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CHVRCHES: Catching the Light

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    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.

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    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.

    chvrchesfeat1 CHVRCHES: Catching the Light

    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.

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    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.”

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.”

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    “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.”

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    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.”

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    “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.’”

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    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.”

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    “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.

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    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.

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    “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.”

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    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.

    chvrches the bones of what you believe

    Over the course of 14 months, whenever they could find free time from their jobs, CHVRCHES wrote and recorded The Bones of What You Believe in Cook’s basement studio. During that blurry year and a half came the “Lies” experiment, and then the calls from record labels, and then the SXSW performances, and then their lauded preview EP, Recover, one week later.

    In July, CHVRCHES opened four European shows for Depeche Mode, their heroes and aesthetic forebears. Cook says he was overcome with “sheer terror” leading up to them.

    “When they put out Violator, I was 11 or something,” he says, although he’s off by a few years. “It’s one of my favorite records of all time. When they played some of the songs off that, the first show, I was nearly in tears.”

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    Mayberry is poking at a salad while trying to resolve a technical issue with a Google Doc when I meet the band at the Metro on the afternoon before their second show. Already that day, they’ve trekked to Milwaukee and back for a radio performance.

    I walk past the same ping-pong table I noticed was in the pit of Lincoln Hall the previous afternoon – they take it everywhere they go. Doherty’s the best player, they agree, so we play, and although I avoid utter embarrassment with a late rally, he steamrolls me 21-8 with pinpoint short-game and dizzying English on his serves.

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    Backstage, we start the conversation with the Lincoln Hall show. I tell Mayberry and Doherty that I enjoy their opposing performance styles. Mayberry is constantly stoic – not emotionless, exactly, but never relinquishing complete control of her expressions. At first, she says she’s simply not capable of multitasking enough to sing melodies and emote simultaneously, but then admits it’s also by choice.

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    “I would never want to come straight out of the gate and be doing my best Karen O impression, you know?” she says, referring to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ electric frontwoman, of whom she’s a longtime admirer. “I would rather we be ourselves than try to be an impression of somebody else.”

    But Doherty, the one who left his last band for the chance to perform his own songs, plays emphatically – and when the two trade spots so he can sing lead on “Under the Tide”, he gets outright unhinged. I ask him what runs through his head.

    “I think it’s the only way I know how,” he says. “I have a lot of energy to expend because I don’t sing for the whole show. I think if I had an hour to do every night, I’d conserve my energy. It’s like a football player coming off the bench at 70 minutes in a match. I’m trying to make some sort of impact.”

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    “Under the Tide” is one of two songs on Bones that features Doherty singing lead. The other is “You Caught the Light”, and, respectively, they close out sides A and B – not by accident. Doherty confirms that they’re meticulous with sequencing and “don’t buy into the idea that the album, as a format, is over.”

    So, we talk about the album. The band wrote all of the songs together, and the lyrics came last, they tell me – lyrics that often come from a point of view within a sputtering relationship. Not that those are the takeaway of Bones.

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    “We didn’t set out to make a Jagged Little Pill breakup record,” Mayberry says, immediately following that up with a sincere clarification that the Alanis Morissette staple is “one of the great records of the ‘90s,” and that the same goes for Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville. For the first time, though, her words sound practiced. Not totally surprising, I suppose, given how often she’s asked about the inspiration for lyrics like “Who are you to tell me how to keep myself afloat?/ I treaded water all the while you stuck in the knife that you held at my back,” from “Gun”.

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    “I think, for me, everything needs to be personal to an extent, but I don’t think every single track on that record is about relationships. A lot of people think ‘Gun’ is about a relationship, but it’s not. But I think that’s the great thing about it. What they meant to me isn’t what they’ll mean to all when they hear them.”

    Cook refines that: “Once a song becomes part of the public consciousness, it doesn’t matter what the artist intended anymore, because it doesn’t belong to the artist.”

    With soundcheck approaching, we wind down with more television talk. Right now, they’re big on Breaking Bad, Deadwood, and Orange is the New Black, but not on the fact that HBO GO isn’t available outside the U.S. That grievance reminds Cook of a YouTube video he saw featuring David Lynch “raging about the fact that people are consuming art on a tiny screen.”

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    “I kind of feel the same way about music, as well,” he continues. “A lot of people hear music on shitty laptop speakers and make judgments when you can’t hear half of what’s going on. That drives me really crazy.”

    I think that we’re wrapping up when Doherty says, “I have no problem with that.”

    “You don’t have a problem with that?” asks Cook. “You don’t have a problem that people listen to the music and don’t hear half of your mix? It doesn’t make sense – where’s the bass in that track?”

    “People like you or I would be considered audiophiles, just as cinema fans and purists like David Lynch, it’s horrifying to them that somebody would watch in low quality,” Doherty rebuts.

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    Mayberry, who is sitting between the two, assures them that they’re both justified in their points of view. I tell them I’m impressed with how considerate they remain when they argue. Always, they say, unless they’re hungry, as was the case when they squabbled about “the Miley Cyrus incident” recently, while trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada. I beg them to replay the argument. They refuse.

    “We debate constantly. It’s a part of the touring life,” Doherty says.

    “I hate it. I just want out, like, as soon as it begins,” Mayberry says, which I have trouble believing completely. For the first time that I’ve seen, their debating flirts with non-diplomatic territory, and the topic happens to be debating.

    “What’s wrong with debating?” Cook asks.

    “Nothing’s wrong with debating stuff,” Mayberry says. “But, also, I’m tired. We’ve been on tour for ages. I don’t want to have really intense debates ten minutes before soundcheck. It spiritually takes out of me.” Cook and Doherty apologize.

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    They proceed to soundcheck, where they discover that their Maschine MK1 has died, and they’ll have to outsource one from a local Twitter follower.

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    The week after their Chicago stay, I talk to the band on the phone as they prepare for a show at New York’s Webster Hall, which MTV Hive is webcasting. Cook is telling me about a nice moment they had recently, when Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi came to their dressing room after their performance at Laneway Festival in Detroit to express his fandom over beers.

    I say that it sounds like a more exciting moment than he’s letting on, and I can tell that I’m right. I don’t prod, though, because I understand the refusal to avert attention away from the very next step – even when Jonsi walks into the room. It’s the acceptance of big things on the horizon that could cause them to fall apart.

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    “With every project, your failures are defined by your expectations,” Cook told me during our first interview. “Aereogramme had ridiculously high expectations, and, as a result, I think we failed. But a lot of people connect from the outside and say that we’re successful, because we’ve had thousands of people that loved our music, and we got to play hundreds of shows, and we had albums, and so on.”

    Mayberry summed it up more concisely: “Success and failure is how you define it. You’ll always be unhappy if you’re always moving the carrot further.”

    Whatever the equation to reaching the hearts of an international audience is – whether variables include downplaying attention, or doing incessant press, or sneaking advance bootleg copies of your first album into record shops, or always keeping a cool head during arguments – it’s no shock that CHVRCHES solved it.

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    They studied.

    Steven Arroyo is a staff writer for Consequence of Sound. He has also contributed to The AV Club and Chicago Innerview. Follow him at @albatrossnest.

    Photography by Heather Kaplan. Portrait by Joshua Mellin. Artwork by Matthew Vidalis. Titles by Cap Blackard.

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