Eros the Bittersweet and Surviving Tough Times | a Q&A with CHVRCHES

by William J. Simmons

photo by Danny Clinch

photo by Danny Clinch

It was my first winter in New York City. It snowed constantly. In my mind, every day I saw him, it snowed. He was my first boyfriend since coming out as gay. Back then, his goal in life was to write about weed for the Village Voice. He was sure he wouldn’t be a delivery boy for a chicken joint in Tribeca forever. He wouldn’t hold hands in public. Every time I went over to his house, he would spin The Bones of What You Believe by CHVRCHES. I’d walk up his street and hear “The Mother We Share” from the sidewalk.

I thought of CHVRCHES very abstractly in those days; they were simply in the background until I realized that I may not have been in love with him per se, but rather I was in love with the atmosphere and sonic memories he created. I don’t remember his name, but I know every word of every song on that album. Whenever I return to CHVRCHES, I think of the winter and the flesh-on-flesh and the beautiful disappointment. Things add up and shift and change shape, and they coalesce into something called a life. It is no hyperbole to say that CHVRCHES were a beloved part of that process.

Here, I talk to the band's Martin Doherty and Lauren Mayberry about their new album Love is Dead, politics, poetry, and the difficult balance of artistry in the public eye.

Flaunt: I came to your music through an ex-boyfriend, and now your new album is called Love is Dead. It makes me think about the cyclical nature of making music. Do you ever fall in and out of love with a track or album?

Martin Doherty: Yeah, definitely. As a listener, I have a pretty short attention span, but it is always evolving. I don’t know if I have that kind of relationship to our music, since I don’t listen to it once it’s done. I focus on performing it live, and I don’t go back. I have to say though, while we were learning songs for rehearsal this week, our stuff came on Spotify radio, and I was quite surprised! I was like, huh, I haven’t heard that in years!

Lauren Mayberry: We get played in the gym a lot. It’s nice to rediscover it and realize it’s still good!

You’d be good gym music. I’ve never stepped foot in a gym, but I imagine!

LM: They’re awful places! I understand it’s good for me and shit. But every time I go in, they’re like, “Have a great workout!” And I’m like, “Well, I definitely won’t!”

I think we are on the same page! So, when I think about your work and how I came to it, I think a lot about nostalgia. It’s not only because of the ex-boyfriend, but also because of your sound. However, after the increasing visibility of white supremacy after Trump’s election, I wonder if nostalgia might always be oppressing somebody.

LM: I know what you mean. When they say, “Make America Great Again,” I ask, “Well, great for whom?” That basically means white men. It’s not great for women, people of color, or the LGBTQ community, or pretty much anyone who isn’t a white man. When we write, there are definitely nostalgic elements. We’re often writing about things that have happened. Sometimes thinking about the past is like a warm, fuzzy blanket. Other times, you’re just romanticizing the past. Maybe we are just emotional people, but our music does sometimes have that romanticism. It’s a balance. You want to feel tied to what’s gotten you to where you are and where you come from, but you don’t want to constantly be dwelling in the past and not living in the present.

I have a good quote from the poet Anne Carson that reminded me of you guys: “Meanwhile music pounded / across hearts opening every valve to the desperate drama of being / a self in a song.” How does one translate the fullness of a life into a song, or is that an impossible task?

LM: In terms of lyrics, I don’t feel like I ever get a huge existential question covered in a song. There’s a song on the new record called “Graffiti,” which sums up how I felt in a particular time and place, but the rest of our writing is more abstract, more of a snapshot of a feeling rather than a whole story. I love Anne Carson! The Beauty of the Husband is my favorite.

I can’t remember the exact quote, but it’s about how we idealize each other. It’s something like, “I went over and under bridges looking for you and I realized that neither of us had ever seen Venice.” He told her he would take her there and he never fucking did! Anne, you’re too good for that schmuck!

MD: It’s interesting. The idea of self is within our music and especially in Lauren’s lyrics. Each song has a different worldview, emotion, or reaction. All of these, over one album or three, can help build up a picture of a person, especially when the writing is so personal. A lot of writers make characters, but Lauren, you write you in a really frank and raw way. That makes for great lyrics, even if it is close to the bone at times.

Anne Carson again: “And it is the single fact that makes the difference to the lover, that you and I are not one.” In that way, love is both a unifying force and a separating force. It reminds us that we cannot fully take on the suffering of others. How can we use love to become effective allies?

LM: That is something we were grappling with a lot in the lyrics for this record. What makes me the saddest is that I do not have a fix or the answers. Does that mean we will just rumble on toward an inevitable war scenario? But there’s also these smaller moments of a lack of kindness or empathy in your day-to-day life. What you see on the news is related to how people treat each other on the subway. It’s a weird part of the human experience to realize that we are kind of the best, but also kind of the fucking worst.

This connects to another question. Does art thrive in difficult times?

MD: Absolutely it does. People making art out of personal tragedy is at the core of the greatest music you’ll ever hear. I certainly get a lot out of it personally if I’m processing something emotionally difficult. But this isn’t to say that all good music comes from a place of intensity or sadness. I used to think that I did my best work when I was my most depressed, but as I have grown up, I’ve realized that the opposite is actually true. Especially when you’re in a creative partnership, when everyone is in a good state of mind and communicating and laughing, you can take it to another level completely.

LM: There are more political references on this record than the previous ones. But they’re not protest songs on the face of it. It’s more like watching somebody grapple with something, I think. That is how we write best. I don’t think we could come in and write a protest anthem. It just doesn’t feel like what the band is about. Still, by being a person in this moment, it is impossible to not think about how people are being treated and how this is impacting everyone. And if you’re not interested in that, maybe this is not the record for you. There’s a balance between writing a song titled “Mike Pence is a Horrible Piece of Shit” and making art. I think he’s a horrible piece of shit, but there’s another way to write about that.

Sometimes, you need to reach people in a different way.

LM: I’m still riding high on Beyoncé at Coachella. Lemonade is one of the most political albums of the last decade, or even longer. It’s also her most personal. You can read it as purely political if that’s what you want to find in it, but you could also read it as purely personal. I think there’s a real strength in that. She’s making art out of how she feels personally, socially, and politically, but she’s bringing people into that and encouraging people to talk about things. I guess that is why she’s the unicorn!

To close, I wanted to ask you about one lyric in “Get Out”: “I pushed you to the edge / Never knowing what I wanted / Knowing what I needed you to say.” I think this is really profound. I’m thinking about not only the relationships among people and their friends or lovers, but also what we expect of artists, how artists connect with their fans. Amy Winehouse comes up for me—asking too much of people we admire.

MD: That’s so sad in that context…in a good way!

LM: Our relationship to artistry and music has probably changed since the band got signed and we are in a different place. It’s really important that people feel they are part of a community— something they can believe in and that represents them. But then we can’t make art by a poll. I think it’s interesting to have that separation in your head. We want to be involved, but we also need to know when to step back and not listen all the time. It’s funny—people want writers to be the most sensitive and the most aware and the most heartbroken people in the world, but then there’s this flipside in the current media climate where you also have to be a selfish person who is not bothered by anybody.

These two things are kind of mutually exclusive. I never realized until I watched Amy how autobiographical her work is. It’s truly heartbreaking. There are people in clubs singing along to karaoke versions of “Rehab” and she’s literally written the line— “I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine / He’s tried to make me go to rehab but I won't go go go”—and that’s literally what happened. Oh, we’re all so awful. We just needed her to be what we wanted her to be. We didn’t think about her as a person.

MD: I feel the same about Ian Curtis. As much as I love Joy Division, I find it really sad how his suicide is often glorified. That’s one of the darkest things about being an artist. You have to take yourself to that place sometimes. Sometimes, music can bring you back from it. Sometimes, music is a cure or a Band-Aid to protect your state of mind. But sometimes it’s not. And that is so deep and dark.

LM: It’s about empathy. Just because someone is on TV or you see them in a magazine doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think of them as a person or have any empathy for them. I remember being in the supermarket when Britney Spears was having what were clearly mental health issues. I saw her on the cover of People or Us Weekly or something like that, pictures of her with the umbrella. In that moment I thought, how could you be so fucking cruel? She was a kid. You can’t show some human kindness? I’m so happy she’s better. Thank God, because it would have been on our heads! We went and saw her, and it was amazing. We tried pink drinks!

written by William J. Simmons