CHVRCHES - The Under the Radar Cover Story
Falling But Not Alone
Nov 19, 2015 Issue #54 - August/September 2015 - CHVRCHES Photography by Pal Hansen
It's a rare sunny day in Glasgow in early July, and the members of CHVRCHES are finally able to take a breath. After an intensive six-month period of writing and recording, they have (as of this afternoon) signed off on the final masters for Every Open Eye, their second full-length release. "It's going to be the same as the first one but 20 percent better"—that was the trio's go-to joke when responding to queries regarding the direction of their new tracks, but the final product is pretty much that. The textures are sharper and more varied, the arrangements are tighter and more ambitious, and the themes are more universal—everything that won over audiences the first time is still present. And yet—perhaps because of their quintessential Scottish pessimism—each member expresses some lingering doubt that they'll be able to captivate listeners a second time. They almost seem to be bracing for failure.
"No matter what happens, at least we'll feel more prepared this time," says Lauren Mayberry, the group's lead vocalist and main lyricist. Plainspoken and thoughtful in conversation, she's also somewhat fidgety, reframing worst-case scenarios into positive outcomes and making frequent self-effacing jokes. "If we continue on the same level, that's amazing. And if it doesn't go as well...then we had it once," she sighs. "Maybe you don't get it twice. Maybe you don't get to be that person."
The fact that anything less than a second internationally-acclaimed, commercially-successful album would be somewhat of a failure says much about the position in which CHVRCHES find themselves. Less than two years have passed since Mayberry and keyboardists/producers Martin Doherty and Iain Cook released their debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, in 2013, but it feels like ages ago to them. Since then, they've traveled around the world, played over 360 shows, and missed out on hundreds of hours of sleep. They also didn't have much time to think about writing new songs, something that made them anxious to find out whether they could recapture the spark that made their first tracks so compelling. Six weeks after they ended two years of touring in December of 2014, they were back in the studio.
"We didn't want to sleep on this record," admits Cook. "It's so easy for a band like ours to lose momentum quite early on in their career, and it's an uphill struggle to generate interest and get people excited about it again. But we've basically done all we could to get it done in as short a time as possible whilst still being happy with the fact that we have enough time to come up with the album that we wanted to make."
With offers to work with in-demand producers and engineers, they could have disappeared into a studio in London or Los Angeles for a few months if they wanted. Instead, they went home, back to the same basement recording space where they've recorded every piece of music they've ever released, and invested their recording budget in renovating their studio and buying every rare or vintage synthesizer they could find. They then set about doing everything they could to forget that the last two years ever happened.
"Nothing turns me off more than a band that forgets why people responded to them in the first place," Doherty says. "We just kept trying to do our thing naturally, and you can't second-guess what people want. Sure, we wanted to develop, but we weren't out to completely reinvent ourselves. I think we immediately knew we had to go back to where it started. At home in Glasgow, taking the same garbage trains to the sketchy part of town, was always going to be the right thing to do to reset everybody's mindset, trying to forget about—for a minute at least—all of the incredible things we had experienced over the last two years. We needed to make more music to get back there."
And right from the start, it worked. Album opener "Never Ending Circles" emerged on the very first day of writing, a track that was designed as a bridge, both sonically and thematically, from The Bones of What You Believe. For the first two weeks, they would construct the skeleton of a new song every day. The following two weeks, they'd return to them and revise, adding and subtracting. Then they'd repeat the process with a new set of tracks, with two more weeks of writing new songs followed by two weeks of revising. More than anything, it was a process of addition by subtraction.
"When I was younger and first producing records, it was the classic thing where logically I felt the way to get the world's biggest keyboard sound was to put one on top of the other, on top of the other, on top of the other," Doherty recalls. "When you get overexcited in the studio, like, 'This melody excites me, and so does that one, and so does that one,' you have to ask yourself 'Does there really need to be four hooks in this song? A rhythmic hook, a keyboard hook, a vocal hook—all of which are pulling in different directions?' The answer, invariably, is 'no.'"
Using Michael Jackson's trio of Quincy Jones-produced albums (1979's Off the Wall, 1982's Thriller, 1987's Bad) as a guideline, Doherty set about trimming off every unnecessary layer of texture, allowing the voices of the vintage synthesizers they had amassed to speak more loudly. Mayberry's increasingly soulful vocals would rise in the mix, as well, assuming an even more central position in the arrangements. On every level, the tracks are cleaner, leaner, more immediate—instantly familiar but 20 percent better.
It wasn't all easy. Mayberry struggled with self-doubt, ruthlessly editing her own writing out of fear that it didn't sound authentic enough. She attempted to write in different songwriting voices but ended up hating all of her experiments. Eventually, she convinced herself that if the words were coming from her brain, they must reflect her genuine self on some level, and she relaxed a bit. "And as soon as I had that conversation with myself I wrote the lyrics for a whole song on a train in about 35 minutes," she says. "So I was like, 'Cool. It's okay. I'm not broken. I'm fine.'"
Wanting to avoid the life-on-the-road tropes that so often turn up in the songwriting of bands who have spent so much time on tour that they've forgotten what it's like to have a normal life, she instead turned even further inward, her new songs coming out a "bit more defiant or assertive." Where her previous writing often seemed to be positioned in the immediate aftermath of a breakup, here the tone is more varied, from the soft regret of "Empty Threat" to the bitter asides of "Leave a Trace" and the resolute self-affirmations of "Playing Dead." Despite her intentions, an on-the-road song did manage to slip through, the genuinely upbeat "Make Them Gold," a soaring dance track that Mayberry says was inspired by the flood of emotions—most of them positive—she felt during the band's meteoric success. "We are breathing and letting go," she sings over soaring synths and skittering beats. "We will take the best part of ourselves and make them gold."
"Also, I think on this album there are what I believe to be proper love songs about people that I care for," she says excitedly, "but when I was speaking to the guys about it, they said, 'Really? Your love songs are still slightly dark.'" She laughs. "And I was like, 'Oh...maybe that's something I should be worried about from my own personality.'"
Every Open Eye is not a dark album-at least not for the first half. Designed with two sides of vinyl in mind, the album roars out of the gate with five consecutive upbeat tracks, any of which could be singles. The second half, however, turns considerably more moody. Starting with the Doherty-sung synth-soul balladry of "High Enough to Carry You Over," the tone shifts from the reflective and resilient anthems of the first half to angry sing-along "Bury It" and the album-closing "Afterglow," an ethereal meditation on heartbreak and loss. It's a bold way of sequencing an album, one that Cook says borrows a page from Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love, but it's yet another reason the band worries.
"As much as people always say, 'Oh, no. There's no pressure, blah blah blah,' there is," Mayberry admits. "Not because you're trying to please people, but because there is a perception of what your band is and what you do. But as we were making the first album, we didn't know who would listen to it. We didn't know what our audience would be. We didn't know if anyone would listen to it. This time, we're hoping that the people who supported us the first time will listen to the second album," she says, pausing. "But we spent a lot of time trying to block that out."
OUR LONGEST DAYS
For those of us old enough to remember indie rock from 20 years ago, these are strange days. Taylor Swift—arguably the biggest pop star in the world—is as celebrated by music snobs as she is 12-year-old girls. Miguel, Beyoncé, Kanye West—each of them would have been seen as too tainted by mainstream acceptance to have passed the smell test in days when pasty-white guys in T-shirts and jeans dominated underground music. But "rock," "pop," "indie"—these already amorphous words have been rendered nearly meaningless by the infinite playlists of our genreless present. This is the world that made CHVRCHES possible.
"When people first started calling us a pop band, I was a bit confused by it," Mayberry admits. "The way our band conducts ourselves, we started as an independent project, so I feel like we're an indie rock band that plays different instruments. We're kind of a guitar band, but we don't play guitars. Someone made the point to me that our album was in the Top 10 in the U.K. for half a minute, which was amazing and insane, and it was probably the only record in the Top 10 that was recorded on a freestanding mic stand in the middle of a room in Glasgow. And it is weird how rare it is for things that are self-written and self-produced to reach a certain level of acclaim and success. It wasn't created for us by somebody else in a pop lab."
Even though they aren't writing songs to resonate in the back row of stadiums, CHVRCHES' music raises the question of just how pop music should be defined in the 21st century. Is popularity the definitive criteria? If so, what do you do with all of the artists that sound like Taylor Swift but don't sell anywhere near as many records? Or is pop an aesthetic, one that prioritizes catchy melodies and accessibility over experimentation and boundary-pushing? Or perhaps pop is defined by intent. Pop artists make their decisions based upon what will make their product most palatable to the widest swath of potential listeners. Artists aim only to please themselves. Where is the line drawn between what CHVRCHES do and what Taylor Swift does?
"We do draw lines," Doherty admits. "We don't draw lines deliberately, but the things that excite us creatively stop short of the Rihanna stuff, as much as I appreciate her music, or huge-selling pop acts. That's kind of different world from what we live in. We still feel like a band, like an old kind of band, and I guess that comes from our live music, guitar music backgrounds. I've only played keyboards in guitar bands. Our ethos is much more akin to a rock band than to a stadium pop act, even if we share some of those sensibilities. It's hard to truly understand pop these days, because it changes on a monthly basis. The Internet has changed everything. I don't think music is so much defined by genres anymore. But you're never going to see us in a Pepsi ad."
"I kind of feel like the perception of pop music has changed radically in the last five years," says Cook. "I think people are a lot more open-minded about big melodies and the structure of pop songs and the way they are presented. I think that's still changing. For us, when I look at certain chart music and pop bands, we don't have that kind of gloss about the way that we present ourselves. We don't look like a band of 19-year-old kids who come up and they've got their image absolutely perfect. I kind of feel like we fit between those two worlds somewhere. I don't think we would have been accepted by an indie audience 15 years ago. I think that what people do focus on is the personality of the band and the actual songs. The melodies and the production and Lauren's voice and personality and how outspoken and real she is. I think those are all really positive things to focus on rather than the young haircut bands that are hip for one minute and then are gone. We're not that band—at least I hope we're not that band, anyway," he laughs. "But we'll see."
Cook, the greybeard of the band at 40, knows just how much of a luxury it is to have anyone care at all. A veteran of Glasgow's indie rock scene for the last 20 years, he has been a member of Les Tinglies, Aereogramme, and The Unwinding Hours—three guitar bands that somehow managed to accumulate more positive reviews than actual listeners. He remembers the exact moment he wanted to make a different kind of music.
"It was the last tour of the band I was in previously, Aereogramme, and we toured America and things were falling apart in a very dramatic way," he recalls. "One time we showed up in Dallas. We pulled up in the parking lot, and Campbell [McNeil], who is CHVRCHES' manager and was the bass player for Aerogramme, went into the venue to check in, and the cleaning lady was like, 'The gig's been canceled. No one was interested in buying any tickets.' That's how we found out that we had no gig that night! We were like, 'Shit. This really has been bad.'"
By that point, Doherty had joined Aereogramme as a touring keyboardist, and the two were rooming together on the road. Together, they began to make plans for their future, and it would not include more post-rock esotericism. "We sat down after a particular terrible night and were like, 'This is crap. Can't we do something that people might actually pay to listen to and want to hear?' I think that was the point for me when things began to change. It was like, 'Enough of this. We got this out of our system. It was a blast, but another six weeks in a smoke-filled van full of beardy guys is not how I want to spend the rest of my life. I've done it for 10 years, and I've had enough of it.'"
And so Cook did what any frustrated musician in his position would do—he went out and bought a Moog Voyager synthesizer and began exploring electronic composition. By the fall of 2011, he and Doherty—friends since the two were students at the University of Strathclyde—had officially started working together on their new project, with Doherty taking on the role of lead vocalist. To help pay the rent, Cook was also producing an EP for Blue Sky Archives, the Glasgow post-rock band whose drummer recently had come out from behind the drum kit to assume vocal duties. That former drummer was Lauren Mayberry.
It was during those recording sessions that Cook was struck by an idea. He recognized Mayberry as a distinctive vocalist and an engaging personality. Why not recruit her to sing backup vocals for the tracks he and Doherty were working on? She would provide a nice contrast to Doherty's voice, and should their new tracks ever generate enough interest to allow the band to play live, she could play keyboards. Though she showed up 45 minutes late to their first recording session—something Mayberry recalls with no small amount of embarrassment—she wasted no time in passing her audition.
"We were going through the tracks and deleted the lead vocal for some reason, and her voice was still in there in the chorus," Cook remembers. "And we went 'Holy shit!' Martin and I just looked at each other, like, 'Okay, this is better than we thought it was.' So we approached her and said, 'Do you think you'd want to be the lead singer?' And she said, 'Yeah, cool.' Little did she know it was going to be quite so intense. But she has risen to the challenge with considerable aplomb."
Though Cook mostly knew Mayberry as the usher at a local cinema he frequented, she was very familiar with both his and Doherty's previous bands. Still, she didn't see the project as anything but an opportunity to write a different kind of song with a different kind of band dynamic. Maybe, if everything broke right, they would get to play some of the bigger venues in Glasgow. Anything beyond that seemed a distant possibility. None of them had a track record of success, especially not with pop music.
"I was intrigued generally, but I thought, 'These guys? They don't seem like they live in that world at all,'" Mayberry recalls. "For me it was nice to write over different instruments and not have to try to sing and scream over live drums and a Marshall bass stack. It was refreshing to write with people in the context where melody isn't something that is to be buried. I never want to sound ungrateful when I say this, because I've always been in bands and have wanted to make music, but it was never something that I thought was going to be a reality for me, in terms of being a profession."
All three were struck by how easily their songwriting dynamic came together. Everyone took to their roles immediately: Doherty provided melodic ideas, Cook shaped the arrangements, and Mayberry wrote lyrics and vocal hooks. And even if Mayberry didn't believe she would be quitting her day job to become a pop star, Doherty was making plans for that possibility. His goals started small but reasonable. First, write a song that would be good enough to generate some blog buzz. Second, pick a blog where that song might find a receptive audience. Third, release no information about the band members to avoid comparisons to previous projects. Finally, have a small batch of songs ready just in case someone wants to hear more than one. On May 11, 2012, they posted "Lies" on the Neon Gold blog. The response was immediate.
Soon, voters pushed "Lies" to the number one position on The Hype Machine, an MP3 aggregate blog. The response on SoundCloud and Radio 1 was equally enthusiastic, and by July the trio began plotting secret shows to polish their chops before their first performance as CHVRCHES. Billing themselves as Shark Week, they played two warm-up gigs, sharing stages with bands that probably had no idea that their opening act was the most-blogged about band in the U.K. Backstage before their first official gig as CHVRCHES at The Art School in Glasgow, nerves were running high. The trio did something they'd never do again, each taking a shot of tequila to calm their nerves before hitting the stage. They knew label reps would be there; they didn't know those same reps would want to change the band before they even signed them.
"An A&R guy from a label in the U.K. took me aside and said, 'This is going to be amazing. I'm going to make you the new Pixie Lott,'" Mayberry says, mentioning the chart-topping British pop star. "I'm sure she's a lovely lady, and what she's doing is great for her. But at that time I was like, 'But I'm in a band, and you've just come in and decided that you're going to separate me from the band and put the girl up front.' That stuff was very uncomfortable for me, and I've definitely been conscious of trying to get there at my own pace but not try to be what other people want us to be. I'm not a great actress, so I couldn't do that consistently, I don't think. This is actually a reality now; this is our job," she says with a laugh. "I do front a band, I suppose."
Such a comment is illustrative of the extent to which Mayberry still seems to be coming to terms with the fact that she is, on some level, a pop star. And as much as they were prepared for the possibility of success, no band could be ready to go from being completely unknown to playing their first gigs for A&R reps in the span of two months. By the end of the year, they had signed a record deal with Glassnote Records and were preparing the Recover EP for a March release date. They'd perform on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, open for Depeche Mode, and drop their full-length debut before the end of 2013, their buzz growing with each successive event. As the festival invitations rolled in, they found themselves stretched thin, their days disappearing into a blur of hotels and 4:00 a.m. wakeup calls to catch cabs to the airport. At one point, in the middle of four weeks of European festival weekends, Mayberry's endurance was beginning to wane.
"I don't remember doing it consciously, but my alarm went off, I woke up, and immediately cried and said, 'I can't!'" she laughs. "But then I said, 'No. You have to get up and get in the shower. You've had nine hours of sleep in the last three days, but it's fine. It's a privilege to get to do what you're doing.' On those days I remember going down to the lobby and seeing everyone else looking similarly tired, and then we'd travel to the next country and play the festival. By the evening, everyone was being very nice to each other and having a pint and chatting. So it has been nice for us to experience everything together, and when you have those 'What the fuck?' moments you have them all at the same time," she says, once again reframing the negative as a positive. "It feels quite nice."
IN THIS SKIN
Lauren Mayberry never wanted to be the lead singer of a band. Even as a child, she had no interest in the spotlight, choosing to play piano and drums in school because singing in front of people left her feeling vulnerable and exposed. Though she has a commanding stage presence today, she says she has never completely overcome those anxieties, occasionally getting through her doubts by adopting a persona that is "20 to 30 percent tougher" than she feels at that moment. Every Open Eye wasn't chosen as the album's title only because it's a line from the album's "Clearest Blue." It's also a reference to the fact that Mayberry felt constantly watched and analyzed during the band's rise, something that only made her more anxious to retreat to the band's basement studio. Unfortunately, she has a natural charisma that ensures that as the band's public profile grows, she's only going to have more eyes on her.
Though none of the members of CHVRCHES have a clear answer as to why their music has connected so deeply with listeners, Cook thinks much of their success has to do with Mayberry's presence as a performer and persona. This is the sort of explanation that Mayberry has done everything to fight, refusing any attempts to make her the focal point of the band and declining to participate in any promotional opportunities that don't include the other two members. But despite her best efforts—and possibly due to the fact that her bandmates are two very normal—looking 30-something guys with beards-she has become the face of CHVRCHES.
"She's got one of these voices where you immediately go, 'Oh, that's the girl from CHVRCHES,'" Cook explains. "Secondly, I think she's really unpretentious. She just comes across in interviews and on stage as herself. She's one of the least pretentious people I've ever met, and I think that's something that a lot of people can relate to, because she's real in who she puts across as her persona. A lot of people feel like you can't be yourself and you have to be an expanded version of yourself to be in the public eye. But as such, she has a really strong personality and has strong beliefs and is very eloquent."
Those beliefs were on display when Mayberry penned an editorial for The Guardian shortly after their debut album's release, detailing the sorts of misogynistic, violent, and sexually assaultive language that was being directed at her via the band's social media accounts. After displaying one of the particularly offensive messages on the band's Facebook, the post subsequently received over 1,000 comments, many of them similarly abusive. For the sin of bringing up the topic in a public forum, Mayberry was called a "bitch," a "slut," and was threatened with rape. More recently Mayberry posted an Instagram message from someone who wanted to let her know he was fantasizing about sexually abusing her with a cheese grater. Mayberry was defiant. "I am not going anywhere. So bring it on, motherfuckers," she wrote. "Let's see who blinks first." But the constant barrage of harassment has taken its toll. As CHVRCHES has built their following through connecting with listeners over the Internet, Mayberry has been put in an untenable position: stop reading and lose her direct connection with her fans or keep reading and feel traumatized.
"Having been in alternative rock bands for so long, there's definitely people who have a problem with women in alternative rock bands," Mayberry says. "But we got that times a thousand in this band. I found it distressing and upsetting to read the more violent ones, and I was generally like, 'What is this? This is like a weird social experiment.' But everyone was like, 'Oh, well. It's just a thing that happens.' My favorite comment was from a woman on the Internet who said to me, 'Well, if you don't have thicker skin, you shouldn't be a woman in the music industry.' And I remember thinking, 'Man, I think there's something fucked up about that.'
"I was like, 'So this is just status quo? This is how it is? So if I want to do this, I just need to accept it?'" she continues. "But I find that to be a really warped way of looking at things, and generally I live a pretty cushy privileged life, and there are so many more important feminist issues, but if that's what I encounter in my day to day then I should talk about it. All of these issues are connected to each other, and I don't think I experience this just because I'm in a band. Sexism is something that women experience on a day to day basis, whether they are in the public eye or not.... All we were doing is being a band with a woman in the front, and if that's something that upsets people that much, I think that's a startling look at society."
Worse yet, Mayberry began to question herself. Was she overreacting? Was she doing something to invite these sorts of comments? Was she, as some suggested, courting controversy for attention? Was her willingness to address the issue in a public forum inadvertently drawing more negative attention? "I think sometimes now we get more people wanting to be abusive toward us because we've taken a stance on those issues, but, generally speaking, I think it happens to most if not all female musicians at some point or another," she says. "You read interviews with people who are like, 'Oh, it's not a problem for me. Feminism isn't an issue in my life.' And I'm like, 'Well, whoopty-fucking-do for you, then. I don't believe you.'"
Eventually, the daily vitriol became too much. Mayberry pulled back from the band's social media accounts to let other people monitor the comments. She had disconnected and didn't even have accounts for private use. "And I was having a conversation about it with someone, and they were asking me about why I didn't have them, and I was all blustery and making jokes for a while," she says. "But after a point I said, 'I don't have them because I don't want people to have a direct line to abusing me, to be honest.'"
It was during that same conversation that Mayberry came to a realization: setting up so many barriers in order to avoid her bullies was, on some level, accommodating them. By the spring of 2015, she had set up her own Twitter account. The bullies followed her, of course, but she became a quick study in deleting and reporting abusive messages. Along the way, she has come to another realization. After meeting with her fans—both male and female—she now sees that the invective directed towards her has actually opened up a larger dialog.
"It's been really amazing to see the young guys who have come to us and talked about it," she says, "because as much as it effects young women, those are the young men who are going to become the older guys. Having that discussion with both genders is really important, because the idea that it's just about women isn't true. The stereotypes about masculinity for guys are as damaging as the stereotypes about femininity are to women," she continues before trailing off with an apology. "You got me really serious there."
NO PLACE FOR PROMISES
The third album—that will be CHVRCHES' experimental opus. At least that's what Doherty says, though it's hard to know whether he's being facetious. What's for certain is that few bands are as well-positioned to follow any odd impulse that strikes them. That's the benefit of being experimental musicians who are making pop music. There's a large stylistic expanse between what each of them made in their past musical lives and what they are making now, and the potential for truly idiosyncratic hybrids remains a tantalizing possibility. But, Doherty's prediction aside, don't expect CHVRCHES to reinvent themselves any time soon.
"For us, writing this kind of music—whether you want to call it pop, indie pop, electro-pop, synth-pop, whatever-is what we want to do," Cook says. "It's not because we're trying to sell records or get in the charts or be the next whatever. It's because we're writing the music that we want to write, inspired by the people we've grown up listening to and the music that we love and will still love when we're in our twilight years. Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, LCD Soundsystem, Talking Heads—all that shit that is timeless is what we really want to be doing. We want to write good songs. That's a lifetime pursuit as far as I'm concerned. For us to go away and do a Kid A or this mad experimental craziness, it doesn't really appeal to me that much at this stage in my life."
Even so, when Cook talks about success he does so by acknowledging the kind of overwhelming attention he'd rather avoid, specifically mentioning Lorde as someone whose overnight fame would be unwelcome. Instead, the kind of success they seem to be chasing is of a more incremental sort, moving forward one album, one single, and one show at a time, all the while maintaining the freedom to call their own shots.
"If we could become a big band without pissing people off, that would be my ultimate goal," Doherty says, more serious this time. "We don't need to have that one song that crushes the radio across the world and sells five million singles. I would much rather be regarded for being a solid band that makes great records. Only time will tell if this is a good record," he says, his tone darkening. "I certainly have no idea after six months in the studio, that's for sure."
As much as Doherty, Cook, and Mayberry seem to have experienced the same combination of anxiety, insecurities, and exhaustion that accompanies being one of the most sought-after bands in the world, they each also seem to have ended up in the same place they started when they wrote their first songs in Doherty's basement studio. With no guarantee of success, each expresses the same sort of confidence in the album they've just made, despite having lost all objectivity on it. Each expresses the same fear that they've created an album that, for whatever reason, will fall flat and lose the audience that had supported them far beyond anything they'd experienced in their previous bands. And each now seems to be prepared to accept that the verdict is out of their hands, and they now have to sit and wait.
"I feel like I've reached a point of Zen where all we can do is make music that we want to make," Mayberry concludes. "If you start making plans beyond that, you're bound to be disappointed. As much as I don't want to rest on my laurels and be lazy or complacent, I feel like you should try and appreciate stuff as it's happening, because you never know when it will go away," she says, sounding both grateful and fretful at the same time. This time, however, she doesn't reframe her observation for a more positive slant. "Or maybe we're just glass half empty types of people."
[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2015 Issue. This is its debut online.]
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