The Horror, The Horror: Chvrches Tell Us How They Made 2021’s Scariest Album

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Humans have had a fraught relationship with technology for centuries. When the lightbulb was first invented, the obvious upside was that people would no longer need to depend on sunlight to determine when or how long they worked. The downside, then, was that your average worker was probably asked to work longer hours. The lesson being, for every improvement a new piece of technology offers, the invention also brings about a new series of challenges. Which brings us to Chvrches.

When the Scottish synth-pop trio — comprising Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook, and Martin Doherty — first popped up in the early 2010s, they found an early fanbase on SoundCloud, where they’d share youthful, electropop bangers such as “Lies” and “The Mother We Share,” both of which eventually found their way over to the band’s 2013 debut, The Bones Of What You Believe. Though the internet has awarded Chvrches a flourishing career, complete with headlining sets at major music festivals, collaborations with musical heroes like The Cure’s Robert Smith, and three follow-up albums (2015’s Every Open Eye, 2018’s Love Is Dead, and this year’s Screen Violence), technology has not always been kind to them. It’s a paradox that’s plagued them for years: In 2013, Mayberry wrote a poignant op-ed about online misogyny in The Guardian, condemning the hateful language aimed at her on a daily basis. “I am in a band that was born on the internet,” she acknowledges before laying out a series of graphic comments sent to her from anonymous — mostly male — users. “Is the casual objectification of women so commonplace that we should all just suck it up, roll over and accept defeat?” she asked. “I hope not. Objectification, whatever its form, is not something anyone should have to ‘just deal with.'” This was nearly a decade ago, and four years before #MeToo.

A conversation around online misogyny might be more mainstream in 2021, but Mayberry maintains that not a lot has changed. “People always ask us, ‘Have you noticed a change in the last 10 years?’ she says over Zoom. “And I’m like, ‘No. If anything, my tolerance is just higher.’ The stuff that happened to us in 2019 — I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m playing a victim or any of those things. But if something like what happened to us at springtime 2019 had happened at the beginning of the band, I think I would have quit immediately. There’s no amount of media training that will prepare you.”

That “stuff” is likely a reference to comments on her Instagram page from fans accusing her of dressing too skimpily onstage. “To the people saying that my gig outfits are too revealing / I shouldn’t dress like that if I don’t want men to comment on it: I disagree,” she wrote on her Stories. “This argument assumes women only dress for the attention of men. When I dress for shows, I want to own my gender and my femininity […] People have tried to weaponise my gender against me since the start of my career as a musician. It happens now but it also happened when I was wearing baggy flannel shirts and jeans, because it’s not really about what a woman is wearing. It never is. It’s about claiming ownership of women’s bodies and women’s narratives.”

So no, things haven’t improved. Quite the opposite. “People act like it’s gotten better and it just really hasn’t,” Mayberry concludes. “So I think if that’s the kind of headspace you’re in, it’s natural to go into making a record that is a bit darker thematically.”

Enter Screen Violence: a whirlwind of high-energy electropop gems (truly, these are some of the catchiest tracks of Chvrches’ career) that use horror films and the dark side to technology as a framework to discuss social-media burnout and gendered double-standards. Calling in from their respective residences in Los Angeles, Chvrches spoke to us about the origins of their most evolved album yet, trading remixes with slasher king John Carpenter, and what they’ve learned after spending nearly 10 years together.

I don’t think I realized that all of you guys weren’t able to leave America throughout the pandemic. Has that been hard, having to stay?

Martin: Well, we could have left, but we just wouldn’t have been allowed back in. It’s like the visa timing thing. I haven’t seen my family since Christmas 2019, which is kind of bizarre. Definitely the longest I’ve ever been apart. But thanks to things like this — Zoom or whatever — we get on the phone, you don’t need to be near someone to be close to them. And in a bizarre way, I see them on screen more than I saw them when I lived close to them. It’s not all bad.

Lauren: Maybe this is growth and maturity, you guys. We’re growing and treating our parents like human beings. When I was 21, I would just be like, “What do you want? No, of course I’m not coming round. Why would I come over? You live so far away, no way.” And now you’re like, “I will come round.”

Martin: “I miss you, I love you.”

Lauren: Yeah, I actually say, “I love you” on the phone now. We’re very reserved, we’ve not done that ever. The Gods is my witness, I used to say that without getting on a flight. I was always paranoid that something terrible would happen so I’d be like, “I love you.” At the end of the call and they’d be like, “Mm-hmm (affirmative)” And I’m like, “That feels great, thank you for that.” But you know, now it’s good. Turns out all we needed was a global crisis, emergency situation to get our sh*t together in all senses.

I kind of got the sense that there was some burnout happening with the band toward the end of your 2019 tour. Do you feel rested, heading into another album cycle? Did you ever hit a point where you felt like pressing pause on the whole thing?

Lauren: I think we always knew that we were going to make another record. I think we figured out roughly — not exactly what we wanted to make, but we came up with the album title when we were still touring. We knew from about summer 2019 that it was going to be something called Screen Violence, we just didn’t know what that was going to be. And it was very like, TBD, we’ll start this and maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. But that’s kind of where we wanted to go. And I think that’s probably a natural response to what was happening emotionally, around the band at that time. But also I feel like it does make sense to me that if you make some shiny records that after that you want to do something different. I feel like every person wants that, they want a change of scenery and every record shouldn’t be the same. It should be a snapshot of a moment.

I’ve always found it very hard to write stuff that I don’t feel like. I’m very bad at writing a cheery pop song if I don’t really feel very cheery and I definitely didn’t feel very cheery by the end of 2019. Not because we don’t love the band or we’re not grateful for it, but it was 10 years of a lot of emotional baggage that goes along with being in a band and being a female in a band, specifically. And I think when you’re on the inside of that, it’s hard to get any perspective on that. And it does feel personal. It does feel mentally destructive and I don’t feel like it’s gotten better over the course of the band.

Chvrches owes its early fame to technology, but so much has changed about the way artists interact with online platforms since then. Do you think younger artists engage with social media in a healthier way, given that they’ve been on these platforms essentially for their entire lives?

Lauren: Yeah. I don’t know. I suppose coming of age when the internet is in your hand from the moment you’re born, it maybe gives you a different perspective on certain things. We were talking about that the other day. I’m like, I read something that said that my generation is the only generation that will have had half of their adolescence without the internet and half of it with. So you remember the before and you remember the after, both during that specific coming-of-age time period. I think in a weird way, people my age, we didn’t understand what the internet really was properly.

We didn’t understand what social media really was. And I remember we had to get Instagram on one of the first Chvrches tours. Someone was like, “You posted on your Instagram.” We’re like, “All right, I guess we got to figure out what this is.” And that’s just not a thing that younger artists will have to know. It’s just so embedded in the language that they understand. I hope that that means that they have more of a grasp on the good and bad things of it. Whereas I feel like that was more of a shock for people who were getting used to it.

Martin: I wonder if we would have been bigger on MySpace? Makes you wonder.

When a newer platform becomes popular, like TikTok for example, are you inclined to figure out a way for the band to engage with it? Is that something your label asks for?

Martin: Every label tries to get you to embrace every new startup.

Lauren: Yes.

Martin: Every day of every week of every year.

Lauren: I remember the, “We need to get Snapchat” conversation and we were like, “We don’t understand what that is. Don’t get it.” But I try and keep an open mind, especially for a band like us that’s always been so fan-driven. Any of those things can be useful depending how you use them. We were selling shows because we got big on SoundCloud. It always has been a very people-driven project. And I think that’s why people feel that kind of ownership over the band. Because they’re like, “That’s my band and I helped them get here.” And I feel like we’re very aware of that. And the only way to actually directly communicate with people is at shows or on social media or the rest of it has to go through a filter of the media. Sometimes that’s not good, sometimes that hasn’t been the best way to get a message across.

I think you just have to take each thing as it comes. We’re not natural to TikTok necessarily. I made one the other day that I was like, “Yeah, if I was a fan of the band, I would find this interesting,” because, it’s unpacking how we made a song. I haven’t posted yet but I looked at it and I was like, “Is there a way to use this creatively?” So it’s not just you doing that silly dance on the internet. Yes, we will never be doing any of those meme trends. So I’m like, “Well, can you take this technology and use it as a tool for communication like Instagram?” Yes, it could all be just like selfies on your face but can it be like a mood board to help extend the story of the record for people and have that be a fun escapist place, rather than a place that’s all about insecurities and physical things that you feel good or bad about and vanity.

Iain: Me personally, I’m very interested in technology and new ways to share things with people and to broaden their horizons of the band or embrace what’s going to be… What’s a year down the road, two years down the road. But that doesn’t always extend to social media trends. I like to be on top of that stuff because it’s interesting to me from a human perspective. But TikTok… I do like watching, although I did just see amazing AI doing artwork for… It was asking AI what sleep paralysis looks like. It was f*cking cool. That space is incredibly interesting to me. I think the next 20 years will probably result in the destruction of humanity, but will leave [something good] along the way.

Does any of that anxiety start to work its way into Screen Violence? I think it’s really easy to go into a dark place mentally, when you think about the end game of technology.

Lauren: Well, Screen Violence was actually a proposed band name that we didn’t end up using. So, we were thinking in summer 2019 of what we wanted to do and then that list of names resurface and that phrase just really jumped out of the page. ‘Cause we all love that, filmmaking and making a David Cronenberg-y take on it and the questions that he was posing. And even sonically, a lot of the instruments that we use and the composers and writers that we admire were working on those films. And then after writing a few songs, I think for me, it was partly talking about violence through screens and by screens. But also thinking about… It was not a concept record as far as it’s not about those things.

It’s not about horror movies, but it was more like we can build a backdrop and a landscape that you can tell personal stories through. Once we’ve written a few songs and I had a few things under our belt and especially with the aesthetics and the visuals, it was more about the role of women in those stories and the role of women in horror. How can you take those tropes and ideas and use those to tell your stories? And what about being a woman feels horrific? What about it feels violent? How do you live in and around that violence, how can you live through it? What do you do with it when you live in this space? I think that’s been really fun to play with, especially like with the imagery on the record and the imagery in terms of the album artwork and the videos and the visuals. How can you take that genre and bend it to tell your stories?

I read in a previous interview, Lauren, that you said this album benefited from spending much of the last year physically separate from the music industry. Are there feelings around the industry that might’ve made their way onto this album?

Lauren: I feel like that’s kind of what we were trying to do with this record, but especially myself with the lyrics. But I hate that. For me, I’m like, it’s not a record about the music industry. It’s not a record about internet trolls. Because I think that, that puts the focus on the perpetrators, it puts the focus on mostly men that do these things. And I think that’s always what’s interesting when these things are written about, because even when we see if you’re reporting on assault cases or rape cases or any of those things, you talk about a woman getting raped. You don’t talk about a man raping a woman.

All nine years in this band, people wanted to talk about gender, feminism, and the internet. They don’t really have a huge number of questions about the music. But we’d never actually written about any of those things [until now]. There are no lyrics that are really about any of those.

And I feel like the themes on the record are fear and anxiety and depression, regret but also trying to find the way to the other side. The idea that you’re running for a horizon that you don’t really need, but you have to keep running for it. And the perseverance of that, I think hopefully that’s something that people can relate to, whether or not they’ve experienced those things personally, in the context that we were talking about.

What about this particular period of horror — the ’70s/’80s John Carpenter era — that really spoke to you?

Martin: Things got a lot more imaginative with special effects with Nightmare On Elm Street and Hellraiser and stuff like that in the ’80s. It just felt really fresh and new and vital, even though a lot of that stuff is quite played out now. Because the nature of exploitation cinema, it’s cannibalistic things and that stuff. But also I think here’s an element of that stuff that was this sort of taboo. When we were kids, you were really lucky to get to see those movies and so it felt kind of good and naughty. And so there’s a nostalgic element to that too. It feels like the best of those movies were the earlier ones, where the real imagination was kind of going into it full force. The Thing, it’s a great example of that. Some of the best practical effects.

Lauren: I feel very affected by them in a way that I don’t [understand]. That’s what anybody wants out of any film. You’re watching to tell the story, but you’re projecting your own stuff onto the story as well. And you’re figuring out some subconscious stuff while you’re watching it, I suppose. I feel like I’m a quite fearful person in a lot of spaces in my life.

You recently traded remixes with John Carpenter, and you collaborated with Robert Smith on “How Not To Drown.” A Robert Smith collab in particular felt like a long time coming for Chvrches. Is there anyone else you’d like to work with down the line, off the top of your head?

Lauren: I don’t know. I guess, the best things that happened for us have been ones that we really haven’t planned. We didn’t go into it knowing or thinking that Robert would be on it. It was this amazing, bizarre thing that came up and we were able to do it. And then John Carpenter, we had this idea one day about remixes. We’re like, “Well, if we’re talking about these kind of films, we should [reach out to] people that made the soundtracks. I wonder if someone like John Carpenter could interpret the song, enact the remix?” And then that actually worked out.

I feel like we don’t really think about those kind of collaborations in the current Top 40 sense. I feel like things will come up, as and when, and we take them on a case-by-case basis because I don’t feel that you should box off your creativity.

Given the cinematic inspirations behind this album, and the fact that Chvrches has written music for video games, what’s your interest level around eventually scoring films?

Martin: We’re very much interested in that. I mean, I’ll still be here at 70 years old trying to make [Chvrches] albums if the other two are interested. But [scoring is] definitely interesting to us in terms of drawing the band sideways, you know what I mean?

Working with [Hideo] Kajima on Death Stranding was a tremendous honor for us. I mean, he’s like the Beatles of video games and design. That was an incredible experience. But I think the way that we operate and the type of skill set that Iain and I have lends itself very, very well to motion picture of some kind or interactive mediums like video games.

Of course, the problem is finding the time for such a thing because we’re really committed to do what we do, first and foremost. I think it’s always just like, look after your main. Do whatever you like and anyone do all the side projects you want, but always make sure you’re not like harming the band or disregarding the band and the process.

What major lessons come to mind after spending a decade together as a band?

Iain: Don’t do promo on an empty stomach… Number one. Have snacks on hand and in case the hunger strikes for any particular member because you never know when it’s going to come and where it’s going to come from.

Lauren: Wee Snickers.

Screen Violence is out now via Glassnote. Get it here.