Still jet-lagged, but fueled by ample amounts of coffee, I sat down with Barns Courtney ahead of his sold-out gig at The Maze.
So, you’ve just finished touring with the Wombats over in America, how was that?
Oh man it was a lot of fun, the dates were really solid, one after another. I always really love playing support gigs, because you really cut your showmanship teeth on those kinda things. They’re gigs where you really have to win a crowd over, as opposed to ones where people are on your side from the start.
What would you say is the biggest difference between playing in America and here in the UK?
(Sarcastically) People’s teeth are really shitty over here! But no, the biggest difference; America first of all is so big that every section is like its own country. So, you have Los Angeles and New York for instance – very difficult crowds, because they’re saturated with great music all the time. Whereas if you play in places that are less visited by the big bands, then the crowds will be a lot more accommodating. Whereas England, I guess you kinda get the same thing right; London’s crowds are always gonna be a lot more difficult that other crowds.
I think in general, if we’re generalizing the whole country, Americans tend to be more accepting and more willing to give people a chance – to get involved and dance around. But obviously I love both crowds. I think there’s been a culture in England for bands not being big performers on stage; almost like the vibe here is ‘my music is so good that I don’t need to perform’. And I’m a guy who grew up watching Steven Tyler, Freddie Mercury, Zeppelin and the Who – I love bands that really go and give it some. That’s not to say that I don’t like the English vibe, I think it really works for that niche. But for me personally, as a performer, I wanna run around and get sweaty and rub my bodily fluids on people! I don’t wanna be stood around – I’m way too ADHD for that!
Would you say that bands such as Zeppelin and the Who influenced you and your music then?
Definitely in terms of performance, I’m constantly revisiting those shows on YouTube and watching them because they were just such immense masters of their craft in terms of showmanship. There are always different things that I can pick up from watching them; they’re the top of the top.
But in terms of music, I had a conversation with Jonesy, from the Sex Pistols once – that’s not relevant to this conversation at all, I just wanted to name drop! But no, he was saying that no matter who you are, you cannot help but be influenced by the music that you were listening to when you were 12. And for me, my mom was listening to a lot of Paul Simon and Coldplay, my stepdad was listening to a lot of golden oldies, like Smokey Robinson, people like that. I don’t actively try and copy any of these people, and I think my music is pretty different to all of those guys. But every now and again I can definitely hear the reflections – like ‘oh God that’s such a Coldplay part’.
But the first record (‘The Attractions of Youth’) is very different from the new record I’ve got coming out in terms of influence. It’s got quite a bluesy undertone to it (‘Attractions of Youth’), which I didn’t deliberately set out to accomplish. I think I’d been struggling for years with zero success, all my friends were getting real jobs and getting married, my girlfriend at the time wanted me to get a real job so we could have some money. So, it was really difficult, and I think that depression and blues are a marriage made in heaven – it was just how I was feeling at the time. So now, my job is to run around like a sugar plum fairy and play music everyday – so I’m much happier, and the music reflects that.
What would you say was the main influence behind the new record then?
I’m so close to it, that it’s going to be difficult to pin point what the influences are until after they’re done. And then I’ll go back and be like ‘ahh yes, I can see I’ve completely ripped off the Kings of Leon – let’s see how long it takes for everyone to realise!’
So you’re still in the process of making it right now?
Well I’ve written the record. This time round, don’t get me wrong I loved the process of the first record; I made it all in my friend’s bedroom, in this decommissioned old folks’ home he was staying in. We did it all on one microphone and it sounds like a piece of shit and I love it. This time around, I really want to try and get some more musicality in the band – and I want the band to really be a part of the project. So less ‘solo artist George Ezra’, more like Ziggy Stardust era – where it’s Bowie and the Spiders. Everybody knows it’s Bowie and the Spiders; they’re a package deal, people are conscious of them both. My guitarist is sharing my mic at the front of the stage, not stood at the back almost behind the curtain. Milky’s (bass guitarist) just started playing with us, she looks super sassy – I want everybody to be like ‘who’s that chick on the bass?’. I want people to come to the shows and be so inundated with amazing performers that they don’t know where to look!
But anyway, in terms of the sound – this time I’m going to take my band into a rehearsal space, I’m going to take all these songs that I’ve been writing in my friend’s bedroom, jam them out, and try to get some of the band’s influences over the tracks. It was great watching the Wombats when I did the tour with them in the States because they’re such masterful writers in terms of their musicality. The bass plays off the drums, the drums play off the guitar, all these interweaving different parts – it was really cool to see that live. And I think you get a very different experience of a record when it’s directly in front of you, and you’re hearing it blasting out of the sound system than you do when it’s on a record, and someone’s meticulously chosen which instruments are gonna shine and which aren’t.
After being in bands in the past, do you think you’d ever go back to that traditional dynamic? Is that where this is all heading?
That’s what I’m shooting for basically. I think that I became a solo artist out of necessity, because I was 25 – when you’re 18 and in a band everyone’s like ‘woah, you’re in a band!’, but when you’re 25 it’s like ‘ugh, you’re in a band?’. So, I’m moving towards that, I’m gonna give my band a name, it’s gonna be ‘Barns Courtney and the ‘whatevers’’. I want people to be very aware of that fact, I want them to bring the band into the image and the brand of the project. Because I’ve never been a solo artist really, and I’ve been in a million bands since I started my music at 14. And that’s what I love, the camaraderie and that feeling of all being in it together.
I’m just going to finish up with asking what you’re listening to at the moment, anyone you’d recommend people checking out?
I fucking love Billie Eilish right now, I think she’s phenomenal. She’s not over here at all, but she’s just coming up in the States. First of all, this chick is 16 years old and she’s an incredible lyricist, she’s got an amazing voice, she’s really cool. Her personality is so unique to her; she’s very chill and understated. I personally believe that if you work hard enough and you have a good attitude, you can learn whatever you need, to get where you want to go as a musician. But for her, this is an instance of someone who was just born with such raw talent, she’s straight out of the gate. Her tunes are vaguely hip-hop inspired, slow jam, pop songs – with a really smokey, low female vocal. And really interesting lyrics about murdering her friends, but set to a jaunty guitar line!
The gig itself was at Nottingham’s The Maze, a very intimate setting, whereby as the crowd you really feel a part of the action. Supporting Barns Courtney was Stephanie Cheape and her band, who gave an absolutely stellar performance (despite some technical difficulties at the start, but hey they’re not to blame, and it’s the first date of the tour after all). Recently winning an award for ‘Best Unsigned Scottish Artist’, Stephanie’s voice was remarkably strong, they really put on a great show. I managed to grab the band after the show and they expressed how cool it was to play such an intimate venue, and how this was their first show outside of Scotland – all being from Glasgow themselves. Definitely check out Stephanie Cheape when the new single “Blood, Sweat and Fear” drops this Friday.
As for the main attraction, Barns was not lying about being inspired by great showmanship, because wow, did he put on a show. From the very get go, the energy levels were through the roof, not dwindling once. Opening with two songs from his new record, as brilliant as it is to hear new material – I was getting a little worried that the gig was going to be all unheard songs that you can’t yet have a sing along to. However, any reservations were quickly diminished with Barns stating “well that’s the two songs that nobody knows out of the way!” and kickstarting straight into his latest single “99”. Despite only being recently released, it was incredible how many people knew the song word-for-word, beat-for-beat.
From here on in, it was purely favourites from ‘The Attractions of Youth’, the energy on stage from Barns and the entire band was infectious (I can confirm that Milky is super sassy). They got the audience dancing, clapping and chanting along. I had never experienced such a small and intimate gig that felt so huge in scale before. There was so much interaction and engagement with the crowd, it truly felt like a proper event, without the need for fancy lighting, staging or gimmicks – just a guy and his band on stage having the best time playing their music.
A personal favourite of mine was “Little Boy”, one of the slower, more stripped back songs from the album, which played really beautifully live. But by far, the highlight of the show was closing with “Fire”. In which Barns had the crowd huddled together at the front of the stage, crouching down while he himself made his way into the audience to then just simply loose it along with everyone else to close the show.
My only negative is that it was all over too quickly. I walked out of The Maze a sweaty mess, not quite sure at what point Barns lost his shirt, when he jumped into the crowd and how/why he collapsed on the floor at some point. But all I knew for sure is that I had the best time, and I’ll be keeping close tabs on Barns Courtney to see him perform again.
Photo credit: Paige Hamilton