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CHVRCHES - The Under the Radar Cover Story Bonus Q&A

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Nov 20, 2015 CHVRCHES Photography by Pal Hansen Bookmark and Share

To hear them tell it, everything has been easy for the members of CHVRCHES since they officially formed in the fall of 2012. Well, maybe not everythingthey’ve had to deal with the pressure of being an overnight blog sensation, the wear and tear of two years on the road, and the stress of creating the follow-up to their breakthrough debut album, 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe. They’ve had to work thousands of hours to get where they are now. But those are the sorts of difficulties most bands dream about, and you won’t hear any of the members of CHVRCHES complain about them much. You’re much more likely to hear them talk about how, from the first time they were in the same room together, they knew they had a special rapport. They’ll talk about how each of them naturally falls into a complementary role in the creative process. They’ll explain how they wrote the first song for their much-anticipated sophomore album, Every Open Eye, on their first official day in the studio and how they didn’t have to struggle much to find the rest of the album over the following months. In a music business where dysfunction reigns, they’re almost sickeningly gracious and well-adjusted people.

As easy as the last three years have been, they represent a complete reversal of fortune for vocalist Lauren Mayberry and multi-instrumentalists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty. Each had kicked around Glasgow’s indie rock scene for the past decade in other bands with little fanfare, and none of them had any reason to expect that completely remaking themselves as indie pop auteurs would be a winning strategy. And yet, despite expressing some concern that they won’t be able to captivate listeners for a second time, they each now seem prepared for it to all go away. Here, they discuss how success changed the way they approached the songwriting process for Every Open Eye, how they struggled to sequence the dark half of the album, and how there are worse fates than failing on your own terms. [Note: These are extra portions of our interviews with CHVRCHES, quotes that didn’t make it into our main print article on the band. We interviewed each member separately and this Q&A is an amalgamation of different parts of those interviews.]

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): Before you started the recording process, did you have any conversations about what kind of album you wanted to make and how it would be different from the first one?

Martin Doherty: Yeah, many conversations. But I don’t think we set out with a strategy in terms of trying to sound like a genre or an era or anything like that. A lot of that stuff is informed by the technology we’re using. Any kind of nostalgic or ‘80s element, which is undeniably still in the band, is a byproduct of the fact that we’re using almost entirely instruments from that era. However modern the process, the elements still sound of that time. When you’re setting out at the start of what could be two months, six weeks, a yearno one really knows how fast you’ll find your feet or how long it’s going to take to make the record. There was plenty of discussion before we actually got in there. I know we wanted it to be a leaner album. I felt like that was the one thing I wanted to improve upon from the first record, to make a better-sounding record but have half the number of elements.

Lauren Mayberry: You’re just focused on melody and its relationship to rhythm. Especially now with electronic music, there can be a temptation to throw everything at a song, because your instrumental power is almost limitless. You can make anything. But I think we were trying to avoid doing that and just focus on songwriting. Other than that, I don’t think we necessarily thought like, “Let’s go and make this kind of album.” We would figure out the themes as we were writing, and as we were getting toward the end of the process, we were realizing there were consistent themes throughout the album sonically and lyrically, but we didn’t really sit down and think, “We’re going to write this kind of concept album.” It just came about organically, I suppose.

Iain Cook: We had talked about how we would take it in other directions, just in terms of types of songwriting, but none of that stuff actually ended up materializing. The one thing we did say after we’d had a chance to play these songs [from The Bones of What You Believe] a lot live was that we wanted to basically take out a lot of stuff for the second record and do more with less, like have fewer elements and fewer layers of shit but to have it be more punchy and more energetic. It maybe just comes down to inexperience as producers. When you have a sound that’s really colorful and exciting, you want to make it bigger by doubling it. What happens in reality is that it dilutes the impact of the character of the one thing that you had that drew you to it in the first place. That’s something we learned that hopefully translates to the record. I think that’s something that I’m really proud of. Listening to the record now, you can hear the character of the synth and the drums that we put on there, because we were more confident with the sounds and with our skills as producers and arrangers. You don’t feel the need to overcompensate by stacking things with seven or eight different sounds, because it sounds good anyway. And to have the confidence to say, “That’s all that section needs” and leave it alone and give it the space. What that does is allow Lauren’s vocals to really breathe and gives them a lot more space to occupy, which is something that we were really conscious of wanting to do this time, as well.

Did you find it easy to recreate the same spirit you had in the studio the first time?

Martin: We had a hot streak in the very beginning, and you start to explore different ideas. We were coming off two years of touring [but] not going, “Oh my God, how are we going to write songs? We’ve got no creative energy.” We were actually bursting with creative energy. It was like we were desperate to get back to everything that we had started in the first place. That’s why I was recording demos on the road, and that was about trying to get rid of some of that creative energy, because it had all been stored up for so long. Your whole job changes once you start playing live, and you don’t really flex those muscles anymore. So we were desperate to get back into the studio and stay in Glasgow for longer than 10 days at a time and getting back to the creative part. I guess that’s partly why it happened so fast.

Do you remember the first song to emerge from this batch?

Lauren: “Never Ending Circles” was the first one, which I quite like. I think that one, I can still hear in it elements of the first record but elements of what the second record went on to be. I can hear it straddling the two almost. That one has a special place in my heart because it was the first song we wrote for the second album, but I also quite like it as a statement, almost like a fight song. So I quite like the idea of opening the record with that and that being the first song that we wrote. It was definitely a relief when we went into the studio and managed to write something within the first day. We were all posturing to each other, like, “Oh, yeah. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be fun.” But then when we got there, we were like, “Oh, it’s okay. We can actually still do this. Thank the Lord!” That was encouraging.

Do you think there’s a dominant tone on the album? It seems like there’s a lot of defiance coming through.

Lauren: I guess generally the songs on this record are a little bit more defiant or assertive. That wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice. I think it was more of a time and place thing. There are songs on the first album that are about relationships, which I now look back on and I like those songs, but I don’t necessarily like my stance on them, because I know personally what those scenarios were, and I love that you can get breakup songs that are very sad and full of regret. And you can get breakup songs that are further down the line, when there’s slightly more hindsight, and you don’t have to be sad about it or sorry about it, and you can come at it in a more assertive and positive way. I guess we wrote the first album about two years ago, so my perception of a lot of things that happened in my own personal life is quite different than it was then.

After three years, do you think you have a sense of what about your writing resonates so deeply with people?

Lauren: I’ve never really been in a band before that had more than two fans, to be honest. [Laughs] So it’s always crazy and weird but great when we meet people and they say, “This is my favorite song, and this is what was happening in my life, and this is what the song means to me.” Because I am totally the person who does that, and I was totally the teenager who did that. I guess that’s the transfer of ownership. It’s important what the song means to me when I write it at the time, but after that it’s important for me to present it in a way that’s a good performance, and the most important thing after that point is what the songs mean to other people.

Do you think it will be difficult to relive the emotions on these songs night after night?

Lauren: My mom did say that to me, also. I sent her “Leave a Trace” because she hadn’t heard anything from the record, where the last time I sent them demos all the time, whereas this time I’m deeply paranoid about the album leaking. So I sent it to her, and she was like, “I really like it, but I’m wondering if it’s going to bum you out singing that day after day. Maybe you should go for something lighter.” But in my head, I want to write something that is meaningful to me, because that’s my job as a writer, to write something that has substance. If someone else can find substance in that, that’s great. And if they can find something for themselves in there, that can be part of the feedback loop. But we’ll have to see. No one has heard it, so I don’t know.

Do you think people interpret your songs the same way that you do?

Lauren: There are certain songs that I think people thought are love songs or breakup songs, and they were written about completely different things. But that’s the amazing thing about lyrics. It sounds like I’d like to do a Behind the Music, like, “What was the song actually about?” But afterwards I’m like, “It doesn’t really matter, though. It matters to the person who wrote it, and it’s interesting to me. But what that song means to me doesn’t depend on what it meant to the person who was writing it.” So I guess we’ve been unfortunate that a few lyrics have been misheard because of our accents. I’ve seen a couple tattoos that were like, “Oh, no…that’s not what it is.” So now we’ve agreed that we can’t now release lyrics from the first album, because we never put them in the inlay, which was maybe a mistake in hindsight. But we were trying to save on paper, because we were a small band that didn’t know if anyone was going to buy the record. So we’re like, “If we put them out now, and all those people have been talking about the lyrics as such, and it means a lot to them. We don’t want to change it for them.” So I think album two we’re going to put lyrics in the album sleeve, just in case.

From what I can tell of the words, it seems like “Make Them Gold” is actually an optimistic song?

Lauren: That one’s genuinely cheerful! I think that is the one tune that’s about being in the band, I guess, which maybe sounds a bit cheesy. I guess that day I had been thinking about how much we’d done, and I was probably being a little bit overly emotional, like, “We have done an awful lot.” And we’re back in the same place, and a lot has changed. But we’re still talking to each other. We have great days and we get to do amazing things together, but we have rubbish days, and everyone thinks everyone else is an asshole and you’re fighting about stupid stuff and bickering like siblings do. Some days when you get up at 4:00 in the morning you’re like, “I can’t. I just can’t do it today.”

Do Martin and Iain know that the song is about the band?

Lauren: I don’t think so. They don’t really ask early on what lyrics are about. It’s only when they’ve sat for a certain amount of time and there are ones that are troubling them in terms of what they mean. Then we’ll talk about it, but we don’t really sit down, like, “So what is this about?” When we were writing the arrangement for it, I could kind of imagine the kids from The Goonies. That’s what I was seeing in my head, and I quite like that visual. Then I was like, “Oh, that’s cute. The Goonies were a little gang, and we’re a gang. That’s nice!” But I think it’s nice to have one or two overt pop songs. It’s nice for us to be able to do lots of different things. If we had to do a whole record of that or a whole record of darker stuff then we wouldn’t be true to what we want to write.

Do you think you approached this album differently from a lyrical perspective?

Lauren: I always had an admiration for people who could write storytelling narrative songs, because I love loads of writers like that. But from my point of view, I don’t think I can do it very well. I guess it was a kind of interesting experiment on this album. There were certain things where I was like, “I’m going to try and write this kind of lyric on it,” and it would stay on the song for two days before I’d be like, “No. I hate it. It’s shit. We need to change it.” I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that I write better about personal experiences or a personal perspective on things, rather than trying to play a character or role, at this stage anyway. Maybe that will change in the future. But it was interesting to challenge myself to try to do different things and then come to terms with what I’m better at. There definitely were parts at the beginning of writing the record that took me ages to get. It took me ages to get the lyrics for “Never Ending Circles.” I would sit and listen to it and write out two lines and then delete them. Then I got to the point where I felt like I was so over-editing myself that I couldn’t even get anything to edit. I was cutting it off too quickly. It was an interesting moment to be like, “Okay, I think I’m overanalyzing, like I wouldn’t write that. That doesn’t sound like something I would write.” But that’s weird, because it’s coming out of my brain and my mouth, so it is something I would write. I’m just second-guessing myself.

Did any songs change significantly during the writing process?

Lauren: I guess some songs have evolved a lot from the original demos, and some songs have remained pretty much the same. Like “Leave a Trace,” we went home early the day we wrote that. We just did an instrumental sketch and left for the day, like, “Okay, we’ve achieved a lot today in a short amount of time.” And some songs, you beat them over the head for so long, trying to make them work when you know they aren’t right. “Afterglow,” the one that closes the record, has about five different incarnations. There was a dancey rave version of it, which eventually we were like, “This is mental. What are we doing?” And we just took everything out of the track, and now it’s the only song we’ve made that doesn’t have any percussion in it, and it’s a one-take vocal. The other ones, we did verses individually or choruses individually, and that one was just a few composed takes. It’s funny that some are much more difficult for us than others, but hopefully they all ended up in a similar place quality-wise.

Iain: All of the songs that are on the record were pretty much written in a day. We’d go in in the morning, make a cup of coffee, sit down, and within a few hours we’d have a verse, a chorus, and a basic rhythmic feel. Every day we walked away with a song, like, “Okay, that’s pretty much in the bag.” But the song “High Enough to Carry You Over,” which is the one that Martin sings on, we had gone in on a Friday and we tried something for a few hours, and this was the first time we had a roadblock at any point. And we were like, “Oh, this is terrible. It’s not happening. Let’s just go home.” And Martin was like, “No. We’re not leaving here until we’ve got something that we’re happy with.” And literally within 20 minutes the song emerged, almost fully formed. It was a really weird experience, going from basically the brink of giving up on that track to “Here’s a new idea that’s completely fresh and feels strong.” I think it’s one of the songs that I’m most proud of on the record. I’m proud of them all, but this one came out of nowhere, and I love it.

When it came time to sequence the record, was there a certain thematic arc you were hoping to capture?

Lauren: I guess when we were thinking about sequencing, we kept working things out, like “The second side is too dark. It’s gotten too grim. What happened?” But I like looking at that now, because it wasn’t like we sat down and thought, “Okay, we have these big pop bangers that we hope will get on the radio, and then we’ll make the rest of the record dark and depressing.” It was just kind of how they all came out, and lyricallyhopefullythere are common themes throughout the record, but it was nice to be able to push the production in different directions on some of the songs. Some of the songs are brighter and shinier, and some of the stuff is darker and weirder, so it’s nice to be able to put that all on one record to showcase the different elements of the band. But tracklisting was difficult because we didn’t want to really depress people by putting that all up front, but we also didn’t want to make people think it’s a really cheerful album and then bum them the fuck out when they listen to the second side. But I feel happy about it, because hopefully by the point in the album where it gets a little darker people are ready for that. I hope so, anyway.

Iain: I’m a little bit cynical about records these days that are super frontloaded with the big hits, because it just looks to me like a marketing thing, like “Let’s put all of the big tunes up front and stick all of the deep cuts on the back of the album.” But that was something that I felt was more of a creative decision on this album, more about the ebb and flow. The first half of the album sequenced itself in a way, because starting with “[Never Ending] Circles” and then “Leave a Trace,” it felt like the right thing to do. A lot of my favorite records are like that, as well. If you look at [Kate Bush’s] The Hounds of Love, you’ve got all the bigger tunes up front, and then it goes into this dark, weird almost like a mini-concept album on side B. Not to same extent, but it kind of feels like what we were doing for this one.

What inspired the title of the album?

Lauren: That is a lyric from the song “Clearest Blue,” which I think is track five. I guess I liked what it meant in the context of that song and what it could mean as an album title, because I guess in the context of the song I meant “every open eye” to be a reference to us playing shows all the time and doing promo all the time and being constantly looked at by people, in good ways and bad. I quite like the idea that we went away and went off grid for a whilewe went literally undergroundto make the record, and it’s amazing that a lot of people are waiting to hear it. But I guess it’s a reference to people looking at the band and looking at us and living in that weird bubble. It’s weird but amazing.

So if this album comes out and, for whatever reason, people don’t like it as much, will that change the way you think about it?

Martin: No. You have to stand by what you do. I think people who make records with that in mind over everything else make music out of fear. There’s no fear in anything we do. We do what makes us happy, and we hope that people respond to it, and you should hope that people respond to it. But you shouldn’t go out specifically to make the album that will connect. That’s the road to ruin, and we’ve seen that 100 times. That’s why you end up spending two years in the studio making the second album, psyching yourself out and getting to the point where you’ve beat every ounce of soul and personality out of the music you make, and you deny yourself any chance of doing what you were trying to do in the first place. People listen to it and go, “Well, there’s nothing of substance there.” We never would have made that mistake. There’s definitely a lot of us and a lot of personality on this record. It’s deliberately rough around the edges at times, and it’s clear at others. It’s definitively the sound of our band. That’s all you can really ask.

Iain: Well, we’ll see. If it does super well, we’ll be like, “We can do what we want. We can get a modular synth and spend 12 years on an island plugging shit in. That’s fine.” If it doesn’t do as well, we need to keep the pace up and keep doing what we’re doing. I think that’s what will happen anyway, to be honest. I think Martin has these grand ideas about the band’s trajectory, but ultimately I think he’s just having a laugh and what will happen is that we’ll go in there and write the best 20 songs that we can write and the best hooks that we can write and the best lyrics we can write.

When you think about the future of the band, what kind of music do you see yourself making?

Iain: I don’t know. It’s one of these things that with this band we’ve learned not to have too many expectations. I don’t feel they’re that useful to have. It’s good to have goals, but I don’t necessarily think it’s useful to have expectations, because you’re either going to be disappointed or you’re not going to be prepared. So we’re quite open-ended about how we see this going. I’m speaking for myself here; it’s not something we really talk about. But if this keeps going and people keep giving a shit about what we’re doing, I’m happy to do it until that’s not the case anymore. But I don’t want to drag it out or be a thing where it gradually declines over the course of five albums or 10 years. I’m not interested in that at all. If this still means the world to a group of people and it’s sustainable and we’re still having fun with it, then cool, let’s keep doing it. But the moment it’s not fun anymore or when people lose interest or it doesn’t feel relevant or vital to anyone involved, then fuck it. We’ll do something else or retire.

[Note: This article first appeared in the digital version (for smart phones and tablets) of Under the Radar’s August/September/October 2015 Issue. This is its debut online.]


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