CHVRCHES REBOOTWith their new album, our greatest working Scottish synth-pop band prove that a critical backlash, the algorithm and a pandemic aren’t enough to stop them
Written By Michael Tedder| September 27, 2021- 2:34 pm
Lauren Mayberry was recently stuck in traffic, as is often the case in Los Angeles. With time on her hands, she decided to listen to a playlist of “New Alternative Music” that an algorithm had recommended for her.
“After about 18 songs, we had come on [the playlist],” she says. “The style of my vocals is so fucking different. I sound like I’m screaming and shouting.” Feeling out of place, she couldn’t help but notice that what “feels current or being more prioritized” in the alt-world today is an attitude and sound she describes as “very not cool to care about anything anymore. It’s not cool to be passionate.”
It was an eye-opening experience for a woman whose band’s second album is called Every Open Eye. “I’m really not plugged into this space,” she realized, “And I think in a way that’s a good thing, because otherwise you would get psyched out about, ‘Oh, should I sing like that? Should I change everything about myself?” She shrugs with a dismissive wave. “I was like, ‘No.’ And then I just changed the channel.”
Mayberry doesn’t have much chill. She cares far too much for that. She cares about the way women are treated, on the internet and in the world. She cares a lot about the way we all treat each other. And she cares a lot about how a keyboard can swell in just the right way to make your arm hairs stand on edge.
For a decade, Mayberry and her multi-instrumentalist bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty built a name on grandeur, pushing the lovelorn aesthetics of new wave to nuclear heights. Be it heartbreak, self-recrimination or a crappy ex, CHVRCHES anthems like “Gun” and “Clearest Blue” made a listener feel like they could triumph over anything, one rising keyboard bloom at a time. Key to making it work was Mayberry’s voice, filled with so much empathy that there’s no space left to take anyone’s shit.
CHVRCHES’ 2013 debut, The Bones of What You Believe, is still one of the most prescient albums of the last decade, helping to set the stage for the blurring of indie culture and pop music that would define the ’10s. Two years later, Every Open Eye refined their approach, somehow sounding even more open-hearted and world-conquering.
But as Mayberry recently learned, CHVRCHES’ steely resilience is becoming a bit of an odd fit in the current #vibes-first landscape. Having one foot in pop and the other in indie is increasingly the norm, but it seems like the strain is making everyone tired. World-weary releases from artists like Clairo and Lana Del Rey sound too relaxed to get worked up about anything.
‘OH, SHOULD I SING LIKE THAT? SHOULD I CHANGE EVERYTHING ABOUT MYSELF?” SHE SHRUGS WITH A DISMISSIVE WAVE. “I WAS LIKE, ‘NO.’ AND THEN I JUST CHANGED THE CHANNEL.”
Despite that, the trio is determined to stay as engaged as possible — though it’s not always easy to go against the tide of popular taste. Of course, making an album when none of the members can be in the same room (and one of them is on a different continent) is a challenge of a different magnitude. CHVRCHES met early last year in Los Angeles to work on demos for what would eventually become their fourth album, Screen Violence, before Cook had to return home to Glasgow.
And then everything went to hell.
While Mayberry and Doherty were at least in the same city, their interactions were limited to “shouting into each other’s houses” from the streets, according to Mayberry. Eventually, they figured out how to use audio-sharing and screen-sharing software so they could work from their home studios.
“We found a rhythm and methodology that served us pretty well,” Cook says via Zoom from an AirBNB in Silver Lake, where he’s staying while the band is tentatively preparing for an upcoming tour. It involved Cook often working through the evening during everyone else’s lunchtime. “But we tried to switch it up a bit so that it wasn’t all just that. I would get up at 6:00 a.m. and Martin and Lauren would be up from the night before. The moods and what comes out of you in the middle of the night can be very, very different when you’re working through the day on something. I think we got some great results, but it’s not really sustainable staying up till 3:00, 4:00 in the morning and then being fucked for the next two days.”
“I THINK THAT YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT,” MAYBERRY SAYS. “PEOPLE ACT LIKE THE WAY THAT WE TREAT EACH OTHER COMES OUT OF A VACUUM, AND IT DOESN’T.
While Cook says it “would have been impossible” to write new material while not in the same room, working from the demos was a nice distraction from the ongoing hellfire of 2020.
“It made for a slower and more concerted process,” Doherty adds. “Making an album across thousands and thousands of miles is not an easy thing to do. When it worked, it was totally unique and really exciting. When it didn’t work, it felt fucking so bad. But that’s just the nature of what the last year and a half was.”
Screen Violence isn’t about 2020, and it avoids the trope of being another “pandemic album.” Yet the stress, lack of camaraderie and lengthy creation couldn’t help but be reflected in the anxious collection of songs.
“You were more inclined to dwell on the things than if you’re not in that kind of isolation,” Mayberry says. “Luckily, we weren’t trying to make a triumphant dance album full of bangers, because that would have been a lot harder emotionally.”
Screen Violence uses horror films as a unifying theme, meditating on the way that all of us are subjected to an onslaught of terror every time we check our phones or turn on the news.
“I think that you are what you eat,” Mayberry says. “People act like the way that we treat each other comes out of a vacuum, and it doesn’t. People will think this is a record that’s about horror movies, but it’s also about violence through screens and what that does to us. But we’re not trying to write a message record.”
Depending on which way you view the bloody knife, horror films either glamorize violence against women, or — in the case of classics such as Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre — offer up heroic women in the form of the “final girl” who defeats the killer. In that sense, it’s a bit of a pioneering genre for strong female protagonists.
“I don’t buy into the argument necessarily that all horror as a genre is misogynist,” Mayberry says. “A lot of the time in horror movies, there was more space for women’s interior lives. I was definitely drawn to how you can set personal stories in that landscape and twist the gaze. Rather than being concept songs about particular horror films, it’s more ‘What is it about your experience, especially the female experience that has felt violent?’”
THE TRIO IS DETERMINED TO STAY AS ENGAGED AS POSSIBLE — THOUGH IT’S NOT ALWAYS EASY TO GO AGAINST THE TIDE OF POPULAR TASTE.
Thanks to smartphones and social media, it’s entirely too easy to constantly get the next hit of terrifying news. Mayberry will go on Twitter to post about band activity and talk with fans for a few minutes, “but then if you stay on longer than that, you get sucked into the vortex of feeling bad about everything and everyone, including yourself. If it was all just cats it would be fine, but it’s not.”
Doherty became a committed doomscroller as life went from bad to worse to unimaginable levels of even worse last year, and his COVID anxieties kept him thoroughly homebound until vaccines were available. “During the election, I had the radio on every time I was in the car, I was looking through Twitter. Every time I was watching TV, I was watching CNN for like 8-10 hours a day. So I was completely and utterly obsessed with it in a negative way. It was interesting, living in a country and being so invested in it. I have roots here, and a studio and a life here, but I’m not a citizen here. I can’t vote here. So I had my face pressed up against the window watching this fucking horror unfold.”
Much like how they’re avoiding a “pandemic album,” CHVRCHES is also smart enough not to overdo it with the whole “horror movie-inspired album thing.” “Final Girls” and “Nightmares” find them tempering some of their more anthemic tendencies with empty space, minor chords and jagged beats — a natural reaction to the protracted, stressful album creation. In addition to the prolonged creation process, the album’s new sounds are inspired by Doherty, who began making guitar pedals after ceasing his original pandemic distraction of making bread from scratch.
CHVRCHES’ 2018 album Love Is Dead found the normally insular group working with outside hands such as Greg Kurstin (Adele, Foo Fighters) and Steve Mac (BTS, Ed Sheeran). It was a drastic departure for a band that usually writes, produces, and mixes their material by themselves, and critics and some fans accused the band of going too far into the pop world. As Consequence wrote at the time “every time CHVRCHES have the chance to get stranger, messier, and more unique, they rein in their eccentricities, going cleaner and more general.”
"I DON’T BUY INTO THE ARGUMENT NECESSARILY THAT ALL HORROR AS A GENRE IS MISOGYNIST."
“I think that record is incredibly valuable because we tried something different and we learned a lot from that,” Mayberry says. “Each record is a snapshot of where you are at the time. I don’t view it as this big fucking disaster. We were selling out shows all over the world. It wasn’t that bad.”
Doherty insists it wasn’t even that pop. He’s a bit sore at the idea that they were pressured to go for some brass ring or that CHVRCHES forgot what CHVRCHES were. According to him, it was their choice to dip their toes into those waters to see what they could learn. “When someone like Greg says, ‘Oh, do you want to come to the studio and mess around with synths and write some songs together?’ and you connect with another creative and you’re tremendously happy with it, that’s on you and nobody else.”
He tilts his head for a moment, sinking deeper into his lawn chair. For a moment, his black baseball cap seems to swallow him. Reemerging, he looks back at his camera with a slight shrug. “I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t listen to it. I do read it and it does hurt,” he says. Admittedly, he has a tendency to “double down and get fucking angry. I’ll go twice as hard on the path I was already going on.”
“You could have had Love Is Dead, Part Two,” Mayberry suggests. “Love is Really, Really Dead.”
“Love Is Reanimated,” Cook adds.
The first time Mayberry met one of her future bandmates, Cook was going to a midnight showing of The Exorcist. She gave him a free bag of popcorn that she otherwise would have had to throw away. To this day, she still hates wasting food.
Cook needed the pick-me-up. He’d spent the ’00s as a member of Glasgow group Aereogramme, a gothic take on Mogwai-style post-rock catharsis. Their 2003 album Sleep and Release even had a rave review from Pitchfork, but the group broke up in 2007.
"I THINK THAT RECORD IS INCREDIBLY VALUABLE BECAUSE WE TRIED SOMETHING DIFFERENT AND WE LEARNED A LOT FROM THAT."
Doherty, still a student at University of Strathclyde, helped produce Aereogramme’s final album and then joined up as a touring member — just in time to watch “the absolute fucking archetypal story of a British band that goes to America and breaks up and everyone hates each other at the end.”
He ended up playing with that ill-fated tour’s opener, The Twilight Sad, for a while, and he and Cook forged a bond on that tour that endured. “We had a conversation of ‘Let’s just fucking make something that gets people going,’” Cook says. “Because, a lot of the Aerogramme stuff was quite melancholy, sad and slow.”
Five years later, Doherty was considering quitting music to go back to school. But Campbell McNeil, Aereogramme’s former bassist and CHRVCHES’s longtime manager, encouraged Cook and Doherty to write songs together. Cook had begun producing, and after a session recording an EP for Mayberry’s folky group, Blue Sky Archives, he asked her to sing back-up on a few demos McNeil suggested the duo create for another band.
“Those initial sessions were supposed to be for somebody else, but were so electrifying that suddenly everything changed like that,” Doherty says. “That was kind of the moment that I knew I wasn’t going to go back to Uni to be a history teacher.”
Mayberry had seen the last Aereogramme show at a Scottish music festival, so when Cook asked her to sing during the Blue Sky Archives session, she agreed. It was worth finding time between her multiple gigs in those days, which included roles ranging from freelance music journalist to personal assistant. “I waited at that fucking bus stop for like 25 minutes,” Mayberry says. “I remember being so panicked about being late and doing a bad job.”
Campbell would later loan Doherty money so they could work on their songs, and their single, “Lies,” was eventually posted on the blog Neon Gold Records in 2012 — without any photos or other information.
“I was in the back of a van with the toilet, driving to Liverpool for a gig, and it was like a cheesy TV show when you just have that moment,” Doherty says. “The phone just goes like Bing! Bing! I’d never had the need to turn off fucking notifications.”
His goals were relatively modest. He dreamed of being No. 1 on The Hype Machine, a website that aggregated the most popular songs in the blogosphere. It was a goal he quickly achieved. “Suddenly, we had people from labels reaching out, and we had an agent by the end of the day.”
One of the highlights of Screen Violence is the defiant anthem “Good Girls,” which sounds like a keyboard snapping in half over a slasher’s head as Mayberry interrogates the idea of who gets to survive in a slasher film — or in real life.
“As a woman, you were sold this idea that bad things don’t happen to good girls,” she says. “If you do all these things and you abide by these standards, there’ll be nothing to be upset about. Because whenever anything terrible happens to women, people say, ‘Well, she shouldn’t have gotten so drunk and then walked home.’ You’re told the rules. But I don’t know that the rules help that much.”
The recent Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love and Rage documentary about the infamous debacle represents a period of time that Mayberry remembers well. As a teenager in the late ‘90s and 2000s, she grew up in the angry frat boy culture that incubated it. “I remember growing up in that specific time period, and taking on board those American Pie, Girls Gone Wild ideas,” she says. “You had high school girls wearing Playboy shirts. You consume that culture and you take it on board.”
That toxic masculinity may have a different haircut these days, but it’s still something that women in the public eye — especially female musicians — deal with every day. Most publicly ignore multiple municipal landfills of garbage they receive online, lest they earn a reputation as buzzkills. But as soon as Mayberry entered the public eye, she began speaking out and publicly questioning why this is an acceptable state of affairs. She shouldn’t have to give each venue she plays a list of names and pictures of men who can’t be allowed in under any circumstances, but she does.
And no, it hasn’t gotten better, even with #MeToo.
“Maybe some people who were living under a rock were shocked by the #MeToo movement, and I think it’s good in terms of holding the media accountable for doing the things we know they should be doing,” she says. “The only thing that’s changed about my experience — and I don’t think it’s a good thing psychologically — but I can handle a lot more of it than I could before because you adapt to your environment. I think that the stuff that happened to us in 2019, if that happened to me in 2012, I would have quit the band. I would have not done it anymore.”
Among the lowlights of 2019, Mayberry was accused of wearing revealing clothing onstage and ranking far too high on the bill for the Dia De Los Deftones festival organized by the beloved alt-metal group. That last complaint came courtesy of Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed, “who must not know anything about the Deftones, because the Deftones love synthpop,” according to Mayberry, adding that singer Chino Moreno “is obsessed with Bananarama.”
Doherty laughs. In his own way and on a much smaller level, he’s also gotten used to this sort of thing. “Fucking shocker that the guy from a band called Hatebreed is angry about something. I feel maybe he had some other things going on in his life at that point, and maybe we triggered them for whatever reason, but I hope he’s doing well.”
Mayberry knows what people think of her, largely because they never shut up. But for as many angry men as she’s triggered, she’s won the respect of some of her more enlightened elders. Though Cook admitted it was “very unlikely to be a success,” they reached out to legendary horror filmmaker and composer John Carpenter to remix “Good Girls.” They were surprised when he agreed, and they remixed his song “Turning The Bones” in return.
“This album is sort of about misogyny from a girl’s point of view,” Carpenter observes. “Lauren, first of all, she’s a really good singer, and then second of all, she has a voice beyond just a singing voice. Her songwriting voice, that’s terrific. I mean, we couldn’t go wrong with this.”
He wasn’t aware of them before, but his son, Cody, and godson Daniel Davies — with whom he released the Lost Themes albums — were fans. As one of the originators of the “final girl” trope, he appreciates that artists like Mayberry are championing his work.
“There’s always been thematic material in horror that’s relevant, it’s always been there,” he says. “I think a lot of new movies are wearing the social commentary on their sleeves, but it’s been around for a long time.”
But Carpenter isn’t the only hero that CHVRCHES got to work with recently. Despite wanting to return to their indie roots, they still made room on Screen Violence for one of their heroes. Robert Smith of The Cure doesn’t just contribute his ageless voice to “How Not To Drown,” he also added guitar and gave detailed notes on the final mix.
“You hear the stories of people who are legendary or difficult — the archetypal rock star, if you will,” Doherty says. “Robert wasn’t like that at all. Not even 1%.”
The two parties emailed back and forth a few times before Smith ended up choosing a piano-driven track Doherty had written during a particularly anxious time. “These things don’t always work out. And then out of the blue, he sent the song. No warning. And it was the most fucking perfect thing. Honestly, that sounds like a lie, but it’s not.”
For the last half of the 2000s and the early 2010s, going from blog success to mainstream indie success — replete with festival offers and press coverage — was the pipeline most acts rode. But by the time CHVRCHES released their 2013 debut, streaming services had begun to consolidate enough power that it seemed like the Scottish trio might be one of the last true blog rock success stories before the pipe was sealed shut.
“It feels that there was only a certain amount of time where there was like a changing of the guards in terms of the gatekeepers,” Mayberry says. “Happy to have been a part of it.”
Now, if they were a new band that posted “Lies,” Doherty admits the response would be “pure fucking tumbleweeds. I’d be a history teacher. The Hype Machine and blogs really were democratic. The more people that shared your music, the more publications wrote about it, the more people ended up being interested in it, and the network effect copied from there. It wasn’t about the new people trying to get a band off the ground, which is like convincing people at a streaming platform to put your music on a feeder playlist.”
As money has become harder to come by for many artists due to declining physical sales and small payouts from streaming services, there’s been a shift from bands to solo projects. “We are probably one of the last bands standing,” Doherty says. “Maybe it’s because of Tik-Tok or YouTube, but I don’t know as many people who want to go into rehearsal rooms and hang out with each other.”
Cook refers to his band as “a bubble” and “a support system” they all leaned on as they started getting far more popular than they ever dreamed. Mayberry says the idea of making it as a solo act is inconceivable.
“None of us could have done this by ourselves creatively anyway,” she says, “I think it would have been a much lonelier experience to be by yourself. I feel like there’s a romance in being a fan of a band. You feel like you’re part of the gang, it’s easier to suspend that disbelief as if you were part of it.”
As a lifelong fan of bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, she refuses to let that romance go or tamp down her passion. She still cares — even if that makes her band an odd fit on a playlist or in a music culture that doesn’t know what to do with bands anymore.
Since the pandemic hasn’t really abated, they haven’t either. They’re well into their next album, and Doherty says “We might be going on the road for three albums” if the Delta variant ends up wrecking their tour plans. But for the moment, Mayberry is ready to continue singing with her mask on. Things are still tough, but at least they can all be together again. It’s the only way they would ever want it. The three of them built CHVRCHES, and they have no idea where they would be without each other.
“It’s just how I’ve always experienced music,” Mayberry says. “I’ve never not been in a band, and I like it even outside of the creative stuff. I like the camaraderie. I like that feeling of being in something with other people. I think that if you took them out of it, the darker times would have been even worse.”
“I’VE NEVER NOT BEEN IN A BAND, AND I LIKE IT EVEN OUTSIDE OF THE CREATIVE STUFF. I LIKE THE CAMARADERIE. I LIKE THAT FEELING OF BEING IN SOMETHING WITH OTHER PEOPLE. I THINK THAT IF YOU TOOK THEM OUT OF IT, THE DARKER TIMES WOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN WORSE.”