Scottish synth-pop superstars CHVRCHES have never been ones to shy away from harsh truths. So it’s probably no shock that Lauren Mayberry, Martin Doherty and Iain Cook have dubbed their third and forthcoming record Love Is Dead. Unabashedly evocative, the 13-track album is all about questioning and facing the terrifying realities of the modern world.
Although Chvrches have always confronted social issues, including sexism and toxic online culture, this record is possibly their most politically outspoken work yet. But despite moving away from tales of personal experience, the delivery is as sincere as ever.
Mayberry sings of the hypocrisy of religion on the slinky ‘Deliverance’ and the horrific treatment of asylum seekers on the brightly haunting ‘Graves’. After being called everything from all the slurs you can imagine to the “Joan of Arc of pop and punk”, she also beautifully recounts the duality of her experiences as the frontwoman of a rock band on ‘Heaven/Hell’. Although the album is very much driven by these darker themes, it closes with a fleeting sense of hope on ‘Wonderland’. And the record achieves all of this without losing the Glasgow trio’s quintessential blend of shimmering melancholic synth pop.
Historically, the band has produced every record independently and kept their creative process largely within their original power of three. However, the third record saw the trio open up both lyrically and creatively. Along the way, they were mentored by The Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart, collaborated with The National’s Matt Berninger on ‘My Enemy’ and had much of the record co-produced by Greg Kurstin (who has also worked with other pop powerhouses like Sia and Adele). The final result is an amplified version of their unique sound, and one that should translate to the live stage better than any Chvrches record yet.
We had a chat with frontwoman Lauren Mayberry about the new record, their spot on the 2018 Splendour in the Grass bill and gender equality in music post-#MeToo.
Music Feeds: First of all, I have to ask: Did you catch Grinspoon’s cover of ‘Get Out’ for Triple J’s Like A Version?
Lauren Mayberry: Yeah! My Australian friend sent it to me and I guess because we don’t know a lot about Grinspoon, I didn’t understand the significance. So I was like “Oh, cool. A cover!” and she was like “No, you don’t understand. This is very important. This is it” (laughs).
MF: Yeah, they’re basically Australian rock royalty so it’s a huge honour.
LM: (Laughs) That’s so cool. I also think that’s what’s so great about that show. You always get people doing really different things and stuff you would’ve never expected. I feel like it’s cool to have music be fun and playful.
MF: You guys covered the Arctic Monkey’s ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ on Triple J a few years back. Can we expect another Chvrches Like A Version when you come down under this year?
LM: We definitely get asked about that cover more than anything we’ve ever done. So we’re like “Thanks Triple J!”. But I don’t know because part of me is worried about how we’d ever top that (laughs). Apparently it’s one of the most watched Like A Versions ever, so I feel like it would be a lot of pressure. But you can only do your best!
MF: Moving onto the new record, Love Is Dead is a very blunt yet powerful album title. What’s the inspiration behind it?
LM: Well, I guess the previous records were named after lyrics from songs in the album. We tried that this time and we sent a few ideas around but it didn’t really feel like it fitted. This time it felt like the songs were a lot more thematically connected, so we really wanted to name them as a collection and we wanted to use quite a bold and theatrical title.
To us, we think about it with a question mark or ellipses on the end. It’s more about starting conversation than necessarily emphatically making that statement. We’ve definitely talked about it more than we have about any other album title, so I guess it’s doing what we designed it to.
At the end of the day, I think it’s fun play around with those kind of things. And it’s show biz, innit? Gotta put a little bit of the show in it!
MF: On this album, you sing about politics, religion and social issues. Was it difficult writing about such tense topics in a pop song?
LM: I don’t think so. I guess the juxtaposition between more bright, melodic sounding instruments and darker sounding lyrics has always been an important part of Chvrches. We didn’t really go in specifically thinking we’d write more political stuff, it just kind of happened naturally over the course of time. I feel like that’s the only thing you can do as a lyric writer, is try to be honest. It wouldn’t have felt truthful to me to write about my personal feelings about the world and about myself and about people if those things weren’t referenced in some way.
But a lot of the time when we’re writing, it kind of just comes out as a burst or stream of consciousness. You’re not thinking “Today I’ll write a song about X, Y and Z.” To me, the album sounds like someone trying to figure out what to do when you don’t necessarily feel as optimistic as you used to or you grew up and not everything was as idealised as you thought that it was.
I don’t know if I just became more attuned to these things as I got older or if it was always like this and I was too naïve to notice it. But I feel like the stuff that makes me the saddest is just how people are with each other and how little empathy they have, whether it’s in personal relationships or wider than that. The closing song on the record is called ‘Wonderland’ and the lyrics on that are all about once you know all of this or you see what a lot of people are really like, how do you move on in a positive way and be hopeful and do something constructive when it’s really easy to feel overwhelmed by everything?
MF: Yeah, it definitely closes the record on a more optimistic note.
LM: Yeah, and I feel like that’s kind of the journey of the record and the journey I’m on. We’re seeing some of the worst parts of people but we’re also seeing some of the best parts in terms of people who are reaching beyond that and trying to do something good. I feel like we’ll look back on this time and think about it as a really transitional time in terms of figuring out what kind of people we want to be. Yeah, I don’t know. I wonder what we’ll think about all of this in 10 or 20 years.
MF: The rest of the band were present while you were writing a lot of the lyrics this time around. What was the inspiration behind this more open and collaborative approach and how do you think it impacted the final record?
LM: Well, I still wrote 99% of the lyrics by myself but what we were focused on a lot of the time was wanting to get a word or a phrase into a key point in the song right from the beginning, so that when I was away writing the rest of the lyrics and the guys were working on the production, we’d be working towards the same end thematically.
Whereas on the previous record, we’d have a complete no lyric vocal and the guys would be working on production and then we’d get back together it would feel like we were in two completely different places. So I think we just wanted to feel more connected.
MF: You worked a lot with Dave Stewart from The Eurhythmics. What was it like working with him?
LM: Yeah, well we were so excited to get to work with Dave because we admire him so much and having now met him and spent a lot of time with him, he’s such a curious and honest person. I feel like people throw the word artist around a lot but he is one and really does just create because he has to create. If someone like that can see something in you, then I think you have to take that spirit and he really knew how to push people, if that makes sense?
It’s really sad that none of the songs actually made the record, but we did that right at the start of the process and it felt too sonically different to what we ended up with. But he was a really important figure in terms of where this album ended up going because I think he just knows how to rattle people’s cages and asking “Why are you doing just enough? You should be pushing yourself to the limit.”
MF: One collaboration that made the record was The National’s Matt Berninger on ‘My Enemy’. Was it surreal working with him?
LM: Yeah, we were so excited that it came to pass because we all love that band so much and he’s such a storyteller in the way that he writes and sings. We got to know them a few summers ago at a festival and we got to know Matt a little better during a project called “7-Inches for Planned Parenthood” where they got a bunch of artists to help fundraise and raise awareness for Planned Parenthood. So, Matt was silly enough to give his email and ‘My Enemy’ was a song that the three of us, Matt, Dean and myself.
Matt knew some of the verses on the demo and the shape of the melody really made us think of Matt, so we emailed him a song and were like “No pressure, please don’t feel obligated” but he replied in like 20 minutes and was like “Yeah! Send it to me and I’ll work on it tomorrow!”, so he was so efficient as well (laughs). I just love the way he sings and hearing the lyrics we wrote reinterpreted by him was definitely a bucket list moment.
All of those guys are so cool. I guess because we’ve been away from Scotland for so long, it feels weird to not be connected to a music scene. But I feel like when you’re in a band that tours as hard as we do, you find your people. It’s just not one scene, it’s a more transient thing. But we’ve been really lucky to meet other musicians who are on the same wave length as us and that’s nice. It makes you feel less crazy in a world that’s gone mad.
It’s really inspiring for us to connect with bands like that and I think that bands that we really admire like The National or Tegan & Sara or Paramore are bands that have an ethos around them. They don’t just take the easy road all of the time. I think that’s really powerful to see that in other people.
MF: You’ve always been very open about the misogyny and gender inequalities in the world and especially in the music business. Although this conversation has definitely become louder in the last year or so, what do you think is the next step to actually reach some change?
LM: It’s been interesting to have such a specific perspective on it because people ask us in interviews a lot “How has your life changed since the #MeToo movement?” and I’m like, I’m excited by it, I’m inspired by it, I think it’s really fucking powerful that this conversation is being had on a more mainstream platform but for me personally nothing has changed. Everything’s the same now as it was five years ago. It’s just the conversation we were having is slightly more on trend now. The stuff that was getting me called a cold-hearted bitch and a cunt and having my address put on the internet and rape threats and death threats and shit, is now something people can talk about in Marie Claire (laughs).
MF: But that’s a good thing, right?
LM: Yeah, I think that’s fucking cool. It’s really important and that’s how you actually make change, is to talk about this. I don’t know any women who were surprised by #MeToo but I know a lot of really cool, switched on, smart men who were surprised by it and surprised by the extent to which these things were happening. I feel like that’s positive because it means that we can all work together to change some of these things. But I feel like we need to let a bit of time pass because it needs to be more than just symbolic gestures. There has to be more than just wearing roses to the Grammys. That’s an important part but are people really going to change the way they conduct their life, the way they are professionally, the way they spend their money, that’s the kind of thing that will actually make a difference in the long run? We don’t really know until enough time has passed.
It’s interesting because every single interview we do, we talk about gender in one way or another and I guess the way we’re asked about it is slightly different. It’s no longer “Why are you choosing to be belligerent?” now it’s like “Oh, so #MeToo. That’s cool!”. It’s weird but it’s exciting.
I guess there is something that could be said for sticking to your guns because I in no way invented this. I think we were just in a backwards light in terms of the way we were in the wave. I think those things because of what I was taught when I was growing up and people that I admired like Shirley Manson or Karen O. They were talking about this stuff the entire time. We were kind of in a moment in music and in pop music specifically, where a lot of women didn’t want to say they were feminists or didn’t want to talk about women’s rights because it seemed unappealing or unattractive or risky. You could lose fans or ticket sales and that’s really sad when you think about it. It does feel like we’re in a different space now. The Guardian piece that we wrote, that ended up being quite a big deal, wouldn’t really be that much of a big deal now because there’s so much discussion about it now. I think that’s great. That means we’re further up the path.
MF: Yeah, it’s interesting that even in the last 10 years the word “feminist” has gone from almost an insult to a badge of honour.
LM: Every time I would read something where some celebrity would say “I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men” and I was like “Ugh! We’re still having that conversation? I thought that shit died before I was even born” (laughs). So I feel like we’re in a much more powerful place if we’ve moved on from that narrative, because that’s just Stockholm Syndrome I think.
I think everyone is entitled to grow and change. I think differently about certain things now than I did five years ago and certainly 10 years ago. But we’re in a world now where it’s weird to not say that you support equal rights. It’s jarring to not denounce white feminism, it’s jarring to not try to speak out and protect the trans community. And I think that’s great, because it means we’re in a much more sensible place than we were five years ago. So, I have hope.
MF: You’re touring Australia for Splendour in the Grass and a bunch of sideshows in July. What are you guys looking forward to the most for those shows?
LM: We always have such a great time down there and the shows are always so much fun. I know the guys are going to drink a shit tonne of coffee because they’re very into the Aussie coffee. And even though it’s your winter time, it’s still nicer than any Scottish summer time, so I think we’ll just enjoy the weather and getting to be outside and not rained on for a change (laughs).
MF: Yeah, I actually find Australian music festivals more pleasant during winter because the heat is slightly less intense.
LM: Yeah! And it’s funny to go back and see British and UK festivals and seeing people covered in mud head to toe and they’re just frolicking in the mud and I’m like “Oh yeah, that’s definitely a very British thing”.
MF: And what about the set lists? Can we expect a whole lot of new tunes from Love Is Dead?
LM: I think we’re going to try to find a good balance. We’re rehearsing a festival set right now and it’s definitely going to have new stuff in it and we have a live drummer now. But I think we’re music fans as much as we are musicians, and we know what it’s like to go to a show and people only play the new stuff and never play the stuff that you found the band on and that you had a special connection to. So we’re very sensitive to that and we’re going to make sure it’s a good mix.
MF: Yeah, it’s good to have that balance and the new record definitely sounds like it was created to be performed live.
LM: Yeah, I guess this is the first time we’ve ever recorded in a studio that had an actual live room where we could do live guitar recordings and live drums, so I definitely think it lends itself to that sound. We didn’t really have that many specific ideas when we were going into the studio but the guys definitely wanted the production to feel a bit more live and loose and less overly precise. I think that will lend itself to a live setting really well.
Their new album Love Is Dead is out now.