CHVRCHES on their new album Screen Violence

From LA to Scotland, we chat to CHVRCHES ahead of the release of their fourth studio album, Screen Violence

Feature by Sam Moore | 23 Aug 2021

It’s been over three years since the third album by CHVRCHES, Love is Dead, hit the shelves. In the time since, the world has undergone a seismic shift. Boris Johnson is prime minister, across the pond Joe Biden has replaced Donald Trump as president, and the world has been ravaged by the Coronavirus pandemic, hitting the creative arts industries particularly hard.

As a result of social distancing and travel restrictions, the vast majority of CHVRCHES’ new album, Screen Violence, was recorded with the three members completely separate from each other. It was only at the end of the production where Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty came together for a “couple of weeks” to put the finishing touches to the album. Talking over Zoom, they’re split geographically between sunny Los Angeles and not quite as sunny Scotland.

The genesis for Screen Violence was established before the pandemic hit, in February 2020. Mayberry explains: “We got a lot of the initial ideas and concepts going. So we kind of had a blueprint to work off and some demos there.”

There were “technical hurdles” to start with but Mayberry found the pandemic recording experience "interesting", going on to say the creation of Screen Violence was like “making the record in a vacuum again, because the outside world ceased to exist, for the most part, in terms of what you could and couldn't do.” 

The circumstances that dictated the recording of the album made it feel “more akin to the first record," she continues, "because you make your first record in a vacuum because nobody knows who your band is." On whether she’d want to repeat the experience of making an album in this way, she affirms: “I wouldn't want to do it again.”

For Doherty, having that extra time on your own in the studio gave room to be more experimental with sounds and instruments. “In the past, if I was making an album, I would have one eye on the clock or one eye on the tour schedule," he says. "And I'd be like, 'Well, this is great. Sounds great. Next. Move on.' Whereas on this album, I was like, 'Oh, what’s inside the guitar pedal?’ Let me open that up.' It was a very immersive experience for me, from my perspective of things."

Doherty continues: "You're not going to a studio every day, you're not going to the pub afterwards, you're not, like... you don't go anywhere, you don't really leave your house. So I feel like most of my day was spent doing something to do with the record.”

And the record is a big one. Dark and twisted, full of gothic delights and fatalistic agony, CHVRCHES have pushed their aesthetic further than ever before, openly embracing guitars and thumping, harsh drum beats. A notable guest also joins the band on the anxiety-inspired anthem, How Not to Drown. The legendary Robert Smith of The Cure shares his unmistakable vocals with Mayberry as they sing about battling for survival on what will surely become a staple of the festival circuit once touring resumes.

Mayberry, who describes working with Smith as “insane”, details how the collaboration came about: “Our manager knew someone in common with Robert Smith and passed on our email because he only has email, no manager. And then we got this message, saying ‘Aloha’.” She continues: “We sent him a bunch of demos we’d been working on not knowing what to expect. It was all worked on remotely, just through email, no Zoom or anything.”

That the song was created with such distance between the artists is not at all noticeable, in fact it’s a sublimely cohesive song. How Not to Drown perfectly encapsulates the best of the band and what they do. It's a song you can dance to and cry to, its extreme emotion familiar to anybody that has felt wronged, slighted or kicked down.

What is remarkable is how such a singular artist like Smith can effortlessly fit into the CHVRCHES ouevre; they don’t alter their sound to accommodate his mournful voice that, to many, was the voice of a generation. The trio are deeply in awe of Smith and forever indebted to the music of The Cure with Mayberry commenting on the collaboration: “If everything ended tomorrow, we’d be beyond happy.”

Though put together during the perils of lockdown, the band are insistent they did not want to make a “pandemic record”. As Doherty bluntly puts it, “I can't be any less interested in this, in the sound of people's boredom.” Lyrically and sonically this shines through. Screen Violence isn’t a rumination on the purgatory of pandemic life, it’s not like Taylor Swift’s Folklore or Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now which are born out of and obsessed with the introspection that comes with being cut off from the rest of the world. Instead, Screen Violence is thrillingly visceral, shamelessly big, and features ten cohesively arranged gothic fairy tales of which their idol Smith would be proud of penning.

Despite the last year-and-a-half being a complete mess in terms of politics, health and the fight for equality, Mayberry says that many of the lyrics and ideas that ended up on the album had their origin at an earlier stage, though she admits that the nature of 2020 “enhanced” the violent imagery somewhat. Mayberry concludes: “I can't imagine trying to make a fucking upbeat dance pop record in summer 2020.”

Even though the album is scored with twisted lyrics, there are moments of triumphant euphoria and stadium pop. The Prodigy-inspired Violent Delights is going to have Mayberry air drumming its explosive breakdown when they eventually get to perform the songs live; Final Girl is about finding hope and getting through tough times, which are themes that certainly resonate in contemporary society; He Said She Said is a rally of female empowerment without ever falling into the trap of being didactic.

Through it all, Mayberry’s thorny, unmistakably Glaswegian twang is the star. Her accent hasn’t wilted since moving to LA, and her bandmates even insist that it's gotten stronger – Mayberry jokes: “I don’t talk to any Americans anyway.” Sounding as powerful as ever, it's easily one of the most interesting voices in modern pop music. Although that voice may, on the surface, sound sweet – it's often been lazily described as ‘angelic' – dig a little deeper and you'll find it's remarkably powerful, particularly on tracks like Violent Delights where it's pushed to its raw limits.

CHVRCHES couldn’t be returning at a better time with Screen Violence, its cinematic influences like Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg making for cathartic music you can have a sob to, dance to and play loud while you’re pounding a punch bag. It perfectly captures the duality of rage and relief. How Not to Drown and Violent Delights, while not being overtly political, are the anthems of a defiant generation, for those who protest racism, misogyny and corruption.

Latest single Good Girls “ could be viewed as political, because of what it's talking about," Mayberry says, "but it's being talked about from a personal standpoint, you know? We're not trying to write big message songs.” She concludes: “This album is more political than the last one, the songs weren’t intended to be, but the personal is the political.”

Screen Violence is released on 27 Aug via Virgin EMI