CHVRCHES: "We're not in the business of writing chirpy pop songs"

CHVRCHES are a bona fide Scottish synth-pop phenomenon – as they prepare to release debut album The Bones Of What You Believe, we talk gear-packing Tetris, growing up in public, and do some serious myth-busting

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 11 Sep 2013

To call CHVRCHES' rise to fame meteoric is to underestimate – in an age of instant one-hit wonders, it might have seemed tempting to dismiss them on the basis of the wave of hype that followed the internet-only release of Lies back in May last year. Now, as the band prepare to release their first album The Bones of What You Believe, coming off the back of an extensive bout of touring which saw them hone their sound and performance with gigs across Europe, the US and Asia, the world is finally going to be in a position to judge them on their merits. Happily, Bones is an incredible record – not only is it filled with the intelligent, pitch-perfect synth-pop of Lies and the singles that followed, it also features more abstract, reflective tracks, and sees the band experimenting with form, complex lyrical acrobatics, and a wealth of retro-futuristic synth sounds.

Far from the know-it-all hipsters or manufactured mainstream-baiting A&R wet dream which some sections of the press and the Scottish music scene have painted them to be, in person Iain Cook, Martin Doherty and Lauren Mayberry are incredibly warm, witty and down-to-earth – the viral spread of their fame has not affected them, and they remain grounded and incredibly passionate about the music they make.

"As individuals, not a lot's changed," says Cook of their rise from the intensely creative bubble which is the Glasgow music scene to the worldwide stage. "Our personal lives have shrunken to tiny little oases of time back home. But it's been a really exciting year." Doherty agrees: "It's work, like any other job. It's much like going away for something else that requires you to travel. But the idea that we can go away to other countries and play music for people is amazing." Mayberry underlines the fact that the band are incredibly grateful for the opportunities and support they have been able to access: "That we're getting to do any of this stuff is amazing. If someone had told me a year ago that we'd be doing it, I would have thought they were taking the piss out of me."

Nonetheless, Mayberry is quick to underline the fact that although the scale of their touring retinue has increased, this is hardly new territory for any of them. Mayberry plays in another band, Blue Sky Archives, while Cook (formerly of Aerogramme) plays with The Unwinding Hours, and Doherty (formerly of Julia Thirteen and Aereogramme) was most recently touring keyboardist with The Twilight Sad. "I think we would feel a lot more like fish out of water if this was the first band any of us had ever been in, but we all have an understanding of what it's like to tour and play shows," says Mayberry. "We didn't get distracted by all the shiny things, because we were focusing on finishing the record, and on expanding the live show. That's stuff's important to hone in on, rather than Googling yourself. That's kind of a dick move. We're having a good time, and it doesn't feel different day-to-day from being in other bands. There's just more of it, we're busier, and that's a good thing."

"None of us are strangers to the inside of a cramped van," Doherty points out. On the latest tour, they hired a tour bus to accomodate their gear, crew and staff, which provided some much-needed personal space. "It's hardly opulent, but it's functional," says Cook. "It makes a big difference, in terms of headspace," confirms Doherty. "The idea of having a wee bunk that you can retreat to and watch something on your computer..." Mayberry describes the experience as "having some kind of routine of normality in that kind of surreal reality."

"it's a good thing, if things are a bit uncomfortable, or a little fucked up. that's the way life is" – Lauren Mayberry

All three agree that Tokyo was the most amazing experience they have had so far, although before they got there, Mayberry had her doubts: "I always have a pessimistic outlook, 'No-one's heard us here, probably no-one's going to come to the show. Then you get there, and, 'Oh! There are physical humans in the venue! This is really weird. We are a band that was born on the internet. It's interesting to try and translate Soundcloud plays to actual people at gigs. We've been really lucky... I'm more of a 'Drive seven hours to a gig that twelve people come to and you don't get paid' kinda gal. That makes us more appreciative of what's already an awesome situation."

Their experience of touring with other bands was invaluable – Mayberry speaks of learning "boring stuff like balancing a tour budget," while Doherty reflects that the experience of playing half-attended shows and making no money from it "never leaves you." But, he says, it is "a learning experience. That's one of the things about this band – although to a certain number of people it might appear as though it happened really fast for us, that's not the way it is. We've all cut our teeth and put in the hours over the years, and learned as much as possible, and we were drawing on that experience when we were writing these songs and putting together this band."

"We don't know if it will last forever," Mayberry continues. "But that's how you learn. That's how I learned to be in bands, and to sing – I've never had proper formal training. That's how I learned about songwriting. There was a lot of time spent driving about with an entire backline in the back of a Renault Clio. Those shows." Doherty beams proudly: "We can still almost fit our entire backline in the back of a Renault Clio." Mayberry immediately one-ups him with a wicked grin: "I once got two guitar amps, a bass head, and an entire drumkit into the back of a Renault Clio. That's pretty good. And a keyboard, and me, and one other person." Doherty has to concede: "That's unbelievable!" Mayberry gives a nonchalant shrug. "We couldn't see out of the back window. It was all about the packing. Gear-packing Tetris."

Having witnessed the band's live show go from rather staid, experimental beginnings, and transform slowly into a polished, utterly absorbing synth-driven behemoth, perhaps the most significant development since their inception has been the growth of Lauren Mayberry's confidence as a front-woman. Although her strong, sugar-sweet voice has always been superlative, it has taken a while to develop a confident stage presence – it is a process that is still ongoing. "This is the first band where the vocals have been my sole thing," she explains. "It was a learning curve, figuring out what the possibilities were with the live set, and becoming comfortable with not really giving a shit what other people think about your performance. Because a lot of people have a lot of opinions. I'm just trying to figure it out, and I guess there was that aspect of 'growing up in public' to an extent."

"That's something that we've all gone through," says Doherty. "As the lead vocalist, the focus is on Lauren so it's maybe more apparent, but we've all had to grow up on stage playing these songs, and really learn and understand the craft over that period of time. We were thrown into this band, to an extent. No-one walks out on stage and is Jarvis Cocker or Dave Gahan on day one." Mayberry speaks of "attention to detail" having always been important: "We're aware of the fact that with electronic music, we could just go on with a laptop, push spacebar and then karaoke about for an hour, but that's not what we wanted to do. We don't come from that background – we come from a live music background. It's really important to us that when people come and see a show, they are actually seeing a live show." With a bespoke light show still being developed, their impact as live performers can only increase." It's taken us time to figure that out, but I think it's evident now in the visuals and the stage patter and stuff like that," says Mayberry. "Hopefully it's a genuine representation of us, and the work we;ve put into the band."

Twinned with CHVRCHES' rise to fame has been a concurrent rise in the popularity of other retro-futuristic and synth-driven, synth-pop influenced bands, from Canadian avant-pop visionary Grimes to Nicholas Winding-Refn favourite Johnny Jewel, the producer behind Glass Candy and Chromatics. Do CHVRCHES feel some commonality with this new wave of synth music? "We can appreciate all of those artists from a distance, but we don't know any of them personally," says Doherty. "To consider them peers or allies we'd have to know them personally. But we do appreciate them for sure, especially people like Grimes – what she's done is massively inspiring, because she has taken what was essentially a home project and made it a worldwide success. She's a producer in her own right, because of ideas she put together in her bedroom, through to whatever studio setup she uses now – I'm sure it's amazing. But even the way it broke, the idea that someone without a huge budget behind them can go and test the water with music, and have it grow naturally – that was something that inspired us right at the beginning of this project."

Mayberry agrees: "The cool thing about Grimes is that she's done it all on her own terms, she's not abiding by someone else's blueprint of how she should do something. It's all her writing, her production, and I think that's a really powerful thing." This is important, says Cook, because "if you're a rock band, a guitar band, there are often so many rules you have to adhere to, because there is such an established template. When you break with all that instrumentation and that tradition, you're kind of free to do what you want. I think that was one of the things when we started writing together, was we felt the freedom to write the kind of music that we loved, and that we wanted to play."

"I love the idea that there isn't a definitive Glasgow sound, or Scottish sound for that matter. People are doing their own thing"– Martin Doherty

The thriving and staggeringly diverse Glasgow music scene seems to have been their main inspiration. Mayberry asserts that there isn't "a certain sound that is the Glasgow music scene. There are so many different things, electronic stuff, hip-hop, really strong alternative rock, folk stuff. I think that's really cool. If someone asked me, 'What's the Glasgow sound?' I'd be like, 'I don't know.'" Doherty agrees. "I love the idea that there isn't a definitive Glasgow sound, or Scottish sound for that matter. People are doing their own thing – Young Fathers are doing their thing, Frightened Rabbit are doing their thing. There's space for everyone. There are people in Glasgow that love all of these different types of music – otherwise they wouldn't exist."

Cook brings it back to matters of pure craft: "If there's anything that I would hope people take from what we do, it's just that you can foreground melodies in your songs, and it doesn't have to be uncool." And what melodies they are – one listen to The Mother We Share, We Sink or Gun is enough to embed them firmly in the listener's mind. CHVRCHES have pulled off the impressive feat of writing credible, well-structured songs which are also absolute ear-worms, catchier than the norovirus.

Would it be unfair to view CHVRCHES as something of a retro band? "I wouldn't say we reject the term, because the retro element in what we do comes from the equipment that we use, it's got a lot to do with the keyboards we use in the studio, and the boundaries of working in a smaller space," says Doherty. "All the synths are from the late 70s, the 80s and recently the early 90s – which was initially an untapped resource." Cook laughs heartily at this. "It wouldn't be accurate to describe us as a retro band though, because we use so many modern elements," Doherty continues. "We try to use as much as possible – as many modern recording techniques as we can, to push this gear to the limits of what it's capable of in the modern era. Soft Cell, the Euryhtmics, they were doing what was at the forefront of their time. Now, you can do so much more in a studio, you can do so much more in a bedroom, with the same gear."

"Everyone takes influences from a lot of different places, but there's a big difference between being influenced by something and making your band a pastiche of all that stuff," says Mayberry. When it comes to influence, she's unashamed about crediting mainstream pop as a big inspiration: "There's certain territory we all agree on, great 80s and 90s pop – Cyndi Lauper, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Prince." The secret to the band's success, she believes, are how those mainstream influences are combined with more esoteric ones each individual brings to the table - when we discuss seminal early Scottish synth-pop band The Associates as a possible forerunner for CHVRCHES, Cook's eyes light up. Doherty also reveals an abiding love for The Blue Nile. "Paul Buchanan's command of melody, and the kind of synth textures, and never being afraid to really sell a melody, to really sell lyrics. A huge tip of the hat to them from me. We want our lyrics to mean something, they're an important part of what we do."

Mayberry writes the lion's share of the lyrics, but Doherty underlines the fact that "nothing's sacred or untouchable in this band. We all share responsibility." Everything on Bones was written in the 18 months since the band got together. "I didn't change the way I write lyrics for this band, and I didn't think about it much at the time but in hindsight, I'm glad of that," says Mayberry. "If we had over-thought or overcooked it, that would have fucked up the way I write. We're not really in the business of writing chirpy pop songs about how much you love someone, so let's go ride a bike in the sun, or whatever. I'm fine with that, but it is not where I come from. I think people can tell that."

"It's a good idea for a tune," Doherty chips in. "Yeah, write that one down," laughs Mayberry. But that's the cool thing for me about lyricists that I like – you have the impression their lyrics mean something to them, but you don't have any real idea what it meant. You can interpret it in a way that means something to you, and make that song your own, read your own things into it. It was important to me that some of the stuff I wrote was uncomfortable to me at the time we were writing it; that's a good thing, if things are a bit uncomfortable, or a little fucked up. That's the way life is. Nothing is clean and boxed off and tidy. If it was, that would be awesome and everyone would be really cheerful all the time."

However, Cook reminds her, "nobody would create any art." Doherty is keen to point out that the band "never wrote these songs with the word 'pop' in mind. We never thought too closely about what was going on around and outside the band when we were writing this record, and staying in that basement for as long as possible, writing tunes that excited us and made us happy. My hope is we will never lose that. We're not going to start the second album and go all Steve Lilywhite and spend millions of pounds – we'll be right back in that same basement, starting again, shutting the outside world out, you know?"

"People talk about 'the perfect pop song' all the time," says Mayberry. "I'm sure there are people in nice studios in Los Angeles constantly trying to write the perfect pop song. But I do think you can tell when people have done it in a really contrived way. It's not something we ever tried to do, it just happened how it happened. We were just writing what we wanted to, and trying to find labels that got that, that we wanted to work with." The impression that this process was painless or incredibly rapid is mistaken, she says: "I know people think this happened really fast for us, but we were unsigned until the end of last year. By then we had written the majority of the record. We already knew what we wanted the band to sound like, what we wanted the band to be, and how we wanted to portray ourselves in pictures and interviews. By the time we got signed, the labels knew what they were getting. There wasn't anyone trying to A&R us into being a certain kind of band, because we had a base level of support from people on the internet, so they already knew it worked, in a way. That was really beneficial for us, and we couldn't have done that without that kind of online community."

Most importantly, she says, "we could record the record without someone breathing down our necks. You hear horror stories about bands who get money chucked at them, and told to work with this person or that person as a co-writer. Then when the album comes out it's alright, but the idea they have in the first place has been completely diluted. We're paranoid, so we were thinking about that in advance. We were lucky to work with people who trusted us enough to leave us the fuck alone."

"I would say experienced rather than paranoid," says Doherty. Another telling sign of the band's experience as songwriters is the ambitious cut Science/Visions, with its complex vocal arrangements and lyrical themes addressing the 'hard problem' of a scientific definition of consciousness. Firstly, the music: "It's their Fleetwood Mac backing moment," says Mayberry. In terms of subject matter: "We were watching a ot of movies when we wrote that one," she says, namechecking David Cronenberg's Videodrome. "Reading a lot of Buddhist texts as well," Cook expands. "In my mind, it's borne of the trance of the mid to late 90s, where the lyrical content was about generally improving."

Cook bursts into a sudden falsetto: "Take me higher!" Doherty laughs. "Yeah, taking it higher!" Mayberry interrupts their impromptu karaoke moment to bring it back to lyrical content: "Lungs and By The Throat are a bit less metaphorical, more personal. But if you had a whole record of songs that were personal and uncomfortable... I mean, it works for some people. Jagged Little Pill is one of my favourite records of all time." This causes an outbreak of laughter from the boys. "Goodness knows, maybe that's why I write this stuff, having grown up on a steady diet of Elliott Smith, Conor Oberst, and Alanis Morrissette," says Mayberry. "What a dinner table that would be!" Doherty exclaims, causing Mayberry to shrug: "Is it any wonder I was depressed in my teens? Was I bummed out first, or was it after I listened to all these songs about how growing up is really hard?"

Given that CHVRCHES' sound relies so heavily on analogue synths, Cook and Doherty are keen to talk gear. "Nerd stuff!" says Mayberry with a grin. "We tried to load the studio with as many synthesisers and drum machines and drum samples as possible," says Doherty. "It's pretty much all analogue synths on the album, bar a couple of plugins here and there." They talk of the Roland Juno 106 ("It's just got that massive 80s chorus sound," says Cook), the Moog Voyager ("you can get realy fucking fat bass sounds from it," Cook enthuses) and the Dave Smith Prophet 08.

"There's this synth called the Vanguard, which is this proper 90s trance synth," says Doherty. "It's made its way into a few tunes on the record." Cook spreads his hands wide. "It just sounds enormous!" Mayberry chimes in: "When you play it standing alone it might not sound great, but it's all about the layers and the textures. It's all about playing with it, and seeing what happens. If we soloed that weird trance sound in Recover, people might think it sounds terrible, like chipmunk-y dance music from the 90s, but when you layer it in, it works better than anything else we tried."

"Doherty searches for the right analogy. "It sounds like the soundtrack from Pro-Evolution Soccer." Mayberry laughs, and Cook shakes his head. "Don't cite that as an influence! Jesus Christ!" Keen to return to the gear chat, he continues: "We did recently get this synth that was engineered by Dave Smith and Roger Linn, the pioneers of electronic music, called the Tempest, and it's just one of the most amazing, versatile, authentic electronic instruments we've ever used, so that features on a couple of songs... we got it quite late on in the writing process, so I dare say it'll be all over the second record."

As the discussion continues, we start to discuss the formative influence of the 'witch house' micro-genre, with Mayberry namechecking cult Glasgow night Heavy Daze, and it's promoter Catriona Reilly as a source for everything from witch house to obscure strains of bhangra. The 'v' in CHVRCHES' name is something of a nod to the short-lived but influential witch house sound, and there is more than a hint of SALEM and Ritualz in some of the synth sounds embraced by the band. "We did consider putting upside down crosses at either side of our name," Mayberry reveals, "but that would have dated us, I think."

Speaking of defining cultural moments, is there any chance we might see a live version of their infamous, camera phone-disseminated YouTube cover of the theme from Game of Thrones one day? "One time I played the first four notes of it at a gig, because everyone was shouting for it," says Doherty. "But no, that's never going to happen. While a lot of this process has been about learning, that thing right there was... the lesson was, next time you're going to put something on the internet, and you're about to press 'click,' make sure you're absolutely sure!"

"Perez Hilton blogged it the next day!" exclaims Cook. Mayberry shakes her head ruefully. "We didn't realise that many people were going to watch it, I probably wouldn't have filmed it vertically, a lot of people got annoyed about that. And I probably wouldn't have sung and sniggered like a schoolgirl in the background..." Doherty disagrees: "What are you talking about, that was the best bit!" Joking aside, says Mayberry: "I wouldn't want to change that part of this band. Although we take the music and our work seriously, we try not to take ourselves very seriously. In order for all the weird shit that's happened to us not to be overwhelming, we just have to try and be the best representation of ourselves. We are sometimes stupid dickheads, and it's cool for us to portray that. It's natural."

"The day we start posting updates from some sort of CHURCHES HQ is the day we've fucking lost it," Doherty agrees. Mayberry reiterates that the band prefer "to communicate directly with people, rather than going through a conduit. Like I say, we were born on the internet because people gave a shit about our music, so it's cool to be able to post dumb stuff, or music we're listening to, or photos from a tour. It's nice to share that and not have to worry about it."

So have CHVRCHES now shaken the 'mysterious' tag they were labelled with around the time Lies appeared online? "The reason we didn't put out any blurbs about the songs, or information like 'He was in that band, she was in this band,' was because we didn't want people to listen to it because of what we had done before," says Mayberry. "We wanted to put the songs out, and see what the reaction was without any of that stuff. It wasn't a weird marketing plan, or trying to seem hip. If there's anything I hate in the world, it's people being faux-ironic, or trying to be really hip."

And given that she is now a global star in the making, does she have any notion of how she might be perceived as a role model by some young fans? "I guess anybody who proclaims themselves as a role model has got some ego issues," she says cautiously. Mayberry's master's dissertation was on representations of women in the media, and she has always been acutely aware of how people perceive her in her role as front-woman. "It's always been important to us that no-one in this band does anything they're uncomfortable with," she says. "There are certain aspects of being a female in a band which I don't enjoy. Certain things are foisted upon you due to the preconceptions of others. I don't feel like I have to abide by that, because someone else says I have to. We've all always been on the same page with that, and there are certain things we won't do. I'm not criticising other people who do want to do those things. I guess when I was sixteen, and listening to bands like Sleater Kinney and PJ Harvey, I found that really exciting."

And finally, what of Doherty's oft-mentioned alternative career path as a rapper? He sighs wearily. "This has been taken a wee bit out of context. I'm a huge fan of hip-hop and rap, especially Young Fathers. Them signing to Anticon was huge. It's an example of the fact that Scottish people can make relevant rap music. That said, the majority of the hip-hop music I listen to comes from America or from London. Let's just myth-bust on the spot right now..."

"It was a joke," says Mayberry. For once and for all, Doherty confirms, he has "no intentions of pursuing an actual rap career! Unless it's ten to three, and I'm in a pub, and I'm looking for someone to rap battle..."

With this final revelation, CHVRCHES leave to meet The Skinny's photographer, laughing and joking together, displaying the kind of easy camaraderie and intimacy that promises a long and healthy career as a band. Even if Doherty did harbour ambitions of becoming the next Drake, it certainly seems like for now at least, he has more important things to do.

The Bones of What You Believe is out on 23 Sep on Virgin / Goodbye

Playing Glasgow's O2 ABC on 10-11 Oct and Manchester Ritz on 14 Oct