Chvrches: Music for the masses?

The Glasgow trio's rough-edged, noncomformist take on synthpop is, they say, not 'DIY or die'

'You see so many bands regress and become like children, getting told what to do," rails Lauren Mayberry, the lead singer in Glaswegian electronic three-piece Chvrches. "I'm not in the business of telling people 'DIY or die' but I do think it's important to be as hands-on with what you're doing as possible. Sometimes if you don't take the easy option it'll pay dividends in the long run."

Mayberry's words often make Chvrches seem like an uncommercial proposition. But while their brand of bashful, synth-driven pop may be a little rough around the edges(and their seemingly sweet lyrics tinged with ulterior motive), they are hardly a niche prospect. Just check the stats: number five on the BBC Sound of 2013 poll, sold-out headline shows in the US, more than 1m YouTube plays on their mammoth single Recover. Indeed, you could file them alongside the smart, chart-focused electronica of the Human League or La Roux.

It seems the band's insurrectionist side comes more from their approach. Unlike most new bands – who will say yes to everything from interviews with celeb mags to posing for sponsored Instagrams – Chvrches spend most of their time saying no. Mayberry, for instance, refuses to be interviewed by Grazia or its ilk, or to be profiled separately from her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty.

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Much of their refusal to compromise stems from the fact that Chvrches could quite easily do other things than be in Chvrches. Cook studied architecture for a few years, before becoming a composer for children's television and TV adverts, as well as playing in brooding post-Britpop band Aereogramme. Doherty had played in a string of cult Scottish bands, including shoegazing industrialists The Twilight Sad. After completing a four-year law course, Mayberry took a master's in journalism, with a dissertation about the portrayal of women in the media. She worked as a freelance journalist at the Big Issue and the Independent ("but never The Guardian, you guys would never take me"). She's given up the journalism now, although she says she still occasionally feels a pang of editorial anger when she reads reviews of the band: "I want to send it back and tell them to restructure."

Friends from Strathclyde University, Cook and Doherty wanted to work on something more upbeat than the bands they had played for in the past. Exploring a shared love of Prince and Donna Summer, they started to make big, emotional electronica, initially singing on the tracks themselves. When Cook brought Mayberry into the studio to record a few guide vocals, they muted their own voices and Chvrches (so spelt to make the band more Googleable) were born. "From the off, it's been a really democratic process," says Mayberry. "We've all got different cheese radars, so sometimes we employ a veto system and that stops thing going awry."

Their latest single Gun is a perfect example of how to make pop and avoid the pitfalls of triteness and cliché. It has plenty of nods to big Whitney Houston-style productions, yet keeps an uneasy edge – Mayberry cooing "I am going to come for you, with everything I have," sounding equal parts infatuated and vengeful, the ambiguity reaching a crescendo over handclaps and tweaking synths.

Once in the group, it was Mayberry who took charge of their cynical stance, giving the rest of the band a reading list on the workings of the music industry. When the band first attracted A&R attention Mayberry was appalled by how many wanted to bring her front and centre. "One guy came to a show, and was like: 'You're going to be huge. I can see it in my mind's eye, we could make you the next Pixie Lott.' I did an internal scream and ran away."

Sometimes her critique is less than contemporary – while trying to make a point about what counts as pop she references Pop Idol and Popstars: The Rivals, shows both a decade old – and she can seem overcautious, telling me not to mention the brand of suncream she applies during the interview.

"I guess at the end of the day I want to be viewed as a musician," Mayberry concludes: "Maybe I am super-paranoid about it. But after this is all done, I want to be able to say that we did it in the way we wanted to do it."


Sam Wolfson

The GuardianTramp

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