The Unflinching Gaze Of Chvrches
Tucked away in the corner of a thriving Swedish tech company’s Manhattan office, three Scottish musicians are staring intently at their streaming analytics. The stats are good. “So it can’t all just be our mums listening,” Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry laughs. She’s flanked on the couch by her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, who are equally fascinated by proof that an international audience is avidly devouring their new single “Leave A Trace.” Two years after they skyrocketed to fame, the trio still seems dazed at the level of interest they’ve sparked since their debut album The Bones Of What You Believe was released. But there isn’t a hint of hesitation in the shimmering defiance of “Leave A Trace,” or in the new album it introduces, Every Open Eye. There’s been no hesitation from their growing fanbase, either. A few weeks after the song’s initial release, the band released an accompanying video, which quickly passed the million views mark and kept climbing. It seems impossible to call them “indie pop” at this point.
Chvrches hail from Glasgow, but they’ve been anywhere but home over the last few years. They call themselves a band born on the internet, and remain a hallmark of the way blog support can translate into real world success. Midway through 2012, a few of their super-charged pop songs blew up on the internet, and a deal with independent powerhouse Glassnote Records quickly followed. After an initial EP, they released their gleaming synth debut The Bones Of What You Believe in late 2013. Bones struck a nerve internationally, selling 500,000 copies to date, and received nearly universal praise. Cook, Doherty, and Mayberry spent two years touring behind the album, and only returned to the studio in January of this year.
They emerged barely six months later with a completely finished record, Every Open Eye, which will be out later this month. It builds upon the post-millennial pop they established on Bones; it’s a rejection of rock guitar machismo in favor of synth-pop confection that hinges on determined, incisive lyrics. Their music straddles boiling, glitchy earworms and nuanced, minimal throwbacks, before pirouetting away from both camps in favor of big-sky wildness. Navigating between these conflicting concepts is a conscious choice for Chvrches, one they make even more deliberately on this second album. A spotlight has also fallen on their female vocalist for speaking out loudly and forcefully against the misogynistic threats, objectification, and slut-shaming she’s endured since their breakout. She penned an op-ed for The Guardian in 2013 about the abuse she’s faced since the band’s rise to fame and she regularly highlights the sexually explicit messages that spam the band’s social media accounts. Mayberry refuses to quietly accept this behavior as status quo. In case the title of her band’s new album didn’t make it clear, Chvrches are not planning to shy away from any of it.
Instead, they seem more determined than ever, and have greeted their developing high-profile status with a resolute sense of calm. Mostly, that calm emerges from the tight-knit, supportive relationship between the three band members. The group’s sense of unity is apparent as they’re paraded around Spotify’s midtown office, shuffled through poses on vibrant art deco furniture, enlisted to autograph corporate relics, and take pictures with one truly ecstatic employee who stumbled upon their visit accidentally. Many people talk to them, but through the noise, it’s evident they’re listening mostly to each other, cocooned in a private world together even as they play the role of band on display. And no matter how many times their petite, big-eyed vocalist is thrust forward as a sort of frontwoman, Mayberry adamantly shirks the distinction. This is a band, they all insist. Their bond as such has been forged in many ways: on their initial endless tour that spanned over 350 sets in two years, by uniting to fight against the misogyny Mayberry has faced in her crusade against sexism, and through the shared, willful decision to embrace pop after years of working in decidedly different genres.
Walking from midtown offices toward the milder climes of Manhattan’s reclaimed train track park, the High Line, they reflect on the newfound sense of band-as-family Chvrches helped them forge. “When you work so closely together it becomes a family of sorts,” Doherty says. “We have a high level of understanding about each other, knowing at everyone’s core we’re friends, and teammates effectively. That I can call both these people friends after three years is amazing, considering many professional bands that have been together that long — some shorter — hardly even speak to each other.” Touring is one of those all-encompassing experiences that makes or breaks a band, and in this case, it brought Mayberry, a relative stranger, into the friendship shared by Doherty and Cook. “Iain and I just walked down the street and did a weird, sitcom-style not really talking about it but passing the bag, passing the water, passing the bag back kind of exchange,” Mayberry says. “You can’t have exchanges like that unless you’ve spent so much time with each other. It’s like a swapping the sections of the paper at breakfast kind of vibe.”
The demand for the band as a touring act following its debut surprised the trio, who began Chvrches solely as a studio project. Mostly, they started it as a source of relief from many other frustrated attempts to break into the industry. “It was really liberating to work with these guys, with the top off basically,” is how Cook describes it. “Because we do love pop music and we love classic songwriting through the ages. A great song is a great song, and we have a sense of freedom to make something you can actually sing along to, rather than being constrained by these notions of cool or whatever else.” Mayberry was singing in a folk-leaning local group called Blue Sky Archives when she met Cook, who was producing an EP for the band. Cook is a prolific producer who also wrote music for TV and film. He was a founding member of Scottish post-rock bands Aereogramme and the Unwinding Hours, and continued working in that milieu for over a decade before shifting his attention to Chvrches. Doherty’s initial project Julia Thirteen occupied that same kind of sonic territory, but burnt out after a few years. Doherty then put in time as a touring member of heart-on-your-sleeve indie-emo collective the Twilight Sad (a Stereogum Band To Watch in 2006), and joined Cook in Aerogramme for a stint before that group broke up. These bands didn’t necessarily struggle because of the kind of music they made, but taken together, they lack something Chvrches has achieved — balance. As Stereogum critic Tom Breihan noted in our Album Of The Week feature on their debut album, there’s echoes of tragic, beaten down indie rock here, but they’re paired with sharp, clean synth pop, huge choruses and big hooks. Aereogramme and the Twilight Sad put misery right out in the open, while Chvrches only hint at it, always keeping the sweetness of pop high in the mix.
“We’re making the music that pleases our ears first and foremost,” Doherty says. “This is not a stadium pop project. A lot of that stuff is very well-polished — and deliberately so — to appeal specifically to a demographic, and we’re not about that. We’re not designing this music to appeal to 12-year-olds. Sometimes I’ll hear a pop song on the radio and think ‘Oh, I love that melody.’ But I’ll wince a little bit, because everything is just so clean, the notes are so in tune, there’s no character or personality. I don’t like the idea of making music without personality, without rough edges. Something we actively try to do is to blur that line. With that comes aggression and the roughness. We’re channeling our own tastes and our own personalities.” Even so, the recent tilt toward an acceptance of pop in critical and independent circles dubbed “poptimism” is part of the reason the band felt free enough to embrace that proclivity in itself. “I think there’s been a kind of sea change about the legitimacy of pop music globally,” Cook says. “I think it’s symptomatic of the internet and the way people are consuming music. It’s a great thing, and maybe something that subconsciously spurred us to do this in the first place. Like holy shit, it’s okay to like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Britney Spears.”
If pop has been defined by vapidity, Chvrches continue to puzzle at the edges of that unraveling preconception. The synth explosions, warped keyboard blasts, and crisp flitting of Mayberry’s looped alto — these are the elements that make Chvrches pop. The slight minimalism, compact melodies. And then, the lyrics. Innocence, conflict, loss, stubbornness, conversations unfurling over the course of a chorus, shame and regret, guilt and desire, anger and joy. Their music reflects the complex and complicated world of an adult rendered in a sparkle of universal pleasure. Like most songs by the Glaswegian trio, their new single “Leave A Trace” is a sharp-tongued kiss-off coated in sugary, crackling synths and massive, airy beats. “Take care to tell it just how it was / Take care to tell on me for the cause,” Mayberry urges. Harmonies thrum electric through the words like a swarm of bees, arching toward epiphany: “I know I need to feel released.” The entire ethos of this band leans, yearns toward that moment. I know I need to feel released. It’s a desire for freedom, and a shared sense of defiance, that united them.
There’s been a kind of sea change about the legitimacy of pop music globally. Like holy shit, it’s okay to like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Britney Spears.
Instead of feeling like compromise, the move toward pop felt more like an act of courage, an act of release. “I think all of us are strong enough personalities to have done this, but only because we eventually found the right people,” Doherty says of the transition. “Especially in your late teens and early twenties, your musical path often just happens to you. Before you know it, you’re five years into a band and a dynamic, whether you like it or not. And we were just lucky to find people who had the same level of confidence and shared the same passions at the right time.” Bones was built on that confidence, and the excitement in pursuing something new; Every Open Eye refines those impulses. They opted to record their second album in the exact same fashion as before, working alone in Cook’s basement studio.
After two years away from the studio, the group came to the new songs quickly, without any of the ennui or fear that can bog down sophomore releases. “I was thinking about why people are always worried about their second album,” Doherty continues. “I think it’s because the first album comes too early for a lot of people. You have people who have never tasted failure in music, they don’t know what it feels like to fail. They’re so terrified. I’ve failed so badly before and it was fucking horrible, I never want to go there again. So instead of wallowing in that, I took every negative experience and made it a lesson. By the time we made this second album — or even the first album never felt like we were making a debut record — it felt like we were drawing on all that experience already.”
Every Open Eye. Say it to yourself under your breath like a spell. It’s the garbage compactor of fame smashed into three small words, or, it’s a steely creed of resolve. Chvrches’ second album title could be read as a sigh of unwanted pressure, as wry determination, or, something halfway in between. There’s something rebellious about it, something all-encompassing. It’s an unflinching work that stares down indie disdain for music that sounds candy-sweet catchy. Pop is often looked at as the lowest common denominator in music, an appeal to a baser part of the human experience. But nothing about this band bows at the final, trite altar of polished-to-banality pop itself. These are lush, complex songs flecked with anger, wonder, and fierce imagery. They erupt like volcanic euphoria.
When Bones was released in 2013, such a strict juxtaposition of emotionally intelligent lyrics and bombastic, addictive melodies felt new. Since then, countless other synth-pop acts have worked out the formula Chvrches helped introduce on Bones and adhere to on Every Open Eye. Maybe it’s self-control and self-determination that stands as the final distinction between “indie pop” and “pop stars” in our fractured genre marketplace. It’s hard to imagine Mayberry — or Cook and Doherty for that matter — with a handler. In fact, Chvrches might be the most obvious example in contemporary culture of the gaping divide between insular expectations of indie and alternative scenes, and the shiny smooth world of mainstream pop. Naturally, the ideologies behind each of those factions are often in direct conflict. “I think there’s something perversely pleasurable about confounding people’s expectations about us,” Cook says. “We aren’t able to fit into a box. We don’t really conform to any other types of bands. That’s a good thing, though.”
Even if defying expectations can be enjoyable, and fulfilling, the brunt of these expectations fall on Mayberry. “We come from a more alternative rock band background, and it’s interesting to see the things that people think we should or shouldn’t do since our music is a little bit poppier,” she says. “They think we’re an indie rock band, so we should be a certain way. People have said it’s hypocritical for me to call myself a feminist, and make the kind of music we are making, because we signed to a major in the UK and that system objectifies women. Or people have complained that I don’t dance. But I like the idea that I can stomp around the stage if I want. Some of the most powerful female performers I’ve seen balance the feminine and the masculine and are incredibly strong. Like I think Hayley Williams is one of the best rock performers. She struts up and down that stage, and she can play mostly male-fronted bands right off the stage, but she does it without any dancing or choreography. If she wanted to — cool! But she doesn’t. It’s great to see someone being really individual.”
Upon the release of Chvrches’ “Leave A Trace” video last month, Mayberry’s insistence on her individuality came under fire. The notoriously vile online community 4chan began a thread about her attire in the clip and tweeted it at her. Again, in the face of misogynists trying simultaneously objectify and slut-shame her, she didn’t flinch. Instead, she shared the link on Twitter, writing: “Dear anyone who thinks misogyny isn’t real. It is and this is what it looks like.” In one of her previous posts, Mayberry shared a rape threat on Instagram along with this message: “Bring it on motherfuckers. Let’s see who blinks first.” That same courage inhabits Every Open Eye. It’s this element that makes the band such a fascinating part of the current music scene, and by extension, the cultural climate.
But these recent comments are by no means the start of the conversation about feminism for Mayberry, who worked as a journalist before Chvrches became her full-time career. In October of 2012 she founded a feminist collective called Tuck Your Cunt In, TYCI, which is a phrase that she characterizes as subversively akin to “man up.” She started TYCI to support female musicians and artists, and describes it as a platform that serves to help women “break down misguided notions of feminism and gender boundaries.”
TYCI is still active today, and mostly run by a team of women handpicked by Mayberry. That background helps provide context for her more widely-publicized Guardian piece, which catapulted those kinds of conversations to an international stage by asking: Why is it the status quo for women in the spotlight to face violent, sexually explicit messages from men? And why does the fact that they come via the internet diminish our urgency about protecting women from them? Mayberry’s decision to present her unflinching feminism as just as relevant to the conversation as the band’s music is nearly unprecedented.
As her roots in TYCI indicate, Mayberry’s feminism is a core part of her musical persona, and has been from the beginning, unlike many pop stars who invoked feminism as a buzzword. Still, the fact that Beyoncé performed in front of a giant screen bearing the word “FEMINIST” is important to her due to the power of who that message will reach. “All those fucking thinkpieces about whether it’s a big deal that Beyoncé had a feminist sign behind her are just hot air at a certain point,” Mayberry says. “Because it is a big deal. She’s one of the highest earning musicians in the world and she is a black woman — that is a massive deal. And the fact that she’s talking about those things in that context, whether or not she’s your ideal definition of what a feminist is, it’s still a big deal. She’s reaching loads of young girls that other artists can’t. If you were 12 and Beyoncé was up onstage saying to you, ‘You get to do exactly whatever you want to do’ that would be awesome. I wish she said it to me when I was 12.”
People have said it’s hypocritical for me to call myself a feminist, and make the kind of music we are making.
While incidents like newly-declared feminist Taylor Swift inserting herself into a conversation started by Nicki Minaj about race and the VMAs have hinted at some of the underlying issues with white feminism, Mayberry is adamant in her stance as an intersectional feminist. “I’m very lucky — and you’re very lucky — that people listen to us when we talk about feminist issues,” Mayberry says. “But also, I’m a straight white girl so it’s easier for a lot of people to swallow what I say. Generally speaking, from what I can tell and from listening to people that I know — listening to women of color, listening to queer and trans people — this has to be a conversation that we all have. It can’t be separate and segregated in the way that feminism was in the past.”
This is an obstacle that the conversation about feminism seems to butt up against repeatedly, and one that concerns anyone with a vested interest in the core tenets of equality and respect. Outlets like Twitter have helped proliferate the voices of non-white women who have been marginalized or shut down, and a recent focus on transgender, female-identifying, and gender nonconforming communities has also helped widen the scope of the movement. Certainly, the openness and dedication of figures like Mayberry plays a crucial role in this process as well.
And as the tide begins to shift against outdated sexist notions about the role of women in society, Mayberry welcomes the inclusion of any and all voices that are attempting to further the cause she cares about so passionately. “I feel positive about it,” she says of the accelerating emphasis on intersectional feminism that encompasses all women regardless of race, gender identity or sexual orientation. “Change is always partial, and it always starts in small degrees. But I feel like the fact that even in the last few years there’s way more talk about it in the world is really important. Start small, as you say. Consider if someone read something Taylor Swift said about feminism and thought ‘Oh I wonder what that is,’ and started thinking about it, and saw it in their own life, and started thinking about how they treat other women. That stuff has kind of a snowball effect. Maybe between all of us we can change it.”
As Mayberry attempts to speak out about the double standards she’s encountered, part of her strength comes from having the support of her bandmates to use Chvrches as a feminist platform in a non-conventional way. “I remember the day I posted the first screengrab thing,” she says. “It was like a couple of days before the record came out and we were playing a gig in London. We finished up a shoot and I went on my phone to post about the show, and saw some horrible shit. I went to the restroom to have a panic attack. The guys were at the door saying ‘We have to go do promotion, what’s going on?’ I remember just crying. Then they saw, and both said ‘Wow this is way worse than I thought it was.’ And to know that these guys are really supportive of me, and have always said it’s up to me what I want to do has helped immensely. I think a lot of people would be more worried about how my speaking up would affect the band, how it would affect how we’re perceived. But they always were supportive of whatever I wanted to do. And then we always talk about it. It affects each of us.”
Cook and Doherty echo this sentiment, and note how misogyny is hurtful to them too, even if sharing her experience has enlightened them in telling ways. “Chvrches is like a family,” Cook says. “If it hurts Lauren then it hurts us deeply too, even if we aren’t being directly affected.” For plenty of men, their exposure to the kind of abuse women face on a daily basis only crystalizes when women share their experiences. So Mayberry’s insistence on putting it out in the open has educated them, too. “On a base level, we support Lauren,” Doherty says. “That’s the first and foremost point. Not much prejudice really exists in my life for race, creed, sex. So when someone attacks Lauren it makes me way more aware of those issues and way more conscious of those issues. Issues that perhaps, because of my day-to-day life, wouldn’t be brought to my attention. That can only be a good thing. It makes me a more thoughtful person, it makes me a more politically aware person. When we’re in this band, if we can be a force for good in any respect, then we should be doing that, as human beings first and foremost. Of course then it’s also like a pack and if someone attacks the pack — if you fuck with one member of this band you fuck with us all.”
On an excellent, late album track called “Bury It,” Mayberry howls through the chorus: “Bury it / bury it / bury it / and rise above.” This mantra could apply to anything and everything the band has faced down, from its musical sensibilities to sexist abuse. Many moments on the album dip into anger or aggression in positive, powerful ways, channeling the energy of those emotions back into the music. In that sense, Every Open Eye is fueled by the obstacles that Chvrches have faced and overcome, the words and judgements that have been passed on them. “Looking back on those moments and thinking ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe people say those things,’ that’s kind of what “Leave A Trace” is about,” Mayberry says. “A lot of the record is about looking at where we are now, and the things that we managed to do, and feeling very proud of the fact that we did all this — and that we were incredibly lucky to do it — but that we did it in the way we wanted to. I know it sounds cheesy but if this all went away tomorrow, I’d be okay, because we did it by our rules. It feels incredible.”
A recent sold-out-to-the-point-of-nuisance underplay at Brooklyn’s Music Hall Of Williamsburg demonstrated that there is, in fact, no chance of Chvrches disappearing tomorrow. “Leave A Trace” — the only new track the audience was actually familiar with at that point — elicited a response that transformed the hot and sticky mess of the crowd into a unit sharing a powerful musical memory. And after the song was over, Mayberry returned to the mic to kindly, firmly scold the audience for throwing cups at her. “I don’t come into your workplace and throw things at you. Don’t do that,” she said with authority, before launching into one of the groups’s older, familiar songs. Even there, onstage in the thick of it, she was making a statement about the way she should be treated, taking a stance that will endure far into the future. Around her, Chvrches’ synth-pop billowed like a sail, tied to the masthead of her voice. The crowd was almost an even split, male and female, mostly young people. And they were all listening.