Chvrches: “Are the machines evil, or are we?”

The electro-pop trio on diving into the digital maze – staring down abuse, alienation, misogyny and classism – with horror-themed new album ‘Screen Violence’

When Chvrches came off tour in spring 2019, singer Lauren Mayberry was in desperate need of a break – not just from the road, but from every aspect of being in a band. “I was just like, ‘I need to take time off – like, off off – because it’s not bringing me joy to such an extreme degree’,” she says.

Mayberry is able to smile about it now but at the time she couldn’t even face talking to her bandmates or their team, and imposed a ‘Please don’t contact me’ email ban: “I think it’s important for the longevity of everything to know when to push the panic button and that was the first time I’ve pushed the panic button on the band.”

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

Fear not, though, because the fact that the Glasgow-formed trio – completed by producers and multi-instrumentalists Martin Doherty and Iain Cook – are talking to NME today means the band made it through OK. Out of those struggles comes their fourth album ‘Screen Violence’, which will arrive on August 27. It’s an invigorating, sparkling listen, marrying the shadowy echoes of ’80s post-punk and goth-rock with electronic elements that make you want to head for your nearest soon-to-be-reopened dingy club.

The album’s contents explore loneliness and isolation, fear and heartbreak, all loosely tied together by the idea of the savagery of our increasingly digital world. Through it all, though, runs a sense of perseverance. In ‘Asking For A Friend’, Mayberry sings of “the art of getting by” and how she’s filled “my bed with my regrets / But it hasn’t killed me yet”. ‘Final Girl’ suggests, in its horror movie trope-referencing title, a battle to survive, to outlive the demons and monsters that surround us.

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Chvcrches on the cover of NME

“Now that you say it, it does make a lot of sense,” Mayberry says. Our conversation is, fittingly, taking place through a screen, and from inside her Zoom square, we can see her doing a quick race through the record in her head. “In a way, that album does feel like perseverance to a degree. I’m not being dramatic and saying that I ever actually wanted to pack it in, but there was a lot of stuff on the last album.”

There were “a lot of ups and downs” over the course of 2018’s ‘Love Is Dead’, she says, not least the struggles of “having to take on board the opinion of every single human being in the world” via social media and then “pretend it doesn’t affect you in any way”. The experience of having spent eight years with strangers on the internet either telling her “how much they fucking hate you, or how much they fucking love you” was taking its toll on her emotionally and mentally. Getting through it and writing ‘Screen Violence’ felt “like a form of survival, in a way,” Mayberry says.

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

When the singer first shut herself off from the world, no one could have predicted that the record would be made in a similarly closed-off manner. In early 2020, Cook flew over to LA, where Doherty and Mayberry both reside, to begin work together. Three weeks into their sessions, the pandemic hit – “everything turned to shite”, as Mayberry puts it – and a travel ban on UK visitors to the US meant the eldest Chvrch had to head home to Glasgow.

“[Writing and recording remotely] is really different and it takes a lot of adjustment,” Doherty explains, basking in the sun from a reclining chair in his back garden, one square below Mayberry. “At least we had that initial spark. If we’d had to make the whole thing in a vacuum or over the phone, so to speak, it would’ve been much more difficult.” It’s a process he’s tried with other musicians, he says, with disappointing results.

“I spent a lot of time trying so hard to be one of the boys because it’s just easier” – Lauren Mayberry

As life we once knew it all but disappeared from view, the band found having something to throw themselves into “stabilising” – not a word they would have previously associated with the life of a musician. “Making this record was really good for finding something to centre you when it felt like the whole world was on fire,” Doherty reasons.

Like all of us, Chvrches have seen their relationship with screens take on a whole new life over the last 15 months. Mayberry and Doherty have been able to hang out and work together in LA lately, but they’ve still been separated from Cook, who is 5,000 miles away. ‘Screen Violence’ was largely made through video calls and audio-sharing software, giving new power to their devices as they simultaneously became their only portals to see friends and family around the world. Even the photoshoot for this feature was done remotely – the first time NME has ever shot a cover in that way.

For Mayberry, that positive connotation felt like a big shift. “My association with screens had become very negative,” she says, referring to the sheer amount of abuse and death threats she’s faced online throughout her career. “It was horrible to have to only see people on screens – I’ve not seen my mum in 3D since Christmas 2019. But I think, if anything, it made me more grateful because if this didn’t exist I couldn’t talk to you; we couldn’t have made this record and we couldn’t have spoken to any of our friends and family. It makes you think – are the machines evil, or are we?”

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

Some of Mayberry’s online interactions can be felt in certain songs on the record. Over the years, she’s had multiple perceptions placed on her by people that have never – and likely will never – meet her in the flesh.

She’s been criticised for wearing clothes on stage that are “too revealing”, but also had complaints coming her way when she retreated to baggier clothes – a reversal of the arc of criticism Billie Eilish recently experienced when she ditched the oversized outfits for her British Vogue cover. She has been labelled an “angry feminist”, “bitch” and “slut” for speaking out about things she believes are right or wrong has, and chastised for mixing politics and music. If she had stayed silent, you imagine she would have been scolded for not using her platform to talk about important issues too.

Although Mayberry may face more extreme reactions – and from a lot more people – it’s far from a unique experience. Women have to deal with these impossible and often contradictory standards in everyday life, and in trying to adhere to the patriarchy’s rules you can incur psychological whiplash.

“You could have offered me a collaboration with anyone and I would still choose Robert Smith” – Martin Doherty

It’s a feeling that takes centre stage on ‘Screen Violence’’s gigantic first single ‘He Said She Said’. “Get drunk, don’t be a mess,” Mayberry sings at one point, later following it up with more inconsistent commandments: “He said you need to be fed, but keep an eye on your waistline / Look good, but don’t be obsessed.” No wonder the chorus is her voice engaged in a disorienting call-and-response with a digitised echo of herself crying: “I feel like I’m losing my mind.”

“I’ve always been, for the most part, the only girl in a band, or the only girl on a lineup, or the only girl working in a venue,” she says. “I spent a lot of time trying so hard to be one of the boys because it’s just easier. When I was younger, it was like, ‘OK, well you need to be better, faster, smarter, tougher, quicker to make the dirty joke, because then that makes you less of an outlier.”

When Chvrches first began to develop a following via SoundCloud in 2012, Mayberry was “very conscious” that she didn’t want to be seen as “just the person standing at the front selling [the music], who doesn’t do anything” while the more instrument-focused Cook and Doherty did the work. But she found that that misconception crept in anyway and reasoned that her attention-grabbing make-up and feminine outfits might be partially behind it. As the band promoted their 2013 debut album ‘The Bones Of What You Believe’, her make-up grew less eye-catching, her clothes looser: “I was like, ‘If I make myself small enough, then I’ll be OK – I’ll be allowed; that will be satisfactory.”

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

On the group’s second album ‘Every Open Eye’, released in 2015, Mayberry began to readjust her way of thinking: “I was like, ‘OK, you making yourself disappear isn’t fixing the problem’.” On ‘Screen Violence’’s ‘Good Girls’, she reinforces the idea that she won’t try and fit into society’s moulds for women anymore. “Good girls don’t cry / Good girls don’t lie / Good girls justify / But I don’t,” she sings defiantly.

So, in the last few years, she has re-embraced her love of expressing her creativity in her aesthetic, as evidenced in the swathes of glitter that appeared on her face and the range of fun outfits she wore during the band’s last tour. “We all love the ’80s, Cyndi Lauper and even artists like PJ Harvey use aesthetics as part of their creativity – surely that makes you more of an artist?” she ponders. “Why is it incredible when David Bowie does it but when a female frontperson does it, it’s because they’re trying to sell records?”

Being alongside Mayberry as she’s been subject to judgement and abuse has been eye-opening for her bandmates. Doherty says any vitriol directed to himself and Cook is “not even one per cent” of what Mayberry receives, but they had an illuminating window into her world in 2019 when the band issued a statement about former collaborator Marshmello working with Chris Brown. In the note, the trio said they were “really upset, confused and disappointed” the producer had chosen to work with “predators and abusers”, saying such moves “enables, excuses and ultimately tacitly endorses that behaviour”. Brown later dubbed the band a “bunch of losers” and “the type of people I wish walked in front of a speeding bus”. His fans were equally charming in their responses to Chvrches.

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

“That was my first ever taste of what Lauren experiences,” Doherty says, recalling his initial readiness to wind up the trolls. “But when I took a step back, I was like, ‘No, if this is reality for women and what they actually have to experience online – whether they’re in the public eye or not – fucking hell’. It gave me a whole new respect for what Lauren goes through in this band. I think people need to fucking look at themselves in a lot of ways – if you’re shouting at a woman on the internet because your life sucks, fuck you.”

The trio try to find the silver lining, however difficult that might seem, in the torrent of shit that has been hurled Mayberry’s way. “Would I prefer that our singer was nae getting death threats? Absolutely,” Doherty says. “But the sacrifices that she’s made have created so much positivity for us all. So you need to be thankful for that; you need to stand next to her and just do what you can to help.”

Mayberry, on the other hand, has a new approach to dealing with it. “I try to remember [that those comments] aren’t coming from a place of any happiness or peace,” Mayberry says calmly. “If someone’s like, ‘Go die, cunt’, I’m like, ‘That’s not coming from a place of joy.’ Block, then be understanding.”

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

At one point, the sound of someone chopping down a tree outside Mayberry’s house interrupts our conversation. “It sounds like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” quips Cook, an apt observation given that ‘Screen Violence’ is filled with horror imagery and references, from ‘Final Girl’ to the nightmarish lyrics of the breakbeat-driven ‘Violent Delights’, which depicts ideas of death, drowning and paralysis.

Horror don David Cronenberg’s 1983 sci-fi body horror Videodrome was a big influence on not just this album, but the band’s career as a whole, says Cook. “We’ve always been really influenced by the idea of the ghost in the machine, the evil behind the screen and the way it saturates our minds,” he explains.

Mayberry describes herself as “morbidly fascinated” with horror movies, despite “clearly not being able to handle them”. What keeps her tuning in then if she can’t deal with the frights? “I wonder if it’s therapeutic in a way,” she replies. “As a woman, the sensation of being watched and hunted and controlled is quite profound a lot of the time. But then the final girl – when [Halloween protagonist] Laurie Strode survives? There’s hope in that.”

“We’ve always been [interested in] the evil behind the screen and the way it saturates our minds” – Iain Cook

Last Halloween, Doherty and Mayberry met up for movie night. After getting wine-drunk and watching the 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, they noticed an email in their inboxes that they had lost hope of ever arriving. In the attachments was an mp3 file of The Cure’s Robert Smith singing his parts for their new single ‘How Not To Drown’.

Months before that mp3 arrived, Chvrches’ manager had reached out to someone he thought was The Cure’s manager in an attempt to have the group considered for a support slot in the future. One day, he received a response – from Smith himself asking, “Alright, what do you want?” They quickly sent him over some of the music they’d been working on and the idea of collaborating on ‘How Not To Drown’ blossomed.

Fast-forward to their hero’s reappearance on Halloween, which Mayberry describes as “the most Cure-lore thing to ever happen. “You could have offered me a collaboration with anyone living or dead – fucking Prince, fucking Beethoven – I would still choose Robert Smith,” Doherty says, deadly serious while his bandmates burst out laughing.

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

The song is an instant highlight of ‘Screen Violence’, not just because it features Smith, but because of how well the two acts merge together, as if they were made for each other. It possesses a blustery gloom similar to that of The Cure’s inimitable sound, while the frontman brings majestic solemnity to lines such as: “I’m writing the book on how to stay conscious when you drown.”

It must make you take stock and realise how far you’ve come as a band when you can mark your 10th anniversary with a track featuring an icon who means so much to you. “It’s mental!” Mayberry exclaims. “When I have to fill in my job on a form, I think about this. I never thought I would get to do this.”

Although Doherty isn’t fond of looking back, he does acknowledge that there are “occasional moments, like the Robert thing”, or playing before New Order at Glastonbury in 2016, that “[make you] go, ‘Fucking hell! In 2012, I was so broke, I was ready to give up on being a professional musician’.”

“When I fill in my job on a form, I think: ‘I never thought I would get to do this’” – Lauren Mayberry

Chvrches might be a bona fide success now, but getting the opportunity to become one wasn’t handed to the band. “I come from a fucking council estate in Glasgow,” Doherty explains. “My prospects to get into the arts were basically zero… It’s no one’s right to make music, but that’s what I was trying to do. I was signing on the dole and they made me go to a class for CV writing, like I was illiterate and that’s why I didn’t have a job. If there’s any wonder why the arts are struggling in our country – and Scotland will always be my country, whether I live there or not – is because there’s no fucking support for people. It’s so wrong.”

UK arts funding has been cut during the pandemic and Brexit threatens a band’s ability to grow as artists by touring Europe, but Doherty does still have some hope for British music’s future. “The best art comes from these times and, when times are the most difficult, the most special people find a way,” he says. For their part, the band have backed the #WeMakeEvents campaign and helped share petitions calling for visa-free touring in the EU.

NME Cover 2021 Chvrches
Credit: Jennifer McCord for NME

As for Chvrches’ future: their hopes have become a lot more humble due to the global situation. “The idea that people will listen to this record and hopefully love it, and then we’ll play shows for those people, is enough for me,” Mayberry says.

A band of their stature must surely be thinking about stepping up to headline major festivals – such as Glatonsbury and Reading & Leeds – now, though? “What will be will be, but I’m not gonna say fucking no!” the singer grins. “But we can never pick those things.” The sound of the tree-felling outside her window intensifies once more. “Now if I get murdered by chainsaws, you have to play with me as a hologram one last time,” she instructs her bandmates.

“Life after death tour!” Cook jokes. It would certainly give the band that longevity Mayberry was concerned about in 2019 but, after so long living in digital limbo, we’re counting down the days until the singer – and Chvrches as a whole – can return to us in the flesh and leave the screens behind.

Chvrches’ ‘Screen Violence’ is out August 27