The Pop Goth Gospel of CHVRCHES
The Scottish alt-electro band's third album, 'Love Is Dead,' is an urgent call for empathy and its poppiest record yet.
Photo by Danny Clinch
Lauren Mayberry is telling me to eat breakfast. It’s a frigid February day and the CHVRCHES frontwoman, along with bandmates Martin Doherty and Iain Cook, and I are cozily tucked into a booth in downtown Toronto’s Fran’s (a 24-hour diner with impeccable milkshakes) trying to decide what we want to order. They are in Toronto for a whirlwind two days to talk about their new single, “Get Out,” and their forthcoming third studio record, beginning the drudgery that is a new album cycle.
The Scottish alt-electro band is readying the release of Love Is Dead, out May 25, and while the album title is jarring to read (and hear) at first, there is a profound and important conversation underneath it. “When you think of some of the best album titles of all time they all have these old, all encompassing statements or titles,” says Doherty. It’s not necessarily a statement of fact, Mayberry says, adding, “There could be an ellipsis or question mark after it. It’s more of a question of where you’re at. Hopefully when people read the album title, they will go, ‘what?’ They’ll want to investigate more or talk about it. Encouraging communication,” she says with a stern nod. Love Is Dead negotiates basic ideas that seem the hardest and most complicated to grasp (communication, belief, trust, compassion) in an intense time when that is more often than not repressed (fake news, image curation, personas, etc.) The album is an expression of authenticity of feelings; a reminder that digging deep down into yourself is rewarding.
We shift to talk of breakfast foods (and the benefits of hemp seeds in our meals, as Mayberry says to me, “it keeps you regular, it keeps you regular!”) and then about the sugary pop music playing throughout the restaurant; songs that match sonically with the bubblegum pink and turquoise aesthetic of the diner. A Meghan Trainor song plays, prompting us to debate whether or not she is a good pop musician. For the sake of transparency, I’ve never been a huge fan of Trainor’s music but Doherty and Cook counter, in agreeance, that she is an excellent songwriter. We talk about personas, then, and how so often in music criticism and consumption now, we’re dissecting someone, rather than the art, the actual thing they have made. Mayberry says with a sigh, right in the middle of the chatter, “I would be a terrible music critic at this point. I’d be like, ‘it’s not for me! I wasn’t there when they were making it. You know, I don’t know them!’” She continues: “I think I have a lot more empathy for people in the way that I talk about them than I did when I was 20.”
Empathy is a major factor in both the personal and work lives of CHVRCHES. Incorporating this ethos is less inspiration-driven and more intuitive: remembering and reinforcing they are, of course, human beings in this world, interacting with other humans who have hearts and complex feelings, too. This has given their music, comprised of synths and sonic modifications, a relatable edge. Cut through the bouncing synthesizers and you’ll have something substantial, not artifice, in Mayberry’s words. Since forming in 2011, and becoming immensely successful from their self-produced debut The Bones Of What You Believe, the group have been vocal about their own humanness, their own experiences and place in the world. Never was this more apparent than when Mayberry wrote in The Guardian in 2013 about the online harassment and misogyny she faces as a woman in music. Speaking to the trolls online, but applicable elsewhere Mayberry wrote, “To learn a little empathy. To have a little respect for other people. To think before they speak.”
CHVRCHES took more time with Love Is Dead, they tell me, not feeling the same kind of pressure to release something so immediate after their sophomore Every Eye Open. This time around they sought out an additional producer to help shape—and, in this case, elevate—their sound. It was almost like “producer speed-dating,” they say, finally settling on Greg Kurstin, famously known for co-writing “Hello” with Adele, among his exhaustive and eclectic collaborations list. CHVRCHES are proud of the self-production and autonomy they have held over their work—saying in an interview with Pitchfork in 2015 how their self-written, self-produced, self-recorded debut landing on the UK Top 10 was a great moment for them—but adding Kurstin to the mix was a rewarding, refreshing experience.
Love Is Dead is fundamentally still very much a CHVRCHES record, ornate and ebullient with reaching synths, yet still on the darker side as, Mayberry cheerfully tells me, “goths ‘til we die!” But with the addition of Kurstin, CHVRCHES have stepped into the major pop world. The tracks on Love Is Dead are even bigger than what the band had done on prior albums and EPs, which, considering how much their sound soared, is an incredible feat. “We tried working with a few different people with varying degrees of success. But, from the very first day that we got in [the studio] with Greg, we knew it would be a good fit. The first thing that came out was ‘Get Out,’” says Cook. What was going to be a week’s worth of sessions with Kurstin turned into an entire album with him. Doherty says that working with Kurstin reminded him of the initial energy the group had when they first started out. “Not that we lost that chemistry because I don’t believe that to be the case at all,” he explains, “but the excitement of something so unexpected and surprising… having some of that pedigree into the mix that respects us as musicians and writers was really powerful.”
Kurstin’s goal was to maintain their sonic foundation while pushing their songs forward to decidedly be, according to Mayberry in an interview last year, the most pop album they’d ever created. Eight of the 12 songs on Love Is Dead had Kurstin at the helm, recorded in his studio in LA’s Silver Lake. The recording of this album was different from their last, spread out across LA, London, and New York, the place the band calls home these days, stepping outside of their own little studio. Kurstin, Doherty says, made a world of difference, sort of like joining the band’s nucleus and becoming a fourth member; writing with them and not for them.
Woven throughout the power pop-esque songs on the record are these themes of communication and empathy, and the negotiating one does with those things. Big messages deserve big sounds. “So much of this record is about grappling with the way people treat each other,” Mayberry continues. That sentiment is apparent on the album’s first single, “Get Out.” On it Mayberry sings, “talked ourselves to death / never saying what I wanted / never saying what I needed.” On “My Enemy,” which features The National’s Matt Berninger, he opens the track with “all your words are so cold, so callous, so clean / In the moment you could be honest, you could wake up, up.” Mayberry’s approach was, she says, to be more honest, and with that honesty comes complexity and conflict. That’s the nagging part of communication: in pursuit of that understanding of someone else’s perspective, and trying to get across your own, things become tangled.
This record also leans a bit more deftly toward religiosity. The tracklist alone speaks to this with songs like “Deliverance,” “Heaven/Hell,” “God’s Plan,” and “Miracle,” to name a few examples. For a band called... CHVRCHES, the thought of any sort of religious affiliation or belief didn’t seem to affect their persona or narrative. “The themes of faith fit into the trying to figure out what you believe or don’t believe or why people are the way they are ideas,” Mayberry says. “I have not ever been hugely religious but it’s interesting to look at how everybody wants to belong somewhere, everyone wants to believe something, and sometimes you do good things in pursuant of that and sometimes you don’t.”
The grandness of the sonics fit perfectly with this approach. It’s urgent, bold, almost overwhelming, like on the perfect track “Never Say Die,” which builds from humming, bubbling synths, and Mayberry’s almost matter-of-fact vocals, to a searing, boiling point in the chorus. “You know, some of the things you write can be quite ugly and quite revealing [but] those are the things you have to write,” Mayberry says, reinforcing that openness and honesty, at least in part, is more nourishing that not.
Sarah MacDonald is a writer in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.