CHVRCHES’ whirlwind year is catching up with singer Lauren Mayberry when we sit down with the group at Mushroom HQ. The singer, battling a cold, cheerfully excuses herself to return to her hotel to rest before that night’s performance in Melbourne. It’s early August, and CHVRCHES are in the country for three shows – all of which have sold out well in advance of the band arriving. Iain Cook and Martin Doherty carry promo duties, confirming rumours they’re returning to Australia in 2014 for Laneway Festival and checking their phones to see if the band’s (then-unreleased) debut album, The Bones Of What You Believe, has leaked online.
It’s been a rapid rise for the Scottish trio since posting the song “Lies” online in May last year. All three members have previously played with other bands – Mayberry with Boyfriend/Girlfriend and Blue Sky Archives, Cook with Aereogramme and The Unwinding Hours, and Doherty with The Twilight Sad – but with CHVRCHES have surpassed the achievements of all those groups. Just prior to their Australian visit CHVRCHES had played to crowds in excess of 50,000 in Europe, supporting Depeche Mode.
When you first got together did you have bits and pieces of songs that you all brought to the project or did you start from scratch?
Iain Cook: Everything that we have now was all written with us in a room in our basement studio in Glasgow. There was nothing previously brought in. It was all just responding to each other and trying to chase that energy we had when we first sat down together.
Individually had you thought about something a bit more poppy than your previous bands, or did it just start happening when you did get into the studio?
Martin Doherty: There was no decision on that at all, from me certainly it was so natural because the way that we sound is partly a product of all the stuff that I’ve listened to anyway. I’ve kinda left demure guitar music behind; seven or eight years ago it was like I got bored of listening to guitar music. I realised for me that all the great records had been made by guitar bands, probably somewhere between 1988 and 1997…
IC: That’s a pretty controversial statement, I’m not gonna get behind that one.
MD: Has there been a seminal guitar record since the debut Interpol record? Probably not.
IC: [Arcade Fire’s] Neon Bible.
MD: It’s not really a guitar record. That’s like strings, flutes…
IC: But they are a proper sort of…
MD: It’s not like a guitar band, I don’t perceive them to be a guitar band at all. But you’re right, that’s the next great one.
IC: The Vaccines? No. [laughs]
MD: It was weird, when we got to the studio a lot of the way that we sounded was informed by the space. I kinda realise now – I didn’t think about it much at the time – but we were working in Iain’s studio, a small project studio, there was no live room, so there was no option for a drummer or a massive guitar rig and a bass player and stuff like that. The creative dynamic between three people is so much tighter and so much more efficient than a classic band set-up. ‘Cause when you do a band there’s two ways of doing it: there’s either one guy who’s telling everyone what to do or there’s five guys all trying to shout the loudest. We’ve all experienced both of those things and it’s really hard to get stuff done.
The space was small so we were using no drums so we had a drum machine. We had no massive guitar amps so we were using synthesisers and it all really grew from there. You know, some days you come in and a tune comes out and it’s three-and-a-half minutes long and you’re like, “Cool, well maybe that could be one of the ones for the radio” and then other days there’s like a six-minute tune that’s definitely not a radio song but that’s still as satisfying to me, you know? It’s all about the balance, light and shade, all that stuff.
What was the first song you finished together?
IC: It’s gotta surely be either “Lies” or “The Mother We Share”, in terms of the first song we finished properly as a band.
MD: Yeah, that must be about right. “The Mother We Share” took a long time, it went through three previous incarnations – different tempos, different instrumentation, different ideas, different structure even… Remember there was all those different bits, and then one day we came into the studio looking at it on the page and it was like, “Let’s delete this; right, move this bit to here” and then suddenly it was like, “Woah”.
IC: It’s one of these things, it kinda felt really good but we kept coming back to it, going “There’s something really annoying about it”. It felt like we were chipping away at it for months.
MD: “Lies” being exactly the opposite, like “Lies” was one of those things where we get in the studio and we’re like, “Let’s just try to make the biggest drum sound possible”, and then within minutes it felt like there was a tune there. And that came out so fast. And then we developed it a wee bit, but the bones of that tune were there really quickly.
IC: With this band it never feels like a production line, it feels like the songs have a life of their own and they came into the world in really different and interesting ways.
MD: You’ll never beat the excitement/fear/anticipation of going into the studio and you load up a session and it’s completely blank. It’s like, “Is this going to be the one where I don’t know what to do?” and then minutes later it’s like, “Bang!”
When you first came together, so you’re writing songs and it’s feeling good, were you spending a lot of time together you three?
IC: Very much so, every day pretty much.
MD: We’ve been in each other’s pockets for nearly 18 months. If we didn’t get on so well it would be impossible. And that’s a really big part of this band, our working relationship is informed by our friendship first and foremost and either of those things can’t exist without the other. It’s a weird one.
Were you conscious of not putting “Lies” online until you knew you had enough songs written to back it up?
MD: This is something we were talking about earlier: we all come from this background where what you would do is get a demo, go into a rehearsal studio, get a gig, play as many gigs as possible, print up the demo, sell the demo at the gigs, hope that it grows, maybe some sort of record deal would happen, whereas this is the antithesis of that in a way.
[CHVRCHES is] just this project that started in the studio, stayed in the studio for months and months and months, we got a bunch of songs together and it wasn’t until we felt 100% ready with the recorded output that we let anyone hear a note of what we were doing, even our friends. There were so many people we spoke to when we put “Lies” online like, “Where did that come from, what the fuck have you been up to?”
IC: A lot of thinking went into that at the time, watching other bands making mistakes, like all of a sudden they’re all over the internet and then they’re fucking gone.
Was the thinking the same with the live show, not playing until you’d rehearsed it a lot?
MD: We played our first live show in July  so it was the best part of two months after “Lies” but we were under pressure to play live immediately, people asking us to play their club night, play this thing, play that thing and we were just like, “Everyone stop, this is a studio project, we need to figure out the fuck how we’re going to play this live”. It was always very important to us that it would be a proper live entity. We could have turned up a day later and karaoked our way through a set easily.
IC: We’d get bored so quickly if you had to do a tour like that.
While you obviously hope for the best, you must have been overwhelmed by such a positive response when you posted “Lies” online?
MD: You can’t expect that sort of thing. We didn’t have any real idea of what was going to happen there. We didn’t have a label, we had no money, it was like between Iain and Campbell [McNeill, co-manager], you were kind of floating the project at the very beginning. But we weren’t spending cash, we didn’t have cash, we were just a bunch of folk recording together in the studio.
We just put it online and this whole thing was one person passing it to another, like legitimate word of mouth. We were lucky enough that Lizzy [Plapinger] and Derek [Davies] from [label] Neon Gold, we’d given them the “Lies” demo, they’d enjoyed it and they were like, “We’ll put it on our blog for you”, and then bang, it was 24 hours, and it felt like it was everywhere. We had an American agent by the end of that day. We were like, “Really, do you know that we don’t know how to play live?”
It’s crazy to think that all this has happened without your album even released yet [The Bones Of What You Believe was released in Australia on Friday 20 September]…
MD: None of us have been this far before and this time period seems in some ways insane, like to some people it might appear as though it’s an overnight thing but I don’t necessarily subscribe to that. I feel like more that it’s the way we’ve set the band up and the work we’re putting in, and even the way that the songs are constructed is the product of a lot of experience making countless mistakes and spending more time figuring out what you don’t want to do than what you do. At the same time we do understand that for one it’s not a given success this project, still there’s so much work to be put in, but we are aware that we’re in a position where we have an amazing chance to do something and it’s important that we capitalise on that.