Photo: Danny Clinch

No More Bones: An Interview With CHVRCHES

With Every Open Eye, CHVRCHES vaults the bar set by its debut, The Bones of What You Believe. Multi-instrumentalist Iain Cook speaks with PopMatters to explain just how that happened.
Every Open Eye

The Bones of What You Believe, the 2013 debut LP by the Scottish synth-pop trio CHVRCHES, is replete with bold statements. “I’ll be a thorn in your side / ‘Till you die,” frontwoman Lauren Mayberry sings on “We Sink”. The chorus to the bouncy “Gun” has Mayberry chant, “I, I, I have burned your bridges / I will be a gun / And it’s you I’ll come for.” Perhaps most memorably of all, “Lies” features this killer kiss-off: “I can feed your dirty mind / Like I know, like I know what you want.” Infectious pop hooks abound on The Bones of What You Believe, but for CHVRCHES, glossy pop need not come at the expense of gutsy defiance.

For that reason, it’s curious that “Never Ending Circles”, the opening number to Every Open Eye, the trio’s sophomore outing, contains this lyric: “Throw me no more bones and I will tell you no lies.” On the surface, the line reads like a sharp line given to a noncommittal partner, a reading that certainly holds up when one considers the chorus to “Never Ending Circles”: “Here’s to never ending circles / And building them on top of me / And here’s to just another no man,” Mayberry shouts with palpable confidence. At the same time, however, the beginning of “Never Ending Circles” is a highly self-referential line for the band: it nods both to the title of The Bones of What You Believe and to “Lies”. With Never Ending Circles, it seems, CHVRCHES is making a clear break from its not-so-recent past. If read a certain way, “no more bones” can come across as a repudiation of The Bones of What You Believe, a declaration of, “Been there, done that.”

But, of course, Every Open Eye is anything but that. The anthemic defiance that forms the core of Bones cuts like “We Sink” and “Recover” is not only present on CHVRCHES’ second studio LP: it’s even more pronounced. As if its lyrics weren’t already loaded enough, “Never Ending Circles” backs Mayberry’s proclamations with a synth riff whose pace is that of a start-stop gallop, mimicking the back-and-forth that Mayberry recalls in her lyrics. Lead single “Leave a Trace” features one of the band’s most cutting lines yet: “Take care to bury all that you can / Take care to leave a trace of a man.” Compositionally, CHVRCHES proves to be even more of a force on Every Open Eye: album centerpiece “Clearest Blue” crescendos into a synth break that tops similarly brilliant previous feats, such as Bones‘ “Tether”. Not long after Mayberry sings “No more bones,” it’s clear that the legacy of The Bones of What You Believe is alive and well — but, nonetheless, those three words do upset expectations, even if only for a moment.

Upsetting expectations is something that CHVRCHES does with aplomb on Every Open Eye: namely, the expectation that nothing the trio could do would top such a distinctive debut like Bones, whose impossibly catchy lead single “The Mother We Share” hasn’t depreciated in that catchiness in these past three years. The group, comprised of Mayberry and the two synth masters Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, have effectively dispatched any usage of the phrase “sophomore slump” with regard to Every Open Eye, an album that never slumps at any moment. The music rises and falls naturally, highlighting some of the band’s best synth riffs and its most quiet, introspective moments in its still-growing discography. The Bones of What You Believe was promising back in 2013, and Every Open Eye proves that it was no mere hype machine at work.

Cook himself was aware of the expectations between CHVRCHES’ two records. I ask him if he perceives any difference in audience between The Bones of What You Believe and Every Open Eye. “It’s pretty early to make the comparison definitively,” he says, “But things do seem like they are steadily growing from where we left off, which is more of a relief than anything.” The perceptive Cook is also aware of the expectations that come with second albums, though it certainly doesn’t slow the band down: “There’s so much talk around the band — not within the band I hasten to add — about the so-called sophomore slump and how hard it is to follow up a successful debut,” but “it’s great to see that there are still a lot of people out there who love what we are doing.”

Like all of CHVRCHES’ music, Every Open Eye was self-produced by the band in a Glasgow basement studio that Cook owns. This independence has proved quite important to how CHVRCHES approaches its music. “We have found [self-producing] to be integral to the music,” Cook says. “Up to this point, it’s been super important that we have been hands on at every stage of the process. Not to say that we wouldn’t ever work with a producer in future but for now, it seems like the right thing to do. It’s not easy, it’s a lot of intense work and pressure but we have been happy with the results so far.”

Despite their rising star in the global music scene, success has not come at the price of pressure to drop their hands-on production technique, as Cook explains: “We call all of the shots creatively and no one is hassling us telling us what to do. They know that they would be politely told no if they did. These avenues and opportunities certainly exist, and we can sometimes see our contemporaries making decisions that we wouldn’t make, but it would be unfair of us to criticize that path. Maybe it’s right for them, but we don’t really feel like that band at this stage.”

It is no wonder that Every Open Eye is such a confident outing for CHVRCHES: it’s not their first time at the rodeo this time around when it comes to writing, recording, and touring. For Cook, however, life in the music business is about striking balances. When asked about whether or not things felt easier in the process of making Every Open Eye, he replies, “[It’s] easier in the sense that there aren’t as many surprises in terms of workload and other people’s expectations. Touring is still hard, personally speaking I don’t know if I will ever truly find being away from my family, partner, and friends and home comforts easy. Some people do I guess. I wish I could see it from their perspective.”

If the three musicians of CHVRCHES are facing any challenges, though, they do an exceptional job sounding bulletproof. Even on a tune like “Clearest Blue”, where Mayberry sings about the need to “meet halfway” in a relationship, the metallic synth octaves just over two minutes into the track evoke the feeling of being able to overcome whatever obstacles may frustrate one’s path. “Lauren wrote nearly all of the lyrics on Every Open Eye,” Cook says, “So I couldn’t authoritatively comment on her vision. But it appears to me that there are quite a few themes which emerge when you listen to the album as a whole. It feels to me like the album is largely about emerging from somewhere dark or sad but looking ahead to the future with an optimistic perspective.”

Cook here puts his finger on one of Every Open Eye‘s biggest strengths: its light/dark contrast. Mayberry sounds like she can take the world head-on with tracks like “Leave a Trace” and “Make Them Gold”, but Every Open Eye features some of her and the band’s most vulnerable moments. The tender album closer “Afterglow” concludes with a heart-melting repetition of “I’ve given up all I can.”

Press Photograph by Danny Clinch

Even more stunning is the crepuscular “Down Side of Me”, Every Open Eye‘s standout track. The chorus has Mayberry doing her best to see the beauty in a relationship in which she clearly has some uncertainty: “I will show I believe / And hold you up and know that you’re all I see in the light.” By the time the bridge comes, however, the “tiny cracks of light” that she mentions on “Leave a Trace” begin to inch open as she explores her doubts in a gorgeous passage comprised of vocal tracks weaved together in a hypnotic latticework: “Keep you away from the down side of me / You can keep me a trick of the light that you see / I’ll believe that you’re all that you said you would be / If I keep you away from the down side of me.”

“That song came from a demo that Martin had written on his laptop on tour,” Cook says of “Down Side of Me”. “It changed radically once we started working on it together, but the whole track was based on a loop that he had recorded made up of him hitting the table and recording it on his Macbook speakers, as well as clapping into the laptop mic. Those sounds all made it onto the track. That song has one of my favourite parts of the whole album, the middle breakdown section with the layers of vocals. No idea how we came up with that, it all happened quite quickly in the studio and we let ourselves follow it through to its conclusion.”

Cook’s explanation of “Down Side of Me” becomes all the more interesting when one takes into account the music CHVRCHES was listening to at the time of the album’s recording — or, rather, the lack thereof. “I don’t think we were listening to much music while making Every Open Eye. Personally, when you are in the studio immersed in music all day long, I need to come home and be away from music as much as possible. On tour and in preparation for making an album, however, it feels good to soak up as much stuff as possible. There’s always a danger when writing new material that external influences will weigh too heavily on the writing process. Of course, we don’t write in a vacuum, but during that writing and recording time, I find that it’s better to stay focused on the task in hand.”

It is surprising for Cook to say that he has “no idea” how ingenious moves like the bridge on “Down Side of Me” came to be written — how often does brilliance like that emerge from nowhere? But, then again, CHVRCHES is adept at taking its influences and melding them together without making obvious any individual one, a fact true of Every Open Eye. Synth-pop is all the rage at the moment, but CHVRCHES is still in a class all its own.

Another key way CHVRCHES has stood out in the past several years has to do with how the band, Mayberry in particular, has responded to online harassment. In 2013, Mayberry penned a piece for The Guardian about the misogynistic comments directed at her through the band’s social media channels. She opens the piece saying, “I am in a band that was born on the internet,” which she (in addition to Cook and Doherty in other interviews) claims has been a positive force in getting CHVRCHES’ music out to the world. Yet the rewards reaped from operating online do not come without serious negative externalities, including some horrifying and aggressive comments directed at Mayberry.

Very few pieces on CHVRCHES have passed over this issue since Mayberry’s piece and her many subsequent talks on the subject. Fortunately, as Cook sees it, enclaves of online trolls are not an insurmountable force for CHVRCHES. “We are lucky to have a very supportive fanbase online. Sure, the negative voices inevitably become louder and larger in number, but so too do the positives. It is always a tricky thing to filter out the poisonous things but it’s not impossible, especially when there is so much overwhelming positivity and support out there too.”

Dealing with trolls may be an issue of ubiquity in the digital age, but it isn’t slowing CHVRCHES down any, nor is it abating any ambitions. In an interview given to the BBC around the time of Every Open Eye‘s release, Cook argues, “People don’t make albums any more. They make 11, 12 songs, and they put them out as an album but they feel like a greatest hits, or a playlist.” When I ask Cook about this, he elaborates: “I think I said that in reference to some contemporary pop albums that just sound like one radio hit after another. There’s no real ebb and flow, no sense of progression or telling a story, no exploration of multiple facets of an artist’s sound, just one attempt after another to deliver the ‘hit’. An album, in my opinion (and maybe this is an unfashionably traditional viewpoint), should have more breathing space, not be afraid to throw in some harder, darker, slower, longer pieces and explore a bit.”

For CHVRCHES, Cook’s understanding of “the album” is somewhat paradoxical. The trio’s two records — The Bones of What You Believe especially, which opens with five hook-laden numbers — are rife with radio hits (or, put another way, would-be radio hits). Yet, to use Cook’s phrase, Every Open Eye does “ebb and flow”, utilizing juxtapositions of “harder, darker, and slower” pieces. (Though not “longer”, exactly: keeping in line with their pop bonafides, only one song, “Down Side of Me”, breaks the five minute mark, though not for want of playing safe.) In other words, CHVRCHES has it both ways: Cook, Doherty, and Mayberry know how to write a hit and how to place it in the context of a coherent, compelling LP.

With CHVRCHES being only on its second LP, this achievement proves especially impressive. Far from “no more bones,” these Glaswegians have simply built upon those bones and, in the process, have made one eye-opener of a record.