Tickets for Courteeners’ biggest show to date went on sale last October. For an already doggedly ambitious Mancunian act, their choice of venue – Old Trafford – still represented a serious leap of faith. It’s not the football ground they will be playing later this month mind you, but rather the cricket, which is considerably smaller. But, still, with a capacity of 50,000, this is still a proper stadium show, and makes them unambiguously big-league.
Five albums into their career – the fifth, Mapping the Rendezvous, was released late last year – Courteeners have never been playlisted on Radio 1, never been invited to appear on Jools Holland, and never won a Brit. They’ve barely even managed to release their records overseas. When they toured Europe last year, they did so with £30,000 of their own money. At one show in Italy, 32 people turned up.
So the simple fact they are now playing stadiums would seem to run against all logic, and throws up a number of pertinent questions: what on earth have they been doing wrong for the past eight years, and also, what have they been doing so palpably right?
The band’s frontman, Liam Fray, comes striding through this West London hotel lobby looking every inch the northern rock star, razor sharp in a snow-white fitted cashmere jacket zipped all the way up to his Adam’s apple. His lustrous brown hair, sometimes arranged in a Morrissey quiff, is relaxed today in a side parting, and his stubble has crossed the line at which a more faithful description of it would be 'full beard'.
Fray may well perpetuate some of those lazy stereotypes often associated with Manc rock stars – the simian stroll, the titanium confidence – but he proves to be an unexpectedly grounded, even bashful, proposition one-to-one.
“I keep thinking someone is going to find us out and say: enough, it’s over, you’ve had your fun,” he says. “Because, you know, the fact that we are playing stadiums is amazing but bewildering when you consider the rest of the country has no idea who we are.”
This isn’t strictly true. The band play 5,000 seater venues throughout the rest of the country, but he’s right, it is Manchester alone where Courteeners are true superstars.
“We are definitely an anomaly,” Fray concedes. “It’s like we’ve never been invited to the party, and I don’t know why. We had to stop worrying about it after the second album came out, because if we didn’t, we’d never have left the house again. It’s the kind of thing you could become obsessed about. Why haven’t we crossed over? Why haven’t we been let in? We’re the ultimate outsiders. Always have been and, for all I know,” he concludes, wincing, “always will be".
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Nine years ago, the British music landscape was becoming increasingly aware of its Oasis-shaped hole. Creatively speaking, the Gallagher brothers had run to fat, and by the time they split in 2009, the industry had begun looking for likely replacements. There seemed few better candidates than Courteeners, a band that also hailed from Manchester, and also boasted a strutting peacock upfront who just happened to go by the name of Liam too.
And 2008 debut album St Jude, like Definitely Maybe before it, was cocky and cocksure, teeming with tunes that could be hollered from the Stretford End. “But,” says Fray, “I absolutely hated the whole ‘new Oasis' thing". Nevertheless, he might have been partly responsible for it, and cites today early press interviews in which he he would exude nothing less than a supersonic confidence. “Oh, I tended to shout my mouth off, but who wouldn’t after seven pints on a Thursday night?”
However, when St Jude failed to prove as era-defining as Oasis’s debut, the backlash began in earnest: “Which I understood, to be honest, because I was never the new Liam Gallagher. I was a pale imitation, but then it was never my intention to be an imitation at all.”
Fray, 31, is the son of two teachers. He had thought he might follow them into education himself, but by his midteens was beginning to fancy himself a singer, and regularly attended open mic nights. “I used to swagger around Manchester in my trenchcoat, my leather jacket,” he laughs. “But as soon as we got successful, I realised I didn’t need to show off quite so hard anymore. So I stopped.”
He nevertheless remained a compelling frontman; his fellow band members – guitarist Daniel Moores and drummer Michael Campbell – seem happy to remain in the shadows. Before long, he was the people’s champion, and singing winningly domestic-focused songs that had more in common with The Streets and Arctic Monkeys than Oasis. Their best song, 'The Opener' from 2010’s Falcon album, has Fray pining for his hometown while admitting to having affairs with other cities, not just Los Angeles and New York, but “Dundee and Doncaster, if you should care”.
Mapping the Rendezvous is by some distance their poppiest album yet, and would likely afford them blanket appeal were they not fated to remain such a partisan act. Its jaunty melodic zest lends further buoyancy to Fray’s arch storytelling. On 'The Dilettante', he imagines marrying a French girl “to improve my verbs," while on 'De La Salle', he wonders whether the 17th-century monks – Fray attended a De La Salle school – were the celebrities of their day, and hassled accordingly.
“There must have been a downside to being a famous monk, right?” he grins.
Liam Gallagher, it hardly needs pointing out, has never sung about 17th-century monks, but then ever since Fray distanced himself from his namesake, he has been ruminating on the downsides of fame.
“God knows how properly famous people do it, but it’s become an impossibility to lead an anonymous life there anymore,” he says, admitting that he and his girlfriend of two years are looking to buy a house together some distance from his home turf. He has been spending a lot of time in Paris recently - it’s where he wrote the last two albums - and says he loves both the romanticism of the place, and the anonymity. Time in the French capital has allowed him to relax, and also to ponder, in a particularly Gallic fashion, what Life, capital L, is all about.
“I love being in this band, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t want to run it into the ground, and I can’t see myself doing this at 60,” he says. “I have this creeping sense that I want to do something else, something away from music. I just haven’t figured out what yet.”
He tells me he has recently discovered a cyst on his vocal chords, and as he pops a throat pastel in his mouth and lets it dissolve on his tongue, he looks off into the middle distance. A frown sits between his eyebrows. “I keep asking myself: is there something else out there for me? And will I find it?”
'Mapping the Distance' by Courteeners is out now. They play Manchester’s Emirates Old Trafford on 27 May. The new single, 'Modern Love' is out on 26 May.Reuse content