Hot Scots Chvrches want to preach to the converted
From glum guitar band to vibrant electro-pop – hot new Scots outfit Chvrches is winning audiences at home and abroad
It’s not often that you find yourself sitting cross-legged in a tepee debating the merits of Lionel Richie with one of Scotland’s hottest new musical acts, but joining Chvrches inside the inflatable church at Electric Picnic, the conversation quickly turns to the legendary soul warbler.
“Well, I can’t speak for the other two but I’ve got all the albums,” deadpans synth-man and co-vocalist Martin Doherty, adjusting his baseball cap with a smirk.
“I have no feelings on Lionel Richie whatsoever,” shrugs frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, to exaggerated gasps of dismay from bandmates Doherty and guitarist Iain Cook. “I’m not disagreeing, I’m just not hugely familiar with his back catalogue, apart from the singles.”
“Well, then,” winks Doherty, “luckily for you, you’ve got three-and-a-half weeks on a tour bus in America with me in the near future!”
Lionel Richie aside, it’s obvious that the trio are not quite the “hip young things” usually associated with electronic buzz bands – at least, thirtysomethings Cook and Doherty aren’t. Despite the age gap, however, they managed to find common musical ground back in 2011, when Doherty was producing an EP for Mayberry’s other band. Notwithstanding all three’s previous history with guitar bands (Cook in post-rockers Aereogramme, Doherty as a touring member of The Twilight Sad and Mayberry as drummer in Blue Sky Archives), their progression to electro-pop seemed like a natural one.
“This has been the kind of music that’s been exciting to me for a long time,” says Doherty, nodding. “I’ve always played the keyboards anyway; even in The Twilight Sad, I was the keyboard player and in charge of the electronics. It was like that for Iain, too; he played guitar but was brought in as a synthy arranger guy. Basically, we were the guys who got put in charge of the computers because everyone else is afraid in case they break it,” he laughs.
In a way, the three agree, it was refreshing to take such a stylistic about-turn as it meant that nobody expected anything of them. At least, that was the case in the beginning; as the singles from The Bones of What You Believe began to trickle out, the buzz around Chvrches began to grow louder, coming to a climax when they were shortlisted for the BBC Sound of 2013 award. They eventually placed fifth, but the hype machine didn’t disrupt their grounded sensibilities.
Throughout it all, they say, they remain the same Glasgow trio who recorded their album in a dark basement studio. Unlike a lot of electronic bands who get caught up in the technical aspect of their sound, most of the songs on The Bones of What You Believe are both thought-provoking and irresistibly danceworthy, drawing from some quarters comparisons with The Knife .
“For us, it was really all about songwriting – that’s the focus,” says Cook. “How the songs are dressed up is, I would say personally, of secondary importance. What we try to do it write foreground melody and write things that draw people in on first listen – but also with production that allows them to go back and discover some depths on further listens. It was really important for us to write some big melodies.”
“Part of that is through being frustrated that a lot of electronic bands who sound amazing – like, they have really interesting ideas and really interesting techniques – but they bury the song,” adds Doherty. “It’s hugely important to us that our songs are songs, first and foremost. And every time it felt like things were getting a bit too sweet, that’s when you’d just turn up the distortion or take it in a weird direction, or cut up a vocal and just destroy it. I think there’s a difference between bands that make really weird music but try to make it accessible, and bands that make more accessible music and try to make it weird. We were always trying to make it weird, and I think we’ll always be trying to make it weird, forever.”
Their weirdness has served them well to date, having signed a US deal with prestigious indie label Glassnote Records, and a UK deal with a Virgin Records imprint. Mayberry jokes that her college law degree (she also worked as a freelance journalist for some time) came in handy when it came to contracts, but the truth is that the trio’s collective experience meant that they were prepared for whatever industry nonsense came their way.
“I’m not really in the business of being told by other people how to make art and how to portray myself, and how to dress, and what to say, and shit like that,” says Mayberry. “So it was very important to us, when we were negotiating the contract, that we negotiated the things that were most beneficial to us. I think it was beneficial that we’d had so much support from people on the internet – so by that point, we’d had a certain base level of support already and we knew what kind of band we wanted to be, and how we wanted to conduct ourselves.
“The label knew what they were getting from the start, and there was never any question of someone coming in and ‘A&Ring’ you and making you into something else.”
It certainly sounds like Chvrches have realistic expectations of where they can take their terrific album and their band next. Doherty sums it up as he untangles his limbs and stretches before heading back out into the afternoon sunshine. “We’ve maintained the same mentality from the first day we put a song online: we’re not the kind of people who expect anything. Maybe it’s part of our Scottish nature,” he chuckles, “but I think when you build yourself up and have these expectations, you’re inevitably gonna feel disappointment at some point; maybe tomorrow, or maybe in two years’ time.
“We’re just rolling with it, enjoying this as much as possible, and working as hard as possible. It’s just about giving yourself the best chance. Making your own luck, I suppose.”