An edited version of this feature ran in The Herald Arts Magazine (Scotland) on March 26, 2016, under the heading: CHVRCHES: MIRACLES DONE IN 45 MINUTES…
There’s an old picture of Chvrches where they’re under a neon sign that promises: There Will Be No Miracles Here.
You have to wonder though.
The Glasgow electro icons have dedicated the last five years to conquering continents, roaring their gospel – a rapturous, enlightening doctrine that draws on industrial synth-pop, feminist punk, epic post-rock, dance-floor anthems and immaculate R&B. Their home-recorded second album, Every Open Eye, tore up charts across the world when it was released last autumn (Top 10 in the US, Top Five in the UK, Number One in Scotland); its 2013 predecessor, The Bones Of What You Believe, is edging toward one million sales; and they headline Glasgow enormodome SSE Hydro next weekend – despite having only played around 10 shows in Scotland to date.
Such achievements are extraordinary, if not miraculous, as is their knack for concurrently coming across as stadium-filling international pop stars and a well-loved local indie act. It’s a brilliant trick of the light, or quantum physics, or black magic, or – most likely – ingenious cyber nous. And it’s crucial to Chvrches’ exceptional charms. They’re a grassroots band with global reach.
All of which means that they’re rarely back in their home-town, let alone all at once. And so it is that vocalist Lauren Mayberry takes time out to talk on the phone during a week’s holiday in New York, while her synth-brandishing colleagues Martin Doherty and Iain Cook suggest an interview in a Glasgow pub that spirals into nigh-on eight hours and covers – among other marvels – Wasabi Kit-Kats, reggae, typography; their alleged alignment with cryptic cult The Illuminati; sportswear, capes and Quincy Jones; and whether Lionel Blair invented the pas-de-basque.
Heavy metal looms large, too. “I feel like we’ve spent most of this interview talking about Iron Maiden,” muses Cook about three hours in, and flaunts the band’s cut-throat commercial instinct by shifting the conversation not to Chvrches’ latest single or tour, but rather to his bygone Christian rock troupe, Ephis Dammim. “It’s Hebrew for boundaries of blood,” he says, as a scarlet votive is placed on our table.
“The candle of shame,” says Doherty, shaking his head. “Day turns to night.”
“It’s night-time now,” Cook declares, in what feels like a Kelvinbridge out-take from The Lost Boys. “More drinks?”
In the beginning, there were Chvrches: a secret cabal who were born on the internet. There were few clues in the early days as to the trio’s Scottish indie lineage (Blue Sky Archives, Aereogramme, The Unwinding Hours, Julia Thirteen, The Twilight Sad); there was simply a thrilling synth-dirge, Lies (2012), anonymously dispatched online. It exploded, spectacularly, everywhere at once – Europe, America, Asia, Australia. Its title resonated across The Bones of What You Believe, then rebounded in the opening salvo of Every Open Eye – “Throw me no bones, and I will tell you no lies, this time…”
If their debut was fixated on anatomy (Lungs, By The Throat) and hidden depths (We Sink, Under The Tide), then Every Open Eye feels more outward-looking, and landscape-focused (perfect storms and turning tides; myriad references to leaving traces, drawing lines in the sand, and burying entities – memories? Bones?). There is a sense of distance. Perhaps of letting go.
Taking a step back was crucial for their second album, says Mayberry, down a long line from America. “Having the space to figure out what we wanted to do this time was really important,” she offers. “Part of that, for me, was finding an aspect of the band that felt more comfortable, because although I’m really proud of what we achieved with the first album, it did all feel like a bit of a sh**storm,” she says with a laugh. “I was pretty exhausted from feeling I was fighting my corner all the time” – Mayberry’s righteous take-downs of online misogynists have been well-documented – “and I wanted to find a better more positive way to frame things.
“I wanted to put a bit more distance between the real life and the band versions of me,” she continues. “But I also started thinking – what is it I actually like about being in a band? What is it I like about writing? And I think it’s about communication, at the end of the day.” This ethos is echoed in Chvrches’ Fanclvb community, and in Mayberry’s feminist collective, TYCI.
Mayberry reassessed her approach to performance, too. “A lot of people have a lot of opinions on a lot of stuff – and that can feel quite overwhelming when you’re on the receiving end of it,” she says. “When I had time to step back from it all, I thought, okay, I didn’t do all the things that some people would project [on me] – but how do I want to do it? Rather than thinking – how would someone want me to front the band? It’s a band of three people, but ultimately there is a front person, and I think that rather than getting caught under the weight of that, I needed to think about what I wanted to do.”
The result, she suggests, means the shows they play now feel a lot more fun. “I like being able to play music that we made, that we love – that’s this kind of emotional bass-y, synth-y pop music – but conducting the show like I’m still in a punk rock band. I like that juxtaposition, and it feels genuine to us.”
Like the band themselves, Every Open Eye has a knack for feeling intimate yet universal; for appearing near and faraway at once. (Much of the album chimes with Rebecca Solnit’s meditation on loss and landscape, A Field Guide To Getting Lost – specifically, her chapters on The Blue of Distance.) But, says Mayberry, there was no over-arching lyrical theme for the record.
It just needed space.
“For me, I guess I need a bit of time to pass, so I can think about things to write about and build up a bank of ideas,” she offers. “I’m not really very good at writing abstract narratives about characters. It has to come from a personal place. So then you actually have to have the experiences in order to write about them.
“But I got to the point of over-analysis – I got caught up in wondering what I wanted the lyrical themes on the record to be,” she continues. “And I never approach writing like that. Ever. In the end, I wrote Never Ending Circles in about 45 minutes on a train – it was just a rough stream-of-consciousness thing. Taking a step back like that ended up being the way I wrote lyrically for this record, and that all started with Never Ending Circles.”
Light years (well, three thousand miles) back in Glasgow, talk revolves round that cardinal song – which opens Every Open Eye – as the candle burns. “It was really important to us to try and capture the same dynamic we had on album one with this record,” says Doherty. “Same studio, us producing, same set up. Day one, we all went in, and just like that: Never Ending Circles.”
Cook elaborates. “Day one, Martin walks straight up to one of our new synths and goes – [mimics the album’s ripping, rippling opening hook]. I was like that – ‘Martin, that is absolute shite,’” he laughs. “I came round to it eventually.”
Doherty grins. “I was trying to write the world’s most annoying riff.”
Cook: “It worked.”
There’s a meticulous precision to Every Open Eye – a hi-octane minimalism that evokes the ultra-pop productions of Quincy Jones. There’s plenty space, but it’s never empty. “That’s something that was really in our minds making the second record,” Cook offers. “Minimalism – specifically, Quincy Jones minimalism. There’s not a lot in those mixes. There’s a few elements, maybe four, but it sounds huge. It sounds massive.”
“We were obsessed with that on this record,” nods Doherty. “We were constantly like – ‘Can we take anything else out? Are there any elements that are working against the DNA or the economy of the song?’ We thought we could do a lot more with less this time,” he says. “Sounds and ideas have to stand up for themselves if they’re more exposed.”
For all that, Every Open Eye is full of warmth. “We’re pretty warm people generally,” Doherty offers. “We’re used to being in bands that wrote directly from their psyche. The whole ethos of indie music was about being a human being, and that’s still an intrinsic part of what we do. It’s like we’re a rock band who play electronic instruments. And write pop songs. We’re always thinking of ways to relate to the more human element of electronic music.”
“Because it gets a bad rap for being cold,” adds Cook. “And while pop in general has almost always been regarded as lowbrow, that tide is starting to turn. I think that one of the reasons things are going well for us is because there’s been that cultural shift, in perception, of seeing pop as high art; as art at all. Look at Beyonce. She’s making relevant, gritty, important music, and challenging political norms. Pop music can have depth. Of course it can.”
“The time I realised how extreme that shift was, was when I heard Shutdown by Skepta,” says Doherty. “That song was ubiquitous, and I suddenly realised that counter-culture and the mainstream were converging. Then I heard Bitch Better Have My Money by Rihanna, and I was like, okay – times have changed. Then, that Weeknd record dropped [Can’t Feel My Face], a deeply subversive, dark song about sex and drugs. That’s the mainstream, man. That’s brilliant.”
“Isn’t that great?” enthuses Cook. “Isn’t that a great time to be making music?
And doing it their way. For album two, Chvrches returned to Cook’s basement studio in Glasgow, where they made The Bones Of What You Believe. “I love that space,” Doherty says. “It feels like home to me now. Whenever we come back, or we’ve got something to do, and we sit in that room, it’s like… snapshots. The first time we sat there, properly, we’d done nothing, and all that we talked about was things that we could maybe do or maybe write. The second time, for this album, we were trying to follow up this perceived huge success. The next time, I don’t even know where we’ll be at, because for me we’re in completely uncharted territory now.
“We’ve already gone past what I ever thought a band who retained total credibility could achieve – and I really feel we have done that, I don’t think we’ve sacrificed anything,” Doherty adds. “We’re getting bigger in front of my eyes, we’re selling more tickets in America than we’ve ever done, we’re selling more records than we ever have. And it’s the same in Glasgow, in our home town…”
The main difference in terms of the studio set up between albums one and two is a redoubled trove of synthesisers. “On the first album, we had three synthesisers, and we stacked them up and did it that way,” explains Cook. “For this album, we were able to afford the shopping list of our teenage dreams. We had it really streamlined, and as a result we discovered a lot of sounds and built new sounds that inspired the music. That’s always been a key thing for us: the technology inspires the writing. New sound, new song.”
“Yeah, and that’s a expensive way to work,” laughs Doherty. “But it was a fortunate by-product of being self-sufficient. We had the budget to record the album, like anyone else does, but instead of spending it on studio time, or Rick Rubin, we reinvested it in ourselves. That was important.”
Bang in the middle of their self-produced record, there’s a euphoric, melancholic anthem called Clearest Blue, whose lyrics give the album its title. It’s bold and bright and exquisite. “Clearest Blue was one of those moments in the studio where you get that flash of light,” recalls Cook. “You can see the crowd, you can see how it’s going to pan out. You don’t get many of those moments in a career, let alone on an album.”
Doherty had a similar revelation as Clearest Blue materialised. “To go from that first day of playing it and jumping around the studio, to seeing 10 thousand people bouncing at the same time to that song at [London’s] Alexandra Palace – that’s serious,” he says. “That’s amazing.”
The day we meet, Clearest Blue has prompted another ardent response – this time in the guise of a YouTube film that suggests the song proves Chvrches’ alliance with an infamous mystic faction. “We’ve just had our first Illuminati exposé online,” beams Cook. “I got half way through it and started believing it myself.”
The YouTube revelation is incredible in its depth and detail, and underscores the extent to which fans clamour to get inside Chvrches’ songs.
“Oh man, totally – that’s a life goal,” Cook nods. “When people start writing about your band in terms of mythology and symbolism it’s like, okay, I feel like I’ve achieved something. And the myths in rock ‘n’ roll are always more interesting than the truth. The truth is, I got out my bed this morning and had a bagel.”
Doherty looks thoughtful. “I think people feel like we’re connected to the internet; that we’re almost synonymous with it,” he says. “And when the lines of communication between us are so short, and so clear, that maybe breeds a higher level of engagement and fanaticism to some extent.”
“It’s that idea of finding a sense of belonging and identity in music,” Cook notes. “That’s something that I grew up with, as a metal kid, but it still exists – bands like Iron Maiden, they go to India or South America and play stadiums, multiple nights. That’s not something I thought I’d ever achieve in any band I played in, that level of dedication.”
Chvrches have long induced such fevered communal exultation – online, in live arenas, and on the dancefloor. As with their debut, Every Open Eye plays out as two perfectly-crafted sides of vinyl – and simultaneously as a glorious 11-track club set. “It was sequenced for vinyl, but I love the club thing, although I hadn’t thought of it before,” says Cook. “I also read that someone’s done a blog about how the album follows the dramatic arc of a John Hughes movie. Maybe there’s something universal about that narrative form.”
It’s a formidable illusion though, conjuring so many distinct narratives in parallel. How do they do it? “I’ll tell you how you do it,” Doherty deadpans. “Eighty or 100 revisions of a tracklist.”
Cook buries his head in his hands.
“Oh well,” Doherty brightens. “On album three, we can relax a bit. We can do whatever we want. I don’t mean this in a flippant way, but a lot of people have successful first albums and the second record, so very often, is a disappointment for fans, or a disappointment for people that the band are in business with, and ultimately it becomes a disappointment for the band themselves. We were obsessed with not making that mistake,” he says. “We had to make sure everything was right and we wanted to put out a great record and focus on the music completely. Now that’s done, the ship is out to sea, so to speak, and we’ve got a genuine career – and we really do feel like we have a genuine career – so now’s the time to have some fun with that. To really explore the creativity a bit more. I think we might even take more than six weeks off between this album and the next one.”
Cook nods. “I might even be willing to relax my 45 minute rule on album three. The double album rule still stands though. No double albums.”
“What about the no shorts on stage rule?” Doherty ventures.
Cook looks through him. “Come on, man. That stays”.
Given their escalating banks of synths, how about capes, a la Rick Wakeman?
“Capes are fine,” shrugs Cook. “I love capes. Wizard hats, that’s cool. But sportswear? Not good.”
Chvrches wear their fortunes lightly. They bear the weight of their pop miracles well.
Chvrches play Glasgow SSE Hydro (with support from The Twilight Sad) on April 2.
Related article: CHVRCHES interview, The Herald, Dec 13