Recovery Process: How CHVRCHES went from secretive studio project to electro-pop goliath

Substream #49 - CHVRCHES

The Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, is one of those large-but-not-cavernous venues that are the proving ground for any music act that is on its way to arena-sized success in North America. If you can command the attention of 1,500 young people, all armed with smartphones and possibly under the influence of recently legalized recreational marijuana, you might be ready to take it to the next level.

On a recent Tuesday night in mid-October, that task fell to CHVRCHES—and the Scottish electro-pop trio was ready for it. The hour-plus set culled from the group’s two studio albums—2013’s The Bones Of What You Believe and the follow-up Every Open Eye, which was released this past September—and was the perfect mixture of polished and spontaneous. The music was, understandably, highly programmed with instrumentalists Martin Doherty and Iain Cook directing the dazzling synth trills and perfectly sequenced beats from behind banks of equipment. Singer Lauren Mayberry, on the other hand, was a bundle of livewire energy. She spent the night bounding around the stage and pumping her fist in time with dramatic blasts in “Lies” and the colorful array of lights surrounding her. Between songs, she was a charmer, recounting the band’s night off in the city that included watching Cook get sloshed during a screening of a documentary on the American prison system.

“I would feel uncomfortable doing the whole, ‘Hey Cleveland! How’s everyone doing? Touch my hands!’ thing,” Mayberry says, speaking pre-soundcheck a few days later in Salt Lake City. “That just isn’t me as a performer. There’s people that do that really, really well, but I don’t think it would feel natural for me to do that. Also I think one of the things people like about the personality of the band is that it is genuine and approachable. We’re not trying to put ourselves on a pedestal hundreds of miles above everybody else.”

It’s not a remarkable statement, and is probably the same kind of thing that even superstars like Katy Perry or Justin Timberlake rattles off to the press when they want to appear down-to-earth. But Mayberry means every word. It feels like an honest byproduct of the sweat and toil that she and her bandmates have put into this from the beginning. They’ve reached levels of success with their two albums that none of them could have anticipated, with Bones selling nearly 200,000 copies in the U.S. alone and Every Open Eye landing in the Billboard Top 10 on the week of its release. But unlike any of the pop sensations that have come before them, CHVRCHES isn’t taking it for granted nor are they willing to overlook what got them here.

Key to that is where CHVRCHES chooses to record. From the beginning, the trio have utilized the same studio space, built into a ground floor apartment in their hometown of Glasgow. This made perfect sense when it came to the first tracks that they trickled out into the blogosphere as well as the first full-length that came along just as the buzz surrounding the band was reaching deafening levels. But with all that wind in their sails, and a new label helping to fund the process, they could have had their pick of any producer and studio in the world. Instead, they chose to stick with what they knew, going back home and handling everything themselves.

“It’s an exciting place. It’s a safe space for us,” Doherty says of their studio. “We have everything we need and we look forward to being back in Glasgow so we can hang out there and work there. I could easily see this band being in that space and never working with anyone outside the three of us for the rest of our careers. I just don’t feel that it’s necessary.”

Nor should he. The proof is there in Every Open Eye. While the record certainly sounds bigger and brassier than Bones, thanks to the band handing over their finished tracks to the capable hands of Mark “Spike” Stent, a producer and engineer who has worked with everyone from Beyonce to the Cult, it’s also an extremely confidently written and performed collection. The 14 songs bear the imprint of the trio’s collective love for the electronic pop of the past 30 years but the reference points—like the album art, an homage to the cover of New Order’s seminal Power, Corruption & Lies LP—don’t feel cloying or lazy. The individual parts evoke Giorgio Moroder (the sequenced fluttering that runs through “Clearest Blue”), Depeche Mode (the sinister and seething “Leave A Trace” feels like a Violator B-side) and ambient icons like Brian Eno and Harold Budd (“Afterglow”’s warm bath of tones), but the combination of those elements is pure CHVRCHES.

Most of all, every modular melody and programmed beat comes across as impassioned and joyous, in love with the pure thrill of creation. It’s that adoration of music that, like all the best bands, brought these three together. Cook and Doherty bonded during the former’s days as a lecturer on recording and engineering at a Glasgow university, quickly becoming friends and collaborators.

“He produced the band that I had at university,” Doherty remembers, “and we worked so well together that when I left that group, he invited me to come in and engineer and do some arrangement work on the last Aereogramme record. So I think we had a well-established dynamic by the time Lauren came into work on what would become CHVRCHES.”

Her injection into the mix came through other musical connections. Doherty helped produce an EP by Mayberry’s former band Blue Sky Archives, and invited her to add some vocals to some demos he and Cook were constructing. In doing so, they found the final element to make their pop anthems really soar.

What took a little bit of time was getting the trio to grow into the idea of being a full-fledged band. Although Cook and Doherty had been bandmates for a while, Mayberry was new to the mix, forcing them, in a way, to become fast friends.

“I think music is integral to our friendship and how we know each other,” Mayberry says. “We were writing together before we really knew each other that well as people. I suppose that was a gradual thing because we didn’t know each other’s skill sets or how much we trusted each other as writers. I think the thing that was really exciting for all of us was that we were able to write things so quickly. We were so taken aback by how excited we were by what we were making, so that took the front seat.”

Since those sessions in 2011 and 2012, CHVRCHES hasn’t really stopped moving forward as a band. The group gigged relentlessly around the U.K. as they worked on what would become The Bones Of What You Believe and kept dotting the internet with bits of their music. By the time the first LP came out, the trio was already a viral sensation and just needed to fan the flames of this hype with what became almost two years of almost nonstop touring, which included an estimated seven trips to the States for both assorted festival dates and club gigs.  

“It took a bit of time acclimatizing to the workload,” says Cook. “All the bands that I’ve been in have had an excellent work ethic, but there wasn’t the demand that there is now. Then, it was just load up the van and go play a gig. Now there’s this whole other thing you have to find the energy for—signings and meet and greets and radio sessions—and that’s every single day. It’s all good work and you can actually see it paying off every night with the shows getting bigger and people getting more and more excited about the band, but it’s fucking exhausting.”

If that weren’t enough, Doherty kept himself to a strict regimen while on the road of trying to write and record something every day in anticipation of the three getting back into the studio for their follow-up. In reality, almost none of the bits and pieces he worked on wound up yielding anything for Every Open Eye, but he says it was important for him to keep his creative mind in shape rather than succumbing to the atrophy of staring out a tour bus window for hours.

Those two years of steady activity only made things run smoother and faster when they finally reconvened in their studio to commence work on album No. 2.

“We knew each other so much better as people, in both good and bad ways,” says Mayberry. “But that just means that our communication is much easier.”

And, says Cook, they had a much clearer sense of what the “CHVRCHES sound” was.

“We had the parameters hashed out so we weren’t plucking stuff out of the air,” he says. “We have fans and expectations. We couldn’t just completely reinvent ourselves as a Peruvian nose flute ensemble.”

To keep themselves focused, the group put some guidelines in place to help them stay productive. They would arrive at the studio around noon and work for six or seven hours, leaving them with a batch of demos at the end of each week. After a few weeks of that, they would circle back on the work they had done before. Five months later, the three were left with the 14 finished tracks that make up Every Open Eye.

“It really afforded us some perspective,” says Cook. “If you work on only one idea for 10 hours or so, by the end of it, you’ve lost a lot of judgment and you start making decisions that you’ll have to go and reverse. This way, you’d be given a week or two weeks away from something and you can come back to it starting off on a good foot.”

They also have to know when to let go of the recordings. By all accounts, Doherty is a relentless tinkerer and might still be working on this album were he not forced to relinquish the wheel. But he and the band also know that the smart play is to hand off their finished songs to someone else to give it that extra buff and polish before releasing them to the world. That’s how Rich Costey got involved with Bones and why they jumped at the chance to let Stent work his particular magic on their new tracks.

“We deliberately wanted to go with someone who understood and had two feet firmly in electronic music,” says Doherty. “And his resume is insane. You know you can take a step back and know that he’s gonna do the business. I remember being absolutely blown away by what he sent back.”

Every Open Eye isn’t simply a strong leap forward for CHVRCHES on a musical level. Mayberry, for her part as the lyricist for the band, picked open what sounded some pretty painful emotional wounds. The songs are, as ever, open for interpretation, but it feels very clear that either she went through a nasty breakup (“You talk too much/For someone so unkind,” she sings on “Leave A Trace”) or the death of someone close to her (“I’ll be your guide/So you can see the other side/And I will never let you get away” goes the chorus of “Get Away”)—perhaps both. Whatever the case, the anguish is evident even in the most upbeat songs on the album.

Though she’s hesitant to talk about the specifics of what inspired these songs, Mayberry is willing to concede that everything she is singing about is deeply personal.

“I’ve never been the kind of person that can write lyrics or amazing stories or narratives about something I haven’t experienced,” she says. “It’s always felt like that for me. It’s genuine emotion. It’s not something that was created to tick boxes off a list, or to push people’s emotional buttons. This is human experience that’s put into a song and hopefully is connecting with somebody.”

From the rapturous praise she and her bandmates were getting at their show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, Mayberry is obviously making those emotional connections. That’s the beauty of singing lyrics that are intensely intimate but also vague enough for anyone to relate to. It goes beyond the stage, though. the singer makes herself available at meet and greets for her fans to open up about how they saw themselves and their own lives in a CHVRCHES song, and takes pains to communicate with fans one-on-one through the band’s social networking feeds.

Alas, for all the good that the internet has done for her band, it has been at times a source of much agony for the singer. In a passionate op-ed for The Guardian in 2013, when she dared to speak out on the CHVRCHES Facebook account about a gross message she had received, it wound up opening the floodgates for every troll to wander out of the woodwork and throw even nastier comments at her. As Mayberry wrote two years ago, it left a huge impact on her emotionally:

And, after a while, despite the positive messages in the majority, the aggressive, intrusive nature of the other kind becomes overwhelming. During this past tour, I am embarrassed to admit that I have had more than one prolonged toilet cry and a “Come on, get a hold of yourself, you got this” conversation with myself in a bathroom mirror when particularly exasperated and tired out. But then, after all the sniffling had ceased, I asked myself: why should I cry about this? Why should I feel violated, uncomfortable and demeaned? Why should we all keep quiet?

Her essay had a similar dual impact as the Facebook post that inspired it. It was shared thousands of times over by CHVRCHES fans and supporters of women’s rights, but it also brought a lot more bullshit from the faceless online hordes. That blowback hasn’t dimmed Mayberry’s spirit one iota, however, and in truly defiant fashion, she refuses to completely cut the cord with the web.

“I am the one who gets most involved in the organizational and administrative side of the band,” she says, “but you have to listen to your own well being as well as your work, you know? If I’m having a day where I don’t feel psychologically prepared to go online and deal with horrible people, then I won’t. Previously, I probably would have made myself do it because otherwise I’m letting people win. It’s been important coming to terms with it, but I’m also not going to change the way I use the internet and interact with our fans because of the minority of people who think I’m a dumb bitch.”

It would be a frustrating state of affairs for any band, but with CHVRCHES, that feeling is trebled. The band goes to great pains to make sure that they are portrayed as a unit. They make sure every promotional picture features Mayberry, Cook and Doherty, and when interviews come up, they try, when possible, to do them as a unit. This extends to their live setup as well. Although Mayberry pulls focus as the mouthpiece of the band, all three are on the same level, and placed fairly close together in spite of the size of the stages they might be playing on. It’s the egalitarian ideal for a modern pop band. For the two men in the group, this also means that they suffer with their bandmate as she faces the slings and arrows of the world simply because she’s a woman and because she’s putting herself in the position of frontwoman.

“We can only do what we can do in that respect,” Doherty says. “Magazines will want to interview Thom Yorke more than they will Phil Selway. It’s a natural byproduct of being the mouthpiece. It’s the first point of contact for an audience or for a critic. I don’t have any ill will for that at all, other than the fact that Lauren takes more criticism than I get. But people have to know that we completely own this project together and if someone is leveling criticism at her, they’re leveling it at me as well.”

You have to wonder how much longer the band will be able to sustain the level of activity that they have been maintaining for more than three years now, and what effect it might have when they start wandering off on their own. In the latter case, the requests for Cook and Doherty’s musical support on other projects started pouring in fairly soon after The Bones Of What You Believe was released. While they’ve turned them down to date, certainly one opportunity will wind up being too good to pass up. The same goes for Mayberry. Just recently at the Treasure Island Festival, she hopped onstage with the National to back the band up on a rendition of “I Need My Girl.” With a voice as distinctive as hers, that can’t be the only offer she’s received to do a little side work.

In Mayberry’s vision of her future beyond CHVRCHES, she imagines going back to the life she was heading towards as a student of law and journalism, and working in “a more behind the scenes-y type of role, because I think you can still be involved in stuff that’s really creative and innovative, but you don’t necessarily have to be standing right under the spotlight,” she says. “I look forward to that—to an extent.”

That life is far down the track for Mayberry, though. At the moment, she’s staring at a schedule that has her booked well into 2016, with dates in Australia and New Zealand plus a stint on Paramore’s second annual Parahoy! cruise, then quickly getting deep into the festival season through the summer and beyond. The idea of a post-band future, or even getting back into the studio to start cooking up album No. 3, is hazy at best.

It seems especially far for that hour or so that Mayberry and the rest of CHVRCHES are onstage, urging a thousand-plus people to clap and sing along with them. For as exciting as it is for them to hole up in their studio for months on end to conjure up new material, and as much as they tolerate the endless interviews, photo shoots and other assorted promotional headaches, the beaming grins on their faces at the Crystal Ballroom reveal that their greatest moments are those spent as a gang of three performing their songs of joy, darkness, sorrow and beauty.

“I think a lot of the last time around, we felt like, ‘Okay, we booked that and done this and played this show,’” she says. “There was just so much time trying to keep the train on the tracks. We were having an amazing time but it was really intense and overwhelming. Now, I’m trying to remind myself to live in the moment and to remember to document things. Because you know, I don’t know how long we’ll get to do this, and in a few years we might not be doing this anymore. So it would be nice to have some memories.” S

A version of this piece was published in Substream #49.