“With great hype comes great responsibility” says Lauren Mayberry, tweaking the words of Uncle Ben or F.D.R. or possibly Voltaire. Holding a degree in law and a masters in journalism, it’s conceivable she could be referencing any of the three. Hell, she probably could have made the quip in Latin.
Mayberry and her two bandmates, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, are sitting on a bench outside in Echo Park and it’s March and dusk and 65 degrees and the three musicians couldn’t be happier to not be in Scotland where it’s snowing. The petite 25-year-old singer of CHVRCHES is describing the seemingly sudden launch of their band over the past nine months, and the conversation, at least yet, does not seem to be an annoyance to the group.
“Obviously, we were very lucky that people got excited about the music,” Mayberry continues, “but there were these conspiracy theories at the time that we’d ‘already secretly signed to a major label and not told anyone’ or ‘there’s a massive viral PR company behind this,’ and I’m like ‘not really.’ That’s not true at all.”
Even to think of CHVRCHES as an overnight success is misleading. The formation of the Glasgow synthpop project can be traced back nearly a decade, to when Cook and Doherty were both students in Scotland.
“We met at university around 2003,” says Cook, describing his first encounter with Doherty. “He ended up playing me some music he was working on and immediately I perked up, because you hear so many other things in the music pool, but I’d never heard anything of this quality.”
The two synthesizer specialists both would have modest runs of success over the next several years, with Doherty a touring member of The Twilight Sad until recently and Cook a member of Aereogramme, with whom Doherty would also work as an engineer and contributing musician. After some loose collaborations during the next few years, the pair, as Cook describes, “sat down in 2007 and decided to set some time and do something fresh, that wasn’t from the same place from which we have always come — the indie guitar-rock stuff.”
The “indie guitar-rock stuff” may not be what CHVRCHES play, but it certainly has influenced aspects of both the group’s musical sensibilities and their performance. Mayberry cops to owning three Death Cab for Cutie shirts, Doherty mentions Mogwai and The Arab Strap when expounding on Scottish musical heritage and at the previous night’s show in San Francisco, Mayberry jokingly played a couple of bars from the theme song to The O.C., which caused an unexpected mass singalong of the Phantom Planet tune.They seem at ease when discussing bands like Bright Eyes and Jimmy Eat World, and just as at ease when displaying a far greater knowledge of The O.C. than their Orange County-resident interviewer possesses.
In this light, the band’s comparisons to The Knife and Purity Ring, which have been inescapable, have their limits, as there is a sunny quality to be found in the music of CHVRCHES, and it seems to stem from the band’s personality rather than aesthetic choices.
“It’s like people want us to be mysterious,” Cook says, distancing the band from more wrong impressions, “but it isn’t something that we actively tried to do.”
“Then they are surprised when they come to the show and we’re not mysterious at all,” adds Mayberry. “There are terrible knock-knock jokes.”
Cook explains that the mystery people perceive was his and Doherty’s way of distancing themselves from their past endeavors, “to see if people could enjoy it for what it was,” and Mayberry adds that “it’s not that you don’t value the stuff you’ve done before, but when you do something quite different you want it to be valued on its own.”
“Neon Gold asked us to write a blog about what the band was and we were just like ‘I don’t know,’” recalls Doherty. “We had like three lines because we didn’t want to be like ‘it’s this guy from this band and that guy from that band and it’s Glasgow.’ That’s just not what we were about and it’s still not what we are about. We want the music to document it.”
And, to hear the band tell it, figuring out “what they were” has been an ongoing process, starting with Cook and Doherty’s initial sessions with each other.
“It was kind of a reaction to where we came from, actually,” Doherty remembers. “It was the fresh challenge or the idea of composing music that, in the beginning, didn’t have any definite direction and no constraints and no rules. You didn’t have to adhere to the indie or shoegaze format that you have to follow to some extent if you want to be accepted in those worlds. But, it really didn’t go to the next level until we started working with Lauren. The three of us had something when we got together.”
“We thought we wanted a female vocal and initially we wanted to try it for backing vocals,” Doherty continues. “For me it was coming from a kind of Postal Service-y place, like the stuff that Jenny Lewis did on that record. But, when we started working with Lauren, we entered it as a three-way partnership in ways that I’ve never seen with anyone, and I didn’t think would be possible. And, obviously it has evolved from there.”
The band had come together properly near the end of 2011, writing as a three-person team and improving consistently in their own estimation. Still, the years that preceded CHVRCHES eventual notice didn’t necessarily mean they were ready for the public eye, which began when Neon Gold posted their first single, “Lies,” in May 2012, with the biographical information penned by Cook and Doherty limited to the number of people in the band and their sexes.
“When we put ‘Lies’ out we’d never played a gig,” says Doherty. “I think part of our evolution has come from figuring out how we are going to play it live, because it informs what you are limited to do, and melodies are always changing. But, at that point we hadn’t even considered playing a gig. We were pretty far behind in the plot of what had to be done in order to perform.
“No one expected the reaction that the music got from people passing it around to their friends,” he continues, “It was all very organic and steamrolled very quickly and people kept asking ‘a show? A show? A show? A show? Gonna play live? Gonna play live?’ and we’re like, ‘how?’ We could have done the laptop thing that kind of seems like karaoke. I’ve got nothing against people who do that, but, we felt strongly from the beginning that the live show was going to be a genuine performance and see us actually playing as much as possible. We’ll harness computers to an extent because you can’t really avoid it with electronic music these days, or else you’ll have racks and racks of synthesizers and a Midi clock nightmare. We come from an indie background and not a dance background. When I go to a show, I want to see someone play an instrument.”
The idea of songs being passed around before a band is even performing is almost unheard of. Before blogs, bands could circumvent the radio and find fans by playing shows that would inspire kids to tell their friends. But to pass a song off without initial shows and see it compound to the point that when “Recover,” their third single, was released, it was nearly unmissable? Mayberry cooly describes this as “encouraging,” recalling her own experiences discovering bands through friends.
“That’s the kind of thing that money can’t buy you,” she says. “You can have it shoved down your throat with adverts on Youtube and in magazines, but it’s really cool that something can still happen organically like that.”
That night CHVRCHES would play their first ever show in Los Angeles, sold-out far in advance and put on by Neon Gold, an “honor” for the band to perform at an event put on by the first people to play their song. The band would fly out the next morning to Austin for South by Southwest, and then head back to the studio to work on their debut LP, hopefully ready for the fall. Cook notes that they have “an album’s worth of material” already that they are mixing, but are “leaving the door open for any last minute songs that might come through that may be contenders for the album.”
By that time, the perception of CHVRCHES will likely be more in tune with the polite, experienced, and good-humored musicians that they are
“In this band, we’re very keen to focus as much of our attention on the creative element as possible,” says Doherty, a philosophy that can be heard paying off on their Recover EP releasing in March. “If you get too caught up in how other people perceive you, then you can get too caught up in yourself, and start making shit records.”