Introducing CHVRCHES: "We’re very aware of what we have to do"
Once upon a time, two friends were sitting in a hotel room in middle America. They were on tour – the final tour of a band who’ve put out their final album (let's call them Aereogramme), and it’s miserable. One of them says to the other – “let’s fucking just do something that people will actually enjoy, let’s do something that people can dance to!”
Four and a half years later, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty do just that. They need a singer; the first one they interview is the perfect fit, bonding over Grace Jones, Robyn, Prince, Depeche Mode. A brilliant new collaboration emerges. They casually play one of their tracks to a hip music blog who offer to debut it and then BANG – they've racked up 47,000 YouTube views and counting, and they’re ensnared in the clutches of a salivating national hype machine stuck on the same line: 'We don’t usually cover new bands after only one track, but...'
So begins the story of Churches – a modern indie fairytale which began with a song.
And hype’s a funny thing, inspiring in the self-respecting muso a kneejerk reaction away from said object of slavering media attention and towards satisfying rounds of criticism in the pub. The problem is, Lies, still the band’s sole track online, is hard to find fault with. Despite its pretence as a perfectly rounded electro-pop hit, a few more listens conveys the idea that they’ve created something far more knowing, crafting a melee of influences into something entirely new without any hint of crude imitation or one-off superficiality. Dizzee Rascal hides behind the bombastic drums; Gary Numan’s on synth duty; Jamie xx sneaks into the middle eight with tropical house chords and light, peppy snares, and Lauren Mayberry’s Scottish-inflected vocals channel The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, creating a bittersweet discord as Gothenburg, Glasgow and 1980s London collide.
It’s this assured duality which makes you realise that Churches are on it and, as such, they’re very, very aware of the potential backlash which comes from the media having a new favourite pupil. As we descend in the lift after a photoshoot, Martin speaks quietly with Lauren about a negative comment online, referencing the one-song factor and conceding that he’d probably feel exactly the same in the same boat. But, as he muses later, “is it not typical of musicians – or anyone else laying their creative pursuit out to the public – that they can read through a whole page of ten positive things and focus on the one single negative comment? Generally the responses have been pretty amazing, better than anything we’d anticipated.”
Equally, the apparent shroud of mystery around the band and the fact that, shock horror, Cook and Doherty have changed musical direction might get the cynics clenching their teeth; no-one likes a try-hard. But when The Skinny thanks them for the interview, under the belief that they’ve been told not to do any – something we’ve read on more than one blog – we're met with genuine bafflement, and the promise from Lauren that “a lot of it is Chinese whispers. Because there’s been such an unexpected response, we’re trying to avoid certain negative aspects of it, keeping our heads down and keeping writing. The whole thing’s really flattering but it would be very easy to get carried away. At this point we’re very aware of what we have to do.”
One of the things they “have to do” is very clear; if this is a fairytale, then Lauren is the princess. Taking centre stage for the first time in her career, she does so armed with a thick stripe of black and gold across one eye, her minute frame, rock-chick-next-door clothes and natural coyness balancing La Roux with Shirley Manson (who herself recently surfaced as a fan of the band, likening Mayberry to 'a young Claire Grogan').
But Lauren’s mission is to write her own narrative. During the shoot, arranged on a flight of stairs, the photographer asks her to stand forward, the boys lurking fuzzily in the background. Straight away, politely but firmly, she’s having to explain that they’re not about “that.” For all their innocent desire to “make music that people can dance to,” they all know what “that” is, and it’s certainly not in the plan. When asked if she worries about how she’ll be perceived, she replies immediately, her large eyes, now cleansed of make-up, wide and insistent: “Intensely. On a nerdy note, I did my Masters dissertation on the idea of femininity in women’s magazines. I know to a point I probably overcompensate because I’m aware of these things, but I’ve been through the looking glass, and I’m afraid. In this industry, if you don’t have your wits about you then you’ll probably end up doing something that you didn’t sign up for. If we did get successful at any level at all I want it to be on the merit of the music we’ve produced.
“What makes it fun for me is having a certain idea of how I want to come across to young women. At the end of the day I want to go home and be able to look friends and colleagues in the eye and be like, ‘this is exactly how you would have wanted me to do it.’”
And it is about fun; it’s the building block on which their story began, and their live shows are the best place to see it. Seeing them support School Of Seven Bells at Stereo back in July, it was exactly as it should be for their second hometown gig, and their third ever – A&R men at the back, parents at the front, and an anticipatory crowd jammed in the middle. Bursting into their first song, it’s all confident, bold synths and a jealous sense of watching a group of friends having a really good time.
“There’s far too many people literally going ‘bang’” – Martin mimes a ridiculous jump onto the keyboard – “and jumping around whilst riding one filter for half a tune. It’s just...” he laughs... “you can’t do that, that’s insulting to the people who come to see your band. I’m not the world’s greatest musician, but it’s not supposed to be polished or slick.” Iain chimes in: “Yeah, it would be much easier for us to turn up and have all the synths turned off and just mime, but where’s the fun in that?”
“Well, it’d be fine for you,” Lauren chides. “I’d get lumped into some sort of Ashley Simpson-style backing track...” Ashley Simpson she is not. Finishing their Stereo set with Lies, the bombastic drums sound brilliant, in the true sense of the word – alive, and strikingly clear – but as she steps towards the mic, it doesn’t work. It happens again midway through the song and, thinking fast, she grabs Martin’s. As they leave the stage, she mumbles her thanks, saying “If anyone wants a free microphone they can have it, I don’t want it anymore.” In that one human comment, any suspended disbelief dissolves and she reminds us that there's no pouting, no constructed personas, it's purely about the music.
“When Iain and I started writing together, we wanted to find out if it was truly possible to write pop music without being a pop band,” says Martin. “We don’t hold half of those ideals. We just wanted people to come to our live shows and visibly enjoy it, rather than standing there stroking their chins and quietly being appreciative.”
So what happens when it stops being fun? Martin (who recently departed The Twilight Sad after four years as their touring keyboardist), insists that he’ll “focus on [his] rap career. I’m 100% serious about that,” whereas for Lauren, she might have a go at giving lectures to young girls on the dangers of a career in pop. “I’ll use slides; 'This is when I gave a double page spread to Nuts magazine and that’s when we should have known that the dream had died.' No, that’s a joke, that has never come up at any point, it’s literally just a nightmare that I had...”