The Albums of 2013 (#5): CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe (Virgin / Goodbye)

Feature by Gary Kaill | 05 Dec 2013

“A lot of electronic bands these days, not wanting to name names, they shy away from the melody, shy away from the song and it becomes all about how the song is arranged or about interesting production ideas. They forget that the song is the basis of all of that. So while we were recording this record, we made sure song writing was at the forefront.” Martin Doherty is ticking off the freeway miles on the CHVRCHES tour bus, a triumphant show at LA’s prestigious Wiltern Theatre behind him. Next stop San Diego.

For an act who were, in his words “a studio project” a mere year or so ago, the transition to becoming one of the UK’s best-loved bands is something he’s gradually becoming accustomed to, but it still feels distinctly odd. Oh, and there’s that growing US fan base to factor in, too. “It occurred to me last night while we were onstage that we came to the States for the first time in March and played a 300 capacity venue in LA. This is our third time here, and now we’re filling a 2,400 capacity venue.” He trails off. “It’s, you know, a lot to take in at times!”

That the synth trio have managed to carve out a reputation as one of the most thrilling live acts on the circuit is commendable enough but the bed rock of that good will is the continuing quality of their recorded output. Debut album The Bones of What You Believe, set the task of squaring up to established live favourites like The Mother We Share and Lies, didn’t shirk the challenge. Entering the UK charts at number 5, it added a solid pop sensibility to their electro aesthetic and, with the likes of Gun, Tether and Night Sky, showed they weren’t afraid to soften their sound either.

“We paid a lot of attention to the idea of not necessarily aiming for anything commercial or a hit but concentrating on foreground and melody at every opportunity,” says Doherty. “We’re not afraid to let a melody be the key to a song. That’s what we’re about first and foremost: you know, just writing the tunes that we hope can connect with people, the idea that the song can be dressed in whatever way and still stand up on its own.” 

Recover, released in the spring, and the first track to appear from the album sessions, was deliciously simple in both melody and arrangement and yet seemed to arrive bearing half a dozen spiralling hooks. “Yeah! We always approached that song with the idea that there would be two steps of the chorus. So that when the listener settles in to the first ‘If I recover…’ section, there would be another gear. That ‘double chorus’ thing, we use it a couple of times on the album, but Recover is the one where we got it closest to what we were aiming for. And, you know, why have one chorus when you can have two, right?”

But where TBOWYB really succeeds is in how, as with the best (in Neil Tennant’s words) ‘tragi disco,’ it plays with shadow and light. Behind every euphoric synth wash or dizzying battery of beats, lurks Lauren Mayberry’s brooding, knife edge lyrics. “Absolutely. I think you’ve touched on something that was always in our minds while in the studio, which was to try at every possible juncture to balance any kind of lightness or sweetness with a darker edge: whenever we were at our most poppy, to be singing non-standard poppy lyrics. The lyrics are really important to our band. You take a song like We Sink where the melody is at its most simple and accessible and Lauren’s singing ‘I’ll be a thorn in your side until you die.’ We tried to use that kind of juxtaposition wherever possible.”

It’s a genuinely triumphant debut and, for the converts, something of a relief that CHVRCHES had enough up their sleeve to deliver on all that promise. Hopefully, the band has had time to look back similarly and take pleasure from the results. Doherty is philosophical. “We try not to reflect too much because we don’t want to take our eye off the ball,” he says. “But what I will say is, I’m certainly learning to try to enjoy this experience more, rather than be obsessed with what comes next all the time. We’ve been here in America for a few days and for the first time I’ve been able to take a look around and see how well the album is selling and see how many people are coming to the shows and derive some satisfaction from that because, well, this is what we always talked about doing and it seems to be happening. Which suggests we got something right!” 

CHVRCHES play Edinburgh's Hogmanay on 31 Dec and Glasgow Barrowland on 8 Mar