Four albums in, and CHVRCHES have probably been through the toughest part of their story to date. Returning with their new full-length ‘Screen Violence’, they’re backing down for nobody.
Words: Ali Shutler. Photos: Sebastian Mlynarski & Kevin J Thomson.
After CHVRCHES finished their fourth album ‘Screen Violence’, vocalist Lauren Mayberry had one worry. “I just hope I wasn’t supremely negative about everything. I mean, the record opens with the line ‘I don’t want to say I’m afraid to die’, so it’s not exactly a chart pop album. There is a lot of heavy subject matter, but what we’re doing is trying to figure a way through it all.”
The last time we spoke to the band, it was backstage at Reading Festival 2019, where all three members, Iain Cook, Martin Doherty and Lauren, were adamant that for the first time in the band’s history, they needed some time off. After distancing themselves from ‘Here With Me’ collaborator Marshmello after he chose to work with legally convicted abuser Chris Brown, the band had spent the majority of that year getting death threats. The ongoing media coverage saw places that had largely ignored CHVRCHES existence suddenly start using photos of Lauren doing her job, followed by quotes about how she was terrified of the trolls and the rape threats that came from Brown’s toxic fanbase. “That fallout, or the way abuse is spoken about in general, it’s all part of this grotesque, obsessed enjoyment of misogyny.” It’s just one aspect of Screen Violence that their new albums questions.
The worst of the abuse came in Spring 2019, but the band decided to carry on touring and promoting ‘Love Is Dead’. “Stopping would just show weakness, so we carried on,” says Lauren, who believes that perseverance “is a good part of my personality because we get a lot done, but on the flip side, the wheels are bound to fall off that bus eventually.” Reading was meant to be the end of the cycle, but things got extended due to the success of both ‘Here With Me’ and follow-up single ‘Death Stranding’ from the video game of the same name. Three more months of touring and “people talking shit” followed before the band could finally take that break and escape the fishbowl.
CHVRCHES managed about three months away. Lauren headed home to try and “fix her brain a little bit” while Martin set about building a new studio. There was no fixed date to come back. “When it feels right for everybody, you get a text,” says Martin, who explains that there’s never a discussion about making a new album. Instead, the three-piece just started trading ideas. “It goes from ‘should we talk about music’ to having written 6 songs pretty quickly.”
Still, listening to ‘Screen Violence’, there are hints that perhaps the band could still be on the verge of splitting. Opening track ‘Asking For A Friend’ sees Lauren sing “I’m no good at goodbyes, I can’t apologise. If I don’t stop now, will it follow me down. I guess I have to try. It’s the art of getting by,” while ‘Final Girl’ is a lot less subtle. “Don’t want to find your daughter in a body bag, so I need to get out now while most of me is still intact. It feels like the weight is too much to carry. I should quit, maybe go get married.”
“Maybe it’s a metaphor for somebody that wasn’t me,” starts Lauren before admitting that the line about quitting was something she’d written in her notebook in May 2019. Back then, “it was a lot more expletive and wasn’t as succinct. Consciously, I would never want to quit this band. You will have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands. I will be touring those toilets until I’m 95, but it was a strange juxtaposition where something you love so much had become distorted into this other thing. Suddenly the band had grown an extra head, and I didn’t know what to do with it.” It’s why they wrote ‘How Not To Drown’.
The track, which features a guest appearance from The Cure’s Robert Smith, sees Lauren losing faith and deciding to just stay silent in the face of injustice. When it was released earlier this year, Martin took to social media to talk about his depression for the first time in a note that ended with the message “if you feel like giving up, don’t.”
“I’ve never had the urge to write anything like that before, and I probably won’t ever again,” he explains, saying how it felt authentic to him at that moment. His discomfort about opening up is still present today, but there’s something empowering about it. He’s not a spokesperson for mental health. He’s just a bloke who’s struggled. “I do think it’s weird how men don’t talk about their mental health. I struggle, but like everyone else, especially in Scotland, you’re told to suppress your feelings. The point of writing that wasn’t for people to feel sorry for me. It was about offering people a little bit of hope.“
That same glimmer of optimism can be found across ‘Screen Violence’. “You can’t have hope without all the terrible stuff,” starts Lauren before Iain admits that “yes, the record is intense, and there’s a lot of darkness, but ultimately there’s hope through perseverance and community.”
The record takes the stadium pop lessons learnt from working with Greg Kurstin (Adele, Liam Gallagher, Foo Fighters) back to the home studio that gave us ‘The Bones of What You Believe’ and ‘Every Open Eye’. The result is something that feels punk and scrappy, delivered by glistening synths and, in the bands own words, “sexy instrumentation”. It’s different to what’s come before, but it’s an evolution rather than a reinvention. The trick, according to Martin, is “don’t think about the past or the future because if you get caught up in either of those things, you’ll probably make bad decisions.”
Perhaps more importantly, CHVRCHES aren’t reactive. There was criticism about the idea of the band going pop on ‘Love Is Dead’ (most of it coming before the album was released), but Lauren feels like that album “was the controlled experiment to see how far we could push things into that pop space without losing what the band was.” Of course, there’s a pressure to keep things going, to reach more and more people, “but there’s a tipping point. How far can you go into the pop stratosphere without losing what it is that is special about the band?”
She’s quick to point out that one of the best things about the band is that it’s a fan-driven thing. That started with their blog-driven breakthrough moment early in the band’s career, and that relationship continues to this day. “People do feel an ownership of the band, which is a really great thing, but before that record even came out, some fans felt like we had betrayed their idea of what the band was.”
“I would never want to quit this band. You will have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands”Lauren Mayberry
“Fuck that,” says Martin. “Who fucking cares? We’re never trying to disappoint fans, but we have to do our own thing because otherwise, we might as well just write ‘The Mother We Share’ twenty more times.”
“As much as that’s a special song, if you do the same thing over and over, it’s not going to make anyone happy,” adds Lauren.
It didn’t help that she felt like CHVRCHES were at a “weird crossroads where loads of people had so many opinions about what the band was and where it could go. It felt like everybody thought, ‘well, if they really put their minds to it, they could be this massive pop act,” even if she disagreed.
“It’s important that one doesn’t start imposing rules upon oneself. It’s a perception thing. If you start thinking ‘I can’t do this because this is what I represent’, that’s actually a really negative outlook. If you start closing doors, you might miss the best thing you ever do,” says Martin. “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to do whatever we want, whenever we want?”
And practising what they preach, instead of following up ‘Love is Dead’ with something more gnarled, aggressive or stripped down to appease their fans, the band released the absolutely huge ‘Here With Me’. Describing it as a good and bad mental health exercise, Lauren explains how “it was nice to have it proven that we could do a big pop song like that.” People had constantly said ‘if they only had that another gear, they could be more successful’ and “we do have that gear, clearly, but it’s not what we want to do, day in, day out with our actual art.”
When writing the song, the trio knew they were sitting on a big one, and that scared them. Martin encouraged the band to see ‘Here With Me’ through to the end with nothing more than a look. “I knew you were telling us to forget any ideas about what we as CHVRCHES can or can’t do, and just focus on the song,” explains Iain. The original plan was to give it to another artist. Martin used to run a pop club night in Glasgow so that music has “always been a part of his DNA” while Lauren grew up on Top 40 Radio. “I came of age on All Saints, Atomic Kitten and Spice Girls. I clearly love pop. I just don’t know if that’s where we are as writers,” she continues, explaining why they didn’t follow that shiny pop road on this new album.
“I don’t think everything needs to be doom and gloom all the time, but when we talk about bands who we admire and would love to emulate, it’s acts like The Cure who have these really melancholic, introspective moments as well as these really big moments as well. I just feel like there’s an honesty to that. If you feel like that, then write it. if you don’t, then don’t.”
“It used to feel like a strange thing about our band, that we fell between these two worlds,” says Lauren. Coming from a DIY punk background but sounding like a pop act, “it confused people. Now though, it’s a really positive thing that we can be the band who writes a song with Marshmello but also has a song with Robert Smith.” Name another band that does both.
For as long as CHVRCHES have been doing interviews, Lauren’s been answering questions about gender and feminism. “It is something I feel passionately about, but literally every interview becomes about that. It feels like a lot of the media coverage of it is ticking a box.”
She’s glad to have used her platform to talk about her own experiences, to advocate for equality, to stand up against online misogyny “because there are now a lot of other people being more vocal about those things, who really fucking weren’t at that time. However, it is odd that I spent a decade of my career not really talking about anything to do with the work.”
It wasn’t intentional, but ‘Screen Violence’ fixes that problem. For the first time, Lauren uses her lyrics to talk about abuse of power, misogyny, and vastly differing gender standards. “Of course, I’ll write different things as a 32-year-old than I did as a 22-year old, but when so much of the conversation about the bad has been about gender and your own existence, it will fuck with your head enough that you will eventually write about it in songs. Now when people talk to us about it, we can point them back to a record and let that answer the question. Maybe it’s life experiences informing our work, maybe it just felt like the right time.”
Whatever it is, “it’s nice to try different things because we will all be dead eventually,” says
Lauren Mayberry, not supremely negative, just finding a way to persevere. “This band is an unlikely story in a lot of ways,” and it’s not finished yet.
“Proving that I was good enough used to be the driving force behind everything I did,” explains Martin. “I used to care so much about what other people thought of me, even if I never admitted it. Now though, I just want to respect the opportunity I’ve been given in life. We’re still a band ten years in, and I have twice as much to say musically as I ever have done.”
“Not everybody’s going to like you,” continues Lauren. “I’m more comfortable with that now than I ever used to be.”
Taken from the September 2021 edition of Dork, out now. CHVRCHES new album ‘Screen Violence’ is out 27th August.