The first circle pits open to distorted intro music before Courting are even on stage, and they barely slam shut again for the duration. Frontman Sean Murphy-O’Neill demands “at least three” before the Liverpool band will even start their debut appearance at Reading Festival. And that’s before the four-piece begin pelting dozens of tennis balls over the barrier – to which the crowd charge at each other as though they’re running into battle. Security look on, dismayed. “Show me what you’ve got,” begins Murphy-O’Neill, the veins on his neck pulsing as he bellows.
Inside Reading’s Festival Republic Stage, it feels like a new, mega-exciting rock movement is forming. For Courting’s entire set, the tent’s floor is a churning storm of tennis balls, flailing limbs, and punters rowing the boat. The excitable antics are justified, however: Courting, playing their biggest festival show to date, represent a rejuvenation in UK guitar music in the way they blend snarling riffs with equally abrasive and hyper-glossy pitch-shifts. The four piece – comprising Murphy-O’Neill, drummer Sean Thomas, guitarist Michael Downes and Sam Brennan on bass – recall the abstract production style of pioneering electro-pop label PC Music [A.G. Cook, Hannah Diamond], without losing a sliver of their rabble-rousing live energy. When you don’t think too hard about it, it’s so much damn fun.
“There’s a great feeling that comes with being in a band that’s more traditionally weird than a lot of the acts that get booked on massive festival lineups”, says Murphy-O’Neill over Zoom, three weeks after the performance. “We want to bring people together, while simultaneously attempting to win over those who may just be [at a festival] to listen to Arctic Monkeys or The 1975. Weird, brilliant stuff is happening on the smaller stages – and we want to be proof of that.”
Courting’s funny and furious live performances are demonstrative of the tribalism that’s inherent to their attitude. They stand as an antidote for swathes of young music fans whose fires haven’t been lit by the current omnipresence of the post-punk big dogs (Fontaines D.C., Wet Leg), and their debut album, ‘Guitar Music’, is testament to that – its title knowingly winks at a descriptor that could be typically used to downplay Courting’s capabilities, rather than showcase the boundaries they’re pushing within the genre.
The eight-track collection hurtles through Elastica-style pop so immediate and sweet it could induce a sugar crash (‘Jumper’), flashes of whirring mechanics (‘Twin Cities’), and charging indie-rock that grounds some of the more digitised moments (‘Tennis’). There’s something brilliantly, deliberately messy about the whole thing – a sense of youthful vigour, beaming plainly from its hyper-stylised surroundings, that feels like a quiet revelation.
“I just think, in the cockiest way possible, we’re a year or two ahead of the curve [with ‘Guitar Music’],” says Murphy-O’Neill. “Realistically, what we’re doing right now is likely going to happen in post-punk soon.” He grins mischievously. “I’m surprised we’re trendsetting, for once.”
At times, ‘Guitar Music’ feels akin to frantically navigating TikTok – a constant flow of jarring and colourful sounds and images – until your brain feels a little fuzzy. Yet this overall effect was intentional. As the band started to piece together the album during lockdown, Murphy-O’Neill challenged his bandmate Thomas to join him in listening to 365 different albums in as many days. The pair went on to work feverishly through seminal records such as Katy Perry’s hit-stuffed ‘Teenage Dream’ and Kanye West’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’, through to less memorable releases, Murphy-O’Neill says, including some “fucking mental 2010s’ dubstep.”
This thoughtful and studied approach to exploring musical history can be heard in ‘Guitar Music’ centrepiece ‘Crass (Redux)’, a glitchy reworking of the lead single from the band’s first EP, 2021’s ‘Grand National’. The track interrogates the nature of pop music as much as it embodies it, exploding into ecstatic drums and purposefully AutoTuned vocal effects. “Once we’d finished the first take [of ‘Crass (Redux)’] in the studio, we all got a bit scared – we didn’t realise we were capable of making these huge, mad sounds. The idea was to blow the song up and make it SOPHIE-ish,” explains Murphy-O’Neill, referencing the late, visionary producer.
Murphy-O’Neill continues to describe how working on the track was a “revelation” for Courting. Crucially, it was the first step the band took to distance themselves from the spiky sound of their lightweight earlier material, which saw them team Britpop sensibilities – including a heavy dollop of Blur-ish sardonicism – with a jagged, yet mildly daring rock sound. “There’s only so many songs you can write until you start fucking with your formula, and we were bored with our older work,” says Murphy-O’Neill. “We didn’t try to catch people out on ‘Guitar Music’ – this is the music we’ve always wanted to make.”
Credit: Andy Ford for NME
Courting’s embrace of the internet also hovers over the album. Lyrically, the aforementioned ‘Jumper’ mimics an endless timeline scroll, jumping from references to Charli XCX – specifically, the pop superstar’s ‘Vroom Vroom’ EP, which has endured as a stan culture favourite – to film-focused platform Letterboxd in a matter of seconds. This widescreen scope comes as little surprise: since meeting in college four years ago, Courting have evolved into an extremely online band by becoming deftly tuned into Twitter humour. They’ve utilised their Graphic Design degrees to mimic Harry Styles’ current tour posters, and capitalised on viral memes with preorder links for their debut.
Lately, they have also proven an old-school penchant for encouraging beef with their indie peers, but thankfully ‘Guitar Music’ suggests that they have the tunes to back up their fighting talk. “On Twitter, someone said to us that we should ‘slip in the shower’ because I said that Catfish & The Bottlemen are shit,” says Murphy-O’Neill. “Why would we have said that if we didn’t believe it? Like, if 10 people have a go at us, that gives us 10 new t-shirt designs, which is a win in my eyes.”
As their newer songs begin to attract attention for both an unabashed appreciation of the past and a futuristic glow, Courting continue to exceed expectations by showing the ambition of a huge band. “There’s no point in being shy about what you want,” says Murphy-O’Neill, nodding, animated and cheerful in his defiance. He begins to roll through a seemingly endless bucket list: perform at Wembley Stadium, meet Charli XCX, headline Glastonbury. “We also wanted to make the Queen a fan of Courting, but after recent events, I’m not sure that’s possible…” Suddenly, stifled laughter can be heard in the background. Saved by the bell, Murphy-O’Neill turns his laptop screen around to show his bandmates sitting in the corner of the room, innocent smiles plastered across their faces.
Besides, Murphy-O’Neill says, the sky’s truly the limit for Courting. “I think a lot of bands are shy about talking about how they feel about their music, but we’re really proud of our album, and we want people to know that,” he adds. He repeats that he’s competitive, but not driven to find the approval of critics and his peers. A recent co-sign from Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, however, seems to have left a lasting impression.
“You can mark out your achievements as a band by how much your parents appreciate them,” Murphy-O’Neill says. “If I told my dad that we played a huge show on the Festival Republic stage at Reading, he probably wouldn’t give much of a shit.” He gently lifts his chin, and prepares to land his final punchline of the hour. “But if I was like, ‘A member of Duran Duran has listened to us,’ he’d say, ‘Oh fair play, you’ve finally fucking made it then’.” Bullseye.
Courting’s debut album ‘Guitar Music’ is out now
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