CHICAGO – CHVRCHES had just released the artwork, title, and release date for their second album, Every Open Eye, and their first single, “Leave a Trace,” hit YouTube only a few hours earlier. They’re a couple hours away from playing the Pitchfork Music Festival on a blazing hot Friday evening, their first true gig since taking the five and a half month break to record the album in their hometown of Glasgow.
It’d be only natural if the band is a bit jittery and out of focus, but the only thing lead singer Lauren Mayberry is worried about is a sunburn.
“It’s so hot today,” she tells a small group, including fellow members Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, congregated in the VIP section of the festival under a couple of trees. “Where are the clouds?”
After being offered some SPF 30 sunscreen, she smiles.
“You look like you might burn yourself. I’ve got 50! Do you want some?”
There’s no rust or nervousness evident from any of the three members of the band. The time away to record seems to have reinvigorated all of them, and they like where they are as people – and as a band.
If The Bones of What You Believe, the group’s debut, was about exploration and self-discovery, then Every Open Eye builds on everything that CHVRCHES learned along the way. They made this album for themselves and their fans, and they’re not really concerned about what everyone else thinks about them.
In an age in which it’s almost impossible to drown out the noise, CHVRCHES took a deep breath following the breakthrough success of Bones, and that quiet beat brought them clarity.
“The learning curve of album one was that as careful as you are with your own music and how you project yourself, you can never control what anybody says about you,” Mayberry tells Uproxx. “A certain level of zen must be reached with that or you just go insane. We were conscious when starting to make this album that we really needed to block out as much of that stuff as possible. We had an amazing couple of years on the road and did so many insane things we never thought we’d get to do, and that’s amazing, but after a point, we just have to go back to that place where we could find a sense of normality and structure and routine just to focus on making the album.”
Mayberry chooses her words carefully, and that’s not a surprise – as a former journalist who has been the one asking the questions before, she knows the power words can have far beyond her lyrics.
“You could drive yourself crazy thinking about all those expectations and trying to write something that you think is what people want, or you can try and block it out and write something you feel proud of and trust what you’re doing. I feel like we’re all on the same page with that. We listen to this record, and I’m proud of what we made. It’s a stronger version of the band that’s more sure of ourselves.”
Leaving A Trace Beyond The Buzz
Throw me no more bones and I will tell you no lies this time / At least I am not so cold / You give me everything I never deserved this time / You know I’ll leave.
– “Never Ending Circles”
Cook finds shelter from the heat in the Vans tent sequestered near the back of the festival grounds. He, like the rest of the band, is somewhat counterintuitively dressed in all black – they suffer for fashion, so to speak, to borrow from an Of Montreal song – and has sunglasses on.
He, like Mayberry, can’t help from smiling. It’d be hard not to. When your album is done, and your first single is out, and you’re playing a festival gig in one of the most beautiful cities in the world to be during the summer, things are pretty okay.
The multi-instrumentalist is reflecting on the early response to “Leave a Trace,” which they’ll be playing live for the first time on the Red Stage in front of a crowd craving some energy following a relatively lethargic set by Panda Bear across the way.
“It’s easy with musicians to kind of gravitate toward the one negative comment in a sea of positivity,” Cook says, “but you know what? I didn’t really see much of it now that I’m thinking about it. But never read the YouTube comments. Those are the worst. They’re flame central.”
If anything, CHVRCHES understands better than most the landscape of being a band in 2015. Heck, even their name underlies that notion; the reason they replaced the “u” with “v” was practical, not novel – it makes it easier to Google the band. Mayberry runs the band’s social media presence and focuses strongly on showing fans a genuine and authentic side of themselves rather than giving way to what Cook calls “the machine of administrative stormtroopers.” She has also campaigned strongly against misogyny online (Caitlin White at Stereogum had an extremely well-written piece exploring that). And her background as a journalist gives her a particular grasp on what people will be writing about.
Rather than belittle that or shy away from it, the three use their perspective – individually, and collectively – to acknowledge what’s going on around them, and then kindly cast it off to the side.
“I don’t think careers are built around buzz,” Cook says. “I think careers are built around good quality songs, good live shows, and longevity. You can only really be the buzz band, or the flavor of the month for… a month, or a metaphorical month. But it’s not something we’re overly concerned about because we knew it was something we wanted to do over a period of several or more records. It’s a difficult thing to clear out of your mind when people are constantly asking you questions like, ‘So, the difficult second-album trap?’ We’re like, ‘F*ck off.’ It’s hard enough as is. Somehow, we manage to filter it out. I think filtering out external noise is something we’ve gotten really good at the past couple years because there’s a lot of it.”
Finding Inspiration In Familiarity
We are made of our smallest thoughts / We are breathing and letting go / We will take the best parts of ourselves / And make them gold.
– “Make Them Gold”
The crowd is into the set at Pitchfork, and why wouldn’t they be? CHVRCHES makes danceable music that has layers and contrasts. Pulsing synths give way to lyrics about overcoming heartbreak, and it’s not hard to see why The Bones of What You Believe was such a fun album to tour in support of for almost two years.
After approximately 364 tour dates (give or take, but we’re taking Cook’s word for it), the band was ready to get home. Glasgow means so much to them individually and collectively, and home was an evolving concept while they were going from city to city.
“Glasgow has always been a base camp,” Doherty says, “and it’s where I’ve always wanted to retreat to whenever I’ve been stuck. By the time we finished the campaign, I must have spent about a month in total in Glasgow in a couple of years. It always made perfect sense to retreat there, not only to get a semblance of the real world again, which I think is a very important thing to have when you work in such an unreal environment from day to day, but it was also a perfect way to reground ourselves for the recording, so we didn’t end up in Los Angeles or New York in those fancy studios and all that nonsense. Just to capture some normality again and put ourselves in the environment where we made record one.”
The familiar setting certainly helped. The band took a completely different approach to the second album, taking a clock-in and clock-out mentality that isn’t often attributed to the recording process. They basically did office hours coming in five days a week for six or seven hours a day. If something wasn’t working, they walked away, came back the next day, and started over. This allowed all three of them to breathe and keep from getting burnt out.
“The first time around, we were having to record around our day jobs,” Cook says, “so we’d get one or two days consecutively, and then we’d go away for a bit and sort of, like, come back. From start to finish, it took like 14 months to make the first record. When you do these long sessions and you don’t have the benefit of regular sessions like that, you tend to go down avenues that you later have to pull out of.”
The band also didn’t have the feeling-out process and that newness of starting a band they had when recording the first album, so they trusted each other and were able to gel much faster. The trio would put together a rough instrumental sketch, then Mayberry would write lyrics. If Mayberry found herself staring at a blank page for too long, she’d go home, and often find the solution on the 20-minute drive back from the studio.
From there, they’d put together a demo, and after that, it’d be a new phrase here, a different approach to production, some enhancements, and some scaling back.
“Every time I felt like we were adding one element too many,” Doherty says, “or superfluous production ideas of keyboard lines that were more, and more, and more tracks, the less is more mantra – however cliched – was going through my head. Trying to strip back to the absolute key elements that make the song work.”
The result is an album that Cook calls “20 percent better and 20 percent more focused.”
Mayberry’s voice sounds stronger and more confident. The production is tighter and leaner (something Doherty attributes to listening to lots of Quincy Jones-produced records), and there’s a cohesiveness to the whole album that reflects the regimented process they adhered to in the studio.
“What I like when I listen to this record is we can hear each of our personalities in it,” Mayberry says. “It’s just all merged in to make one personality overall. It’s about balancing everything, and trusting that everything fits together, and nothing is getting in the way of anything else.”
But, most of all, it’s still a CHVRCHES album, and that was important to all three members. In an interview with NME in June, Doherty talked about growing while making sure the record was still accessible:
“After making one record that people really like,” Doherty said, “some bands reject the things that everyone liked about them and make some really deep, thoughtful, dark record – but I wanted to avoid making a ‘mature’ album.”
Cook piggybacked off what Doherty said when asked about it in Chicago, and it’s clear CHVRCHES isn’t trying to climb too high, too fast. He referenced Radiohead’s Kid A, explaining that those guys had to make The Bends and OK Computer before they could ever get to a place where they could attempt making their Kid A.
The trio in CHVRCHES feel like they have to properly earn it, and they don’t feel like they can earn it on one record. And they’re definitely not going to earn it by abandoning the music that got them a fanbase in the first place.
“It’s a case of having some sort of ego that you think you know better than the people who love what you do,” Cook says. “It’s like, No we don’t want to do that anymore. We’ve reinvented ourselves. We’ve risen above that. That’s just fucking bullshit. People fall in love with what you do. You don’t want to alienate them. You want to keep them on board, but still please yourself creatively. Martin’s harping on the word ‘mature’ because it makes you sound like rock dinosaurs or something.”
It Belongs To The World Now
No more distractions and no more staying still / I am chasing the skyline much more than you ever will / You can keep to your story and I could stick to mine / We could hold up our hands, say we don’t want it, we don’t need it.
– “Playing Dead”
Midway through their Pitchfork set, Mayberry congratulates the United States on winning the women’s World Cup. She puts both arms in the air before doing her best Abby Wambach impression and kicking a balloon off the stage. She’s having a blast, and the smile on her face looks a lot like the one she had earlier in the day when reflecting on proper sun protection.
The crowd roars when the band plays “Leave a Trace,” and even those who inevitably haven’t been able to get to YouTube to listen to it yet still find themselves dancing and enjoying themselves.
“At the end of the day, we don’t know what’s going to happen with [Every Open Eye],” Mayberry says. “You hope certain things, and you hope it connects with people, but the fact that we can be proud of it and stand behind what we made will make all of that easier to take in good ways and bad, I think.”
Soon after, the band will pack up and hop on a plane, much as they’ve done hundreds of times before their five-month break in Glasgow. Two more singles will be released before the album is thrown onto NPR’s First Listen the week of its release, officially opening it up to criticism and internet comments.
But for now, Cook is planning to put on a nice set of headphones for the trip and listen to the new Tame Impala record he hasn’t had the chance to experience yet. It’s pretty clear he and the rest of CHVRCHES are doing a hell of a job filtering out the noise – and focusing on the music.