The Courtneys on Adulting, Touring, and the Importance of Staying Independent

Interviews
09/12/2019
Jasmine Albertson
photo by Andrew Volk

It's been two long years since Vancouver-born and now internationally-scattered The Courtneys released their last album, II. The record has been celebrated for its infectiously sunny hooks and clever songwriting, making it instantly and dexterously catchy. Released via iconic New Zealand independent label Flying Nun, the record sits perfectly beside fuzzy '80s Kiwi bands such as the Clean and the Stones.

Since then, the trio has been carrying on mostly separate lives in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and Strasbourg, France, meeting up regularly to record and go on tour runs. Just last month, they played a short Northwest run with a show in Seattle at Barboza. There, the four of us chatted like old pals in the green room after their set about adulting, theft on tour, and the many amazing relationships they've cultivated with artists like Jay Som, Versing, and, of course, Mac DeMarco.

 


KEXP: It's been a while since your last record but you're still touring a lot. I'm curious whether you're touring for fun or whether there's something on the horizon?

Jen: Fun.

Sydney: What are you talking about, we like wrote a whole record and we're playing the songs.

Jen: Well, yeah but I mean like we've been touring for like all of the above.

Sydney: We only do anything for fun.

Jen: And the record's not gonna be out until at least mid next year.

Courtney: But we like to play songs live a bunch before we record. So that's also the purpose of this little tour is like trying out some brand new songs just to kind of get good them.

Are you still living far apart from each other?

Sydney: Yeah, that'll probably never change.

Never, really? You're stuck in your separate areas?

Sydney: Oh yeah, I'm never going to live in North America ever again.

Jen: Never say never!

Fair enough. You're in France, right?

Sydney: Yeah, it's cool. I do experimental music so it's just not feasible to live in Canada. The visa stuff is just too much for me. And you can travel to so many different countries and play music all over Europe and the UK and it's not a big deal. I just love that so much.

So you're doing a solo thing as well?

Sydney: Yeah, I have a solo thing.

 

 

Is the French culture, as far as booking and playing shows, a little bit different?

Sydney: For experimental music it's...I mean any country that's just small is easier to tour and to play weird music because you don't have to travel that much so the expenses are lower. Canada's so big. So if you're driving across Canada doing weird music you drive for like four days to get to Toronto or something and you can't make money from an experimental show to pay for that gas. So living in a tiny country where you can get to all the different cities really easily makes it way more affordable to do like niche music.

That makes sense. So you're playing SEAchanger on September 14 with Best Coast. I'm curious whether you have a relationship with them because you seem like you should be kindred spirits.

Jen: No, never met them.

Courtney: They were like a little bit before us. I mean I was definitely a fan of Best Coast when I was in University but no we don't know them at all. First time playing with them.

Sydney: We're very happy to have been asked to play the show. Always good to meet a new band.

 

 

And that show, SEAChanger, is benefitting Mary's Place and Wellspring which are two foundations that are working on the homeless issue in Seattle. Is that a cause you feel strongly about or connected to?

Sydney: We formed in Vancouver which has a major problem with homelessness and drug addiction. So I think we can all really relate to wanting to contribute to that kind of foundation. Even if you don't live there anymore I still think the experience of living in Vancouver gives you a certain sensitivity to that particular issue and especially just like housing is such a major issue in Vancouver and we've all felt the stress of that. So yeah, I really appreciate the recipient of the money for that.

Yeah, I feel like Seattle and Vancouver are very similar in that regard...like not sister cities but like cousin cities? They're like the cool cousins that show up at the family reunion and are like, "I don't know you but I relate to you."

Sydney: Yeah totally. Versing are from [Seattle] and they're like our sibling band. I watch Versing play and I'm like, "They're just like us." We connected with them so deeply and like I think their music is amazing. And they're like very big fans of us too so it's just like I see a lot of weird things.

 

 

Jen: And Daniel [Salas] is actually playing with us at that show.

Sydney: Yeah, I won't be there so Daniel is gonna fill in on bass which is so exciting and I wish I could be there to experience that. I think it's gonna be so cool, he's so amazing.

Courtney: We did a whole tour with them and went all over America, it was so fun.

You guys have played so many tours of so many great people. Like Jay Som. Not to get sidetracked but ugh their new record is so good.

Jen: We're gonna see a bunch of them in a couple of days!

Sydney: They're the nicest people. We didn't know them at all before touring and we just respect every person. Really incredible humans. And they're all like best friends. It's just incredible.

 

 

Over the years you’ve taken a strong DIY ethos as the Courtneys. I read in an interview from a couple years ago that you didn’t even have a manager, which seems like it might still be the case based on the fact that your publicist gave me your direct number rather than the typical complicated series of connections like with a manager who then coordinates with the tour manager who then sets up a secure phone line in order to connect to the band, you know? I've never had a publicist give me the direct personal phone number of a band member!

Jen: [Laughs] They're just like, "Here's Jen!"

Sydney: It's really sweet too because our publicist isn't even really official. She is just really sweet and forwards that stuff on to us.

How do you sustain that as a DIY artist? Is there anything that you've had to give up over the years and admit like, "I can't do this anymore"?

Sydney: I think that if you have a lot of people working for you then you are positioned more like comprehensively within the music industry in a way that helps you to grow faster and get media attention and have more options. But I think in some ways that whole process doesn't necessarily rely on the pace that you want to take in your own creative process. And also there's a weird thing in North America of like to kind of figure out what you're going to prioritize and a lot of people have to just give up everything else in life and tour all the time if they want to do this kind of thing.

We're kind of resistant to that because it's a major sacrifice if you don't have like a job or a place to live or friends or relationships. A lot of bands that are kind of our size have to work really, really hard to maintain that. So I think we've kind of just kept our other stuff going on and it's like we've had to give up the idea of progressing really fast in terms of an industry perspective. We've always tried to just keep it fun. So sometimes we're like, "It's so many emails like should we just get a manager?" And then we're like, "Yeah but we actually know how to do all this stuff, it's just slower." And then yeah we don't you know it's hard to get access to certain opportunities and none of us have like music industry trainings. There's things about how it all works that we don't know but I think the music doesn't -

Courtney: I mean, the hard part's over a little bit.

Yeah, you've already kind of paid your dues.

Sydney: Yeah we've made some mistakes like we've definitely had things where if you'd had music industry training you would know what this email meant or what you're supposed to do or how to register your songs or learning how to apply for funding and that kind of thing. But like ultimately we just want the songs to be good and we haven't had to really like compromise on that and we've also observed friends and peers be under stress because they have other people in their lives that are telling them what to do or like encouraging them to do things better faster. And I think that we wouldn't really enjoy that. But still, I guess if the perfect person came along and was like, "Hey I think I could just help you guys and make your life a little bit easier," we would probably think about it. But for now, it seems fine.

Is it important for you to stay connected to all of it? Like where you know there's no middle man.

Courtney: Yeah we're control freaks.

Sydney: Yeah we all make all the decisions together and we definitely chose a label for our last record that was a label that we really respect musically and that we felt comfortable with in terms of their work and was a huge influence for us. We had other options in North America but we were just like, "What is actually the best fit for us in terms of our influences and their history?" And they're [Flying Nun] amazing. But yeah they're like a punk label. Like they're super DIY just like us and so they don't have the same kind of like position within the music industry machine that someone maybe in North America would have but ultimately it's just felt really good to be on a label where it's like a family. We fit really well.

Speaking of friends and family, I interviewed Mac DeMarco a couple of months ago when he was in Seattle. It was insane, he sold out three shows at the Showbox which is like kind of a massive deal here.

Courtney: With guitar music!

Exactly, especially with the kind of music he makes, it's kind of unheard of!

Jen: That's amazing!

Sydney: He's like a total trendsetter. Like the Bruce Springsteen of our time.

Jen: We were in L.A. last summer, I think it was last summer, and he sold out like four nights in a row in L.A. It was just crazy.

Courtney: And he doesn't even have an Instagram.

Sydney: Yeah and his stage gear is like the same as it was ten years ago. It's really authentic.

 

 

I'm curious what it's like to see your friends grow to that level of success?

Jen: It's awesome!

Courtney: It's the best thing ever when your friends are growing.

Sydney: Also it's no surprise. Like if you knew Mac when he was 14 you'd be like, "It's just going to happen." It was not a surprise

Jen: And he hasn't changed his like moral compass. He's very genuine and very giving and very down to earth. It hasn't gone to his head at all.

Sydney: And I think he's had to try really hard to figure out how to have a life where he has that much attention and still be down to earth. Like that one record where he says his address at the end and is like, "Come over and let's drink coffee." Then like 60 people a day came to his house. They took the train to Rockaway and it's like a three-hour ride and he was like, "Wait a minute you guys you're really going to do that just to have a coffee with me?" Like they were saying that they had to get those big coffee dispensers so that they could actually honor the offer and have coffee for everyone. And then next time he was like, "I'm probably not going to give my address away again."

Like his style is to just like make a cool zone and invite his friends over. I think that keeps his life less complicated than going out a lot because people are like, "Oh my God it's Mac he's everyone's buddy, he's my buddy." So you're like talking in a taco truck and like seven people come up are like, "Mac you're my friend! I'm in your face like getting involved!" And he feels like he has to engage but he's also like, "I'm just here with my friends trying to eat a taco. Keep it chill you guys."

I can totally see that. It was crazy, he had like a whole line outside of KEXP after his Gathering Space performance and he just was like hugging and taking pictures with everyone. We had a tight schedule of time where I had to interview him and I felt so bad about pulling him away from them because I think he would have preferred to have been out there all day hugging people if he could've.

 

 

Sydney: When we toured with him it was like winter and he would spend every single night after the show like standing outside where all the fans were just waiting and he would talk to every single person. This was like a while ago. So the line maybe wasn't as long as it would be now but then he would still have the energy to entertain like all of his friends. And then I've seen him sleep on the hardwood floor after making sure that everyone else had a bed. And I'm like, "Mac, would you at least like a pillow? Like you are running this entire enterprise. All of these people are your friends and you're paying everyone really well so like maybe you should have a blanket."

The least he could do is have a blanket. So something I asked him that I think is interesting to ask any musician over like the age of like 28 that is still living this vagabond existence of music is what's the most adult thing you started doing that you never thought you'd do?

Jen: On tour?

Sure. Or in general, in life.

Jen: Ohhh let me think about that.

Sydney: Yeah I mean we've been touring for a little while so even on this tour I think we're all kind of like, "Hmm what are our strategies?" I think that in one way we made it a really short tour. This is the shortest tour we've ever done. You don't feel the weight of like a month of like, "Oh no I need to get deodorant and I'm probably not gonna have time for like four days." Like there's none of that. I'm just like, "Cool, we have like four shows left.".

What about in your day-to-day life as a musician who's also an adult?

Jen: I thought about this the other day where I was like, "I can't believe I do that now," but now I can't remember.

The other day I checked my credit score and, oh my god, it was in the green.

Courtney: Nice!

Jen: That's amazing!

Right? It was 652 and went up 200 points from a year and a half ago!

Jen: I feel like that's the highest it can be?!

Courtney: I don't really understand credit scores.

Me neither, really, but it has changed my whole state of mind! Like I'm now making my bed every day because I'm like, "I have good credit. I'm an adult now. Adults make their beds."

Jen: That's so sweet!

Sydney: I don't know I feel like I went backward in my life because I had a stable career plan and was like in like a really fancy like school program and had like a really long vision and then I was like, "Actually I don't want to know what's going to happen." Like everything is just too set. There's no uncertainty. That was like a long time ago. That was like 10 years ago.

It's funny how there's like an uncomfortableness in certainty.

Sydney: Yeah, exactly. I was like I know exactly what happens to the rest of my career. I know where I'll be when I'm 40. I know what kind of job opportunities I'll have in life.

What program were you in?

Sydney: I was a neuroscientist. I went to Duke which was more impressive then, now there's a lot of scandals and stuff. It was like I worked really hard to get into the program. I was going to be a scientist and like academia is not really a very good job option right now. And I noticed that the people ahead of me were like pretty stressed about their job opportunities so I'm really glad I made that choice. But my life is financially not stable at all and in a lot of ways I don't feel like an adult. But I did just kind of immigrate to another country so that feels kind of adult. All the paperwork to move abroad is hard. Oh, I learned another language. I'm bilingual now. So that's adult kind of. I mean, do you guys think I'm an adult?

Jen: Sure, I don't know. Not any less than anyone else I know.

Sydney: I handle some complicated situations in my life on a daily basis. I have two partners. They live in different countries and they're both really committed.

Oh, that's very adult! New adult. Modern adult.

Courtney: I think a really adult thing is starting to just always pay for public transit. Like no more sneaking around.

Oh, that's a good one!

Sydney: If you think about that way like I'm so anal about our stuff not getting stolen. Like I just can't even handle when I don't know where stuff is in the car. I think it's pulled from living in Vancouver for too long but I think that I just don't take any risks with theft.

Has your stuff gotten stolen a lot?

Sydney: We've had our whole van stolen. We've had our van broken into. We've had a lot of friends in bands lately have all their stuff get stolen or their car. Just a bunch of people recently and it's like the financial existence of a musician is so insane you just can't afford to lose anything. But at the same time, I think I'm kind of going too far in one direction where I'm like, "Guys is the stuff okay?! We're just going in for lunch!" and everyone's like, "Yeah it's fine. We're in like a small town."

Yeah overcorrecting a little bit.

Courtney: Yeah the thieves will find a way. You can do everything you can but it happens.

Yeah, I was in San Francisco for less than two hours on tour and got broken into.

Courtney: Oh that is like the most common story! You don't even stop at San Francisco. Don't take your eyes off your stuff even a minute there.

Sydney: That's another thing - tenant insurance. You have to have it and it covers your stuff.

Jen: Oh I have that but I've had that since I was 20 and I wasn't very adult then.

Jen, you still haven't told me what your adult move was?

Jen: I still don't know!

No worries! Do you have anything to say about the SEAchanger show?

Jen: We're excited!

Sydney: I wish I could be there! But, again, Daniel's going to be great. We love him so much and I'm very very happy to have him represent me.

Does he have as long of hair as you?

Sydney: He has great hair.

Jen: He does have great hair!

Sydney: He has excellent fashion and he's a great musician and I love everything he does musically.


The Courtneys will join Best Coast to play SEAchanger this Saturday, September 14. Presented by Starbucks, KEXP & Friends Of Waterfront Seattle, the waterfront concert benefits Seattle’s unsheltered families by donating 100 percent of the ticket price to Mary's Place and Wellspring. Find out more information here.

 

 

Related News & Reviews

Interviews Local Artist Spotlight Local Music

Local Artist Spotlight: The Courtneys

Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week, we’re featuring Vancouver BC indie rock group The Courtneys, who play Concerts at the Mural this Friday, August 18, with Thunderpussy and Dude York.


Read More
Local Music Song of the Day

Song of the Day: The Courtneys - Silver Velvet

Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJ’s think you should hear.  Today’s song, featured on the ...


Read More
Live Reviews

Live Review: Mac DeMarco with Alex Calder and The Courtneys at The Moore 10/29/15

Mac DeMarco is a walking contradiction. He's a hardworking slacker, a popular outsider, and his newest release Another One is laden with carefree melancholy. His shows have always been a celebration of his refusal to fit any sort of vague mold, and the fans that aspire to do the same. Thursday ni...


Read More
Click anywhere to return to the site