To spend any amount of time, in any capacity, with Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty is to hear, witness, and experience chemistry. It comes off in the most superficial sense: despite having done countless interviews since their 2013 debut, they found themselves bouncing off one another, winding themselves down a path of jokes or jabs or memories, only to come-to moments later, remember they were being interviewed — sometimes even apologizing — and got back to answering the question at hand. Their speech, movements, and indyosychracies clicked and moved together like cogs in a machine. But that’s just an inevitability of any group of people that are so close, that spend so much time together. CHVRCHES’ chemistry goes far beyond that.
It’s unexplainable and instantaneous. It’s the kind you don’t have to be in the room to experience, the kind you can hear. If you need any more proof than simply listening to the molecular-level movement in their music, the anomaly of CHVRCHES’ lightning come-up bears witness to that calibur chemistry. Sitting on stage at the cozy Brooklyn venue The Knitting Factory, as a part of Project Unfollow — an art, music and fashion series celebrating the world’s most iconic Unfollowers presented by the first-ever BMW X2-- I asked them when the last time was they played a stage this small.
“I don't want to be the guy that says, 'I think it was our first gig,' but it possibly was. Which is a crazy thing to say,” Iain told me.
“I mean, I've played this room across the world with more people on stage than in the audience,” Martin responded.
Lauren laughed, “And sometimes you think it's a good day and you're like, 'People will come!' And then you're like, 'No, wait, this is a four-band bill,' and there's all the other bands watching and like three people.”
Although it would probably take quite a bit of coaxing to get the un-ostentatious Scottish trio to admit it, this is the CHVRCHES model, and a testament to their chemistry — between each other, sure, but especially between their music and fans. They quietly light a match and the next moment, when they weren’t looking, they’ve blazed down a forest. Now, with 5 years under their belts and their third album slated to arrive next month, they’ve got all the momentum, and all the chemistry, behind them to do it yet again
Vinyl Me, Please: When you guys started together, we were kind of at the tail end of this internet DIY blog band era. Can you talk about how you all came together?
Martin: It was kind of funny to watch us, in a way, bridge that gap. In hindsight, one of the last bands that bridged from super bloggy into the monetized streaming era. It's lucky that we've been able to get our hats under the door, so to speak.
Lauren: And I guess it was an interesting time, when you look back on it, because I don't think we were conscious of it at the time, but because streaming was on such an upswing, I feel like that opened up doors for us in a lot of ways that maybe wouldn't have existed if streaming and online things hadn't been picking up like that. I think it's made a lot more diplomatic in a lot of ways, because, yes, there's still people promoting certain bands or certain kinds of music, but ultimately you can find whatever you want and you can listen to whatever you want, and the stuff that's getting higher in the charts is mostly just because people are finding it and loving it.
Martin: The era that you're talking about, 2009-2012, that is, to me, the most democratic era and counterculture ever. Now, with legitimate streaming, playlisting isn't as democratic as it looks because playlisting is everything. So much discovery via the big streaming services is through playlisting, and that's ok.
You were putting out this music for free on Soundcloud. Was there a moment where you felt like this was something special?
Iain: That very moment when we put “Lies” on the internet, it went from nothing to our phones constantly going off with Twitter and stuff. Because at that point we had never thought of it as being a band that would play live. We were doing something in a studio and we were behind closed doors and we thought, "Oh, ok, we better learn how to do this live and reframe the whole conversation, because people like this.
Martin: It was literally that 24 hours. I had a really good idea of what it looked like when you put music out and what reaction looked like and what that translated to in terms of live and all the other aspects of the music business. And then that 24 hours was very different from anything I'd seen before. It was shocking and terrifying and exciting all at once. It's like opening the door to everything you've ever wanted, but at the same time none of it was real or tangible. It was just a song. There was no record deal. There was no fanbase that we could understand at that point, because it was just clicks on a page. So there was a lot of excited but a lot of nervousness.
Lauren, I want to talk about your life pre-CHVRCHES. You had a four-year law degree and then a Master's in journalism.
Lauren: I thought you said a four-year-old and I thought, "Oh shit, do I? I should go home and feed them."
How did it feel to make this leap from a very professional track into music?
Lauren: I've been in bands since I was a teenager but it never really seemed like ... I guess when you're 16 you think the band you're in when you're 16 is the one, and you're like, "Yeah, this is amazing, why has nobody signed us right now?" I never really thought it would be a real thing, I was just in bands whilst being lucky enough to go to college. And Iain and Martin did music at university and I didn't. And it helped me be organized. It helped me do spreadsheets and emails, which is not the most rock and roll thing but it's quite useful.
Being this trained journalist, is it weird to be on the other end?
Lauren: I feel bad saying this, but I really didn't like it. Most of the stuff I was doing was, "Review this album in 150 words," and I was like, "I don't think I should." So I was a really bad reviewer, because I would be like, "Subjectively, I don't know how much I would listen to this, but I think that they've put a lot of work into it, and that takes a lot to do that, and it's very brave, so good for them." And that's a crap review.
Since you are coming from DIY roots and you were just making this music yourself, you self-produced your first two albums. Was that out of necessity or out of a need for creative for control?
Iain: I supposed at the beginning it was out of necessity, but then Martin and I had always done bits and bobs of production in bands that we'd been in previous to this, so once things started to become crystallized in terms of what the band would sound like nobody else could have got that sound. I feel like it was always a really fine balance with this band. I feel like we're the only people that could have realized that.
Martin: That first nine months was really hardcore and so rewarding. It was risky strategy, because at any point any one of us could have been like, "Nope."
Lauren: And I do think we're lucky enough to have two producers within the band. A lot of bands don't have that and it's really a powerful thing. It's empowering to be able to do that and not feel like you need to go find the right person to make those and to have other people helping you figure out your sound that early on.
Martin: We were also — I don't wanna say arrogant — Iain and I particularly. Let's say we had a lot of confidence without any real evidence of success to back up that confidence, so the idea of working with anyone outside the band was just never ever gonna happen at that point.
You went from that to this new album, which was produced by the incredible Greg Kurstin. Was it tough to give up your creative control in that aspect?
Martin: We didn't. I don't think we gave up any creative control. If you have the opportunity to work with people of that caliber, you try them out. We tried out a few people.
Iain: It felt like a really good and natural collaboration. There wasn't a hierarchy. He kind of became one of the band and fit into the existing creative dynamic and worked with us, and we really hit it off creatively.
Lauren: And I think that's why he's so good at what he does. He's not a kind of producer that has one thing that he does and he tries to make every artist do that thing. He steps into the room and tries to figure out the people that are in it and figure out the music they're making, and then how can he add something to that and offer wisdom and guidance and make it better. We met with a bunch of different people and that was definitely the approach we favored the most. So the idea of giving up your creativity and handing over the reigns to someone else didn't really come up, because I don't think he would ever want to work like that. I think that would make him really uncomfortable.
Lauren, you've long been vocal about what you face as “the face” of a popular band, particularly on the internet. No one knows more than you what the repercussions of that are. But it does feel like this album, you're putting that really directly into the music. Why was that important to you that that was reflected?
Lauren: I feel more assertive as a writer just because of passage of time. I think I'm more comfortable with the writing and knowing what is the voice of the band and knowing what we want to say and how we want to say it. As much as that was an unpleasant experience at times, it does kind of force you to figure out what you want to do. I feel like I wouldn't be as assertive about certain things in our work life had that situation not come up. So as much as there are times where I'm like, "It would have been really cool if that hadn't happened," on the other hand I think it made me — when you're forced to make a decision about how you want to do those things I think it makes you a stronger person in some ways. If the options are stand up for yourself or tacitly accept something and be a bit of a pushover then I know which one I'd rather be, and it's easier because it's about protecting yourself but also protecting this thing that we've worked so hard to have. It's almost like an impulse, base-level response in that instance. I don't think I would have been able to continue being in a band for a long time if you have to just quietly accept that stuff. And I wouldn't accept that in any other workplace, so why would you have to accept that here.
It's interesting how many women spoke about that at the time. They're like, "Well, you want to be a popstar, so you need to accept that." I don't want to be a popstar, first of all, and second of all, as much as we talk about patriarchal society and misogyny, we're entrapped. You internalize those messages. So if you think women have to deal with that because they're in that situation, oof. That's pretty dark.
You never know how long this stuff is gonna last. And I guess when we look back on it you can see from the outside how it probably looked like we were a lot more organized, you know what I mean? You're like, "Oh yeah, they're very strong and opinionated and they always knew what they were doing." And a lot of the first record was so reactive. We were just responding to things. I had an inkling when we started the band, just from being a woman in the world, that that might happen, because it had already happened in bands I had been in when we were playing venues like this to ten people.
So, presumably, this will happen moreso in this band, because I'm not playing an instrument, I'm standing at the front, the genre is slightly different, more people are gonna find out about it. And a lot of that stuff did come to pass in a way that was more prominent than I thought it was gonna be, and at that point we just had to make a decision. And it's great that, now, however many years later, it doesn't feel as controversial to think those things. I think we're living in tangible, changing times. It's pretty cool. Taking away the fear of people talking about that is a good thing, and ultimately, a lot of the time, when people in my position don't talk about it, it's because you have the luxury not to, and I'm very lucky. I'm a straight white girl. Things are very easy for me compared to what they are for other people, and I feel like, yeah, we're in a band and yes, it's entertainment, but what kind of person do you want to be? Do you want to know that you were more quiet because you thought it would make a few more people like you? I don't think that's how we were raised. I mean, everybody wants to be liked, but at what cost?
You're having to learn to be more assertive, honest and direct in your personal life when it comes to practical stuff. Do you think that came across when you were writing?
Lauren: Maybe, because your lyrics are an expression of yourself, so if you feel slightly more confident or assertive that will come across. But the persona element has to stay outside when you're writing if you want the lyrics to be an honest reflection of what's happening inside your head or properly investigating things, then I don't really think about the external stuff that much while we're doing it. This time I just wanted to be more conscious of not burying things with imagery. If you are going to use imagery then you should use it to further what you're saying rather than trying to obscure what you're saying. To me, this record sounds like a much more distilled version of what we've done on the previous ones, so when it is melodic and direct and poppy, it's a distilled version of that, and when the sounds are weirder and whiter, it's more distilled version of that.
I want to pivot to talking about our 10-inch. We've got four tracks, two sides. The first side is two of your tracks and the second is two tracks you picked that inspire you. So I want to go through track by track and talk about what the song means to you and why you picked it. First track, side one: “Never Say Die.”
Martin: I think that's my favorite song on the album. To me, that's the closest to the line we've ever come in terms of trying to marriage both sides of what we do. If you take the vocal away, there's a section of that song that's almost heavy metal with the bass and drums. And the keyboard line that's in a different time signature almost, but on top of that it's maybe the most on-the-nose, direct hook we've ever written. And the people that get that are losing their minds and it's great. Some people, it freaks them out. It's the most blunt we've ever been.
Iain: I also think it was one of these moments where, after we'd done that song we were talking about it back at the house and thought, "I don't think there's actually anyone else that's made music that sounds like this." It's one of those moments where you think, "What even is this?" That's a really good feeling.
Martin: It's been received very well. But there is a moment before you put that out and think, "Wait, no one's ever done this. Is there a reason for that? Are we making a terrible mistake?" I loved that one. I think it's our dumbest and smartest simultaneously.
How about track two: “Get Out”
Lauren: “Get Out” was the first single from Love is Dead that we put out and it was the first song we wrote with Greg Kurstin. I don't know why the symmetry of that worked out so well.
Martin: Trying to put a proper chorus in a song with a front end, but the bassline is just this big, angry, nasty, abrasive bassline. It seems so us to me, and Greg was the one that came up with that baseline. He immediately got it. Yes, we're the band that want to put a proper, direct radio call. This guy, he gets us. When that comes out day one, we know it's gonna work.
Let's talk about side B. These are songs you all chose. The first track on side B is The Regrettes "Come Through."
Lauren: Speaking of good things on the internet, I found the Regrettes on the internet. I think I followed a venue in Los Angeles, where they're from, that they were playing at, and I was like. “I don't know who this is.” And I looked it up. It doesn't even matter how young they are, the music they're making is so great, but the fact that they're so young and they have such vision for what they're doing is really exciting. The fact that they're so punk in the way they talk about stuff. I wish I had known myself that well at that age. They're so assertive. I really love them. And when we got this opportunity we were like, "What do we want to choose for the second side?" We get to curate something for once, that's kind of exciting. And it felt cool to me to get to spotlight something new, something that's happening right now. And people get to find out about the band and go see their shows.
The last track is Cocteau Twins "Heaven or Las Vegas."
Martin: That's probably one of the best bands of all time in my opinion.
Iain: Tragically undersold. They really are one of these bands that should have been massive. They were successful in their own way, but they influenced so many other acts. One of those acts that was a real musicians' band. And I guess this was their most successful album right.
Martin: Even if they didn't make that wild impact at the time, their impact has grown and grown and grown and grown. It feels like every time Coachella rolls around there's another rumor about them reforming. I don't think it'll happen. I think they've come out and said please stop. But there's a reason for that. Even though it was challenging music in a lot of ways, especially lyrically — people often talk about the concept of a voice as an instrument, and it very much is, but the vocal has never been more instrumental than in the Cocteau Twins.
It's always been really inspiring to me whenever I write songs. Everything that I write starts with that. It's only sounds and percussion in the beginning and half words and things start to form. But the arc of a song and the whole melody will be there. And I feel like whether she does or does not, maybe she works back that way, which would be so crazy, but it feels very much like that in how it's all sounds, all percussions, all phonetics, and then there's these moments of lyrical clarity that stop you dead. And that's one of the reasons it's so special.
Lauren: To me it shows you what is the most important part in singing. Her range is obviously insane, but it's making you feel stuff with the way that she's singing it. And there's two elements to singing. Yes, you want the lyrics to be good, but how do you communicate those? So much of the time, it's about communicating and connecting and getting the emotion across, and she is hands down one of the best at that.
Iain: This album is a bit of an anomaly up to this point, because I think in a lot of the early stuff, there was no actual words, she would just make up sounds in her own language. Almost like speaking in tongues. Towards the end, the band became more literal and more crystallized in terms of actual words.
Lauren: And I do like, for the records we got to put on there, it makes sense to choose something from the past that has been a big influence on us and something from the future.
Martin: And they're Scottish.
This interview is condensed from the podcast version.
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Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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