Chvrches: ‘It only takes two seconds to say: I don’t agree with white supremacy’

The Glaswegian synth-pop trio rose to fame on the back of relentless touring, even as frontwoman Lauren Mayberry fended off online abuse. Their new album finds them aiming for the top

Lauren Mayberry has two boiled eggs waiting for her at home. Chvrches are about to go on tour for a year and a half, and she wants the protein. When I first met the band, in a Thistle hotel in east London in 2012, Mayberry was strengthening her diaphragm for the demands of singing live. On the back of their debut album, they played 365 dates in two years and the diaphragm worked out fine.

Chvrches could not have known, sitting in that unremarkable hotel, what direction their rise to fame would take. Mayberry is a frontwoman developing in plain sight, through a well-publicised struggle with particularly vicious internet trolls to where she is now: living in New York and making records with wizard producer Greg Kurstin. There have been some impressive associations along the way: being interviewed by Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney; campaigning for girls’ empowerment with Amy Poehler; support slots for Depeche Mode. She is coming to terms with the fact that if you are famous, you will always be someone’s projection. “I definitely fall into one of two categories,” she says brightly, sucking an ice tea. “Diminutive, wet-blanket snowflake or angry feminist bitch.”

The band made their name in 2012 when a mysterious and tuneful song called The Mother We Share appeared on music website Fader with no information at all as to who they were, save to say they were two guys and a girl. The formula was powerful: emotional lyrics (by Mayberry, then 24, sung in a pure and slightly intergalactic Scottish soprano); big, bittersweet tunes, and the kind of synths that suggested a nerdish life immersed in Prince, Eurythmics and Cocteau Twins. At that point in the history of music and the internet, a band with no background information was a novelty. Six years later, Chvrches still haven’t had any top 10 singles, but are world-famous: a strange trajectory they might finally be in a position to explain.

Martin Doherty sidles up behind Mayberry at the coffee shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He lives 97 paces from Mayberry, who moved to New York from Glasgow in 2015. Doherty is 35, dry, with a strong brogue and a Socratic way of talking about his band. “Have we ever had a top 10 single anywhere? No. Have we had consistent play on US radio? Absolutely.” His girlfriend, who helps the band with costumes, has been scouting branches of Zara in the 33C heat for a couple of shirts and hands Doherty a spotty one which he is quite content to wear.

The “other guy” in Chvrches – Iain Cook – waits for us in his studio across town. Anyone who’s paid attention to the band over the years knows that they like to shed light on the perils of rock photography – girl in the front and men in the background, slightly out of focus. Doherty and Cook suffer their own kind of stereotyping: of similar height and build, with similar facial hair, people are sometimes not sure which is which. (“On the simplest level, I am the topline writer and Iain is producer,” says Doherty. “But it’s much more complicated than that.”)

Their third album, Love Is Dead, sounds like a bid for the top 10. Songs are cleaner, with more space, a bit more anthemic – more “direct”, Chvrches concede. A duet with Matt Berninger of the National is cool, minimalist and full of air. Eight of 12 songs were produced by Kurstin, most famous for work with Adele, Lily Allen and Foo Fighters. It is a sign of the band’s strong-headedness that they did some sessions with Dave Stewart, but then decided not to use any of his songs.

Apart from the pollen count twice that of Glasgow, New York has been good to Mayberry, who enjoys the anonymity, being able to “mind my own business and be off-grid a bit”. Her boyfriend, the actor Justin Long, has just told her about the Chappaquiddick incident, when Teddy Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Massachusetts in 1969, swam free but left his 28-year-old female passenger inside. For Mayberry, the key point is: he was still allowed to continue in politics. Whether she likes it or not, she is always “on”. She talks about the rebrand of Playboy magazine: “I know women who are saying it’s really empowering. You can’t reclaim the concept of Playboy: you’ve all got fucking Stockholm syndrome!”

She suspected Trump would get in when she watched the presidential debate that aired after the pussygrabbing incident. “The approval ratings were still up, and people were still listening. They’re talking about illegitimate babies and affairs now, but people didn’t care at the time that he bragged about assaulting women, so…” She still gets a shock when she sees signs saying “no concealed weapons in this movie theater”. She spoke out against Florida senator Marco Rubio’s gun control policy recently in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, and got a tweet from someone who threatened to come to a Chvrches show with an AK47. “Rubio is a weasel,” Mayberry says. She grew up 10 miles away from Dunblane, and was eight at the time of the school shooting there.

Mayberry – who wrote her master’s thesis on images of femininity in women’s magazines – has drawn attention to the gendered language that people unthinkingly use to describe female musicians. A (female) MTV journalist called her a “heartbreaker”; in 2012, I thought nothing of calling her “formidable” – a word often used by men to describe women who scare them a bit. In the intervening years, something has changed. If you write too much about the way a female singer looks now, you look a bit silly.

She says that being “short” automatically makes her the cute, infantilised little girl, but her outspokenness results in the “angry” tag and confuses people. “Do you make yourself unpalatable and find yourself out at sea?”, she says to me. “Or do you take internet breaks, when too many people Photoshop cum on your face?”

This last example happened recently, for which reason she is currently “not on the internet”. When Chvrches started out, she used to read all the comments from fans because she managed the band’s Facebook page. When the rape threats started, she screen-grabbed and retweeted them. She got immediate responses: “This isn’t rape culture. You’ll know rape culture when I’m raping you, bitch,” said one. She wrote a piece for the Guardian, in 2013, about online sexism, years before #MeToo made the discussion commonplace: “My hopes are that if anything good comes out of this, it will start a conversation… encouraging others to reject an acceptance of the status quo,” she said. To anyone who asks whether she makes things worse for herself by responding to the trolls, she replies that such questions are part of the problem.

We meet the week before R Kelly was removed from Spotify under their new “hateful conduct” policy, and I ask her why #MeToo was yet to take on the music industry. “The film world feels like a smaller world than music,” she says, “and it’s unionised in a way that music isn’t, and everyone knows each other – actors will be going up for the same jobs. In music, everyone’s working on their own separate projects. Who’s the person you complain to?

Watch the video for Miracle by Chvrches.

“I don’t want to sound negative here but I don’t know any lady that was surprised by #MeToo. But I do feel that if you’re lucky enough to already be successful in the industry, you must put your money where your mouth is. If you continue to work with certain directors, or certain producers, then you’re saying a thing, but not being the thing. You can’t turn around and make money from exactly the same system that’s oppressing everybody else.” She pauses, looking a bit melancholic. “See, this is why I can’t have a nice time…”

The unsavoury individuals have not altogether disappeared, and the band now has a list of the names, photos and locations of certain people (“the ones who are the most aggressive and delusional”), which is handed to a security company on tour for due diligence. Venues can’t exclude paying customers unless they’ve actually done something – so, surreally, these chaps come in to watch the show, flanked by security guards. “It’s just someone on the internet till it’s not,” Mayberry says.

“You can’t come to our shows and not be aware of this stuff now. We made this a thing that we talked about. You’re always getting ‘girl in a band’ questions, so at least have a constructive conversation about it. It doesn’t take that long, you know? It only takes two seconds of your life to say: ‘I don’t agree with white supremacy. I don’t agree with homophobia.’ I think about politics, so it would be inauthentic not to talk about it.”

For their new album, Chvrches “speed-dated” several potential producers in LA before settling on one they liked. One was so far off the mark that they ended up watching a Metallica documentary under blankets on the sofa to recover from the shock of trying to work with him. Doherty won’t reveal who that producer was but adds, grinning: “I know for a fact that they really work for one person. If I was a directionless vocalist who had just had a shit-ton of styling done, and I looked amazing and sounded amazing and had no idea what I wanted to do, I would go to him and have an amazing career!”

On their very first day working with Dave Stewart, one of the band’s electro-pop gods, a strange thing happened. When the time came for Stewart’s customary martini (6pm), he held Mayberry back and fired up a video clip of Milla Jovovich giving a rousing speech in the 1999 film Joan of Arc. Stewart said something to the effect of: “You could be that, but you don’t want to be. I can see it in the interviews, I can see it in the performances, you want to be this thing... but you’re not doing it.”

Mayberry was miffed. “He was making me wax on and wax off!” she says, thinking of Karate Kid. “I was like, what do you mean, Mr Miyagi? Have I not tried hard enough? But he was right. As a frontperson you are the first point of contact for the band. Are you really connecting with people? Maybe you’re just a little downtrodden, and you’re trying 75%. Does 100% feel too vulnerable?”

Stewart taught the band a lot, but they found the sessions felt old when they came to make the record. With Greg Kurstin, there was a particular naturalness in their personal chemistry. They wrote the first single, Get Out, on the first day and then cancelled the rest of the speed dates. Kurstin “felt easy and safe – safe to try out new things,” says Mayberry. “There was a lot of talk about what people were going to have for lunch. It wasn’t someone trying to pull us into their world, or make a pastiche. The people we ended up connecting with most were the British people – Dave, Steve Mac [who produced the track Miracle, widely described as a banger] – and Greg has worked with a ton of British acts. Maybe there was an understanding of that sense of humour, and that sense of melancholy. We never wanted to be the Scottish band that went to LA.”

Chvrches performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016.
Chvrches performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 2016. Photograph: Christie Goodwin/Redferns

Doherty is amused when US radio DJs get excited about meeting Scottish people and reveal a shared heritage four generations ago. “I was relatively miserable in Glasgow,” he says. “I’ll go back there eventually, when this is all done!”

The connection between outsiderdom and pop is long established. Points of rejection occurred for all members of Chvrches. Mayberry wanted – she is embarrassed to say – a Playboy T-shirt at school; the cool girls were wearing them, but her parents didn’t let her buy one. She never befriended the crowd, and started combing the record shops of Stirling on Saturday afternoons. In Europa Music on Friars Street, she found, among the used CDs, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out. A line in the Heath Ledger film 10 Things I Hate About You led her to Bikini Kill and the Raincoats. “Who knows, if I’d been accepted by the girls in the Playboy T-shirts my life could have been very different.”

Doherty spent many years working as live keyboard player for the Glasgow band the Twilight Sad, who never let him join as a member, or write. “I tried to join that band loads of times and I have never felt more rejected in my entire life!” he says. “I guess lot of people’s ambition comes from some kind of professional or social rejection at some point. I thought, I’ll just write my own songs, then. And that was it.”

He was ready to retrain as a history teacher when he started working on early demos with Cook, whom he’d known since 2004, when they studied music at the University of Strathclyde. You start to get the sense there was a real game plan.

“Was there a certain level of awareness? Yes,” Doherty says. “We’re a classic albums band, which is what I always wanted to be. It was all about establishing our identity. We were very protective over that in the beginning. Maybe overly concerned. We were very guarded. The fact that I can talk about it now speaks to how much things have changed.”

Talking to Doherty is a crash course in how to build a band. “What we really understood was that touring would be how we broke the band. It’s done hardcore on the road. But here is this incredible new tool, a force for good and evil, the internet. There was this democracy on SoundCloud at this time, maybe 2011 to 2014, where you could use it as a very pure form of marketing. It was about whether people were interested in what you had to say musically, and nothing else. So did we know that, when we put our songs online with zero details? Yes. I had just spent the last seven years being highly available and getting nowhere for it. Be less available and you will become more interesting!” After The Mother We Share, Chvrches gigs started to sell out. Then there was a slot on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Now, for album three, they’re waiting; watching the streams and the dates booking up – 5,000-seaters mainly, across America, Europe and Japan.

Listen to My Enemy by Chvrches ft Matt Berninger of the National.

Together we head 20 minutes across town to the neighbourhood of Bushwick, an area still considered, in the words of Chvrches’ Glaswegian manager, rather spicy: there are lockups, food stores and a huge pile of road salt in an orange hangar, alongside coffee shops peopled by prescription-strength hipsters. In the most ironic of moments, a graffiti tour passes us, its guide yelling through a loudhailer: “this is not a graffiti tour.”

“Painfully cool,” agrees Cook, sitting in his small studio, a unit in a local collective, with a psychotherapist across the corridor (“That would have been useful a year or two ago,” says Mayberry). They wrote 45 songs in here last year, only three of which made it on to the album: My Enemy (the duet with Matt Berninger), Really Gone and God’s Plan, no relation to the Drake song. Cook’s mixing desk is decorated with Michael Jackson bubblegum cards from a local flea market, and a model ET. Cook, who at 43 is the band elder, was lecturing and writing film and ad music after his time in the Glaswegian band Aereogramme when he first brought Mayberry in to work on some demos. Now, his baby has taken off. But getting an outside producer in?

“It was really hard because it took us years to get to this point,” he says. “It was great with Greg, because it felt like we had another member of the band – but I’d be saying, ‘you’re stealing my shit!’ The whole time we were in Greg’s studio, I never sat down at a computer.” Instead he was doing keyboards, bass and writing melodies. “For the first sessions I was thinking, ‘I’m really not sure how I feel about this!’ Then I learned to help the process, rather than sit around wondering what to do.”

Cook misses Glasgow more than the others. He’s giving up his Brooklyn flat when they go on tour and moving his stuff home for a while – “It’s really expensive to live in New York,” he says (he can’t be doing with Airbnb). A naturally retiring type, he came off social media six months ago, deleting Facebook and Twitter. “What good can come of it?”

He was shocked by the level of abuse that Mayberry got online, “and the debate has caught up with us. I really can’t see things going back to being as bad as they were.”

He is happiest talking about Kurstin’s recording equipment. Kurstin would “pull toys from his cupboard” to show them, like a LinnDrum II drum machine, “which is what Prince used in Purple Rain, and Cocteau Twins used in the 80s”. You can hear it in Never Say Die on the new album – “in verse two, when the percussion gets weird”.

Chvrches have had songs on Gray’s Anatomy, CSI, Mr Robot and Lucifer – but still no top 10 single. “Who isn’t interested in a hit record?” Cook blinks. “Surely everybody wants that?”

Martin Doherty, Lauren Mayberry and Iain Cook of Chvrches.
Martin Doherty, Lauren Mayberry and Iain Cook near their studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photograph: Christopher Lane for Observer New Review

It is time for the photoshoot, and the test shots are over quickly for the men, as you might expect. In their Zara shirts, Doherty and Cook stand on the street discussing how strange it is that Doherty doesn’t remember either the Garbage Pail Kids or Magic Eye pictures, when Mayberry emerges in a pink dress with a pair of heavy black boots. Clive James wrote about her boots once, wondering why any angel as wildly delicate would be wearing them. He contrasted Mayberry with Taylor Swift: “Whereas Lauren very properly gets fighting mad if any poor dumb male critic calls her the cheesecake element of Chvrches, Taylor is unashamed about concentrating into her image every element of cheesecake in the patisserie.” Back in 2012, Mayberry told me that “we never wanted to be two producers and a girl who wears some shoes”.

Now, Mayberry occupies a unique space whereby even the smallest gesture – putting on a frock – is a political act. “I can look back at pictures of us and trace the mental health issues,” she says. “At first we were having fun – the early press shots are a bit more theatrical and escapist. Then I started wearing baggier and baggier clothing, and less and less makeup, trying to make myself as inoffensive as possible, and it didn’t change anything – if anything, the online abuse increased. A couple of days before the first record came out I was sitting in a hotel room thinking: ‘I am so over this, and yet it is what I have wanted to do since I was 17.’”

In summer 2015, she attracted more trolls because she wore a dress in the video for a song called Leave a Trace. Shorts and T-shirt made sense as a feminist, it seemed, but not a black frock and heels. “Hypocritical... slut... bitch... whore...” they said. “Cavemen,” she retorted.

“I see this across all aspects of culture, especially with a particular type of female artist,” Doherty told me earlier. “I don’t totally understand it. It is very deep and very complex and very fucked-up.”

And so begins an hour-long promenade around the spicy Bushwick and its famous graffiti. But this is no ordinary photoshoot. Over a long walk, the band diplomatically repel the requests of the photographer – girl on her own, girl with arm over her head. They’re asked to stand in front of graffiti saying “Diva”: “that’s not really our thing,” says Doherty. At the end of the shoot, the photographer requests a Mexican wave for his personal collection. He’s got a sequence of such photos – some former presidents have taken part, he says. “Maybe they should get back to work,” suggests Mayberry, calling time.

Love Is Dead is out on Virgin Records in the UK and Glassnote Records in the US on Friday

This article was updated on 21 May 2018 to amend the title of a media outlet that interviewed Mayberry and to add the title of the s
ong Really Gone.


Kate Mossman

The GuardianTramp

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