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CHVRCHES: All Eyes on You

on September 22, 2015, 12:00am

The music from CHVRCHES’ forthcoming sophomore album, Every Open Eye, first emerged via fan-filmed videos of their July 15th performance at RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest in Ottawa, Ontario. They were, like most fan-filmed videos, sub-optimal quality and — for a band that deals so heavily in bedazzled, hi-fi synths paired with the razor-sharp singing of Lauren Mayberry — seemingly sub-optimal first impressions. But at least one of them, a recording of “Clearest Blue”, helped its cause.

As it approaches its fourth minute, the song’s beat starts to wind up, and Mayberry starts to landslide from patient to persistent, frantic but locked in. “Tell me you’ll keep me,” she blurts, and suddenly the so-so-quality audio blasts into the red so brutally and abruptly that it’s not entirely clear a gust of wind didn’t just blow directly into the device’s mic. It might be CHVRCHES’ first bona fide beat drop. It sounds like CHVRCHES punching through a ceiling. When the moment hits, Mayberry pumps her fist upward — one new stage move taken from an entire arsenal she’s added since the shows behind the band’s 2013 debut, The Bones of What You Believe.

I meet up with Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin “Doc” Doherty two mornings later, on the day they would perform the new songs to a US audience for the first time at Pitchfork Music Festival. It’s the first time I’ve seen them in person since June 2013. At that time, they were a promise — not even two years old as a band, not even one album deep. Today, they’re second-liners at your average major summer festival, and they’ve left fingerprints on all sorts of pop-cultural corners: songs for Grey’s Anatomy, Awkward, Grand Theft Auto, FIFAThe Hunger Games, and the Zane Lowe-curated re-score of Drive.

“A lot of stuff’s happened since the last time we spoke — it’s crazy,” says Doherty. “It’s just like season two of a TV show. That’s what I always think. When you get renewed, you get a lot of budget to spend on the sets and all that.”

As it happens, popular television is exactly where our last conversation left off. By the time we’ve situated ourselves at the vacant lobby bar of the band’s Chicago hotel, I’ve yet to ask a formal question. We’re arguing about the second season of True Detective. As the rare example of a fictional series rebooting its whole universe for a new season, the show is a hell of a case study in light of Doherty’s simile. That’s a less common answer to the same kind of questions CHVRCHES have dealt with in this time: questions about how best to follow such an embraced first impression. How much do you reinvent? How much do you refine? How much can you reflect on these things until they become your enemy?

chvrches every open eye

Looking back on the last two years, what moments said big things about this period for you? A performance, a moment in the studio, a conversation?

Martin Doherty (MD): The last two years or 18 months have pretty much just bled right into each other since [The Bones of What You Believe] came out. Brixton Academy is a big moment I’ll remember. Glasgow Barrowlands is a really historic venue. Personally, playing there three times, I think it’s kind of a rite of passage for a lot of bands, especially Scottish ones. Coachella weekend one, I think that’s the most nervous I’ve ever been before a performance. You get this idea that the world is watching, and if you fail, everyone’s going to know.

Lauren Mayberry (LM): Half the time your brain tells you you’re going to fail, and the rest of the time you’re like, “Maybe I’ll be OK.” And then at that point, the devil on your shoulder’s like, “No, you’ll fuck it up now!”

MD: It’s weird because we just flipped the switch. The last eight months have been in the studio, not seeing anyone, just seeing each other, just talking about the record, living the process of making an album, committing everything to that. About two weeks ago, it flipped again, and suddenly we’re in America, talking to people, playing big shows.

Iain Cook (IC): It’s a very binary existence.

MD: It’s super binary. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s hard because you don’t have those defining moments. So it was weird when you were talking about your life because I was thinking to myself, “All I remember is being on tour.” I remember loads of highs, but there’s less variety of experience.

From what I could tell of your experience on that tour, it seems like it went perfectly.

LM: I think we just learned to adapt, to an extent. The idea of the day-to-day was really different, so we learned to reinterpret the day-to-day and tried to find a healthy-ish way of being on the road. I guess if you’re in an environment where you tour every so often, maybe you can have a massive blowout every time you go on tour, but we did 364 shows in two years, so [we] can’t really do that.

I read a lot over the break about impostor syndrome and how that leads into performance anxiety. I think that’s interesting because we’d all been doing so much other stuff before we started this band. It was weird to eventually come to terms with that — like, this is your job. It’s not like I just do music in my free time. It’s like, OK, this is what you do right now, and how do you want to do it? Do you want to be constantly chasing your tail and feel like you’re catching up, or do you want to go on the offensive and be more assertive?

I think it’s been helpful to have that break to step back and take stock of it. It was useful just going back to the comfort, reality, and normality of home, and being able to record and write in that environment was quite nice. If we’d had to go away to record, as much as that would have been great, I’m sure we wouldn’t have ended up with the same record. We would have been fish out of water again in another scenario. We were quite keen to go back to our little bunker basement for a bit.

IC: Going back in there, not having any extended studio time since two years previous, was a really interesting experience. It was great fun, but there’s so much anxiety around the whole “Can we still do this? Can we still work together? Is there still going to be a dynamic that’s fruitful?” Pretty much from day one, when we got in and started throwing some ideas around, we knew that the ideas were plentiful and were going to come out thick and fast.

We had a workmanlike approach towards making the record. We did it five days a week, six or seven hours a day, same time every day, and we found that it provided us with not only a rhythm and a structure to the week and the creative process, but also enough perspective to walk away from it and come back the following week and work on the same track and say, “OK, now I know what needs to be done to this track to take it where we need to take it.” It wasn’t really too long before we knew that the album was going in the right direction, and we knew roughly when it was going to be finished. From start to finish, it was five and a half months or something. We started on the 12th of January, and we went to the end of June.

LM: It was nice to have flexibility because we record as we’re writing, so we’d just have various numbered versions of the tunes, and they’d develop as it went along. But also, it was nice to not be set on the deadline. We just said that we were going to go back in and generate and write for a couple months, and then see. Then we’d have various dates penciled in. Maybe it’d be ready in September, maybe it’d be ready in the start of next year. We didn’t really have any telling of when we’d need to hand it in until we felt we were ready to tell people it’d be done. I think that was good. If you’re in a different scenario where you came off the road and people said to you, “You can have a month off, then you need to go record,” that would be really quite stressful.

You hear horror stories from other bands you meet along the way, of people forcing them to do things: “You gotta get it out in that quarter; it’s got to be done then.” We’re lucky we don’t work with people like that. Having breathing space to write properly is useful. Even if I was sitting in the studio and couldn’t think of something to fit into that one section, there’s no point in me sitting there for hours and hours, hammering away at it if it doesn’t feel like it’s getting anywhere. Maybe later, I’m going to the shop on the way home, and I think of it while I’m in the shop. Once you’ve not fully focused your entire brain on it, sometimes things just pop up.

MD: The labels that we’ve worked with, we feel like it’s a business relationship and a healthy one. It’s not the kind of thing where you’ve got one person pushing you in one direction and you’re fighting back the entire time. There has to be some sort of cohesive way forward for both at the same time. Otherwise you get nothing done. I’m always reading about these bands that are like, “I hate my label,” and I’m just like, there’s no point in hating your label. You’ve got to trust that they’ve got some good ideas, unless you’ve made a really unfortunate decision and you’re being pimped out in a really negative way. Even now, two years down the line, it still feels like we made the right decisions everywhere, and that’s something we should all be proud of.

IC: It’s a mutual trust as well, because the label knows that we’re not the kind of band to fuck off on holiday for six months to a year. They know that we work hard and work well together. They’re never afraid that we’re just going to churn out a load of shit.

chvrches CHVRCHES: All Eyes on You

The three of you have so many combined years of experience that it must be easier to trust your process. Did you find that your roles changed at all?

IC: I think it felt exactly like it did on [The Bones of What You Believe]. I don’t feel the roles changed significantly. I guess we probably all got a bit better at doing what we do, but there wasn’t a massive shakeup. It feels like a continuation, but with two years of experience playing live and getting to know each other under our belts. It felt really natural, and that’s what we’d hoped would happen.

LM: After two years of touring and doing other band-related stuff that isn’t writing, you get to know people much better on a personal level. You know peoples’ personalities and how they work a bit better. When it came to writing again, it felt like the communication was a lot smoother and faster just because we knew each other better.

I think there’s also a heightened level of trust if you spend that much time with people. It made the writing process easier. If a person was really going to bat for something in a song or really against it, you have to trust that they’re saying it for the right reasons. That’s why I think it’s helpful that we write songs informally. There isn’t like, “This is Steven’s song! This is her song!” — people fighting to get on the record so they can pay the bills. Everything is about what’s best for the song, what’s best for the record, and what we collectively feel makes the best body of work. It’s a nice way to be. It’s not very Beatles-y, but it’s good.

IC: I guess in the end, The Beatles were all working on their own stuff.

LM: I think they did fine.

Now that CHVRCHES is back with an album and tour, is there anything you learned from the last round that you’ll do differently?

MD: Lots of things. I think when you stop learning, you’re in a bad place, especially as a musician. Already in the last few weeks there’s been a bunch of stuff that’s come up. I don’t want to name names, but we’ve talked to people who’ve said, “We think this would be a good idea for the band to do.” And then we’d be like, “Well, no, because I remember the last time this came up and it really wasn’t, so we’re not going to do that this time.” You learn from all the experiences of the last time, from the past, for the next 18 months of experience.

LM: We were lucky. As much as we experienced all that for the first time and we were quite wide-eyed about it — because even though we were in bands for a long time, it was a really different ballgame — I think we were very careful to think about the ideal scenario that you have for the long game in your band. How will these things affect you? Rather than just be like, “OK, we’ll do everything we can right now. We’ll do the biggest thing possible right now, we’ll smash and grab and see what happens,” we’re always trying to think of the implications of those things. I think it stood us in good stead. We can look back on that last album campaign and not really regret anything we did. It’s a nice place to be in, I think, where you’ve done one round, so maybe you’ve learned a little bit more so you can talk with slightly more authority the second time. But as Doc says, you’re always learning and doing new things, so I guess you just have to think pragmatically and trust that you’ve got instincts.

MD: It works both ways. Because you can think about things like, “OK, maybe we were a little bit hardline on one side of something.” And now we’ve established ourselves in exactly the way we want to be established, and people no longer see you as that desperate “I wanna do everything, yes, yes, yes, yes, I’m trying to get on the cover of all this stuff and a fucking McDonald’s advert, whatever.” I’m not saying that I’m ready for a McDonald’s advert [laughs]. I will never do that for as long as I’m involved in the music industry, but that’s personal, you know? Actually, we share that, probably.

CHVRCHES // Photo by Philip Cosores
Photo by Philip Cosores

Do you all agree that you share that?

MD: Uh oh, wait — did I just make a mistake? [laughs]

IC: I enjoy a Big Mac!

LM: I think it’s a difficult place in terms of how you make money. I think what’s right for us might not be right for somebody else, and I’m not really in a position to judge people in that regard.

MD: No, I’m not judging, either. I’m just talking about my personal opinion.

LM: We’re talking about what would be right for us personally, and I guess we try to think about what’s right for the band first and foremost. What would you lose to the integrity of your project by doing certain things? We’re lucky that we can pay our crew, we can pay our costs and stuff. But yeah, we’re always thinking and learning, and there’s some stuff we wouldn’t have done on the first album that maybe we will do on the second, but we want to feel ready for it. We don’t want to step up to things without full confidence.

MD: That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s also the position you come to these things from. This isn’t two years ago. People are informed about what we stand for, so that allows you to relax some of those stances a little bit.

LM: It makes it easier to back up. On the first album, sometimes people would make assumptions about us because of the setup of the band. I feel like we’re far enough down the line that if people do make those assumptions, it’s easier for us to bat them off with a level of certainty. Because we’ve said so many times it’s not like that. That’s good — after two years of saying, “No, no, no,” all the time, maybe we’re in a place where we can start saying yes to other things.

MD: I can’t believe I fucked the McDonald’s thing for us [laughs].

LM: I know! You could’ve been selling fast food to children. Hooray, lucky you, sleeping on your bed of money!

IC: That was my pension plan, motherfucker. I’ll have to sell my cheeseburger song to someone else.

With this album, it sounds like you’ve established a voice — you can say it “sounds like CHVRCHES.” Do you agree with that?

MD: I haven’t listened to it since we turned it in — that’s just me — but as I remember, yeah, it sounds like a CHVRCHES album. It seems obvious to me because the whole process of the first album was us finding our feet, discovering what we liked — there’s stuff on the first album that we all love. And it informed where we went here, but we kind of left that behind a little bit. This is a more concise version of what we think our band sounds like.

I’ll respond, on a level, to things that other people think worked and things that didn’t, and I’m not saying we were ever in a position where we’re making an album to please the outside — that’s obviously a very foolish thing do to. But there’s an element of trying to be in touch with what it was that people liked about your band. There’s nothing worse to me than a band that doesn’t know what people liked about them or rejects what people liked about them in the first place. It’s just defiance and ego. It was all about honing this sound from the first album, but furthering it at the same time. Part of that’s informed by your personality. I never thought that, even now, I could come out of a studio and say that I’m 100 percent happy with a record, and I think I am.

LM: I think that’s the biggest compliment that anybody could ever give you, to say that your record sounds most like you. I think that’s something we’re always conscious of — to make it genuine and authentic and not a parody of somebody else. To just try and be the best version of yourself. When we got to the end of it, I was like, “Yes, I can hear all of us in this, and all of it combined sounds to me like what I think the band is.” Then it was like, “I’m ready to sign off and send it away.”

IC: When we’ve spoken about the first album, people have asked us what we’re trying to achieve. We’ve often said that we’re trying to focus on songwriting and not be so concerned with the sound of now, which obviously dates the record really quickly. I feel this new record is even more focused on songwriting. We almost didn’t discuss the musical direction. We only focused on the melodies, the structures, and the lyrics, really honing those things, and then the other things fell into place around it.

The Bones of What You Believe wasn’t necessarily more scattered than Every Open Eye, but it had some songs, like “Lungs”, that would feel out of place on the new album. 

MD: Exactly. We were just coming from a different place. It’s funny because it’s not to say that we didn’t write songs that were like that in the process. We wrote 20 songs for this album and cut a bunch of them. It was always about getting those 10 or 11 moments that felt like a record. We’re not ready to call time on the idea of an album, just like we weren’t the first time around. We still love the idea of making a record, sequencing it for vinyl, having a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s to me the purest way to enjoy a band: to listen to a record, to understand an overarching creative vision. But I like one bite of a meal as well.

Martin said that there’s nothing worse than a band that doesn’t know what people liked about them. What do people like about CHVRCHES?

LM: Playing shows for so long was really interesting because we created something in a vacuum, really. Even though people knew about the band before we put the record out, we’d written most of it before people had started to hear about us. It was interesting to see what we had made in our bubble connected with people, and it’s always interesting to talk about what’s connected with them. Not to pat us on the back or anything, but I definitely get the sense from people when they talk to us after the shows that they connect with the emotional authenticity in the tunes.

It’s not something that’s been, like, written by a group of highfalutin songwriters that are just trying to go by the blueprint of what a great pop song is. I think people can sense when you’re faking, and it’s always really touching when you talk to people and they say, “This song means this to me because of this.” Because it never means the same to them as it meant to us when we wrote it, but I think if you connect to something like that, that’s all you really want when you’re writing music.

MD: I completely agree. I think our music appeals to people who like that kind of songwriting, but for whatever reason reject the stuff that’s polished to within an inch of its life. To me, the essence of our sound is one that lives in that world. We feel like an indie band with guitars because we all come from that world. At the same time, we live in this universe with more immediate songs and more immediate sounds, but not with the same sheen as stadium pop acts. It feels a little bit “bedroom.”

I think people have connected with that. There was stuff that we thought might be a negative — especially with the British press in the beginning — and in the first few months it was. People were like, “I don’t get this — why is this not three 19-year-olds?” That ended up becoming one of our biggest strengths. People looked at it and went, “Nah, that’s just a bunch of people that came together at the right time,” and it made it easier for people to get behind it.

LM: Especially when we did our early press, we did come across all those cliches. People would be like, “We want the girl to do the pictures.” There were certain features, like “hot women under 30,” and it’s really disingenuous for me to do those when we wrote as a group. Also, that’s a very binary way of looking at the music industry. We’re not a boy band — we don’t all need to be hot and 21. That’s not what we’re trying to sell it as.

IC: It’s understandable why people had these expectations because that’s the norm. That’s what we get most of the time in terms of new bands. I’m glad we’ve succeeded at breaking that mold, of those expectation of what it is that we are.

LM: I think a lot of people would love to think that they’re a group of misfits that just lucked out. But if you look at it on paper, the makeup of our band, how we make music, and what we do in today’s industry is quite weird. It is a mismatch of people that just came together and write, produce, and record in a basement in Glasgow by ourselves. That shouldn’t really be a success story, but I think it’s pretty awesome that it is.

I would say that’s another element of what people love about your band, too.

LM: If I was 16 and reading about our band, I would think that’s pretty fucking cool. You don’t have to know X number of people; you don’t have to have Max Martin on every song. You don’t need to have that to do what we’re doing, and I think we’re really lucky to be able to do it on our own terms. If it all went away tomorrow, at least we can say we did it the way we wanted to do it. Doc always says this: If it goes well, you own your own successes, and if it doesn’t go as well, you know you did it the way that you wanted to.

MD: You have to be big enough to accept it either way, to be able to point the finger at yourself from time to time. So many people don’t succeed in music because they can’t do that. It’s not like I’m a granddad, but I’ve been in bands for a long time. My first high school band, which I loved, went to a certain point, and it really meant something to me. When it all fell apart, when we didn’t get a record deal and didn’t conquer the world like we told each other we would, there was no one else to blame but us. You have to be your own harshest critic in the music business if you want to progress. Now we’re here, and it feels like I’m still learning every day.

LM: I think coming into album two is a great transition time for bands. It definitely was for this band, but we had to make a decision of how we want to make it. We’ve met enough people in the last two years that we had opportunities to go places and work with a producer and do those things. Those would be great opportunities, but at this point we wanted to just be as much about the three of us as possible and eliminate outside perspective and outside point of view. I think it was the right choice for us, rather than out of anxiety and fear being like, “OK, we should work with this person — look at all the stuff he’s made!” That wouldn’t feel right for us to do at this time. We were just gonna go back to our little basement and try again.

It’s nice, from my perspective, to have a job doing everything that I’m doing and the way I want to do it. I remember talking to the editor of a music magazine in Scotland. He said, “Maybe you need to accept that people want photos of the girl in the band. You have to accept how this works.” He’s a nice man, and I’ve known him for a long time. But that was a point where I was like, “Why do we have to accept that we have to do it the way that you and the wider world thinks is the acceptable way to go?” I would think we would rather do something that feels genuine to us and maybe not get as far, but do it in the way that makes us feel comfortable. I think we’d just have been incredibly unhappy if we had to do that “girl to the front.” I don’t think that the band would’ve lasted very long, because personally and emotionally you’d be devastated by your own choices.

MD: At the end of the day, we can stand up and say it wasn’t a team of songwriters and an exploitation of Lauren’s looks that put us where we are. It was just us doing our thing and having some common decency about it.

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