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Chvrches On New Album ‘Screen Violence’: “It’s Easily Our Best Work As A Band”

The beloved Scottish synth-pop band Chvrches have returned with their fourth album, Screen Violence – and, intriguingly, it’s a goth soundtrack for the age of ghostly music festivals.

Back in 2014, Chvrches – Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty – covered Bauhaus’ goth classic ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ for the movie Vampire Academy. Yet, in Screen Violence, they’ve developed a full horror aesthetic, albeit with glamour, wit and charm. On Screen Violence, the trio traverse the fraught interconnection between human emotion and digital technology.

Formed a decade ago, the Glaswegians self-produced 2013’s debut The Bones Of What You Believe, establishing themselves as one of the UK’s most dynamic bands with their EDM-adjacent sonics while maintaining a grassroots indie spirit. For their last album, 2018’s Love Is Dead, the usually self-contained unit approached outsiders like the two-time Grammy-winning US producer Greg Kurstin, resulting in instant and zestful alt-rock. Crucially, Love Is Dead explored weighty social and political topics.

Chvrches commenced Screen Violence in early 2020, just as COVID-19 impacted globally. Again working in-house, the group were compelled to collaborate long-distance, with Mayberry and Doherty now residing in Los Angeles, and Cook still in Glasgow. They relied on video calls and audio-sharing platforms.

Screen Violence is at once personal and allegorical. Mayberry’s lyrics expose the fractured culture of the digital age with its anonymous surveillance, abuse and trolling (in 2013, the Chvrches frontwoman penned an op-ed for The Guardian about encountering misogyny online and her ambivalence toward social media). At the same time, Chvrches acknowledge how paradoxically, in the pandemic, devices have united otherwise isolated people. Screen Violence could serve as an unfettered manifesto of communal reclamation.

On the anthemic lead single ‘He Said She Said’ – already synced for the TV show American Horror Stories – Mayberry addresses the ways in which women are scrutinised, tone-policed and gaslit. Chvrches are then accompanied by an illustrious guest vocalist in The Cure’s Robert Smith on the outstanding ‘How Not To Drown’, which Doherty has revealed chronicles his own mental health history. In keeping with the horror theme, Chvrches solicited John Carpenter to remix their current single ‘Good Girls’ – the cult film director likewise an influential composer renowned for his trailblazing use of synths (Chvrches have since tweaked Carpenter’s ‘Turning The Bones’).

Chvrches are popular on Australia’s live circuit, last touring with the 2018 /2019 Falls Festival. In July, they joined the virtual music fest Splendour XR – fittingly involving screens. The band will hit the road in November for a North American run.

At the height of COVID, Cook bunkered down with his partner, actor Morven Christie (‘Grantchester’, Agatha Christie’s ‘Ordeal By Innocence’, ‘The Bay’). But, ahead of the Screen Violence roll-out, he’s reunited with his bandmates in the US.

Music Feeds caught up with Cook in LA over Zoom to discuss Screen Violence, what surprised him about Robert Smith, and the pandemic – the multi-instrumentalist, sporting a baseball cap and long-sleeve stripey T, relaxing in an airy room with mint green walls and botanic prints. Cook is cheerful, laughing often. However, he’s also inquisitive about Australia’s lockdowns (“How are you guys coping with that?”), promising to tour when restrictions ease.

Music Feeds: I was actually wondering where you were because it’d be 2am in Glasgow. I’m guessing you’re in the US?

Iain Cook: Yes, I’m in LA just now. I’m doing some more writing with the other two, so I’m out here for another four weeks.

MF: How can you be doing more writing – you’ve just completed an excellent album?

IC: Well, you know, we’re not touring yet, so we might as well keep ourselves occupied, doing what we do best (laughs).

MF: Chvrches recently participated in the virtual Splendour In The Grass – Splendour XR. I’m sure you’ve done other virtual performances. But how was that for you? What kind of feedback did you get?

IC: We have done a few virtual performances, but none on the sort of scale of the one that we put together for Splendour. We were able to do a full set and get creative with the set design and the lighting design and stuff like that. So it was actually really, really fun to do. In fact, that’s the first time we’ve played together as a band for over a year-and-a-half, so it was quite a momentous experience – even though we were in different parts of the world when we were filming it. Yeah, I don’t know about the reception. I don’t really look online, so I have no idea what people were saying, but I hope it’s positive.

MF: You recorded this album in very unusual circumstances, too – you were largely working remotely. What challenges did that present technically and just psychologically?

IC: Well, the technical problems were reasonably easy to get over once we figured it all out. We were able to use screen-sharing software and audio-sharing software and Zoom and Dropbox – a combination of four different applications. So with Martin, for example, running the main session in Los Angeles, I could be running a session back in Scotland. While I was recording stuff, he could really quickly import it into the main session. We swapped about roles, doing that stuff. It meant that we were able to use two studios concurrently, which was really great for productivity and communication. But it’s a very different vibe to being all in the same room as your bandmates, as I’d been so lucky and used to doing over the years.

The psychological aspects of it are harder to overcome. I mean, we couldn’t really find a way to write songs from scratch remotely, because that’s so much about the energy of being together with people and firing off ideas that you can discuss and tweak in real-time.

But, because of the delays in telecommunications, it made it too awkward to even try. Luckily, we had a bunch of songs, some demos, that were around before we started writing, but also I was able to get out to LA for a few weeks before the pandemic hit. So the album sessions sort of came from all of those sources. Then what we were doing after that was just kind of arranging and producing, which was much easier to do remotely. But we got there in the end.

MF: I was interested in how you responded to the climate of the pandemic, because both you and your partner [Morven Christie] are in industries that have been profoundly affected by the shutdowns. We’ve been following how in the UK there hasn’t been a lot of government support for the entertainment industries generally. But how did that shape Screen Violence, because it’s quite a big, outgoing album in many ways – it feels like an album for festivals.

IC: Yeah, I mean, that’s certainly how we hope to eventually play those songs! We’re doing a show in a few weeks in Seattle [for the Day In Day Out festival], if everything goes according to plan. That’ll be the first proper festival show back, so we’re excited about that. But, yeah, no, it’s been a really tough time. We’ve been lucky enough that we sort of were able to navigate it with no support from the government whatsoever. But it’s been a tough time, psychologically and financially otherwise. Hopefully, the industries are starting to get back up and running again. Certainly, the film production thing is starting to tentatively go back. But you hear every other day that productions are being shut down and tours are being cancelled because one of the crew’s got bloody COVID and everybody has to isolate for a week – and then it’s very, very expensive to do that in the middle of a production. But we’re just being as careful as we can be. We’re double-vaccinated and we’re not being idiots and going out to clubs and parties all the time (laughs). Not now. [We’re] just really doing what we can do, you know.

MF: You worked with outside producers like Greg Kurstin on Love Is Dead. But this record is again autonomous. What fuelled that conscious decision to go back to your roots and work as a trio?

IC: It’s something that we’d been talking about when we were playing on the Love Is Dead album campaign; that it would be really cool to sort of go back to the original working relationship with just the three of us and see, after all the experience that we’ve had as writers and as performers, what that would actually look like in this new era of the band. It was just completely coincidental that that happened at the time of COVID, where we were on lockdown anyway and couldn’t collaborate with anybody else. But I do think that it was the right thing to do at the time. It felt like the gains that we got from going back to square one and just doing it with the three of us were enormous. I feel like it’s easily our best work as a band – certainly since the first album [The Bones Of What You Believe]. I’m super proud of it. But that’s not to say we won’t work with other people in future. It’s certainly something that we’re very open-minded about.

MF: You collaborated with the mythic Robert Smith – and that actually trended on Twitter in Australia, people flipped out. But it’s an incredible collaboration because it just feels so organic. What most surprised you about your exchanges with Robert?

IC: It was all on email until actually the song was out and we were talking about it. Then the first time we all met was just before a Zoom call with, I don’t know what it was, maybe Apple Music or something like that. But the exchanges were surprising in that he is like super, super detailed and really technical. I don’t know why, but I assumed he would just be like, “OK, here’s my stuff, do with it what you want and hope for the best.” But he was really hands-on with every aspect of how the mix ended up being – and we loved that because that’s exactly how we are as musicians as well. We loved that somebody with his stature and legendary status would actually give a shit about this sort of collaboration in the way that he did (laughs). So that was surprising. It wasn’t surprising that he was an absolutely lovely man. Very funny.

MF: I remember when you were working with Simple Minds on the Big Music album – and, actually, they’re one of my lockdown rediscoveries. New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) still sounds amazing. Do you stay in touch with Jim Kerr?

IC: I do keep in touch with Jim periodically, yeah. I haven’t seen him for many years now. Whenever he’s back in Glasgow, we tend to try and hook up, but we haven’t managed to do so because we’ve both got very busy schedules. But, yeah, I’d love to – I’d love to properly get a beer with Jim and catch up. It’s been quite a long time. He was very lovely to us and he was always giving me guest lists to go and see Simple Minds wherever they were playing (laughs). I’m a bit of a fanboy. So I enjoyed that a lot.

MF: The horror theme, and the horror aesthetic, to this album is really cool. You’ve had some interesting forays into that world. You had the Bauhaus cover for Vampire Academy. You also had ‘He Said She Said’ synced for American Horror Stories. But at what point did that aesthetic start to creep into the arc of this record? Was it something retrospective that you could discern or was it something you planned much earlier? Because you’ve also had a John Carpenter remix too, I should add!

IC: Yes, yes, indeed (laughs). Don’t forget to mention the master of horror himself! Yeah, no, we’ve been massive horror fans since we were teenagers, really. So we always like to dip into these sort of horror and sci-fi references when we’re writing music – like we’ll reference a particular movie score that we loved from the ’80s and play around with those ideas and those sounds.

But this was different in that the title came before any of the music. [Screen Violence] was an old band name that we had discarded right at the beginning in favour of ‘Chvrches’. Lauren had come across the spreadsheet and thought it was a cool name that we could maybe do something with. So she had picked it – not as a concept, as in, “We’re making a concept album,” because we’ve got no interest in doing that. But, as a kind of aesthetic or as a kind of lens to focus her lyrics and her stories, we thought it would be a fun thing to play around with creatively. As it developed, and obviously the real-world horrors unfolded, it just more and more felt like the right thing to do.

So we went into it with the aesthetic around the visuals, the video, the album cover… You know, we didn’t wanna do that too early in the band’s career, because we didn’t really want to be thought of as a kind of throwback ’80s pastiche band – because we obviously use synths and instruments and sounds from that era. But there were a lot of synthwave things around near the start of this band and we didn’t want to be lumped in with that. Because, as much as we love looking back and we love those movies and those sounds, we also are quite a kind of future-facing band and want to take those ideas and update them with some modern production and modern writing. So it felt like a good time to indulge those nostalgic fantasies a little bit.

MF: John Carpenter is such a legend. That’s a good thing maybe with the pandemic – you can do more of these collaborations because people are sitting around at home. But did you expect him to respond like that? Because it sounds like he was more than up for the remix?

IC: No – we just asked. We were talking about ideas for film people and film composers to reinterpret some of the songs to fit in with the Screen Violence aesthetic. We thought we’d just try it for a laugh – to ask John Carpenter, because he is, after all, the father of that sort of sound of movie-scoring and obviously the movies themselves. But he came back and he was like, “I really like that one ‘Good Girls'” – we sent him the album – and [he said] “I really like that one, ‘Good Girls’, I could do something with that.” So we were like, “Go for it, man!” Then he said, “Well, if you don’t wanna do like a money thing, you can do one of mine [‘Turning The Bones’] and we’ll just call it that.” So we were like, “That’s such an honour!” It was really fun to work on. He seemed to be really into the ideas as well. Plus he plays lead guitar on that, which is just crazy!

MF: Lauren has talked about some of the narratives on the album and what they mean to her. Martin has also alluded to his own experiences with depression and anxiety. What parts of Iain are embedded in this album; things that are personal to you?

IC: That’s a good question. I suppose I would say a lot of the guitar stuff – because Martin was really into making guitar pedals and stuff during this lockdown and that transpired in there being more scope to play with guitar textures. That’s my first instrument – I was always playing in bands before Chvrches, so I was always playing guitar [Cook was notably in the late ’90s alt-rock band Aereogramme]. So it was a great opportunity for me to go back into that, ’cause I’d been playing keyboards for the most part for the last 10 years – which I love. I love playing synths, but guitar and bass actually are my first kind of loves, musically speaking. I feel like I was really able to dig deep and write more with that stuff in mind, which I think comes out on the album as well – you know, tracks like ‘Final Girl’. But, yeah, it really feels to me like the most complete expression of what this band have always tried to be in terms of our past influences and where we want to go and everything that we’ve picked up along the way. This to me is so far the pinnacle of what we’ve done. So I’m super happy with it.

MF: We’re hoping you’ll come back to Australia finally when our borders reopen.

IC: Absolutely. We really, really love playing Australia. People have always been super kind to us over there. The fans are great. So, yeah, that’s something that we’re gonna do as soon as we possibly can.

MF: Well, you’ve got heaps of dates to get through before then. So I hope you enjoy the US dates later this year and you’ve got the UK next year.

IC: Yeah, well, we might be able to squeeze a couple of weeks in Australia before that, but no promises at this point! (laughs).

MF: Everyone’s having to do the two weeks quarantine. But pretty much every musician I’ve spoken to would be quite happy to be in quarantine because they can turn the hotel room into a studio.

IC: Well, that’s true, but also you shouldn’t discount how much impact jetlag has, coming to Australia. Every single time, I’m like, “OK, here we go, we’ll play a gig in a few days” – and I’m ruined for the first 10, 11 days, just feeling awful. So, yeah, maybe the quarantine is a good thing, from our point of view!

MF: I’m creating a cry-dance playlist. What Chvrches song would fit that brief, past or present?

IC: You know, cry-dance is where most of our music lives. I’m gonna say the new opener on Screen Violence. ‘Asking For A Friend’ is, I think, our best cry-dance song.

‘Screen Violence’ is out today. This weekend the band will perform at Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles, marking their first live performance in nearly two years. The show will be live-streamed globally on Amazon Music’s Twitch Channel; fans in Australia and New Zealand can tune in from 2pm AEST / 4pm NZST on Saturday 28 August.

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