Chvrches open up about making new LP Screen Violence, duetting with The Cure’s Robert Smith and their plans for a quick follow-up…
For the first part of their career, Scottish synth-pop types Chvrches were a self-contained entity. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry and multi-instrumentalists Iain Cook and Martin Doherty did everything themselves. They produced their first two LPs entirely in house and did everything as a trio onstage, inviting fans into their dark world of glacial electronica.
On 2018’s Love Is Dead, that changed. That album featured production from pop supremo Greg Kurstin, who oversaw the album as well as helped with much of the writing. One Direction/Little Mix hitmaker Steve Mac co-wrote a song with the trio, and, in the build-up, they also worked extensively with Eurythmics legend Dave Stewart, though none of that work made the final cut.
The album was a poppier, brighter and more distant collection, and for the touring, the band invited Jonny Scott to join them to provide live drums, moving them to foursome onstage.
Some things work, some things don’t. Scott is still around and has played drums on their new album, but the outside influences are gone. After an exhaustive world tour which left all three of the band longing time apart, they’ve gone back to the formula of their first two LPs. No producer, no co-writers, just Mayberry, Cook and Doherty.
Naturally, these being Covid times, things have been complicated. The band recorded new album Screen Violence with Cook in Glasgow, while Mayberry and Doherty were in Los Angeles, where they now live.
This album is not a re-tread of the band’s earlier work. It combines the best of 2013’s The Bones Of What You Believe and 2015’s Every Open Eye, the icy synths, the nagging melodies, the widescreen cinematic sonics and Mayberry’s vocals, with a new sensibility. It’s a dark, intriguing record, which will demand an awful lot of listens.
The co-writers and producers may be gone, but there is one special guest. The Cure’s Robert Smith, who duets with Mayberry on ‘How Not To Drown’.
The trio are currently all together working on new material and we caught up with them on Zoom to find out all about how the new LP came together...
You started writing this record with all three of you in a room together, but then had to go remote as the pandemic kicked in, how did you manage to get it done? Did it take time to find a routine?
Iain: “It took us quite a long time to get our head around the technical aspect of it and how to try and make the best out of having two studios running at the same time. After a few weeks, we figured it out, how to use audio sharing software, screen sharing, dropbox, all how to navigate it. I’d run a session, Doc could be running another session, then we’d use Dropbox to work between the two. We got into a nice rhythm, but it only worked because we were working on existing material we had, it would have been very hard if you were starting new.”
Did you end up picking a timezone? Because you were working between Glasgow and LA, so were there a few late nights?
Martin: “There was a lot of working through the night. Sometimes Iain would start at 7am, which would mean I’d be working at 11pm and go until the early hours. It was fun, but it was also really hard to live anything like a normal life.”
Lots of people have found using Zoom and virtual platforms far more exhausting than normal settings, did you find that?
Martin: “Absolutely. It’s such a different discipline and there’s none of the energy that you know and understand how to harness. It’s still fun, but a different type of fun. It takes a lot of getting used to.”
There’s no producer this time, was that because it was already hard enough working in two locations without adding a third?
Lauren: “There were two producers there, just two who are inside the band already. We already knew that we wanted to go back to being a bit more insular. It was nice that we didn’t have to unpick any plan to hire a producer and go into a studio. That was fortunate.”
Did you have a lot of songs to go through for the album? Or was it a tight writing process?
Iain: “We finished 15 songs. So a bit of choice.”
Martin: “The demo process was closer to 40, 40 songs that had a start. Of those 40 we whittled them down to start the record. That was the first bit of quality control. Then we wrote some more starts together, then I kept going. We must have had 60 things bubbling all told. There was a lot of material in different states and most of it will never see the light of day. I like it like that though, I don’t want to be the band who write 10 songs and say that’s the album, that always makes for a s**t album.”
How easy is it to get from 60 down to 10? Does it take a lot of arguing?
Lauren: “A lot of it is just gut instinct. We were quite aligned on this batch. You get to know each other’s taste and the band builds up a common language.”
Iain: “There’s a point in every album where you can see and feel what the album is shaping up to be. At that point, it stops being about which songs are your favourites and about what holds it together.”
How did your collaboration with Robert Smith come about? Does he have an email address you write to?
Lauren: “It started with our manager. Every Cure fan knows that the new Cure album has been coming for a long time and our manager heard it was almost completed. He asked to pass on some things to Robert, maybe in regards to us supporting when The Cure finally start to tour and he got an email from Robert. Basically, it said: “Hi, I hear you’re looking for me, what do you want?’”
Lauren: “Well, at that point we had to figure out what we did want. We sent him a bunch of songs, not necessarily thinking that he’d work with us and he picked out ‘How Not To Drown’.”
Did you get to work with him in the studio or was it all done remotely?
Iain: “We’ve never met him face to face. We’ve done interviews with him on Zoom now and he’s a lovely man, but we’ve never had the pleasure in person yet. It was all done over email. When we agreed that ‘How Not To Drown’ was the song we were going to work on, we sent it to him and we left him to it. Then, when we were all together on Halloween night, after we’d had a couple of glasses of wine and were all set to watch a horror movie, the email came through. It said ‘Hi guys, I’ve been up all night, here you go’. It was unreal.”
Moments like that must take you back to the very beginning of being a band, totally surreal…
Lauren: “It still seems completely off the wall to me. I don’t think I’d have even put working with Robert on a bucket list, it seemed too fanciful, let alone ticking it off. We’re really proud of it. We’re such huge Cure fans, everything, his songs, his lyrics, his melodies, how they marry it all together. The fact that he saw something in what we were making is totally mind-blowing.”
When did you decide that Screen Violence was the right fit for the record title? It’s a name that you’ve had in one form or another for some time, right?
Lauren: “We had it in mind from the beginning of the writing. It was on our lists of band names and we rediscovered that list in the summer of 2019. It was a good jumping-off point. We’re big fans of cinemas from that era, the 1980s horror aesthetic, it worked thematically with a lot of what was going on with the rest of the songs. It worked well, we’ve never done it like that before, normally we write all the songs and then try and name them. This time it served as a bit of a writing prompt, building out a universe, it really helped focus things.”
Did you ever waver from that theme? When artists lock onto a narrative or a concept, there must be a time where you want to write about something else…
Martin: “‘Concept’ was never a word we used when we were working on the album. It’s not a concept album. There are lyrical threads, but not concepts. To make a concept record, you have to stick very tightly to a number of rules, we didn’t have any interest in that. It’s more of an overarching banner for the work.”
It’ll feed nicely into the live show when you come back out. It feels very visually rich...
Lauren: “We’re planning it now. It’s been helpful for me, it’s a real excuse to build a world with your words. I love a good mood board. I’ve got a lot of inspiration from movies and it’s been great for all the visuals. By the time we get to tour, we’re all going to be so excited and ready to put on a great show. Live shows should always be about escapism for people. You want people to forget the good and the bad for 90 minutes. It’s a really visual record and it’ll be exciting to bring it on stage.”
When you know you’ve got an audience to come back to, figuring out how something will work live inevitably feeds into your thinking, but then again, when you were writing this you must not have known if playing live was going to be a possibility…
Martin: “Live never comes into when we’re in the studio, not until very late in the process. Only when the song is nearly finished does your mind wander to what it’ll be like in the live arena. I don’t think I’ve ever written a song where I was writing a live moment. I’ll leave that to cheesy stadium bands, they can make their tempos and cheesy chords.”
Four records now, how’s the discussion going about the setlist? Or are you going Springsteen style?
Lauren: “We had an email chain about it the other day and it’s started being broken down into sections. Section one was things we have to play, two was things we can switch in for headline sets, three was surprises, and four was never going to f**king happen, but let’s get organised.”
Iain: “The size of the list creeps up on you. We’ve got so many f**king songs now.”
Do you still like everything? Some bands just write older songs off after a while…
Martin: “I hate about half of them. I go through ups and downs with all of them. That’s how it is. As a listener and as a creator, it’s part of growing and changing. You can love things 10 years ago and hate them today and vice-versa. On this run, we’re talking about playing songs that haven’t been on the table for years and years. Weirdly they make more sense to the band we are now than the one we were two or three years ago. There are loads of our songs I hate, but lots I now unexpectedly love.”
Lauren: “As time passes, you’ll always feel differently about your work. For the most part, a live show isn’t about the artist. People come because they love the songs and they love what the songs mean to them. Unless you’re really upfront that you’re playing songs from one era, it’s a bit disrespectful if you use the live show to serve yourself. Even if we do hate songs, unless they’re traumatic, we’ll still play them. There will probably never be a show where we don’t play ‘The Mother We Share’ and I’m okay with that.”
Martin: “I don’t hate anything that is in the set now. They tend to go away naturally. Sometimes you grow to hate a song because it didn’t connect in the way you hoped.”
Iain: “Some songs just don’t work live. It doesn't matter how hard you try or how many times you go back to it. You start every set thinking this is the show where it connects and it never does.”
Lauren: “It’s very humbling. You can think that something is going to go off live and become a real fan favourite and you’re just wrong.”
You’ve said in other interviews that the touring for Love Is Dead left you all longing for a break, are you going to do things differently this time in terms of how you structure your tours?
Lauren: “I don’t know if you can pin that feeling just on the schedule, there was a lot going on. It’s also a bit fanciful to think that touring will be dictated by what bands want to do. It’s what is possible and what’s safe. There are some many extra safety factors now and we’re cramming in 18 months worth of shows. Our touring route is so weird, because there are so few venue slots with shows people are making up.”
You’ve just finished this record, but have you started fiddling with things for the next one?
Martin: “I don’t want to say too much, but we’re well beyond fiddling. We’re pretty far down the road in the process. In an ideal world, this album would have come out at the start of 2021, it was finished at the end of 2020. That’s given us six months of time with nothing to do and if you’re a writer you’re going to write. We’ve drawn a line of distinction. None of the old s**t from Screen Violence, it’s all new ideas, new ethos, new stimulus. We sat down and went all guns blazing on the next one. It’s not finished, but not far away.”
Are we talking about a record next year then?
Martin: “F**king hope so.”
Lauren: “We’ve never really been this organised in our lives ever. With no touring, the rollout for this album has been so organized. Everything has happened when it was supposed to. All the visuals are in, everything is ready. So much of your life in a band isn’t making music, but it’s been really nice to have work to do at the same time.”
Martin: “If these tours get cancelled, then we’ll keep going. Some people have to write, some people don’t, we do. Whilst there’s time, why wouldn’t you?”
Lots of bands have said to us that for this album, they’ve been left alone. No label has been demanding material because things were so up in the air…
Martin: “No-one tells what to do anyway. We’ve done that in the past, invited people into the process and it hasn’t worked. We’re better off if no-one gets involved. Let the process go it’s own way.”
Lauren: “Our manager is very good at holding people back.”
Martin: “We hide out in Los Angeles. Our label is in London and New York. No-one comes up to Glasgow to try and interfere, we don’t have to pretend to be ill anymore…”