Tuesday 26 October 2021

The Courettes - Special Feature on New LP "Back In Mono", Live at The Lexington Tuesday October 19th, Interview & Exclusive Photos

The Courettes - Photo copyright Steven-Tagg Randall - Archivist of London
Well for my first full-on gig in London for bloody ages I certainly picked a great night to get back into the swing of things. The Courettes were playing at The Lexington in Islington as part of a nationwide tour to promote their third album “Back In Mono” which has just been released by our good friends over at Damaged Goods Records. I first saw the husband-and-wife duo of Flavia and Martin Couri at an unforgettable show at one of the Weirdsville Club nights at the Fiddler’s Elbow in Camden some time ago and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. The superb new LP has barely been off the turntable since the postman delivered it bang on the release date of October 15th so I thought I’d write a few words in appreciation of the record along with my impressions of their sold-out show at The Lexington. I also managed to catch up with Martin and Flavia backstage before the gig so I’ve included the interview at the end of the feature.

The first thing that strikes you when you see the cover of “Back In Mono” is that the trademark black, white and red visuals have gone. Flavia has also forsaken her usual black and white Mary Quant style outfits for a sky-blue dress as seen on the “…Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes” album cover. It’s a great tribute and hints that there might well be a slight departure from what’s come before, a new direction maybe? Now, when you hear that about a band you sometimes fear the worse but don’t worry this is more a refinement of The Courettes sound than a departure from all the things you know and love about the band. “Back In Mono” bursts out of the confines of the Garage Rock genre and delivers on all levels. It’s one of those all too rare albums where everything just works - from the stunning cover art, the production to the perfectly sequenced track-listing. You certainly won’t need to get up and lift the needle on the stereo to skip to the next track as this is made to be listened to in one hit – just like all those great albums from the past. Plus, the bottom line is there are no songs you’d even consider skipping. That’s because most of all “Back In Mono” impresses with the sheer quality of the song-writing as every track could be a single in its own right – in fact they’ve already released four as stand-alone 45’s if you count the ‘de-seasonalized’ (if there is such a word) version of the Xmas single “Christmas (I Can Hardly Wait)” here re-recorded and re-titled as simply “I Can Hardly Wait”. With its rolling timpani, glockenspiel, castanets and fuzzed up guitar riff, this version is for me probably the defining moment of The Courettes search for that elusive wall of sound – well, the good news is that the search is over, they have managed to nail it with this masterpiece of a song.

Flavia of The Courettes - Photo copyright Retro Man Blog

Throughout the album, the additional instrumentation by Soren Christiansen - who layers on sublime Piano, Organ, Mellotron, Glockenspiel and vintage 1960’s Philicorda - adds a wonderful depth to the sound and binds everything together perfectly. I think it’s the new single that comes closest to capturing the very essence of The Courettes, “R.I.N.G.O.” is an insanely melodic ode to The Beatles’ drummer with Flavia nailing her colours to the percussive mast – we already know she appreciates drummers (after all, she married one) but it’s the underrated Ringo that gets her Beatles fan club vote here. “Forget John Lennon, George well he’s OK, I’m done with McCartney, I want Richard Starkey”. It’s all wrapped up in the catchiest chorus I’ve heard in years; believe me you’ll be singing this out loud for days to come. The single also boasts superb cover art and Damaged Goods must be commended on making sure the design and visual side of things does not let down the quality of the music in the slightest.

“Too Late To Say I’m Sorry” is also classic wall of sound, a quite remarkable and heartfelt song. “Trash Can Honey” is a Garage Mod stomper that reminds me of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” with some great guitar and a brief break into some sublime Beach Boys harmonies (a favourite of Keith Moon of course) and it shifts gears suddenly with a crunching chord change. With “Won’t Let You Go” the band have built on the New York Dolls style Doo-wop and Girl Group harmonies and elsewhere there’s reminders of those other well-known Phil Spector fans the Ramones, who fused the melodies of Bubble-gum Pop along with buzzsaw guitars. Sure, The Courettes are unashamedly retro but like some of my other favourite bands, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, The Limiñanas and The Brian Jonestown Massacre - they all assimilate their influences and favourite music of the past, allowing it to infuse their sound rather than simply imitate it. They all have their own unique identity; you know immediately who you are listening to and yet it still manages to sound fresh and contemporary. Well, as I write it’s fast approaching November and I am already thinking about Retro Man Blog’s albums of 2021. I had pencilled in “Back In Mono” as Album of The Year, but I suppose I might as well get the biro out as I can’t see how anyone is going to beat this masterpiece now, I really can’t.

The Courettes - Photo copyright Steven-Tagg Randall - Archivist of London
But all you Garage Rock freaks don’t have to worry that the band have become too polished or lost any of their trademark energy, far from it. As the band take to the stage at the sold-out Lexington in Islington it’s immediately apparent from the opening blast of “Hoodoo Hop” and the quite brilliant “The Boy I Love”, that The Courettes haven’t forsaken their all-out fuzzed-up sonic attack. Flavia bounces around the stage, machine gunning the crowd with her guitar, hair flailing in her wake. She almost bursts with the unabashed enthusiasm of someone leaping around their bedroom playing along to their favourite record. Immediately a smile plays across my lips and doesn’t budge until the final chord rings out over the satisfied crowd and I realise it’s all over. “What a pleasure to see you in the real world” Flavia announces before launching into the classic “I’ve Been Walking”. Martin introduces “R.I.N.G.O.” as a tribute to “the second-best drummer in the world”, now I wonder who the first might be? Talking of which, Martin is a superb, powerful drummer. Whether he’s hunched over his kit, bashing a tambourine on the floor tom or providing backing harmonies and call and response vocals with Flavia - he’s a busy blur of energy. He also tries his hardest to rouse the appreciative but polite London crowd, “we know you’re too cool for school but let’s forget it’s a Tuesday night” and you can’t argue when he says “You’ve been sitting down for one and half years, come on!” 

Martin Couri - copyright Steven-Tagg Randall, Archivist of London
He’s the perfect foil to Flavia and of course it goes without saying that the chemistry between the two of them crackles like lightning bolts. The show is packed full of so many amazing tunes and again, you can’t argue when Martin announces “Here’s another song from The Courettes hit machine!” as they crash into “Night Time (The Boy of Mine)” from the new album. In fact, the songs from “Back In Mono” really do work in their stripped back live element. The atmospheric “Until You’re Mine” with its slinky fuzzed-up guitar riff is reminiscent of the wonderful Fabienne Delsol, who just so happens to be in attendance at the Lexington tonight. The new album’s more all-out Rock ‘n’ Roll songs go down a storm, “Trash Can Honey” is a highlight and in particular, the primitive grunge of “Edge of My Nerves” with its apt opening line of “Hey, Caveman!” thunders along at breakneck speed. The Damaged Goods Records single “Want You! Like a Cigarette” condenses all of those familiar teen-angst anthems beloved of The Shangri-Las into a two-minute masterpiece. Then there’s the superb follow up 45 “Hop The Twig” with its rumbling Link Wray guitar riff intro proving that Flavia is one hell of a mean guitarist. There’s a great mix of old and new material in the set with familiar numbers such as “Boom! Dynamite!” and “T-C-H-a-U” ramping up the energy to bursting point and The Sonics guitar riffing of “Voodoo Doll” finally bringing the show to a close in some style. If you thought a duo might not be the most visual or exciting of stage acts then just go out and see The Courettes and you will have your mind changed for good.

Flavia Couri - Photo copyright Steven Tagg-Randall, Archivist of London

I managed to catch up with Martin and Flavia for a quick chat backstage before the show.

So here you are, bang in the middle of a full-on tour of the U.K.

Flavia: Just like the good old days! Seventeen days back-to-back with no days off, we hate days off.

How have you found it going from the confines of the lockdown to suddenly performing to packed out crowds with no restrictions whatsoever?

Martin: Surreal, I must say. All this was planned during the pandemic and it was a crazy time because we didn’t know with the lockdown if we were ever going to play again. There was no future all of a sudden – which venues were going to be left and then what about all the underground culture and all these lovely places and were they going to survive? So, it’s been a very unsecure world, hard times.

Flavia: As musicians it was a really tough time and I think we were lucky to do some shows in 2020 as many bands didn’t have a chance. Denmark opened up a little bit in the Summer and we did some things outside. We played Germany in October for example; I mean people were sitting down which was so boring because they couldn’t dance. And we had to do two sets, like 90 people in and they sit down and then they go out and in comes another 90 people because of the capacity. So, we had to do two shows for the same money, so yeah, it was really different. But now, it’s like touring as we said, just like the good old days.

Martin Couri - copyright Steven-Tagg Randall, Archivist of London
It must have been frustrating because you as a band really feed off the interaction and energy of the crowd, it’s a big part of a Courettes show, how did you cope without the buzz of playing live?

Flavia: Another weird experience of the lockdown was this livestream thing. You know we just did a livestream from our studio – we were sweaty and playing and having fun and then it’s all over. There’s no interacting, selling merch, talking to people “ah, it was a good show”, having a beer… so we were just there looking at each other saying, what are we going to do now? We’re all adrenalized but we just went home. Yeah, we hate livestreams, I mean it was not fun at all to do that. It took a whole week trying to find out all the technical stuff to make it work but it was important to keep people connected at some point. It’s like when you’re on Facebook you’ll stumble across a livestream here and there but it’s a format that easily got old.

Martin: It became extremely boring because so many musicians were just sitting on their couches, I missed going to a venue and having a good time.

Flavia: But we actually used the time to make our new record. We’ve got our own studio, StarrSound, so were in the studio producing new stuff, we were writing songs and working on arrangements, so that was fun.

I guess having your own studio was a huge bonus during the pandemic, tell us about StarrSound Studios.

Martin: You know it’s crazy, in 2019 we spent literally all the money we own in building the studio. Our big dream was that we knew we wanted to do the “Back In Mono” record so then we wanted to have this vintage 1960’s studio so we spent everything we had because we thought 2020 was looking very good, our best year so far. We thought we can turn around the whole economy, we could afford to live off playing and all our investments in the studio were going to recoup and then in March comes this big slap in the face. But hey, we do have this killer studio.

Flavia Couri - copyright Steven-Tagg Randall, Archivist of London
Your previous LPs seemed to concentrate on capturing the live energy of The Courettes but the new one has definitely expanded the sound.

Martin: We had this big dream of saying, you know we want to dive deep in the Phil Spector, Bert Burns wall of sound – that Larry Levine Gold Star sound.

Flavia: I think we just wanted to use the studio as an instrument as before we were always worried – OK, we cannot put so many overdubs because we want to play as just the two of us. So, if we have a piano part which is amazing, that’s leading the song then we cannot do that live. For example, if it has a guitar too, I can’t play both instruments at the same time. So, we were always worried, can I put backing vocals, can I put this here and can I do that live? But then we thought it’s OK to do some overdubs because the songs still work with only the two of us. Now people are asking us, how are you going to play “Back In Mono” live? I mean, we’re playing I think seven or eight songs off the record live tonight. It’s the toughest test of song-writing, if the song is good, it works with just playing a guitar on the beach. In the studio we can always add a piano, percussion – we add this and that’s the studio work. We cannot reproduce it live, that’s not going to happen but we just play the songs and they sound really good with drums and guitar too.

Martin: Any of the girl group bands with the Phil Spector wall of sound, no one did this live.

Flavia: No, they had their live set and they had their studio set.

Martin: There’s the difference, you know, we wanted this massive record because after Phil Spector and Larry Levine I don’t think anyone has succeeded in doing a real “wall of sound” and I think we’re one of the first to actually manage to have an authentic wall of sound.

Flavia: And now having our studio is another freedom we have so I think it was so much fun to experiment. Should we do this backing vocal, should we put a mellotron, shall we put some piano. So, we are OK with overdubs now and I think that’s what you can hear on the new album.

The Courettes - copyright Steven-Tagg Randall, Archivist of London
"Back In Mono” was actually mixed in Japan, how did that happen?

Martin: I don’t remember where but it was a top 10, top 15 list of the best Christmas songs, I mean we did a Christmas song “Christmas (I Can Hardly Wait)” and the only song we heard on the list was by a girl called Soleil.

Flavia: Yes, she had a song before us on the list called “Twinkle Heart”.

Martin: When we heard it, it was like, “Boom!” because we were already doing the recordings but we didn’t know anyone who could mix it. Different guys and different mixes.

Flavia: We tried our best with the Christmas single but it was not actually there and after we heard Soleil, we were so jealous of her and Martin was really disappointed for weeks after – “look at this, that’s what we want to do, that’s the sound!”

Martin: I was literally pissed; I think I was actually screaming. I was extremely annoyed because, fucking hell, that’s the sound we wanted.

Flavia: And she was a 15-year-old girl in Japan doing that!

Martin: Then, via Tokyo’s Coolest Sounds, a Japanese music Blog they knew who had mixed it and they had the contact to Seiki Sato at Catchball Studio who’s the guy who ended up mixing our record there in Tokyo. It’s fantastic, it’s a great story, he doesn’t speak English but he has a really cool assistant Yono.

Flavia: He saved us with the communications you know.

Martin: And the thing is they did a really good sound, it’s massive but you know, it still sounds modern. Then we have a really nerdy mastering guy in Copenhagen called Valentin so we were sitting with him for two days really capturing the sound of The Crystals, The Shangri-La’s and all these girl groups, the Ronettes obviously, trying to get the same tone of the whole stuff.

Have you ever been to Japan? I think you would go down a storm over there.

Martin: No, we’ve never been but it would be great to go and record with Seiki and tour there.

Flavia: We would love to, we just have to know how this pandemic is going to develop and of course it has to make sense, we do sell a lot of records through our Bandcamp site to Japan. It’s an expensive trip but now we have a good reason for going there.

At this point we had to finish the interview as Los Pepes were taking the stage for their superb set. 

Flavia Couri - Photo copyright Steven Tagg-Randall, Archivist of London
Check out The Courettes official web-site for the remaining tour dates and hopefully you can catch them live, you certainly won’t regret it. Damaged Goods have re-released The Courettes first two albums “Here Are The Courettes” on cream vinyl and “We Are The Courettes” on red vinyl and also compiled both together on one handy CD called “Here We Are The Courettes”. Check out the Damaged Goods Records web-site for details on how you can order these essential records. I must also mention how much I enjoyed the superb support act Los Pepes who put in a thoroughly energetic set of catchy, melodic Power Pop and Punk Rock ‘n’ Roll. I’ve liked the band since getting their first single “No S.O.S.” on lovely yellow vinyl a few years back but this was the first time I’d managed to see them play live somehow. I wasn’t disappointed, they were right up my street and I picked up their latest single on Black Wax Records “Want You Back” this time on blue vinyl, so expect to hear a track or two from the band in the next Retrosonic Podcast. I did manage to film their cover of The Dictators “Stay With Me” which you can see over at the Retro Man Blog YouTube channel here, along with three songs from The Courettes show. Also, it was nice to catch up with DJ Adam Diddy Wah and hear his usual eclectic mix of tunes and I’d recommend checking out his show on NTS Radio and Mixcloud

Thanks to The Archivist of London, Steven Tagg-Randall for the excellent photos. You can find his video of the complete Courettes show at The Lexington over at the Archivist of London YouTube channel here.