It goes without saying that the last six months have been a learning curve for musicians, but while many artists have spent spring and summer getting to grips with releasing music and promoting albums while confined to their own homes, there’s also been a question mark over how a band can write and record in the middle of a global pandemic.
“It’s all been a bit like this,” CHVRCHES’ Lauren Mayberry says, gesturing towards her screen at the start of our Zoom call. Because, while most of us have been using the software du jour for fake pub quizzes and annoyingly long work catch ups, the Glaswegian trio have spent their lockdown putting in the hours on ‘CHV4’.
“I guess at the beginning, we were just waiting it out to see. We were starting work all together in the same place, then we all went home with a view of, ‘We’ll meet up when this is done’, which was very naive in hindsight,” she admits. Parting ways back in March - Iain Cook returned to their native Glasgow, while both Lauren and Martin Doherty stayed separately in Los Angeles - the trio haven’t actually seen each other IRL since. “We’ve kinda just had to figure out a way to do it. I always feel grateful to be in a band with those guys, but yeah, they have just taken the reigns on the production stuff, 100%. They have screen-sharing [software], where they can share it and we all work on the session remotely, and then I’ll have an audio stream, I can listen in, and then I record stuff and send it to them.
“It’s been a learning curve, but if anything - it’s kinda weird - it feels like we’re more connected and united in terms of what we’re trying to do than we have been in a long time. Maybe everyone’s grasping for any kind of interaction, or any kind of thing that’s familiar, but it’s been nice to feel like everyone’s pulling in the same direction and to have something positive to focus on. The tunes aren’t necessarily that positive,” she laughs, “but then it wouldn’t really be CHVRCHES if they were…”
“It’s interesting to go into a room where people know the language of the Top 40, but I don’t think that’s our language.”
— Lauren Mayberry
When it comes to that duality of pairing darkness with bright, sugary pop hooks, their last record, 2018’s ‘Love Is Dead’, was a mammoth in its own right. Building upon the kinetic energy of second album ‘Every Open Eye’, it saw the trio push even further past their own comfort zones. Not only was it their first record to feature external producers - Greg Kurstin and Steve Mac both worked alongside the band - but it also saw them take on the classic pop hallmarks of the mainstream and feed them through their shadowy electro-pop filter. The results saw them leaping even further up festival bills, dominating huge stages across the world and becoming even more of a force to be reckoned with.
That record was one that again saw Lauren using the backdrop of bright, buoyant sonics to explore an altogether more raw set of lyrics. Whether in the stark admission of ‘Forever’ (“But I always regret the night / I told you I would hate you ‘til forever”), or the politically-charged pictures she paints in ‘Graves’ (“They’re leaving bodies in stairwells / Oh, washing up on the shore”), these were songs that dug into the darker recesses of the singer’s thoughts.
Will this new album see the band picking up where they left off? “So far I dunno, it looks…” she trails off coyly, figuring out how much she can reveal quite yet. “I was about to say something that would’ve been a big giveaway!” she laughs. “For me, it’s been interesting to look at the records and see the progression of the storytelling, for lack of a less wanky word. I feel like it’s about the marriage between the stuff that’s purely personal, and the stuff that’s more imagery, and narrative [based]. We have a pretty specific theme in mind for the whole thing, so yeah, I feel like it’ll be a marriage of those things.
“‘Love Is Dead’ was just us testing the water, and to see how far we could push both sides of it,” she continues. “We really pushed the pop pedal pretty hard, and maybe that stemmed from a discomfort thing, like, ‘Oh if we’re gonna have hooks that are ‘Never, ever, ever, ever / Forever, ever, ever, ever’ - those balls-out, pop hooks - then can we pull the other stuff thematically in the total other direction?’” So, how do they feel about the album now? “I think we flew as close to the sun as any of us are willing to go, and we were excited about doing that, and we’re still proud of that. You might as well try something; you’re only gonna be around once! I think some places it worked, and some places it didn’t work out as well, but then, that’s the process!
“It was the only record where we tried co-writes with people, and while it’s interesting to go into a room where people know the language of the Top 40, I don’t think that’s our language. I feel like we learned a lot from doing that record, and my favourite parts of CHVRCHES are on that record, and some of my least favourite parts are part of that era. But, this is the thing, if we did the same thing every time, then it’d be boring. And I don’t think anybody would still be talking about the band if we had just made ‘Every Open Eye’ 2.0.”
“You might as well try something, you’re only gonna be around once!”
— Lauren Mayberry
Although Lauren remains fairly tight-lipped on the themes that ‘CHV4’ will explore, she does let us in on one little secret: this time around, the band are returning to solely producing the record themselves - a plan that was in place before lockdown even kicked in. “That was what we had discussed,” she says. “Half of [‘Love Is Dead’] was done by us anyway, and the last song we put out [‘Death Stranding’ for the video game of the same name] was all in-house too. I think it was about learning to re-appreciate your partner,” she muses. “You’re in a longterm relationship, and ask, ‘How can we see them through new eyes?’. I guess if this is an extended metaphor, we went swinging for a while, but then decided we just want it to be us.”
They may have decided not to drop their keys in the bowl this time, but among all the forward-planning and decision-making for their next step, the last few months have also provided time for reflection. Whether that be via the two editions of #TimsTwitterListeningParty they’ve taken part in this summer, or just a selection of old photos posted to their Instagram page, if the current situation has provided anything of worth, it seems to have allowed the trio to look back that little bit more freely.“
This has definitely been a useful time to take stock of those things,” Lauren nods. “It’s not like we’ve never been grateful for all of our experiences, but when people ask you, ‘What was that like?’ it’s very hard to stay present in the moment when you’re actually thinking about getting to the airport, that you’ve got 40 more shows, and then you’ve gotta get home and make another record...” Used to constantly rolling into whatever’s next on their schedule, an enforced period of slowness has been a rewarding one for the trio. “Me and the guys were saying on a call the other day, it’s very rare to get the opportunity to sit and be allowed to reflect on what you have, what you’re grateful for and what you really should appreciate in a career like this. But yeah, we’ve been very emo about it…”
Highlights can come in many different forms, and while the band’s biggest shows are obviously close to their hearts - “we had a sunset slot at Glastonbury in 2016 and something like that was an insane moment” - Lauren admits that it’s often the smaller moments during life in the band that stand out for her. “The bits I remember more are random nights out on tour or…” she pauses. “Like, I vividly remember going to see Jem and the Holograms and Paranormal Activity 5 with Iain in this cinema in the middle of Iowa, or Idaho?” Quite the location for those film choices… “Yeah!” she laughs. “Those moments are very nice. Iain and I have a tradition of, if there’s a day off, it feels comforting to go to the cinema because we’re both wee dorks. When there’s no consistency in what you’re doing, going to the cinema feels like a very comforting thing. We’ve seen a lot of crap! But we’ve seen some good stuff too.“
"Or I remember there was one really messy - horrible but excellent - night out that we had in Miami once,” she chuckles. “We are the most un-Miami people! We’re just a bunch of drunk Glaswegians! I think we were doing a radio session in the morning and it was noooot good. Those are the things [I remember], the things you don’t plan. The shitty beers in a hotel bar with your mates.”The trio might be gearing up for a fourth round that’ll send them back into the whirlwind, but right now they’re trying to muddle through it just like the rest of the world. And if lockdown life has taught us anything, it’s that friends, films and a few too many beers are the things that really matter. But headlining Glastonbury on your next record would probably be quite good, too.
As featured in the September 2020 issue of DIY, out now.
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