The Metro’s stage is emanating neon, but there’s not a glow stick in the house. No lime green tanks or hot pink sweatbands, either. Most people here are dancing to varying degrees of exertion, but all feet are staying confined to personal spaces, and all eyes are deadlocked on the three musicians in front of them. If anybody here has taken molly, they’re hiding it well, and maybe regretting it. This is electronic dance music, but apparently it’s not EDM.
Glasgow’s CHVRCHES is about to wrap up a two-night stop in Chicago, during which they’ve sold out consecutive weekday shows at two of the city’s premiere big-room venues. The previous night’s show at Lincoln Hall, tacked onto their tour due to high demand, drew a near identical swarm of middle-millennials, those in their teens or 30s representing extreme outliers. How each person discovered the band varies: I hear satellite radio, college radio, NPR, and at least one fan who claims to be from the UK, though I wonder exactly how relevant that is. There is one predictably clear winner, though. Most credit a blog or website.
Now the lead singer, Lauren Mayberry, is engaging one of her two synth-playing bandmates in a semi-coherent rant about Kevin Costner and his 1992 film The Bodyguard. Something about being paranoid that one of the red lights on the many video cameras in front of them, which are webcasting the concert live, is really a laser sight for a gun, like in the film. She also thanks a girl in the crowd for answering their Twitter plea to borrow a Maschine MK1, making the show possible, as their own died only a couple of hours earlier.
Minutes later, the final few chopped snippets of her voice at the end of “The Mother We Share” ring out, and with that, they’re off to Columbus. As usual, there’s no encore since they barely have 50 minutes of total material to perform, which Mayberry made sure to remind everyone in advance. Outside, the venue’s marquee advertises tomorrow’s headliner: Icona Pop, the Swedish duo whose megahit “I Love It” peaked at #7 on the U.S. charts last year, and #1 in the U.K. Tickets are still available, it says.
If you want to understand the science of hype in 2013, then good luck, but you might start by looking towards CHVRCHES. In less than two years together, the electro-pop group has ascended the ladder with curiously unbroken efficiency. In May of last year, they took their first step by anonymously releasing one song, “Lies”, online. Ten months later, they won South by Southwest’s Grulke Prize for Developing Non-U.S. Act – for their first U.S. shows as a band. In June, they performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Currently, they have three songs charting internationally. Their Top Star-earning debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, is out this week.
It’s over 90 degrees on an offensively bright Tuesday afternoon in Lincoln Park when Mayberry walks into the tiny upstairs room at Lincoln Hall where I’ve been asked to wait, Walgreens store-brand steam inhaler in tow. “I had to go to three stores just to find one,” she tells me, more triumphant than exasperated. We’re both getting over colds, but neither of us is finicky enough to suggest a bigger room. Her two bandmates, Martin Doherty and Iain Cook, enter right behind her and break the ice with confirmation that it is, indeed, “fuckin’ hot,” the hottest they’ve experienced in a long time.
The band has just arrived in Chicago from Minneapolis. We’re within a couple of hours of soundcheck o’clock already, so we exchange similar pleasantries as they run around for a few more minutes before situating on couches, visibly relieved thanks to multiple fans on full power, and a table of sandwiches and sparkling water in front of them.
Immediately, our brief introductions devolve into free-for-all conversation, and I notice right away that not one of them is afraid to seek out a bigger point, or even a potential debate, from within the most pedestrian observations. When Mayberry and I address growing up in the era of the file-sharing application KaZaa, Doherty sees a chance to chime in about the band’s tolerance of piracy.
“It’s the other side of the coin,” he says. “You can’t be a band that’s come to people’s attention in the way that we have, using social media and the Internet, and then when your record is available to hear, expect the same people that brought you to the table not to listen to it.”
Doherty seems to be the most vocal. Cook is the opposite: He doesn’t interject often, but has the type of whole-beard smile, which he wears more often than not, that could extinguish any tension if ever it did creep into their always diplomatic debates. Mayberry plays the fulcrum. She’s thoughtful with every word, and leans on a high-functioning addiction to punctuating each carefully articulated contribution with an equally casual “so, yeah.”
“She’s more mature than the three of us put together,” Doherty says of Mayberry, and I realize that I’m the third and that he’s already determined how mature I am, but I don’t disagree.
What strikes me the most, though, is just how deep the band’s knowledge of film and television actually runs. Even having come prepared for this, I struggle to keep up with their abundant kneejerk references. For instance, when I tell them I went to college in Indiana, they say they’re familiar with the state, but only from the 1991 Fox series Eerie, Indiana. This reflex even seems to have rubbed off on their tour manager, Cara McDaniel. When I use the phrase “born and raised,” she replies, “like Will Smith,” which takes me a second.
It’s especially apparent after what transpires when Doherty jokingly compares this conversation to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I ask what that would make me, a little less jokingly. “Our sponsor?” he posits, before warning me to start expecting his calls at three in the morning.
Mayberry says I’d actually be “the one who brings the donuts and asks the questions.” But Cook wins: He says I’m really Phil Towle from the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster, in which Metallica hires the renowned psychotherapist to help resolve personal tensions in the band during the creation of their album St. Anger. I’ve never seen it, but now I know that “the DVD extras are actually the best part,” if Cook is to be believed. They all crack up, and I need the whole thing explained to me.
Joke or not, it’s another segue. “I found it really depressing,” Mayberry pivots, suddenly dead serious. “It’s a very good thing to watch on tour. Never has it been so obvious that people really hate each other but don’t know what else to do with their lives other than be in a band.”
“If you’re not enjoying it anymore, and you don’t enjoy being with these people, and you don’t enjoy writing, and you don’t necessarily need money, why the fuck are you doing it?” she says. This somehow leads her onto a tangent of recalling lewd urban legends about ‘80s Metallica groupies, but then she suggests we get back on track, not wanting to “make this whole thing ‘They Hate Lars Ulrich.’” We do get back on track, but not before Doherty offers another self-referential footnote.
“Musicians are not rock stars anymore,” he says. “Musicians work as hard as possible. If you want to talk to rock stars, talk to poker players and software developers. They’re the new rock stars. They’re the ones having parties all the time.”
Cook is the oldest CHVRCH at 38, which gives him eight years on Doherty and a surprising 13 on Mayberry. Despite originally studying to become an architect, he’s also the most seasoned in rock, mostly coming from eight years as a guitarist for the once promising Glasgow post-rock band Aereogramme, and a few as a composer of film and television scores.
After a spirit-draining tour in 2007, Aereogramme dissolved. “It was the most depressing month of my life,” Cook says.
“We hadn’t been to America for a few years, and for some reason thought that if we came back after a few years away, then we could plug back into something. But it was about the buzz from 2003, when we put out the Sleep And Release album. And by the time we actually came back, it was all fucked, and nobody gave a shit.”
“There was just a psychological breakdown, and he was thrown right into the middle of it,” Cook says, nodding towards Doherty, who at the time just joined Aereogramme as a touring keyboardist. “We’d obviously seen how this trajectory had been going for a long time, but Martin hadn’t.”
Doherty and Cook have been friends for 10 years now, ever since Cook complimented Doherty’s Paul Harvey t-shirt one day at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde, where they were both studying music. Doherty, however, comes from the opposite side of Glasgow, the West side, near the notorious Erskine Bridge – or as Cook calls it, “suicide bridge.”
“A lot of dark stuff happens off that bridge,” Doherty says. “Every night you sit in your house and you hear a helicopter, you’re like, ‘Somebody else has jumped off.’”
Cook would help Doherty’s first band, Julia Thirteen, record some of their first and only material – an area in which Doherty concedes they were desperate for a helping hand: “We couldn’t afford microphones.” Around then, they expressed a mutual interest in, someday, at some point, sooner or later, starting their own project.
After the fateful Aereogramme tour, a comparably reputable Glasgow indie rock band, The Twilight Sad, recruited Doherty for the same job: to be a touring, but not full-time, member. He stayed with them almost five years, which he calls the best times of his life – especially their 2009 American tour with fellow Scottish bleeding hearts Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks.
“It was some of the most debauched times that I’d ever seen on the road,” he says, in spite of his prior comment about musicians never partying anymore. “A lot of heavy drinking. Don’t put 15 Scottish guys on a tour bus together to travel around and play gigs.”
“Those guys will always be my best friends. But sooner or later, you come to realize that when you’re playing someone else’s songs, however amazing they are, there’s always something in the back of your mind saying, ‘You’re taking the easy way out. You’re on someone else’s ticket.’”
“I decided to get my shit together,” he says.
Enter Mayberry, who in 2011 was singing and playing multiple instruments for Blue Sky Archives, yet another Glasgow indie rock band that Cook was helping to record.
For the previous three years, she worked for various local magazines and websites in Glasgow, having already earned both a four-year law degree and a one-year journalism degree, also from Strathclyde. She’s written on music before, too – even interviewed pop stars including Kelly Rowland and The Strokes’ Fabrizio Moretti. Naturally, this bit of information begs questions about the nature of this very discussion, and whether she’d have strong words for anybody who’s written an unfair or unethical piece on CHVRCHES. Yes, she says, but she insists she accepted them as inevitabilities long ago.
“Here’s my theory,” she says. “We get to be in a band that we want to be in, and we’re doing stuff that we want to do, and that’s really great. And, people are going to write good things and bad things about you, and that’s their prerogative and their right to do that. But I don’t think it’s helpful for my head space to fixate.”
Cook and Doherty approached Mayberry to ask if she’d sing over some things they were working on: synth-oriented things, actually, despite each of their backgrounds in guitar-oriented bands. She agreed. The three found that they clicked, and they chose to finalize their roster immediately.
“When you have three personalities, you get shit done,” Cook says. “If there’s four or five, it’s harder.”
They settled on the name CHVRCHES, because they wanted one with “a lot of visual possibilities,” as Mayberry explains. Indeed, the band’s logo, stage lighting setup, and posters are all adorned with luminous 45-degree angles. The “V” also solves the problem of having a Google-resistant name, something that many of their electro-pop contemporaries – one of which, interestingly, is a band called Cults – don’t seem to care about.