Discovery and Recovery: An Interview with CHVRCHES
Photos: Courtesy of Grandstand.
Much like PYYRAMIDS, CHVRCHES is a band whose meaningful, location-centered name would be un-Googleable had they not changed a letter. CHVRCHES instrumentalists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty have worked with, respectively, Aereogramme and the Twilight Sad’s touring band. They have the same facial hair, more or less. Actually, they both look a lot like several members of Scottish post-rock legends Mogwai before them—the fuzz may be part of their national heritage. (See also: Frightened Rabbit.) I sadly neglected to ask them about beards, in part because Lauren Mayberry, the band’s singer—previously part of Blue Sky Archives—doesn’t have one.
What Mayberry does have is a voice that soars marvelously over the electro-pop stomp of CHVRCHES’ early singles. Interestingly, the band’s music has little to do with the previous work of any of its members—not that anyone minds. Instead, they’ve been hailed as the next Knife, despite their stated insistence on forging their own path through the blogosphere and now the physical world. Having toured behind Passion Pit just a few months ago, they’re now flying solo through Europe, Canada, and the United States.
OUT OF ORDER caught up with the three of them at SXSW to talk about Scotland, musicals and their love of Whitney Houston.
OOO: You guys all have Scottish accents, but I don’t hear them on the songs. Have you thought of doing more with that?
LM: I don’t know. That’s a controversial one. People have said specifically to us that they think it does sound Scottish. I kind of just sing how I talk, in terms of accent, not trying to bury or enhance it. If I put it on, it would sound fake. It’s all about your singing style.
IC: I think we sound really Scottish on record, actually!
MD: There are definitely bands that really go for that, but I don’t think they’re coming from an unnatural place, either. Frightened Rabbit, the Twilight Sad—I feel like they’re singing naturally and comfortably, but they’ve really got the Scottish thing.
IC: If we tried to ham it up, it would be just as bad as putting on a properly American R&B voice.
OOO: What history do you have with churches? Is there anything in your individual backstories to account for why you chose that name?
IC: I’m not really coming from a religious angle.
MD: I was brought up in the Church.
LM: I don’t have affiliations of any kind. It’s not like we chose the name to piss people off; we have no interest or business in telling anyone what to believe. It’s like… you don’t believe what someone’s saying, but you’ll fight for their right to say it.
MD: The name itself is quite loaded. There are a lot of things suggested by the word “churches”, and they’re all interesting.
OOO: You guys blew up online before you started playing live shows. How do you monitor people’s responses to your music online?
MD: It’s really important to us that we handle social-media stuff personally. It’s good when a lot of people write to us privately, and we can write back to them… That’s important. If you wrote something to a band, when you were young, and they wrote back, it would have really meant something to you, wouldn’t it? And if you see any funny pictures of cats on our Twitter—if you see that, it’s me.
LM: Yeah. I used to be like, “Oh, I have to get back to everyone, all the time,” because Twitter’s so intense, but you can’t respond to every human like that all the time. If someone sends an email, though, we do respond—it’s just a nice-guy thing to do.
IC: It’s a personality thing, as well. Nobody likes that Twitter or Facebook account that’s purely informative.“Show’s here, at this time,” just advertising. There needs to be a little more personality. That’s important to us.
OOO: You write beautiful, classic pop songs. But since you’ve heard them all hundreds of times before they sound like that, can you ever hear and enjoy them afterwards like the rest of us do?
LM: With the recording and the mixing process, that’s the nature of the beast. But you can still feel the energy when you play the songs live, and enjoy them in that form. You can tell when a band’s tired, when the songs don’t mean anything to them—we work very hard to avoid that.
MD: I think, occasionally, I’ll hear the songs and be reminded, “Oh, hey! That’s not that bad.” We’re in the process of mixing an album right now, and when we hand it off to someone and hear their take on our recordings, that gives us a fresh perspective.
OOO: So if you heard “Lies” at a wedding, would you dance?
MD: Oh, that would be weird.
LM: That’s jumping the shark a little bit. I don’t think you could get too involved. You could sit around looking awkward while other people danced.
MD: A lot of bands, when their music comes out from the jukebox, you’ll see a guy in the back of the bar, punching the air to his own song—
IC: What? I’ve never seen that.
MD: It happens all the time!
OOO: You’ve played a huge number of shows in the last few weeks, but you’ve kept your energy up. Did touring with Passion Pit help you learn to do that? They’re total road warriors.
MD: They were so good to us—that whole experience was really crucial for the band. We did a whole lot of learning on that tour. They didn’t actually talk to us and give us advice that way much, but we learned so much from just watching them, seeing what it was like to be professional in that way.
LM: And all the guys in their crew were really nice as well. When you’re living that kind of lifestyle, playing a show every night, that really helps—being surrounded by people who are talented and hardworking. No one likes the tour dicks. There’s usually one or two on every tour.
MD: But they seem to have taken care of that; they were all nice! I think you have to make sure that when you see the tour dick emerging, you… [Laughs.]
OOO: So there’s a new Knife album coming out. How do you feel about that?
MD: They’re a very interesting band. Always have been, to me. I don’t really get straight comparisons between them and us; they haven’t been that kind of band for years. Something like “Heartbeats” as a comparison makes sense—big, powerful pop—but if you listen to something like Silent Shout, it’s a deranged record. And a brilliant record. If people are expecting more three-and-a-half-minute pop songs from their next album, they might be disappointed.
OOO: I just wonder if you’ll follow the same career arc—especially the part where they made an opera.
MD: An opera isn’t really on the agenda right now. I might write a musical. I love musicals. (There is a dreamy look on Martin’s face.)
OOO: Do you have a favorite?
MD: Little Shop of Horrors. The Saturday Night Live movie version is a work of modern genius. Have you guys seen it? (Silence.) These guys don’t like musicals. They just laugh at me all the time…
LM: I don’t! I don’t think I’m as much of a musical buff, but I like some… does the Rocky Horror Show count?
IC: I liked it when I was young, but I got tired of it.
LM: You’re so jaded, Ian.
IC: I just don’t like—
LM: All that forced joy? And singing?
IC: And dressing up, and posturing, and… it’s just, “the the-a-tah”! It’s not my thing.
OOO: So CHVRCHES isn’t always about fun, then? So far, the singles have all been poppy. Is there anything on the record that won’t be as danceable?
MD: There’s one pretty slow song… the track listing’s still subject to change at this point, though.
LM: I wouldn’t say there’s any out-and-out ballads, but I think it’s important in terms of mood and tempo that this isn’t just a ten-song album full of club hits.
MD: Whatever happens, we try to keep the energy high. Often, there’s the most intensity when the tempo is slower. But yeah, there are a few bangers on there too. That’s what I’m all about! I just want to make people laugh and make people happy from listening to our songs.
IC: You need to go back to musical theater.
LM: Was it Green Day that had a musical?
OOO: Yes. On Broadway.
LM: So we just need to wait until we’re like fifteen years into our career, and then Martin will make our band into a Broadway musical. I will probably have disowned you as a person by then, Martin. A long time before then.
IC: There will be a string of legal suits against it.
MD: For a first step, how about Matt Stone and Trey Parker? Those guys are geniuses.
LM: Have you seen Book of Mormon? I’ve listened to it but not seen it. I really want to go, but it’s only showing in London. You have to wait years before anything good comes to Scotland. No—there are a lot of good things in Scotland. But the good music’s mostly in London.
MD: Come to think of it, the South Park movie was one of the best musicals I’ve ever heard.
OOO: As far as good things in Scotland go—what bands from there should we be hearing over here?
IC: There’s a guy called “Miaoux Miaoux”. He’s a very interesting, extremely talented individual. He did a remix of “Mother We Share”… and then there’s United Fruit.
LM: Yeah, they’re a quite cool rock band. So hardworking, such nice guys—until I saw them, it had been a long time since I’d been to a proper rock show and seen something I thought was exciting. We toured with a band called Conquering Animal Sound. They’re really cool. The guy, James, that’s in it, we were in a band in high school together. He’s both ridiculously nice and ridiculously talented, which is the worst! It’s like, God gives you both? That’s not fair!
OOO: What music did your high-school band make?
LM: We wanted to be somewhere between Pixies, At the Drive-In, and Pretty Girls Make Graves. I don’t know if we achieved any of those things, but it was a really good time. We used to do Weezer covers in a garage. We were in that band from when were 17 to… about 22.
MD: It’s good, incidentally. She played it for us the other day!
LM: It’s called Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The recordings are clearly homemade, but there was passion, there was energy. And James is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever played with. No offense, guys. And now Conquering Animal Sound makes mostly loops and stuff. We’ve both moved far away from the old band; we must have broken each other’s spirits.
OOO: So people love to talk about all your different influences when they write about CHVRCHES. Is there an influence they always miss, or that people are surprised to hear about?
LM: Everybody has something they listen to that feeds into their individual part…
IC: Martin and I are both big Fugazi fans. That doesn’t come across.
MD: No one ever mentions the Cure. They made some of the greatest records ever to come out of the United Kingdom. And then there’s a band from Glasgow called the Blue Nile, who are an enormous influence on me, vocally and compositionally.
OOO: When someone asks you to do a remix for them, do you approach that task as CHVRCHES? Or do you think about how you’d like their song to sound, independent of your previous work?
IC: I think it’s important that we get our CHVRCHES stamp in some way on the remixes that we do. It’s always fun to take tracks apart—not from a lack of respect, but just to play with the sounds. I find remixing really satisfying, and it’s important that we stand by our sound, but not to a fault.
OOO: Are there any covers you think you might add to the live show?
LM: We have a little wishlist, but I wouldn’t want to tell you anything specific…
MD: Can we tell one? Because we’re definitely going to do it.
LM: I don’t know…
OOO: C’mon. Help a college journalist out. I need a scoop!
LM: Aw, he’s a college guy—okay.
MD: Here goes: “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay,” by Whitney Houston. It’s gonna be amazing.
LM: There’s an influence no one ever talks about. I LOVE Whitney Houston. For Christmas, Martin gave me a Whitney Houston documentary on DVD, and we all talked about which was our favorite era of Whitney Houston. I remember when that song came out when I was in high school, and I got in trouble for getting really pissed-off at a girl who said, “Oh, that’s a terrible song, it doesn’t sound anything like Whitney Houston,” and I said, “You don’t know anything! It’s going to be the best comeback single of all time!”
MD: And it was!
LM: And now I’m a musician and I don’t even know where that girl is. I mean, she’s probably got a job and is really smart and stuff. I’m just saying, in terms of picking out the singles, I was right. With that…
LM: Yeah! That opening kalimba line is quite a thing, like”duh-da-duh-da-duh!” And with that syncopation, and the vocals are just great…
[Ian is singing in the background.]
MD: You can see we’re very passionate about this.
The band’s first EP Recovery is available now. To hear more from CHVRCHES, visit their Facebook.