Right around the time that Vancouver cult favourites the Courtneys were beginning to write their second album, lead vocalist and drummer Jen Twynn Payne was the victim of an unprovoked attack in the Downtown Eastside.
“I used to live in the area,” Payne recalls, reached in a Vancouver café after her ballet class, where, she tells the Straight, she’s comically bent over a plug socket so her phone doesn’t run out of battery during the interview. “I was walking home one night from my aunt’s, and this woman just hit me in the face with a bat. I passed out, and the next thing I remember is some hot firemen taking me to the hospital. It was crazy. I had two black eyes for months.”
A staunch believer in writing about her own experiences, Payne used the unexpected attack as inspiration for “Iron Deficiency”, a standout track on the band’s long-awaited LP The Courtneys II.
“The context surrounding that song was really dark,” she remembers. “As well as that incident, I was also really struggling with my day job as an archival researcher for true-crime TV shows. My job was to get hold of crime-scene photos and court documents and give them to the editors. I was looking at a lot of very intense images every day. So I was stuck in a difficult life moment where I really wanted to move out, and also quit my job. Which is funny, if you think about it, because the song is really catchy.”
Payne’s description rings true for a number of the tracks on the Courtneys’ new record. Although famed for its summery and whimsical garage pop, the group has peppered most of the songs on its second full-length offering with more melancholy lyrics. Upbeat “Minnesota”, rich with major-key guitar riffs and a driving drumbeat, details an inability to “talk to those around you”, while catchy melodies duel with the heartache of missing the eponymous protagonist of “Frankie”.
“I like that our songs are fun and make people happy and whatnot,” Payne comments, “but sometimes for me they don’t really follow that vibe at all. I’m glad that it comes across that they’re deeper on this album.”
The new record has been a long time coming. Having kept fans in suspense for four years, the band credits The Courtneys II’s slow genesis to its inclination, as Payne sings on “Tour”, to “slack off and hit the open road”. Landing opening spots for indie giant Mac DeMarco and pop darlings Tegan and Sara, the three-piece spent time in the intervening years playing around the globe—which, coupled with their focus on fun, meant the band members felt little pressure to release a quick follow-up.
“We’re just really slow,” Payne says with a laugh. “We pretty much jam once a week, no more than that. It was like we were writing the album once a week. When we do write stuff we’re really picky, so we threw a lot of songs away. I feel like the way that we operate is that we have this line of, ‘Okay, we’re just enjoying ourselves.’ And if it ever crosses that line to where we’re doing something for some other reason, and we’re not having fun, we take a step back and re-evaluate. Because we’re always trying to do what’s most gratifying for us, it’s a longer process.”
Geographical differences have also played a part in the trio’s productivity. After finishing the album, guitarist Courtney Loove relocated to Los Angeles, and bassist Sydney Koke took up residence in Strasbourg, France. Now reuniting in the city where the Courtneys began, the band is excited to return to Vancouver for its album-release-party show, and the first concert of its upcoming 25-date North American headline tour.
“It’s exciting because we haven’t played here in a while, and it will be great to see Courtney and Sydney again,” Payne says. “We chat every single day, but we’re mostly talking about band stuff, so I don’t really know what they’re doing in their everyday lives.
“We’ve done headline shows before.” she continues, “but not a full tour. The Vancouver show will be special, particularly because the album just came out, but also because there’s a lot of stuff going on for us. It’s the first time we’ll be physically selling the records, and we have some new merch that we’re really happy about. And the bands that we’re playing with on the Vancouver date are great. It’s going to be a really fun time.”
The Courtneys play a Courtneys II release party at the Biltmore on Tuesday (March 14).