The Big Read – Chvrches: “The coven is pissed, the reckoning is coming”

"The punk-rock Joan of Arc of pop" ...That’s how Dave Stewart, formerly of The Eurythmics, summed up Lauren Mayberry after meeting her to work on ideas for Chvrches’ third album. And he may be on to something; ‘Love Is Dead’ filters religion, the refugee crisis and righteous politics through the band’s electropop-filter. The result? Grandstanding built for festival headline slots. Emily Mackay meets them in London.

It’s Friday lunchtime, the sun is shining and there are cheesy chips on the pub table, but nonetheless, I have managed to completely kill Chvrches’ buzz. “You have to keep trying to move forward and keep doing something productive, but it’s kind of easy to feel overwhelmed by it right now,” Lauren Mayberry is saying. “It’s just hard to feel hopeful at all, all the time…”

We all stare into the bubbles of our fizzy water. “Hangover’s really fucking kicking in now,” sighs Martin Doherty, the high of yesterday’s session in Radio 1’s Live Lounge (they covered The 1975’s ‘Somebody Else’) fading fast. “I’m, like, ready to do myself in.”

The reason for this amiable afternoon vibe is that we’re discussing the inspirations behind the ordinarily chipper Glaswegian trio’s third album, the peppily titled ‘Love Is Dead’. Their last record, the exhilarating ‘Every Open Eye’, was Top 10 in the US, Top Five in the UK. They’re playing big venues these days – Alexandra Palace, Radio City Music Hall – and edging closer to the top of lineups at festivals all round the world. ‘Love Is Dead’, crafted with super-producer of the age Greg Kurstin (Adele, Foo Fighters, Sia), could take these punk-hearted pop romantics anywhere. So why the gloom? Well, take a look around, and take your pick, right?

“A lot of the lyrics are about figuring out that I don’t feel like an optimist a lot of the time anymore,” says Mayberry. “Now I look at it and think, maybe I’m just an idealist… it feels like we’re just in a weird time where all things have come to a head; hopefully it will be a transition, a crossroads.”

Chvrches NME
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

Chvrches are all currently living in the US, meaning that as well as the division and anger that arose around the Scottish independence and EU referendums, they’ve had a front-row seat to the fuckery of Trump, and most recently, the renewed conflict over gun control following the Parkland shooting. Like many of us, they’ve found it testing, and ‘Love Is Dead’ faces their crisis of faith head on. There’s a silent ellipsis or question mark after the title: ‘Love Is Dead’… ? Rather than plastering on a false optimism, the album plunges into doubt and disillusion, trying to see what can be saved from the binfire of modern life. “For us, writing this was pretty cathartic, and I think playing the shows will be pretty cathartic,” says Mayberry.

Turning an electronic pop trio into a euphoric live band has been a big part of what has carried Chvrches so far beyond their initial blog buzz. “We didn’t want it to be a thing that just existed on the internet. We wanted to make it a real-life thing for people,” says Mayberry. With a lot of live drums on the new album, a natural way to develop the live show even further opened up. Rehearsals are about to start with new live drummer Jonny Scott, an old friend of the band who used to play in The Unwinding Hours with Cook, and has also played as a session and live drummer with the likes of The Kills and Mogwai.

The move signals that Chvrches are ready to take things up another gear, as does their decision to work with an outside producer for the first time – Cook and Doherty produced both ‘Every Open Eye’ and their debut, ‘The Bones of What You Believe’. Kurstin co-produces eight of the album’s 12 tracks, while One Direction, Little Mix and Ed Sheeran producer Steve Mac helps out on ‘Miracle’. It’s a bold move, and a risky one – keeping their own perfect balance as a band with, as Doherty puts it, “one foot in the pop world and one foot very much in the electronic and indie”, has served them well so far.

“If you keep it just the three of you, just the nucleus, then you can figure out what do you want to be? What do you want to sound like? What is Chvrches?” says Mayberry. “At this point, we know all the sounds, we’ve built that foundation. So how do you push yourself?”

For that extra push, the band tried out working with a few producers including, brilliantly, Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, who Cook calls “a huge inspiration”. The songs worked on with Stewart didn’t ultimately make it on to ‘Love Is Dead’, but the meeting sparked a new energy, and Stewart is thanked in the album’s sleevenotes. “The creativity that he ignited in us just felt fucking amazing,” says Doherty. “He taught us how to look beyond just the basics of making a record again. You know, when people talk about being in the presence of genius, of people who just think in a completely unique way? He’s one of them… a producer in the old mode. Man manager, motivator, idea-inspirer.”

Some of Stewart’s tactics were unconventional. “He’s such a kind, warm person but he also knows when to rattle someone’s cage to make them challenge themselves, and he definitely did that with all of us,” says Mayberry. “In advance, he had looked up a scene from the Milla Jovovich Joan of Arc film and he was like, ‘Watch this’. I was like [polite, slightly bemused nod], ‘Uh-huh… uh-huh’. And at the end of it he was like, ‘It seems to me you want to be this kind of punk-rock Joan of Arc of pop music, so why don’t you just do it already and stop complaining?’” I was like a little taken aback and a little confused. I don’t know if I think about myself in that way and I certainly didn’t at the time, but then having somebody like that look in to you and then just tell you to challenge yourself and push harder, and if they can see something like that in you, then I think that’s really humbling and empowering in way.”

Fired up by this boost from their hero, the band had a clearer idea of what they wanted, and rejected a few bad-fit producers before meeting with Kurstin – who, despite his stellar CV, impressed them with his down-to-earth nerdery and his “Aladdin’s Cave” basement studio. “His energy and chemistry with us were just fucking electric from the first minute we met him,” says Doherty. “It felt to me the way that the first sessions we ever did together as a band felt, and right away everybody upped their game and we moved into another gear… we cancelled everything and were like, ‘Can you make this record?’”

“Just like, you know, move Paul McCartney and Liam Gallagher and the Foo Fighters, just create some space for us wee Glaswegians,” says Cook, laughing.

Chvrches NME
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

“Iain and Martin love sitting talking about plug-ins, and gear,” says Mayberry, “and it was really cool to get to Mecca, where you can open a closet, and inside that closet is the actual real instrument that we’ve been using the fake knock-off version of for a long time. There was an old-school Linn drum and just all these weird random things.”

“This is why it worked with Greg,” says Doherty. “He’s in his basement that’s alive with wires and cables and keyboards for miles. That was always going to work for us – we are not the band for Billy Big Balls producer that’s got three rooms at [Hollywood facility] Westlake… that side of the business does not appeal to us in any way for this project, because we’re so protective over it. It’s so personal, it’s so deep, to us.”

The great triumph of Chvrches is to take something so personal and so deep – and with such a strong independent Glasgow pedigree, from bands such as Aereogramme, The Twilight Sad and Blue Sky Archives – into the charts and high up the festival billings. ‘Love Is Dead’ has moments of great depth and darkness, from the epic, unsettling ‘God’s Plan’, sung by Martin, or on comeback ‘My Enemy’, a sombre, haunting duet with The National’s Matt Berninger, recorded at his house (Chvrches are big National fans; “Matt Berninger is a god tbh. If you told me five years ago that he’d be on a song we wrote I’d have laughed you out of the room” tweeted Lauren on the song’s release). But it’s also an album packed with some of their poppiest choruses yet. Do they feel like they’re about to take another step up, to be a headline act? “That’s for people to decide. If you want to change the question and ask if we’re ready for that? I’d say absolutely,” says Doherty. “We’re ready to make that step now because we’ve done this in such a way and such a pace that made sense to us and allowed us to grow up in public and to develop to this point.” He pauses and sits back. “So fuck yeah.”

In the last year or so, with questions in parliament about online abuse, the revelations of #MeToo, and feminism becoming not just a hot topic of conversation but a sensible branding move, public conversation has caught up with things Mayberry has been saying for years. Speaking out about the misogynist harassment she was subject to took a strain.

Despite the dark things that crawled out from under rocks, though, she remains hopeful that such things are just the birth pangs of real change. “I found a weird kind of zen-like comfort in the fact that I know that 99 per cent of those comments aren’t about me personally,” she says. “It’s about what I represent to those people. It’s about existing in this space in a way that they don’t want you to. Getting pulled along in a change that you don’t necessarily want to see happen I’m sure is very unsettling but unfortunately, as they say, time is up, I hope.”

Chvrches NME
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

“I think it’s important not to underestimate the lack of awareness in men,” says Doherty. “And I’m saying that from a male point of view… it’s very easy for your world to seem all perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable until a conversation like #MeToo… it’s different for us because we’ve stood next to Lauren for a long time and seen it.”

“Five years ago people would be like, why are you so angry?” says Mayberry. “And I don’t identify as a hugely angry person, but I think some stuff you should be angry about because it is completely ridiculous. Then when people are like, ‘Why are all the other women angry?’ I’m like… (shrugs), ‘The coven is pissed. The reckoning is coming.’”

Reckonings soon make themselves felt on ‘Love Is Dead’. The album opens with a blast of nostalgic, rueful almost-escapism in the gorgeous ‘Graffiti’, an elegy for the intensity of youthful friendships, but the bittersweet trip down memory lane doesn’t last for long. On ‘Graves’, Mayberry raises the image of Alan Kurdi, whose small body was washed up on the shores of Turkey hours after his family paid thousands of dollars to board a rubber dinghy bound for Greece. “They’re leaving bodies in stairwells and washing up on the shores… I will stop at nothing, oh, I will stop at nothing,” vows Mayberry over adrenaline-tense drums and a wash of clean synths.

“I remember writing it, and thinking ‘is that too literal to have that line, can you really get a conversation about refugees into a pop song?’” says Mayberry.  “But I think that’s always the strength of what we do: you can marry the dark and the light.”

‘Deliverance’ dives into a critique of religion through a luscious pop pulse. It might seem a strange choice of target – belief is dropping off dramatically in the UK, especially among younger people. Yet you don’t have to look far, or far back, to see malign effects. “Growing up in Scotland and living in Glasgow, you see the heritage that religion has had, and how something that in theory is about kindness and community and caring for each other is used to persecute people,” says Mayberry. Doherty was brought up Catholic, and remembers his younger sister coming home from school in tears because she’d been shown a video that imagined the conversation an unborn child would have with its mother as it was aborted.

“Look at what the religious right are doing in America,” says Mayberry. “I know I shouldn’t, but every year I’m like: check out this March for Life bullshit. I look at women standing there screaming and clapping for Mike Pence like he’s Donny fucking Osmond, and I’m like, what is happening here? I don’t understand, you’re giving away your rights, you’re giving away the rights of your daughters and your sisters. Iain made the good point that Christianity basically means being Christ-like, Christ was all about compassion and kindness and care, and that’s the most opposite to Christ-like I can ever think.” “There is an endless amount of negative stuff that you can say about fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist religion in general,” says Cook, who was brought up in a born-again Christian household. “But I also think that with this current generation, there’s a return to spirituality. I think that’s a very positive thing and a very necessary thing because people need to feel connected to that thing that’s inside them that they can’t really explain.”

And in secular times, Chvrches, a band named for a place of hope and comfort as well as gloom and doom, offer understanding and fellow-feeling for the lost and downhearted. The image that’s stayed with me most from ‘Love Is Dead’ comes from the bright, ebullient ‘Get Out’, trying to find a way forwards when “we’ve talked ourselves to death”. Towards the end, there’s a moment of possibility: “So do you want to turn it round? And do you want to show me how? You are a kaleidoscope”. Broken shards and distorted reflections turning, transforming into something new and beautiful.

“As much as we talk about the negative things that are floating around the world right now, I do think that that stuff galvanises people and sparks change,” says Mayberry. “I don’t know if we would have something like the Women’s March if not for the fact that there’s an unpunished sexual predator in office. That school walkout that happened yesterday in America, that is so fucking inspiring, and I don’t know if something like that would have happened two years ago, or five years ago. Those things are done as a reaction to the extreme opposite. I don’t know… I guess it’s the darkest before the dawn.”

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