CHVRCHES' Hype Dreams: Can Blog Buzz Produce A Hit Album?
The Scottish alt-pop trio captured the Internet's attention with its first singles. Next up: a Glassnote debut with high expectations.
On July 18, the members of Chvrches strode onstage at the Stadio San Siro football stadium in Milan for a sold-out show with nearly 58,000 people in attendance, according to Billboard Boxscore. The performance was nearly one year to the day since the Scottish synth-pop trio had performed its first show together. At that point, the group had released five songs commercially, compared with the 300 tracks released by the band Chvrches were opening for, Depeche Mode.
The humble members of Chvrches -- Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty -- swallowed hard and did their best to reach out and touch a football stadium full of unfamiliar alt-rock fans with the songs from their first album, "The Bones of What You Believe," which was more than two months away from release. "If you stop and think about it too much, then it's just going to make you crazy, and you're not going to be able to play the show because you'll be too busy shitting your pants," Mayberry says. Doherty adds, "You step out onto that stage, and you realize that everyone beyond the first number of rows just looks like painted heads. You can't really see anyone, because your brain can't compute it."
It's equally difficult to process a band with a handful of singles to its name reaching stadium status, even as an opening act. But when grandiose phrases like "on the verge," "band to watch" and "rising" have been preceding a group's SEO-friendly moniker in print and online articles for more than a year, that band's appearance at a stadium date prior to the release of its debut album makes a little more sense.
Chvrches call Glasgow, Scotland, home, but the trio may very well have formed in a pressurized hype machine, what with the lavish praise the international blogosphere has heaped upon its first handful of luscious pop singles ahead of the album's Sept. 24 release. Since issuing its first stitch of music online in May 2012, Chvrches have opened for Passion Pit on a U.K. tour, been heralded among the BBC's "Sound of 2013" artists and inked a deal with indie giant Glassnote Records, which has treated the trio as one of its most promising new acts. The band has sold 14,000 copies of its three-song "Recover" single since its March release, according to Nielsen SoundScan; unveiled stark music videos that have garnered more than half a million YouTube views each; and lined up headlining dates at 3,000-capacity venues, mere months after playing club shows.
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These accomplishments have largely resulted from the strength of songs like "Lies," Chvrches' first release; "Recover"; and "The Mother We Share," the lead single from "The Bones of What You Believe." Each song features Mayberry's gently melodic voice melting the chilly electronic textures of keyboardist/singers Cook and Doherty, and all have resonated with tastemakers like Pitchfork, NME and the Guardian. The album is the band's case for sustaining that buzz: With 12 songs written and recorded in a windowless basement studio in Glasgow between late 2011 and early summer 2012, the album attempts to harness that hype and help turn Chvrches into a career act with a relentless appetite for touring, much like their alt-pop forefathers and new friends in Depeche Mode.
"There's a massive other side of the band that we can better represent in a full-length record," Doherty says. "When one song comes to people's attention so quickly, then that's all they can know about the band. After every other song you release on the Internet, everything fully changes-right up to the point until you release a full album, and people finally get the full picture."
The album's title comes from a lyric in the song "Strong Hand" and refers to the raw "creativity and effort" that served as the skeleton for the full-length, according to Mayberry. The frontwoman, who holds degrees in journalism and law, was playing in alternative band Blue Sky Archives when that group recruited Cook, a member of post-rock group Aereogramme, to produce an EP. Cook and Doherty were university pals who had searched for years for a musical outfit to showcase their writing styles, and when Mayberry stopped by to help them with a demo after Cook worked on the Blue Sky Archives project, the threesome started writing together, until officially becoming "a real band" six months later.
"It feels like a lot of hard work and a lot of dead ends over the years have finally come to fruition," says co-manager Campbell McNeil, who played with Cook in the now-defunct Aereogramme. After serving as tour manager for Australian indie-rock band the Temper Trap since 2005, McNeil signed on to manage Chvrches last year with Danny Rogers, who also manages Gotye and the Temper Trap. McNeil had worked closely with Glassnote's Daniel Glass on the Temper Trap, and floated copies of Chvrches' "Lies" and "Recover" to the label head last fall. Glass, in turn, headed to the United Kingdom last November and watched Chvrches perform three times (two solo shows, and one opening for Passion Pit).
"They had a similar quality to Phoenix -- they're a band with nontraditional instruments playing rock music," Glass says, referring to another critically hailed Glassnote act. Chvrches' label deal was announced in mid-January, and the "Recover" single debuted atop Billboard's Hot Singles Sales chart in March.
"The Mother We Share" was always going to be Chvrches' impact single: With the track's chopped vocal chants and blissful hook tying together a tale of sibling rivalry, Glass immediately pegged the breathtaking cut as a "career song." The single was so good, in fact, that it disappeared from streaming services like Spotify after its original release in late 2012 so that Rich Costey (Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine) could mix a new version and "toughen it up a bit" for Chvrches' debut album, according to Glass. "The Mother We Share" was officially released in mid-June as the de facto lead single to "The Bones of What You Believe," and has sold 32,000 downloads.
While the single is bubbling under at alternative radio, the label's strategy for Chvrches is the same one that made Mumford & Sons and Phoenix its flagship acts: nonstop touring, in as many territories as possible. McNeil says that he and Rogers wanted to launch Chvrches worldwide after witnessing firsthand what the Temper Trap achieved with its breakout single, "Sweet Disposition," after touring internationally, and that process began stateside when Chvrches played five packed performances at South by Southwest in March before making their New York debut later that month.
Chvrches' live dates have rarely let up since: The band visited North America, Europe, Australia and Japan for summer festivals after finishing recording in the spring, and are currently trekking across North America before bouncing between Europe and the United States through November. According to McNeil, who credits international booking agent Natasha Bent for landing the four Depeche Mode support dates last July, Chvrches will take a break in December before heading to Australia, Singapore and New Zealand beginning in January. More dates are being mapped out for the fourth quarter, and then, it's summer festival season again in America.
"I'm not going to lie -- the traveling can be difficult," Doherty says. "The idea of getting up at 4 a.m. to go somewhere else is just absurd to me." Mayberry says that she copes with the long hours by making wake-up playlists that include songs by Katy Perry, Nirvana and Le Tigre. "Sometimes I use 'No Scrubs' by TLC," she says, "because I feel like it's a nice early-morning message to myself: Play no games, take no shit, get up, do your day now."
It's a fitting message for a band that must work hard not to join the list of groups hailed by blogs as indie music's next big thing before evaporating in the limelight. Glassnote has been savvy enough to pair Chvrches with the "hip" brands that championed their modest beginnings: NPR will stream the album beginning Sept. 17, after the band filmed a session for Pitchfork last April and made its U.S. TV debut on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" in June. "The Mother We Share" has yet to take hold as a defining single, but Glass, as always, is playing the long game, and thinks that these promotional details reinforce Chvrches' music.
"We're such a patient company here ... and I'm very encouraged by the signs," Glass says. "I think by Christmas we're going to see this band really take off."