CHVRCHES return to their dark side on fourth album ‘Screen Violence’
The trio spoke about their new album, working with the Cure’s Robert Smith and balancing personality, nostalgia and progress in their music.August 26, 2021
“You’re literally witnessing the first time we’ve all been in the same room in a while,” Martin Doherty of Glasgow synth-based band CHVRCHES says over Zoom. He shares the foreground of the screen with vocalist Lauren Mayberry while Iain Cook takes a backseat in between. The band are set to release their fourth LP, Screen Violence, Aug. 27, completed during quarantine as a follow-up to 2018’s Love Is Dead. With the album release and a tour set for later this year, CHVRCHES have grabbed some attention with the dark-sounding tone of their latest singles, one of which features a rare appearance from the Cure’s Robert Smith.
Throughout the record, there’s heavy influence of ’80s nostalgia from bands such as Depeche Mode and New Order. Even CHVRCHES’ music videos feature VHS graphics that mimic the classic horror B-movies of that era. The band were able to get together in L.A. to discuss their fourth record and the concepts that are both influenced by the past but bring something new to the table.
Where do you all fall when it comes to the pandemic, artistically? Was this time necessary for you to decompress after the end of touring the third record, or was there any pressure to make the follow-up?
MARTIN DOHERTY: I definitely don’t think we were under any pressure besides self-imposed pressure. During that time, we had to do a lot of adapting in order to overcome the pandemic challenges. None more obvious than the distance thing, which wasn’t easy, but I guess, personally, my pandemic experience was pretty standard: bake bread, bake cakes, stop baking bread, get a dog, built a studio, made an album. [Laughs.] I went through the musician checklist. I got interested in pedals and shit like that and started building musical equipment instead of making bread all the time ’cause I was getting fat. [Laughs.]
The band already had some blueprints for what Screen Violence would become, but did any new concepts that were dealt with due to the pandemic interject themselves into the album subconsciously that would affect the tone or sound?
LAUREN MAYBERRY: I think we’re lucky in a way. We were already planning to make an album that was a little darker than the last one. I think that’s where we were at emotionally, after the tour of the third album. I really enjoyed that chapter, but I think it was time for something less sugary, if that makes sense. If we had been trying to make [a] pop record last year, it would have been a lot harder. So I feel like if anything, the isolation and forced melancholia and vulnerability helped focus further the avenues we were going down a bit.
You mention darkness. This sense of tone can be heard on your first record as well, so I’m wondering: Did you want to get back to your roots, so to speak, on the latest LP, as opposed to the more colorful third album?
DOHERTY: I think you have to make the third album that we made to make this fourth album, so to speak, like an order. That’s always been inside us. The lighter side of what we do has always been there, and it felt like the right time to explore it. Whereas now, the darker side, which has always been evident from day one, was being explored on this one. It’s almost like every album was subconsciously planned in a way. If you go back in time, and I hear every record in order, I think to myself, “Well, that’s exactly the album we were supposed to make at that point.” And now, I think that the fourth one slots into that exactly how I would have hoped. We were always building towards this. It was always in the DNA.
Everyone has that dark side, and it can influence art, especially in the ’80s with darker bands and new-wave sounds like Depeche Mode and the Cure as well as the movies. What kind of art that fits the darker aesthetic did you all gravitate toward growing up?
IAIN COOK: That whole ’80s horror aesthetic has always been present and, also, apparently referenced in our music and themes. Definitely with Screen Violence, the title itself draws from that era of horror movies and the splat or gore movies and stuff like that. And [the] slasher movies that we all love so much.
DOHERTY: To me, that was a time when you felt the most excited and safest. We often talk about the word “nostalgia.” I don’t necessarily like that word, but I don’t know if there’s a better word to describe it. There’s definitely a feeling you get when you watch some Breakfast Club or when I watch Back To The Future, for example. That’s what I like to capture when writing music whilst also looking forward, you know?
Speaking of nostalgia, is it true that the name of the album, Screen Violence, was a contender for the actual name of the band?
MAYBERRY: Yeah, it was on a long list of band names that we had. I refined it into a Google Doc in summer 2019, and I was looking through, and there were some good ones, and there were some not-so-good ones. I think “Screen Violence” would be a good band name, but we didn’t choose it in the end just because it felt too specifically retro, and we didn’t want people to think the band was just an ’80s pastiche. We didn’t really know if that would be the working title and we’d change it later. But definitely, there were a lot of visuals that came to mind immediately. And for me, I felt like there was a lot of stuff I could write about based on the secondary meaning of that concept.
The band have been vocal about the prejudices faced in our culture, with technology providing a large platform to extend negativity to anyone anywhere in the world. How do you all interject your views into the music without trying to get political about what’s right and wrong?
MAYBERRY: For me, it’s about putting things in your art that you want to see. We never really go out of our way to write a “message song” that’s going to be about this and then people will take on board our opinion. On this record, there are a lot of songs that are very personal, but that’s always going to be merged with things that other people feel are political because things are politicized. We live in a moment where a fucking piece of cloth on your face is politicized.
Basically all the other CHVRCHES songs, there isn’t really any political content at all apart from one line on the third record. All the rest of the time, everyone’s like, “CHVRCHES is a political band because of X, Y and Z,” but it’s not because we were making political art necessarily. It’s because the conversation around the band was always about gender and feminism and the internet.
Obviously, we played a part in that, but I guess if somebody asks you your opinion and you answer them, or you act out of self-defense, then that becomes the whole narrative of your career. You can’t really do anything about it. You write about how you experience the world, for better or worse. That is how I experienced the world a lot of the time. But it’s been really great to see the first few songs coming out and seeing people responding to them, especially women.
How does the band walk that fine line of sticking to their own sound while bringing something new and interesting to each record?
DOHERTY: Well, first thing’s first: You’re never going to please everyone, no matter what you do. I can tell you that now, four albums in. If we made something too similar, people would say we didn’t change. If we made something very different, people would say we changed. Never let outside influences in. You wouldn’t listen to someone on the internet tell you what you should eat for dinner, unless it’s Gordon Ramsay.
Maybe you’re the White Stripes and you want to only make music that sounds like rock music. That’s fine. Or maybe you’re Madonna and you can’t make any two songs that sound similar. That’s also fine. At the end of the day, it’s about your personality and keeping things interesting for yourself. We aren’t trying to appeal to a surface-level audience. The Cure is a band so important to us, and they make songs from “Friday I’m In Love” to “Fascination Street.” That’s great, and they get even weirder sounds than that. That’s what’s important.
What did it mean to get to collaborate with Robert Smith on “How Not To Drown” off this LP?
COOK: It was a huge honor. It certainly wasn’t anything that we anticipated ever happening in our lifetimes, but it just came about through some communication with our manager and him. And we ended up sending him a bunch of songs to see if he was interested. We asked him to be involved in any way that he wanted to, and he zeroed in on that one song. We never met him through the whole process. It was all just emails and things like that. After we finished the track, we got to do some interviews with him, and that was fun. Just getting to know him a little bit, even in that weirdly artificial situation. You can tell he’s just bundles of fun personality, you know?
DOHERTY: People in bands always say things like, “We never expected to…” Like, “We never expected to get a Grammy nomination or to play Madison Square Garden.” I’m always like, “Yeah, right.” I swear on my family that this is a scenario where we truly never expected this to happen. I’ve known so much about the Cure and Robert Smith. I can count the collaborations he’s done on one hand in 40 years. It’s something like Siouxsie Sioux or some special thing. It’s the ultimate co-sign. You could offer me any collaboration, any artist living or dead, and I’d still pick Robert Smith.