Music News

Lo-Fi Pop Act the Courtneys Survived Vancouver's Rocky DIY Scene

The Courtneys play Lost Lake Lounge, Thursday, April 6.
The Courtneys play Lost Lake Lounge, Thursday, April 6. Andrew Volk
Sydney Koke finds it peculiar that it took several shoegaze-obsessed teenage boys in the Incandescents to lure her into playing in a band.

“My three guy friends were like, ‘We need a girl to sing soft lyrics in our My Bloody Valentine band,’” Koke, who now plays bass in the garage-rock band the Courtneys, recalls. “And I was like, ‘I’m not actually that good at singing, but I can play guitar.’”

It never occurred to her to start her own group. Her home town of Calgary, Alberta, hadn’t earned its reputation as a Canadian cowtown for nothing, and its sizable distance from just about every other major Canadian city didn’t exactly make it a hub for touring musicians.

“I was from a place where you could still go to a rave in 2004. Things were late in Calgary,” she says with a laugh. “But you could be a raver and a punk at the same time. I had fat pants and candy, and I had a spiked collar and green hair.”

Ultimately, she found a home playing in the tiny, eclectic DIY scene, first with the Incandescents and later as part of Trophy Wives, a hillbilly garage-punk band “before garage rock got cool again.”

When Trophy Wives’ drummer quit to attend art school, Koke started the band Puberty with Jen Twynn Payne, who was learning drums from her then-boyfriend, Women frontman Patrick Flegel.

“She was really good immediately — she just had the thing,” says Koke.

Koke moved to the States to attend Duke’s neurobiology program; a year later, she dedicated herself to music over science, and Payne convinced her to move to Vancouver to try to start a band with guitarist Courtney Loove.

“At the beginning of the Courtneys, I had just moved to Vancouver. I was in seven bands at the same time at one point, just trying to find something that would stick,” Koke says.

Vancouver, with its significantly larger population and art scene as compared to Calgary, came with issues: It was crowded, hectic and cliquey. DIY venues opened and shuttered at a dizzying rate because of prohibitively restrictive zoning regulations. Within the scene, it was nearly impossible to move between crowds, Koke remembers; once you found the people who played the music you played and looked like you, that’s where you were expected to stay.

Even so, the Courtneys found a foothold in the local underground and an audience well beyond it. The trio’s 2013 self-titled debut — loaded with lo-fi pop gems that bemoan living on minimum wage and wax about crushing on delivery boys and Keanu Reeves — won fans the world over (most notably New Zealand, where the trio played some of its most triumphant and raucous shows). Critics followed suit, Pitchfork going so far as to declare the album ruefully overlooked.

That hype knocked the band off balance when the time came to write and record its sophomore effort.

“We always knew that we would be able to make a good record, but it was intense having to prevent ourselves from being like, ‘What do people want to hear?’” says Koke. “Our whole strategy has always been, ‘What do we want to hear?’ Keeping that attitude up while having all this added pressure was definitely hard.”

The album also took an exorbitantly long time to produce. The Courtneys often let song ideas roost — sometimes for years — to nail the perfect hook, the perfect solo and, finally, the perfect song. That it will happen when it happens is a guiding mantra for the band, even if it demands extreme patience from fans.

The reward of said patience, II, released this February, does not sound belabored. It’s effortlessly catchy lo-fi garage pop that actively nods to the Flying Nun roster with every scuzzy yet ultra-bright riff. It’s breezy but driven, every punchy ’90s-inspired hook tailor-made for summer flings and road trips down the West Coast. Themes range from outliving your teenage vampire boyfriend and not looking so great to being sort of okay with slacking off for a bit and getting hopelessly caught in love. It is, in short, a damn good time.

As yet another round of glowing reviews rolls in, Koke and her bandmates are trying not to get swept up in the renewed hype. She insists that their commitment to doing this for the sheer fun of it remains unwavering. To prove it, the band has sworn off making long-term plans past this album cycle, all while refusing to get attached.

“When it’s not fun anymore, we’ll just stop. This band could end tomorrow,” she says. “This isn’t meant to be anyone’s career. This isn’t meant to go anywhere except for just enjoying how it’s going.”

And if it does end tomorrow, Koke has options, including — but certainly not limited to — neurobiology.

The Courtneys, 7 p.m. Thursday, April 6, Lost Lake Lounge, with Jay Som, 3602 East Colfax Avenue, SOLD OUT, 303-296-1003.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elle Carroll is a writer and photographer based in Denver. She has written for Westword since 2016.
Contact: Elle Carroll