The members of Chvrches aren’t intimidated by jaded rock critics or weasely reporters, because their lead singer used to wield a pen with the best of them. A decade before she scrawled lyrics and cooed catchy choruses for the Glasgow synth pop trio, Lauren Mayberry worked as a rock journalist at her university paper.
By Kyle Mullin
“I’m not one to talk about my inspirations for songs, what parts of my life prompted them, or anything about my personal life in general,” Mayberry says over the phone in the lead up to Chvrches’ performance at the upcoming Hostess Club Weekender. And although she values her privacy, Mayberry is still quick to reveal one of her deepest pet peeves: “Don’t ask us about the ‘v’ in our name, because there’s no fun story behind it. Reporters are always really excited when they ask that, as if they’re the first person who ever thought of it. It’s never a good story, and then we just trot out the same answer all the time, they just go ‘Eh, that’s boring.’”
Mayberry rarely had the opportunity to bother more seasoned performers, preferring instead to only interview enough “grungy local” bands to build up her portfolio. Following that, she was drawn to editing jobs—laying out pages, proofreading copy, poring over photos. It was that affinity for design that proved to be useful years later, when it came time to decide on the cover art for Chvrches’ first release. Mayberry didn’t sketch that layout herself, but she was well versed enough to know what kind of images wouldn’t work for her band.
“We worked with a really cool designer named Amy Burrows from Australia; she’s done everything from our logo to the album sleeves, and the art for all the singles,” Mayberry says. She adds that Burrows only needed a few conversations with the band before returning with image concepts that the musicians adored. “She came back with some stuff that made total sense to us. And we didn’t have to do the whole ‘cheesy pose’ band photo: shit like that that just wouldn’t make sense with our band.”
Burrows (in an email to The Tokyo Weekender) says she tried to reflect the nuances of Chvrches’ music with the album artwork.
“I approached the design in the same way that I felt the music was created. It’s both futuristic and retro. The power and complexity of the image is in its simplicity,” Burrows says, adding that she applied a similar notion to the Chvrches logo and the ‘v’ in their name.
“I like the use in Latin text of a V instead of U on ancient Roman monuments and wanted to explore using something ancient in a modern context,” she says of her idea to spell the band’s name in a unique way, adding that she also doesn’t understand the press’s fixation on this detail. “For me it (the Latin ‘v’) has an almost religious feeling without connection to any one religion. Chvrches’ music has a euphoric, rapturous quality which I wanted to capture.”
The Australian designer captured this quality with a solid red background behind three triangles, all converging in the middle of layered, bull‘s-eye circles. It looks like the targeting device of a futuristic weapons console, each shape akin to the letters used to write in an alien tongue.
“Those graphics are kind of clean and understated, but the colors are also quite warm and I think that’s something that hopefully comes across in the music as well,” Mayberry says. Her description of that overlap is quite apt. The album’s first single, “The Mother We Share,” snaps open with a switchblade quick beat. Before long, it’s awash in synths that warmly ooze like fresh wounds, punctuated all the while by Mayberry’s refrains of “Ohs,” that seem equally driven by agony and adrenaline.
Critics praised Chvrches for straddling simplistic song structures and innovative flourishes, with rhythms that connect like a spine’s discs—solid enough to support meaty choruses, yet nimble enough for far-reaching melodies. That duality makes the album’s title, The Bones of What You Believe, all the more fitting.
The same can be said of the musicians who created the marrow of the songs. Mayberry may indeed be a charismatic front woman, but she was by no means the sternum, spine or linchpin that bound the project together. Instead, she was the puzzle’s last piece—a magazine editor who had played in a variety of local Glasgow bands for a decade, to little avail. Finally, in 2011, one of her latter groups called Blue Sky Archives caught the eye of Iain Cook.
Cook was a member of beloved local troops like Aereogramme and The Unwinding Hours. He also wrote scores for TV and produced albums for up and comers. Impressed by the multitasking Mayberry—who drummed, sang and manned keyboards for Blue Sky Archives—Cook decided to not only helm the young band’s first EP, but also invite Mayberry to audition for one of his own projects.
In his spare time, Cook had been jamming with Martin Doherty, a master of synths and samplers who played in the post-punk troop The Twilight Sad. When Mayberry sang over their compositions—her voice bringing feminine flesh and blood to their skeletal synth lines—the trio knew they had something special. What they didn’t know was how to define it, or how to proceed from there. But that uncertainty turned out to be an asset.
“She came back with some stuff that made total sense to us. And we didn’t have to do the whole ‘cheesy pose’ band photo: shit like that that just wouldn’t make sense with our band.”
“We never thought it would be a live band. We were just writing for sake of writing, and thought maybe we’d put out a demo someday,” Mayberry says of Chvrches’ early days. “But we were encouraged by how quickly we could write together, and it was nice for us to figure out what the band was as we were writing, rather than people assigning roles—he’s the drummer, he’s the guitarist, and just writing within that blueprint. We got to experiment for months and months before anyone heard us. And we ended up sharing more ideas that way than we would have by only playing one specific instrument.”
Their debut was written in 18 months—and even though the critical acclaim, the iconic album covers, and everything else that Mayberry loves about Chvrches had yet to occur, the band’s most crucial component was evident early on.
“As we wrote, there wasn’t a conscious theme behind the record,” she says of The Bones of What You Believe’s ambiguous tone, adding that she’ll never be brittle enough to snap under the media pressure that tries to pry into those song’s inner ideas.
“[For] any song that’s written from a personal perspective, no one else will really be able to get exactly what that is about anyway,” Mayberry says of the intimate exclusivity that some songwriters have with their work. After all, fitting the bones of those songs with too rigid a skin would only make them break when they should bend. “Besides, what those songs meant to us when we wrote them isn’t what they mean to other people. That’s what is powerful about lyrics for me.”
Chvrches will be performing at Hostess Club Weekender on February 15. For more information about the event, visit the Hostess Club Weekender site site.
Kyle Mullin is a roaming rock journalist who has contributed to music mags around the world. You can read his interviews with Iggy Pop, David Byrne and St. Vincent, Brian Wilson, Ai Weiwei and others at kylelawrence.wordpress.com. He spoke with Okkervil River and Allen Toussaint for Tokyo Weekender in October and November last year.
Image courtesy of Hostess Club Weekender