Scotland’s finest synth-pop export CHVRCHES (Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty) has returned returned today (May 25) with their excellent third album Love Is Dead.
If it feels like a while since we’ve heard from CHVRCHES, who stopped touring towards the end of 2016 — which in a fan’s mind can roughly translate to a band disappearing off the face of the earth — it’s only because they were busy focusing on this next effort. Mayberry did go on a holiday before getting back in the studio, though: “I went to an island in the Bahamas full of iguanas. You don’t live on the island, obviously, because it’s solely populated by iguanas and it’s not allowed. It’s kind of like a reserved area for these giant, fuck-off iguanas.”
The band then convened in early 2017 to begin writing. “There weren’t really a lot of preconceived ideas going in,” Mayberry says. “We just kind of get in there and start doing things, and the direction of it makes itself apparent after the fact.” Doherty adds, “You just get in there and challenge yourself every day to write the best song you can write. That’s the kind of process that we’ve always used.”
The trio also worked with producer Greg Kurstin (whose staggering resume includes Adele, Tegan and Sara and Foo Fighters) on a bulk of Love Is Dead’s tracklist. “It was nuts. It was electric, being in his space,” Doherty says, and Cook shakes his head in awed memory: “The way his brain works musically is unlike anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Mayberry then brings up the misconceptions people have about big-name producers. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got Greg Kurstin,’ and talk about him as if he’s like this big pop factory producer,” she says. “That belittles how good a musician he is, and the musicianship of what he’s doing. He doesn’t just go in with one thing and apply that to everybody; he’s such an intuitive person, and he listens. I feel like when people are like, “You’ve got the big pop guy,’ I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t think that’s really fair to say that.’ It kind of undermines the talent of him, and the level of collaboration that’s going on.
“These are still CHVRCHES’ songs — he would never even step in on the toplines unless we had all hit a wall,” she continues. “And he would never go, ‘You should just do this.’ He’s not really like that. His keyboard playing is so inspiring that I really feel like you can just jam all day. I genuinely felt like he was coaxing the best melodies out of everybody, out of me, without saying a word. That was really empowering and really special to me.”
CHVRCHES’ first two records — 2013’s The Bones of What You Believe and 2015’s Every Open Eye — are named after lyrics from certain songs, but Mayberry thought the third effort deserved something “slightly more theatrical,” and landed on a phrase that sums up the story she wanted to tell.
“It was supposed to be a little jarring. And I don’t get up every day and agree with [the phrase] every single day, but fucking some days I do,” Mayberry says. “It’s supposed to be a starting point for the conversation that happens across the record. Somebody is trying to figure out why they feel the way they do and you don’t necessarily have an answer, but you’re trying to wade through that frustration and confusion — and what do you do with all that once you know.”
The band recorded Love Is Dead in New York, London and Los Angeles, writing over 40 songs in total (there are enough unheard demos for “a proper full-on guitar album,” Doherty says) and self-producing three of them. For “My Enemy” featuring The National’s Matt Berninger, “God’s Plan” and “Really Gone,” Doherty says that they were able to see these tracks through to the end of the process after six months of writing and recording. (Asked about that decision, he’s quick with a joke: “It was cheap.”)
But self-production is actually how CHVRCHES operated in the very beginning, with Doherty and Cook bringing their technological backgrounds from their time in other bands to the table. “I always felt like I had those skills at a certain level and a high opinion of what I thought I could achieve, but you need to find your perfect collaborator to lift you,” Doherty explains of the days before the band became official. “Iain and I were getting together as mates because we always said we would, and I was at the point where I was about to quit the music business, because I felt like a failure and I had no prospects. Then we wrote those songs and they were coming out quite fully formed and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe we can do this.’”
CHVRCHES is touring all summer and fall, with a stop at New York City’s Governors Ball on June 3. It’s a rain check, if you will, from 2016, when the festival had to cancel the Sunday lineup — including a headlining set by Kanye West — due to thunderstorms. “I’m going to be so pissed if we get rained off again, honestly,” Doherty laughs.
When it comes to the band’s live show these days, putting together a setlist is tricky, “There are songs that you love on the record and they just don’t work live. It’s more about the emotional arc of it, what you need for that moment and what fits. You don’t want it to be all new album stuff,” Mayberry says. Indeed, the band is practiced at finding a balance between fresh songs that are exciting to play, and old favorites that the crowd has a foot-stomping demand for. “We go to enough shows ourselves and watch bands we like to what’s a good mix. As much I respect it — it’s your choice — I kind of hate when it when you turn up and people don’t play any of the songs that a lot of people are there to see. You have to be aware that yes, it’s a creative process for you, but you’re there because people love those songs. So, give the people what they want,” she says.
Finally, the talk turns to Stranger Things; the Internet has argued there’s a resemblance between Mayberry and actor Finn Wolfhard, and though she doesn’t want “to be that guy,” Mayberry would like to remind everyone that she made the joke first. “My friend Ross kind of looks like a grown-up version of Gaten [Matarazzo]. So he was the one that brought it up to me, like, ‘You and I look like the grown-up version of Dustin and Mike.’ So I found a picture of it and posted it when the first season came out and thought it was funny,” she says. “And then somebody from Papa John’s Pizza or something that started this whole thing. So, I was like, ‘Gotta get on board with the joke.’ I don’t think it means that he looks like a 30-year-old woman or vice versa. No teenaged boy wants to be told they look like a 30-year-old chick.”