With The Courteeners releasing new single Lose Control this week, followed by the band's third album Anna on Monday (4 February), Liam Fray and co are set to head out on a UK tour later on this month. As he gears-up for life on the road, the frontman explains in a guest column why with many of the country's smaller venues starting to close their doors due to financial constraints the British music scene (and its arenas) will be a poorer place without them.
My phone rings on Tuesday morning back in November of last year. The conversation is short and stark. And really fucking sad. One which I've heard all too often over the past three or four years.
The Hub, Darlington, had sadly closed its doors for the very last time. We were due to play there as a warm up for the Manchester Arena show two days later. After a deluge of anxious tweets and Facebook complaints (it's obviously a band's fault when a venue closes) we were able to find an alternative suitor. Luckily, for us, we were able to re-schedule the show up the road to the beautiful Town Hall in Middlesbrough. Original tickets would remain valid, and most people were, thankfully, able to hop on the train and head North. But what about the community of music lovers of Darlington? Is it rail-cards at the ready every time they want a night out to be sound tracked by new bands? I imagine the local pubs don't have too many electro nights on, or much dub-step for the spring heeled to flirt with.
It seems The Hub was yet another casualty in a harrowingly long list of venues that sadly, are no more.
The old van advert wrongly claimed that they were the backbone of the country. I don't doubt the sturdy merit of the Transit - not for one minute - but they weren't my backbone. In my world, and hopefully in a few others', my metaphorical backbone was small venues. The blood and guts of the music industry, if you will. As a musician or fan; barman or promoter it's where you learn your trade. Where you cut your teeth and learn what you love. It isn't easy and it sorts out the wheat form the chaff, but it is incredibly exhilarating. It's where you nervously take those first steps into that world. A world that until that this point the only contact you'd had with it was muffled conversations between your older brothers and sisters whilst you were told to get to bed. You'd go to bed, but you wouldn't go to sleep. You'd lie awake, headphones in and think about the day that you'd be old enough (or at least old enough to tell a good lie) to get the bus into town where you'd then pay five pounds for four bands to change your life. Or sound shit. It was either one or the other. There's no in-between at that age.
I often think I'd be in a different line of work had I not walked down the Manchester Bierkeller steps with Mark Cuppello [Courteeners bassist] for the first time. The smell of a thousand drinks on the floor; the long wooden benches (extremely uncomfortable sober, but like a chaise longue after four double house gins); the smoke filtering round the stage, swirling through the drum kit like a cloud on a mission. It felt like another world. It was another world. And it was one I wanted to be a part of. I loved the sweatbox nature of the smaller venues when I would go watching gigs. I remember watching The Cribs at the Bierkeller. I was crushed, it was the temperature of the sun and I thought I was going to die. It was also one of the most euphoric, exciting nights of my life. Things changed after that. Being so close to their guitars you thought you could touch them. Seeing what shoes they were wearing. Stealing their set lists after the gig. Your not allowed to do that at The O2.
My love for the smaller venue stems not only from the fact that you may catch a Welsh punk band with a 40 year-old singer named Cassandra, but also because there is a chance you may bump into the girl with the dark hair in the trenchcoat. The one that was dancing to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah before most folk knew who they were. I knew who they were. And I wanted to know her. You see that's what used to happen. A pair of eyes would meet and the world was a brighter place. They are the places where friendships are forged, relationships kindled, and plans to start bands become more than just plans. Whether it is the subject matter of the songs being sung on stage, or the scenes being acted out on the dancefloor later on, it was about like-minded people being together and having a good time. A bond. Falling in love with music and each other. It really does fill me great sadness to think that these venues are becoming fewer and further between. These little boxes of bricks and mortar are like beating hearts, with drum kits for lungs and guitars for limbs. We have to keep them alive.
We're lucky enough to have played at these venues. And I do count myself extremely lucky. For me, no feeling on earth can compare with standing on a stage and seeing the whites of people's eyes in the front rows or their tendons against the skin of their necks as they sing, scream and shout words back at you. Intimacy is over-looked in a world dominated by quick, flippant and almost throwaway media. To make a connection seems to be becoming less and less fashionable (perhaps it's because it's less profitable), but it couldn't be more important. As a songwriter, if you manage to make a connection it can be a pretty special feeling. To make that connection in a tiny room with sweat dripping from the roof is other worldly. You feel part of something. It verges on tribal. When a venue shuts, it's important that aspirations don't shut too. Dreams need a location. When they have cajoled parents into lending them that final tenner so they can afford the cheapest of the selection of electric guitars hanging on the wall at Cash Generator (as I did), where do they dream of playing?
The local venue has gone, and it's not straight to Wembley is it? Is that it then? Are the dreams we had as children fading away? I don't know, and I wish I had more answers but one thing is for certain, we, as music lovers, should be doing all we can to help keep our smaller venues where they belong. On the street and in our hearts. Liam Fray
For more, including The Courteeners full tour dates, head to Thecourteeners.com.