“I was under a chair in the foetal position talking in the same American accent as my old manager…” - Barns Courtney on the strange conception of new album 404
It took British-born, American-raised troubadour Barns Courtney a long time to get a foothold in music.
His first taste was as frontman of indie types Dive Bella Dive, who signed to Island Records, but were dropped before their debut album could be released. After that band's demise, Courtney pursued a solo career, which was initially slow to get going.
That all changed, however, in 2015 with the release of single 'Glitter & Gold', which has gone as far as soundtracking Aussie Rules team Hawthorn Football Club's goals as well as soundtracking both dark comedy Burn and hit drama The Founder.
After extensive touring and guest spots with both Steve Angello and The Prodigy, Courtney is back with his second record.
The new LP, 404, was recorded with Sam Bartle (his former bandmate, now better known as LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER!) and emphasises the singer’s raw sound. Recorded in the middle of the night, the vocals were recorded in only one take and are largely improvised.
With the album now out, we asked Courtney why he took that approach...
You’ve recorded this album in a strange way, working in the middle of the night and vocals in one take, was that by design or how things worked out?
“I write without thinking too analytically and just try and have as much fun as possible, while being as truthful as I can. Some of the vocal takes are entirely improvised, it’s the track being written as you hear it.”
Is that how you like to work? Very fast, very fluid…
“Not always. I’ve had ‘99’ sitting around for three years, it just needed a chorus. To get that right me and Sam, my writing partner, sat in his bedroom in the depths of Yaxley. It was January, it was dark and wet and cold. We drove ourselves crazy doing that one.”
“I was under a chair in the foetal position talking in the same American accent as my old manager. It still us another week to find that chorus!”
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do differently from your debut record?
“I wanted to explore. I was in a very different place mentally and I wanted to honour that. The studio is Sam’s bedroom, which is how we did the first record and we tried to recreate that and it didn’t work. It felt like a lie. That first record is from a place of extreme depression. Those are fight songs. I don’t feel like that anymore. I’m very grateful for the life I have now. I had to find a new place for inspiration.”
Was it difficult to find that place?
“It was, at first, I don’t think I was really listening. ‘You and I’ was the first song that really came together for the record. That came from a story my mom told me about her lost teenage love and I just had to get it down. That really opened me up.”
Why did you decide to stay with Sam? You must have had the option of other, more established producers…
“Sam is like my brother, we bicker, we argue, we exchange horrible insults, but he knows me inside and out. I know that whatever I say to him is safe. During the writing and production process, I can be free to express myself without offending someone. That’s why I prefer him. A couple of the tracks were given to producers after we’d done them to see if they could be elevated.”
Who was that?
“Mike Crossey came in and sprinkled some fairy dust. He re-recorded some things, but a lot of the bedroom is still there. Tom Dalgety did a few tracks too, he gave it an extra edge. The creativity and the spark for the record though is still in Sam’s old bedroom in Peterborough.”
What kind of record is it lyrically? Is it a happier record?
“It’s a deceptive record, on the face of things it’s much happier, but it’s coming to terms with the last bit of innocence. Dealing with becoming estranged from your natural self as you get older, something that was so easy when you were young. That’s why I called it 404, when a computer searches for a website and it doesn’t exist anymore, you get a 404. I was searching for memories and emotions that had been and gone, I thought that was a nice metaphor. Being a child of the 90s who grew up in the digital age, the comparison felt apt.”
Did you kick around any other titles?
“Loads and I was disappointed with all of them. I was going to call it ‘We’re Only Dreaming’, then it was ‘Thunderbolt Heartbeat’. I hated both of those intensely, but the deadline was right there. In the end, I got baked off my t**s in the back of a splitter van on tour in America and it popped into my mind.”
You’ll have to do that next time, it’ll speed things up…
“It was so weird. I haven’t found previously that drugs have been any use creatively, but in that case, it removed a lot of frustration to express and summarise the album. I needed to nab that title from my subconscious.”
Finally, you’re out on tour across the autumn, what can everyone expect from your live shows?
“The first record I was a small growing act and I couldn’t afford a band. Now you can expect things to get sweaty and raucous. Expect me to be in your face rubbing various bodily fluids on you, expect to be pulled around by a collection of your peers and expect to be pushed up to the climax at the top of pleasure mountain by me and my band. That’s what you can expect…”
Barns Courteney’s new album 404 is out now in hmv stores.