s and those two worlds constantly collide. Math and music are heavily intertwined also; do you see science in the same way as far as meshing together with what you’re doing in music? Do all three of you hold down “day jobs”?

SK: Yes, we all have day jobs. I think it’s pretty tough to be a musician without a day job in the internet era. About science, it’s a hard question. Science/music/art are my three passions, and I’ve been super fortunate to be able to spend some dedicated time working on all of them (I got a MFA in contemporary art after I took a break from neuroscience). Unfortunately, we are living in a terrible time for science, especially in North America. I have seen many of my super brilliant peers search endlessly for good jobs and funding, even those at very reputable institutions are having a hard time. It is really discouraging. With science you generally need to have an institution to do your work, but with music or art you can be on your own and explore your ideas freely. So for now I’m staying free! Luckily I still get to see what is going on in neuroscience because I work remotely as an academic editor.

JB: Can you share some of your perceptions/experiences as women in music? I am always fascinated by female bands/artists that contribute heavily to a (still) male-dominated industry like music. Clubs, venues, recording studios, etc. are still managed predominantly by men just like in politics, sports, etc. and I think it sucks. There are many horror stories about how women are treated; do you feel things are getting better at least in (the) music “industry”?

CG: It’s been interesting to travel the world a bit and observe how different places are way behind others in terms of this stuff. The biggest struggle for me still seems to be convincing the average sound engineer (we don’t have our own sound person), that we are a rock band, not a vocal ensemble. It can be frustrating to repeatedly have to deal with super loud vocals/quiet guitars when it’s not the sound we are going for, and it also feels like an assumption was made based on our appearance.
SK: One thing I can’t stand is when people describe music made by women as a consequence of their presumably limited skill and not as the outcome of deliberate artistic choices. It’s like, men can play three chords in a punk band and you don’t necessarily assume that’s all they can do! When I started playing music I was scared to play simple stuff or be deliberately messy because I felt like I had to prove myself. It took a long time to get over that. I’d love to see more non-male promoters, venue owners, and especially sound engineers.

JB: Jen, how difficult is it to drum and be lead singer? I remember playing bass in a garage band back in the early ‘90s and had to concentrate so hard on what I was doing. I never imagined singing on top of that out of fear of screwing up my bass playing! Are there some drummer/vocalists who’ve had a major influence on your style over the years? 

JTP: I really don’t think drumming and singing can be that much harder than singing and playing any other instrument. I say this because I also play bass and I can’t sing at the same time when I do that, and I’ve been playing bass longer than I’ve been playing drums! It’s just a learned skill. Maybe it’s like learning a language; if you start it as a baby (or in this case when you first start learning the instrument), then it’s easier/more natural. My biggest drum/singer combo influence is Hamish Kilgour from The Clean.

JB: Are any of you still associated with other bands or has your work in The Courtneys overcome other creative outlets? Is the Courtneys baseball team still a thing and if so, how can I get a jersey?!

CG: I have a chill side project called Gum Country. No time right now for another band really. Nah, the softball team isn’t going this season but maybe it will be back someday. We’re too busy touring!
SK: I also play in Shearing Pinx, which is a noise punk band in Vancouver, and I have a solo project and some other collaborations but it’s hard to find time these days!