In Conversation: CHVRCHES Have Their Eyes Wide Open
We sat down with the Glaswegian synth-pop trio backstage at Landmark Music Festival to chat about the creation of their new record, Every Open Eye.
It’s been almost a year since CHVRCHES’ last proper tour of the US, and already on the day of their second show, members Lauren Mayberry, Martin Doherty, and Iain Cook are feeling a bit drained. In Washington DC for the city’s inaugural Landmark Music Festival, the trio have arrived only a few hours before their scheduled set, having just finished a lengthy meet-and-greet and vinyl signing at a Georgetown Urban Outfitters. After taking part in yet another meet-and-greet with VIP festival-goers upon their arrival, the three have finally been ushered into an available dressing room trailer full of snacks, comfortable furniture, and relative quiet. “It feels like we’ve standing in front of a jet engine for the past three hours,” says Cook. Mayberry, meanwhile, seems to be having an actual physical reaction to the events of the day thus far. “I feel like I’ve eaten something I’m allergic to or something,” she says. “My hands and feet are all tingly.”
Whatever apparent weariness the Glasgow three-piece seem to exhibit, by the time they find themselves on stage in front of an entire field full of people later that evening, none of their previous symptoms are even remotely evident. Flanked on either side by Cook and Doherty’s elevated pedestals, Mayberry—adorned with a single decorative jewel under each eye—fully embraces her role as frontwoman, punching, posing, and swinging her mic with a commanding kind of fervor.
That confident command drives the group’s newly released sophomore record, Every Open Eye, which successfully distills the crystalline synth-pop of their 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe into a sharper, more potent spirit. Back in the trailer before their set, we chatted with CHVRCHES about how they got here.
So with the record finally out now, where’s your headspace?
Iain Cook: There’s a massive sense of relief that it’s finally out. It’s very difficult those few months leading up to it, that sense of building tension of like, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” And now that it’s out, we just can’t wait to play the songs live and get it to as many people who want to hear it. It’s an exciting time in the camp.
Martin Doherty: There’s a nervous element when you’ve taken a bit of time off and you’re sitting on a record. You’re kind of looking into the unknown. You don’t know if people have changed, if you’ve changed, if your music has changed in the wrong ways. These are all the questions you ask before you come back, but once you get into the swing of it, it feels the same as it ever did.
So going into this new album, were there any rules or guidelines you set for yourselves in how you wanted to approach the recording process?
Cook: There was only really one thing that we discussed going into it: we wanted it to be a little bit more stripped back than the first record. On the first one we tended to layer, layer, and layer to make things sound bigger and fuller. But in fact—and this was partially due to our own inexperience—the more stuff you put in, the less big it sounds in a way. So [with Every Open Eye] it was about using fewer [elements] but allowing them the space to properly pop so you get more of the characteristics of all the synths—and Lauren’s voice and Martin’s voice as well.
When you guys were working on this record, what was the biggest challenge for you?
“A lot of the first album was us building a foundation and being allowed to do things on our own terms. And I feel like this time around, it feels less like we’re fighting for our corner all the time.” — Lauren Mayberry
Lauren Mayberry: I guess initially we needed to give ourselves space to focus. We knew there was going to be an audience that we didn’t have previously. But I think that’s just about getting your head in the right space and giving yourself enough distance to be able to do that. I think it’s quite easy to talk about it now that we’re out of it, but when we were in it, it just felt like we were writing loads and loads of things, and after a few months we kind of took stock of where we were and it seemed like the record was going in a certain direction. We were able to further focus it after that. I think if we had gone in with a certain theme or concept in mind, it would have worked quite differently.
When you found that focus, what was the direction you saw it going in?
Mayberry: It just seemed like certain themes were developing in terms of the sounds and the content, and I remember “Clearest Blue” being quite a turning point in the studio. It felt like that song personified the record in a lot of ways, in terms of the sounds around it.
Doherty: The song wrote itself. I’m not even kidding. It did not take a long time. It was one of those where we were trying to be as simplistic as possible. It’s two chords. There’s one change, a minor left, right before the big kick in. It’s the only time it deviates.
When I think about this band, I tend to have a specific image in mind: the three of you on stage, Lauren in the middle, with Martin and Iain flanking on either side. What comes to mind when you think about the identity of CHVRCHES and what it’s become?
Mayberry: A lot of the first album was us building a foundation and being allowed to do things on our own terms. And I feel like this time around, it feels less like we’re fighting for our corner all the time because we already have that base. I think that’s nice. There are a lot less stupid questions this time around for all of us, which I think is a good thing.
Stupid questions such as…?
Mayberry: People are either dismissive of these guys—assuming it’s just me—or they’re dismissive of me, assuming I don’t do anything and that these are the evil geniuses behind the puppet. It’s just because those are the blueprints that you think exist. I don’t know. Why do you have to be something that already exists? Why don’t you give yourself the space and time to be what your band is?
It can be tempting for some people to think of electronic music as being cold and sterile. What was the challenge for you in terms of injecting that human element, that warmth?
“Everything we do in the studio is to try and work against the sterile nature of a lot of electronic music.” — Martin Doherty
Doherty: We spend a lot of time working on that, actually. I think it comes through in the songwriting first and foremost. No matter how much we try to write a straight-up, regular pop song it tends to have this melancholy edge to it and I think that really resonates with people. And not quantizing everything is a big part of that human element that we introduce in the studio. We construct our music in a linear fashion, from start to finish, not in the way you might find in a dance record or electronic record, which are all super tight and produced within an inch of their lives. We don’t do that. We just can’t do that. There’s nothing interesting to me about sterile dance music or productions that are tuned so hard that there’s just no soul in it—there’s no depth. And it’s funny because everything we do in the studio is to try and work against the sterile nature of a lot of electronic music.
It’s hard to deny that there’s an unmistakable sense of confidence in this record.
Mayberry:I think, vocally and musically, this record just feels like it knows more what it wants to be. It knows what it’s doing a bit more than the first one. And I think that’s a good thing. FL