Music/Interviews

Everyone’s finally caught up to what CHVRCHES have been saying all along

The Scottish synth-pop band sound off on social division, pessimism, and the bittersweetness of living in the United States.

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June 12, 2018

What does a band with a fully-formed sound do next? Answers vary wildly. Some groups make subtle, mature refinements. Others strike out towards unknown territory. When the Scottish synth-pop trio Chvrches’ ambitious and influential The Bones of What You Believe arrived in 2013, it was a debut as confident and as developed as any first release this decade. 2015’s Every Open Eye felt like an organic next step—bigger, more self-assured, and carefully polished—but it also made for an intimidating album to follow up; how do you top the seismic momentum of “Clearest Blue” or “Empty Threat”?

While chatting with the band a few days ahead of the release of their third album, Love is Dead, it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t the kind of problem that was going to phase Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty. The media narrative was that they were pushing for the mainstream; Love is Dead finds them collaborating with big-name producers Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia, Foo Fighters) and Steve Mac (Ed Sheeran, Pink). It’s a reading that the band wants to complicate; one that neglects changing tastes and times and an artistic process built around being honest, vulnerable, and fearless. We discussed this, social division, pessimism, and the bittersweetness of living in the United States.

A.Side: You’ve always stressed that you do everything because that’s what you wanted to do, and what you’ve wanted to do has been extremely successful. That success has brought with it, I imagine, different pressures and a lot of opinions. What kind of pressures are you feeling? Has it been harder for you to do what you want?

Martin Doherty: Nothing that isn’t self-imposed, really. We hold ourselves to high standards, and that’s really the only thing that feeds into our day-to-day. People talk, and there’s plenty of talk going on around the band; we can’t control that. If you try to control that, you’ll have a bad time. We focus on the things that we can control like writing songs and the aesthetic, and right now all our energy is focused on the live show because we’ve been gearing up for that. It’s a good type of pressure.

Lauren Mayberry: I feel like we were lucky enough to set a foundation when we started—we kind of set an agenda. I think that’s why it’s been easier for us to ensure we’re doing what we want. When people ask us about producers—“did a producer make you do that?”; “did a label make you do that?”—that’s not really how it’s ever been for us. When it came time to work with people, it was because we wanted to, not because we had to or got told to.

Pop music is often escapist, and you’ve talked about this album really leaning into pop music and pop production. At the same time, you’ve also talked about how these lyrics are a lot more direct, and it’s been described as your most overtly political album. How do those things fit together? Is this music that people can lose themselves in? Are you trying to communicate something very specific to a broader audience?

LM: The more press we’ve done, the more you figure out what people are taking away. At this point, I don’t even know if people are taking it away from the music, they’re taking it away from other press clippings, and now that quote that you mentioned is like twenty versions…

Making its way around…

LM: Yes, and I’m like, I don’t think that’s actually what it started as.

Some of these sounds are more difficult.

LM: Yeah, and again, the idea that “Chvrches goes pop”; the music’s always been pop music, but it’s always had more alternative elements to it, and I feel like that’s still present. I do wonder if we’d be having the “goes pop” conversation had there not been an outside producer involved, you know? I heard one of the [older] songs in the gym the other day, and I was like, this is totally pop! It’s indie-alternative pop, but it’s still pop music, like insofar as it’s melodic and its upfront with those melodies. I think that we were focused on wanting to make sure we were being fearless about that this time, but also being fearless about the other elements. That juxtaposition has always been really important to the band: the light and the dark mixed together.

In terms of themes of the record, I feel like you have to just write what feels genuine to you in that moment. There are probably more obvious political references on a couple of the songs, but it’s not really a record full of manifestos. It’s still from a personal lens. I feel like that’s what’s important when you put it out there; that people can connect with it in the way that they want, and read into it what they want. I think that’s what I like about music: finding something for me inside it. Hopefully, people will find something.

A popular topic recently has been bridging dividedness, and that seems to be one of the themes running through the album. On some of the songs, there’s a real sense of frustration about not being able to connect with someone. The video for “Miracle” suggests a political divide; you get caught between violent, unidentified factions. At the same time, I’ve always thought of Chvrches as a band that modelled fighting for what you think is right. Is that a tension that you’re working out, between working out divisions and picking a side?

LM: People labeled us as a “political band” really early on, not because the music was political, but because we said something that was pretty much common-sense. And now the thing that we said that was common-sense is more of a mainstream discussion, which is really positive and really great! It makes interviews much easier, because people are like, “hey, do you still think that?”, I’m like, “yeah, I still think that,” and they’re like, “oh, good!” It’s nicer because it’s no longer me having to justify why I think those things.

In that way, it made it easier for us because we didn’t have to suddenly “decide” to talk about certain things or decide to change the way that we conducted the band. In terms of the music, we never really sit and think “we should write about x, y, or z.” I feel like that’s the part where you should just be being really vulnerable and personal, in terms of what you’re saying. Sometimes those things will filter in, but the rest of it is more about when we have to go out and do things like this [interviews], and what do you want to be doing when you have this platform.

So, what was the move towards more direct lyrics.

LM: We changed the approach slightly insofar as we would try to get a couple words or a phrase in quite early in the process so that we all knew what the theme might end up being, whereas previously we would have an instrumental sketch of the song and then I would disappear and write lyrics, and the guys would do the production, and then we would come back together, and sometimes it didn’t feel like it merged.

I don’t think you should be saying the same things when you’re thirty as you did when you were twenty-four.

Lauren Mayberry

I feel like the lyrics are more direct insofar as I think I have a better understanding of what my voice is within the band. I don’t think they’re more direct insofar as we’re not trying to make them not artful. To me, there’s more imagery on this record and more metaphor; we were conscious of wanting to use imagery to further what you were saying rather than obscure it, so I guess it’s more direct in that way. I feel like it’s meant to be more direct emotionally.

What about the production? I remember you being fascinated by Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, who would have just like eight tracks for a song but it sounds huge. Now you’re working with a different producer, and I imagine that you have access to wild amounts of gear. Is discipline still a focus?

MD: I think a certain level of discipline is always important in the creative process, but what you’re referring to is just where we were at that moment in time; what made us most excited when we were in the studio together. There’s elements of that that will never leave but this band will always, on a production level, continue to be the sum of our taste and personalities. And that’s ever evolving; it will be different tomorrow than what it is today. This band now has an identity, and when we chose to enter the studio with Greg [Kurstin] on a long-term basis, it was because we felt that he really wanted to celebrate that identity and help us energize it in a way that maybe wouldn’t be possible with us on our own. But the fact was that when we went out and worked with him, he pushed us into a place where we always wanted to go.

What did you want to go towards?

MD: I wanted to be more raw, I wanted to be more alive, I wanted to be more pop, I wanted to be less pop, I wanted to be violent, I wanted to be soft. I wanted to go into the studio without one thing planned and without a thought in my mind other than to leave the studio with something that I thought was interesting or exciting. We did that every day during this process. We did that on our own. Sometimes we did it with Greg. We ended up doing one with [producer] Steve [Mac]. But the core energy that was going on in the basement with Greg was, to me, the most exciting, energizing part of the whole album process, and that was a year’s worth of sessions. There’s a lot of material left over. If there’s one thing that I know for sure, it’s that we can’t say that we didn’t explore this time—this period of creativity—to the fullest possible extent. And that was the main aim before we started recording: to make sure that at the end of this, we’d made exactly what we wanted to make.

Danny Clinch

And the next time around it will be different.

MD: Sure, yeah! The next time around, I have no idea. And that’s exciting to me; that doesn’t scare me because this is what I love to do. I love to make music with these people. The next time we come to record, our heads will be in a different place, and I celebrate that! I don’t fear it. Your tastes should evolve. It’s what art is: a reflection of you at a point in time.

LM: I think the same lyrically. To me, it still sounds like the same band, it still feels like the same people talking, but I don’t think you should be saying the same things when you’re thirty as you did when you were twenty-four. I get it; it’s tricky from a fan perspective and from a band perspective. You don’t want stuff to change too much so that people feel disconnected from it but you don’t want to stay in exactly the same place. You hear those bands that make the same records when they’re forty as they did when they were twenty. Maybe that’s how they feel, or maybe that’s how they feel people want them to feel.

So, was a lot of the fun of this record for you that exploration? I know that when you started, a big part of it was that you wanted to have fun; you wanted to make music that was fun and got people dancing. Certainly, we’re a little bit older now, perhaps a little bit more jaded, sometimes a lot more pessimistic, and Love is Dead reflects that to some extent.

Iain Cook: Yeah, I think you’re right. Exploration was what we were aiming for this time. We made the second record in I think, from start to finish, wrote and recorded it in five months. And this time, we were like, let’s just allow ourselves the luxury of being able to explore properly where this band might go next. And yeah, that does throw up how we’re feeling, what’s in the air at the time: there’s a lot of pessimism. But I think there’s also a vein of hope that goes through the album, and I think that’s something that we can stand by and celebrate too.

LM: Lyrically, those two things have always kind of been there. If you listen to some songs on the first record but especially the last record, it’s not pessimistic throughout but there are definitely elements of pessimism about yourself, about other people, and wanting things to be better. And I’m like, maybe that’s just the way I am. I remember being adamant that I had written—I was like, “you guys, I’ve written a love song,” when we wrote “Clearest Blue.” I was like, “I have, I have!”

IC: But it’s really depressing, Lauren.

LM: And they were like, oh yeah, it’s kind of a love song but kind of a fucking bummer.

You’ve been based in the States for a couple years: what is the worst thing about being in the States and what’s the best thing?

IC: They’re the same thing: the food is amazing and the food is amazing. So, you eat too much of it [laughs].

LM: I have to repeat myself a lot, but I think it’s because when I’m talking, I have a certain tone of voice that as soon as you enter—if we enter a bar in our own country, it’s kind of OK—I have to talk a little louder. But when you enter a bar in a certain part of America with a very specific accent, they’re all like, [imitates American accent] “I can’t hear you, I don’t know what you’re saying.” I’m like, I feel like, “you’re all yelling!” So yes, we’re too British and mumbly sometimes.

MD: There’s a lot of things I love about living in the States, but the worst thing is feeling like your family are living their lives in parallel, because they’re all in the UK. And then you check in every so often, and a lot of shit’s happened. That’s the worst thing, but you could say that about living away from home anywhere.

LM: On tour as well, you’re just away, and you’re like, oh, years passed. What happened?

MD: That’s a bizarre feeling that I guess you only get if you’re in this kind of work or if you move away from home. That there’s just this whole life that used to mean everything to you that’s happening in parallel.

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