Many techno-pop bands pride themselves on being as cooly mechanical and metallic as their Roland Jupiter 8 synths, and make music with the precision of robots programmed to spit out infectious hooks with each album release cycle. But that’s not the case with CHVRCHES. The Glaswegian trio stands apart from their faceless brethren by keeping their personalities —and humanity— out in the open for all to see and hear.
Their latest album, Every Open Eye, is more emotion than ones and zeros, with lyrical lacerations that cut to the bone. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry has joked that CHVRCHES are an emo band in disguise, and when you hear tracks like “Leave A Trace” (“You talk far too much for someone so unkind”) and “Never Ending Circles,” you’ll know it’s not far off the mark. These machines can feel.
Musically, the band have branched out from their winning formula. Multi-instrumentalist Martin Doherty’s recent fascination with Thriller-era Michael Jackson has given an R&B edge to the crystalline dreaminess. And Iain Cook’s film composition background have added a filmmaker’s flair to many of the cuts.
Rather than succumb to the dreaded “sophomore slump,” the band have continued their musical evolution while staying true to the sound that fans know and love. It’s a difficult trick for most bands to pull off. How did they do it? We found out.
Many bands find it tricky to work on their second album, struggling to balance the evolution of their music with the sound that people know and love them for. Did you find that difficult?
Lauren Mayberry: Obviously there’s a certain amount of anxiety in that, because it’s human nature to worry about these things, but I guess we tried as much as possible to block out the outside world and just focus on writing with just the three of us. I think that’s why it was important for us to go back to Glasgow to make the record, because then we could have a sense of normality and routine, and just go back to the place we made the first album and kind of get back into that rhythm. I feel like we’re proud of what we finished up with, and I feel like we can say that it’s a CHVRCHES record and it sounds like us, which I guess is the main hope. It’s all subjective, but I feel like it’s good to, at the end of the day, be able to say that.
You recorded in your studio, which is basically a basement apartment, right?
Martin Doherty: Yeah, it’s the same place we made the first record, so it was familiar and comfortable surroundings. But more than anything else it was about going back to exactly what we knew. We kind of augmented what was there, there was more equipment— before we were recording in private, humble surroundings but also with not much equipment. So we used some money, we bought some keyboards, some old keyboards, and got straight back to work. It also meant we’re not on the clock, so we could work whenever we want. We could waste the day and not feel like you’d wasted a bunch of money. I think a lot of bands feel that pressure a little bit. They end up doing 14-hour days because they’re thinking to themselves, ’I have to be here because it’s costing us money, it’s costing the label money.’ That’s not really conducive to creativity, that sort of environment. So it was good to be working the other way.
You toured a crazy amount for the past two years. Did you write on the road at all, or was it something that you saved for when you got back to the studio?
Iain Cook: Yeah, there was some demo-ing done on the road. We came into the studio with bunch of ideas, so that we weren’t going in with a blank slate. Another way to subvert the kind of anxiety of, ’Oh my god, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do it now,’ is to have some things sketched out that you can draw upon if you need to. So that was something I think that happened in the last six months of the album campaign.
MD: I think it’s a means of working those muscles again, especially when you’ve been in promo mode. You can easily get to a point where you haven’t written a song in, like, 12 months. It’s nice to ease back into the studio process like that, so having a demo collection like that is really important.
I read an interview in Pitchfork where you describe some of the material as ’emosh.’
LM: Yeah, I suppose we all tend to write from a personal perspective. I think that’s —hopefully— one of the things people like about our band is that it feels authentic, and that the emotions in it are coming from a genuine place, rather than kind of a blueprint for a sad song, or a love song, or a happy song, or whatever. I think it has to come from a genuine place for us.
It does set you apart. While so many synth-y bands go the Daft Punk route and try to be almost robotic, there’s so much emotion in your band and your personalities really shine through. Is that something that was almost a conscious effort?
MD: I feel like that evolved naturally, I think. After the first few shows we realized that we weren’t going to be that band. I guess it’s a Scottish thing as well, maybe, I don’t know. Our stage personas are extensions of our personalities, we’re not super serious people. We’re not like dour-faced, synth obsessed—we’re certainly not that. It just continued to evolve, and the more that we could see people responding to it, the more that allowed us to feel like it was ok to be ourselves onstage. And in the end I think we’ve ended up building a relationship with our fans that goes beyond just listening to a band on the radio, or reading about a band on the internet. It feels like we’re actually more engaged with people. What we do is more realistic, and people believe it more, and that’s cool.
I love your single, ’Leave A Trace.’ Lyrically, it’s so nasty in the best way. ’You talk far too much for someone so unkind.’ That’s just such a great line. Dare I ask, what inspired that song?
LM: I guess we felt ’Leave A Trace’ was a good first taste of what the record’s going to be like, because I think it showcases a lot of the juxtaposition that’s on the records. There’s a good mix of light and dark, and something more demure with something more aggressive. And I think lyrically, it was nice for me to try to make a conscious effort to write something more assertive. So maybe it touches on similar themes to what was in the first record, but it feels nice for me personally to feel like you’re taking more of a positive and assertive stance on something rather than just bemoaning something and not being able to do anything about it.
There’s the light and dark, but there are also so many musical influences. A little bit of electro, R&B, pop, a little rock. How do you feel about genres today? Do you feel that genres are relevant anymore?
MD: I don’t feel it’s so necessary to pigeonhole music in that way. I think part of that’s got to do with the [fact that] avenues where people define music have changed. And so they find what they want, when they want. It’s very much a viral age where people pass music around, just because they responded to a song, not because a publication wrote about a wave, or that it was put in a box with a bunch of other bands, you know? And our music, I don’t really think about it that way.
You all have really different musical backgrounds—Iain, you wrote for film and TV, Martin was a post-punk group, and Lauren a drummer in several bands. Do you feel that bringing these diverse musical past-lives together is responsible for your unique sound?
LM: I think so. I guess it’s hard to say where it all came from, but I think when you listen to the new stuff especially you can kind of hear it. Like when I listen to it I can hear everyone’s role in it, and hear everyone’s personality within it. And I suppose that must be a product of the fact that we all have similar tastes to an extent, but a certain amount of difference, which is what makes it what it is. That’s a very bad answer, isn’t it. (laughs) But yeah, I think it’s kind of the sum of its parts, and everyone has different strengths, and just kind of merging those together in a way that works best for the song. Hopefully that kind of created what our sound is, I suppose.
Where do you not overlap, sonically?
MD: Loads of places. I mean, we disagree on as much music as we agree on. Which is good, it just means we listen to a lot, and that’s important. It’s not the route to go for everyone, but I feel like understanding completely what’s going on in the musical landscape around me —what has happened, the way things are going— is an important part of being a musician. It’s like if you worked in finance and you didn’t know what the market was doing, it would be a mistake. But that’s not to say that we’re obsessed with that, either. Music is a lot about personality and a lot about where we all come from and what we add on a personal level, as well as awareness of the world around you, and what’s gone before you.
You write and produce and perform all of your work— what are some of the challenges in that? I’m sure the freedom is great, but do you ever find it challenging to do it all?
LM: I think on the first record it was a bit harder to get everything done because we were finishing writing and recording the album while we were already touring. Trying to download massive mix files when you’re on venue wifi is quite difficult! So I think this time it’s been a little more structured. We had designated time off to write and record the album, and now we’re starting to tour and do promo, and it’s a little more boxed off in that way.
I would say sometimes it’s about scheduling time to do things, but if you’re on the road and a great opportunity comes up, like, ’Oh it would be awesome if you could write a song for this, and record it…’ Then it’s just about finding time to do it, but we always seem to manage. I can’t really take credit for any of the other stuff, because I don’t do any of the production, so I’m always like, ’Wouldn’t it be good if we had time to do that remix, wouldn’t it?’ Like, subtly floating the idea that maybe you guys [Martin and Iain] should find time for that. But I think we’re very lucky to be able to work the way we do.
IC: Yeah, I mean, there are challenges to producing your record, but I think on this album we kind of unlocked a way of working that really suited us. We worked really kind of strictly regimented hours, you know? Not like a day job, but kind of like a day job in that we really worked the same hours every day, sort of five days a week. And what we found was that it gave us perspective and rhythm to our week that actually freed up our creativity in a way. It’s difficult to explain, but it really worked for us this time, and we managed to get the songs flowing really quickly.
You premiered several tracks tracks from the new album at the Ottawa BluesFest this summer. What’s what feel like, having conceived, written, performed and produced in your studio, and then suddenly unleashing it all to a festival crowd of thousands?
IC: I mean, it’s definitely scary, especially when you’ve been kind of locked away in a studio for six months. You get to know the music really well, and it makes sense in your head and in the context of the stuff that’s gone before. There’s always a buildup of tension and nervousness around finally letting your babies out into the world, you know? And it’s the same with putting a single out, or putting an album out. But you just got to do it and get on with it and hope that people respond in the way that they did before.
I read this great story where you pranked your manager early on in the recording process. Can you tell me a little about that?
MD: I mean, we were punishing him for living in Australia.
LM: He gets to live a very lovely life there, so…
MD: He’s a great guy and we trust him, obviously. But not enough to send him the first six weeks of progress in the studio. I mean, I guess we were really just trying to find our own feet, and were doing our own thing. We’d written a number of songs, but I don’t think any of us were prepared to let anyone outside the studio hear them at that point.
And so he’d be calling us going, ’Where’s the music, where’s the music, where’s the music?’ And I’d be like, ’You’ll hear it when you arrive.’ I don’t want to say that I’m cruel by nature, but I’m mischievous. And we came up with this idea of slamming together this track —which is a joke song, which is terrible— and filming him coming in. So we played it for him, and really sold it to him!
LM: I think he forgave us, but I think these guys are better with their poker faces than I am. I had to keep eating. He’s a good sport.
MD: I feel like I was outstanding for my performance. You should watch it back, you can see it on the internet, I was amazing. (laughs)
What did he say? Was he trying to be polite?
MD: He said, ’It’s very discordant!’
LM: But then also I think, as a social experiment, it was quite good because he was polite about it, because he knew we wanted a pat on the head or whatever for making music. But he wasn’t like, ’Oh my god, it’s amazing.’ So it was a good test.
IC: I think we’d have sacked him if he’d said that.
LM: He’s not just a yes-man that thinks everything you do is amazing, so it was good. And also funny.
Well now that the actual music is here, what are you most proud of on your new album?
MD: I don’t think I’m proud of a song individually, I would say I’m proud of the level of ownership that we have over it. There’s no outside influences, no other writers. It’s just three people in a room making a record. And there’s not enough of that in the music business these days.
LM: I think so. I think I’m proud of how everyone’s leveled up. I think we were always proud of what we were making, and we felt that it was as good as we could do, and we can always stand behind it. But I think listening to it, I feel happy it’s kind of like what we did previously, but like Technicolor. And I like that.
IC: I’m proud of the overall, the kind of totality of it. It doesn’t sound like just a collection of singles, it feels like an album. It feels like a cohesive sound, a cohesive statement lyrically and tonally. Just generally pretty proud of it.