Smile Politely

Synthpop and Scottish politics

As you most likely already know at this point in time, CHVRCHES are headlining this year’s Pygmalion Festival, and performing on Saturday evening. Following the release of their internationally acclaimed record The Bones of What You Believe, this was a band that was bound to blow up in a big way. Comprised of Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, the trio provides an insanely catchy form of synth-electro-pop that brings it.

I had an opportunity to speak with Iain Cook about a variety of things, including touring, songwriting, and a little dose of Scottish politics for good measure.

Smile Politely: You guys are having a moment right now, but you haven’t been a band very long. You started in 2011, is that right?

Iain Cook: Yeah, the end of 2011, I guess that’s when we first started working on some music together.

SP: The success you’ve had in that short period of time, to the extent that you’re now headlining festivals, does that feel like a whirlwind to you?

Cook: I don’t think we’ve headlined a festival yet, but we’re working on it. But it does feel like a whirlwind. It’s something that we talk about trying to not focus on very much. I think the most important thing for us, being swept up in the hubbub of activity that we have over the last couple years, the most important thing is to focus on the task at hand. Whether that’s doing the best we can do in the recording studio on a daily basis or doing live shows and trying to keep your head together on tour, those are things that require a lot of focus and attention, so we try to stay in the moment rather than look at the big picture and say “Oh my god, we’ve come so far.” [laughs] I guess it’s like a tightrope, when you start to look down things start to go pear shaped. [laughs] It’s all about trying to keep our head and keep focused. As long as we can do that I think we’re going to be OK.

SP: You said you haven’t headlined a festival yet, but I’m previewing your appearance at Pygmalion, for which you will be the headliner. A lot of people are very excited to see you, and its cool that we’re able to get you to come to our town.

Cook: We are so excited about that, its one we’ve been looking forward to for a while. I guess we haven’t headlined a festival up to this point. [laughs] We’re reaching the end of this album campaign and we’re really excited about the shows we’ve still got. We’ve got Pygmalion, a tour of America, and then our last tour of the UK and off to southeast Asia to finish things off. It’s going to be a really exciting six months and then back to the studio to try — [laughs] to try and come up with a new record.

SP: I was reading some about your studio, and it really is your studio where you record, correct?

Cook: It is, it’s nothing particularly fancy. It’s basically just abasement studio where we’ve been working and where I’ve been working since 2007. It’s always felt quite temporary because it’s in a residential building; it’s not a purpose-built studio or anything. But it just so happens we’ve enjoyed working there and we like the vibe there, it’s familiar, you know? The great thing about it is that you’re not on the clock. There’s no pressure to hurry up and finish. We can take our time get things absolutely the way that we want it. We’re 100% in control and we’re not spending other people’s money. I think that’s where we’ll make the second record as well; we’ll go back to the same place. There was some talk of us building a studio and putting money into that, but I think we’ll just spend time developing the space we’re currently working from and maybe look into building something more permanent after that for the second album — if everything goes according to plan, of course. [laughs]

Lead singer, Lauren Mayberry.

SP: Speaking of making music, your first album was called “forward-thinking electronic music” by Pitchfork. When you’re making music are you trying to push boundaries, or is it just what you really enjoy making?

Cook: I think that is our primary concern when we make music, is to really make music that pleases us because I’ve always been a believer that if you make music that satisfies yourself, as the creator of it, then other people will also identify with that — to a greater or lesser extent, of course. It’s not something we are particularly conscious of, being innovators. I think that’s a weighty mantle to try and carry forward, but it’s a nice thing if some people consider us forward thinking. I think we are in some ways and we’re backwards looking in other ways. Like classic synthpop or pop songwriting is a massive inspiration to what we do, as well as trying to move things forward with modern production techniques and contemporary pop and R&B and hip hop influences. I wouldn’t consider us experimentalist forward-thinking pioneers, but it’s nice that some people say these things about us.

SP: You don’t use a lot of real instruments — and by that I don’t mean synthesizers aren’t “real”…

Cook: They’re fictional! [laughs]

SP: Do you see that continuing or do you want to try and get more natural guitar and bass into future recordings?

IC: We have four or five songs on the album that feature live guitar and bass. I think that’s something we’ll continue to develop. I’m primarily a bassist and guitarist myself, even though my first instrument was piano, and I’ve tended to play more guitar and bass in bands over the years. It’s just whatever really sets the song. We don’t have any hard-and-fast rules about instrumentation, we never have, and I don’t see that as being the case moving forward. The kind of instrumental palette we settled on for the first record is something that we’ll probably drawn on heavily for the second record because it’s the sounds that are exciting us at the moment. They’ve also become identifiable as the sound of CHVRCHES, so we’re not going to completely forsake that on album two. There will be a development, for sure, but as for the direction it’s probably too early to say.

SP: I’m sure with your tour schedule you haven’t fleshed out a lot of new songs, but what have you been listening to and what’s been piquing your creative interests?

Cook: I’ve been listening to a lot more dance music, a lot more electronic music, and getting into the DJ frame of mind with the stuff I’ve been listening to. Also, I’ve been listening to the new Caribou album and it’s been really blowing me away. I don’t think its out until October, but I managed to get a sneaky listen to it and what he’s doing on his new record is really exciting to me. It’s taking more dance music forms and making really great alternative pop music from it. That’s something we’re trying to do and will try to do more of on the second record. Also the new Aphex Twin album is amazing, but that should be no surprise to anyone. [laughs] The guy’s a genius.

SP: You mentioned you’re getting into a DJ frame of mind, and at Pygmalion you’re doing a DJ set. Is this something you’ve done a lot of?

Cook: Its something we’re really dipping a toe into and kind of stumbled upon. We never really set out to be DJs, but because of the nature of how things are going, especially in America, we’re getting more offers to do after-shows and DJ sets and stuff like that. It’s been a real challenge getting into that mindset, but also a real exciting one because we’re kind of expanding our horizons in terms of what we listen to and what we’re playing out. It’s a real challenge, but I feel like we’re in the early days of getting comfortable with that sort of stuff. It’s a lot of fun; I’ve been really enjoying it.

SP: That’s all I had for you about music, but Scotland’s been in the news a lot this week because of the independence referendum, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you your take on Scotland staying in the UK.

Cook: Well, the decisions been made now, right? Last night was quite a stressful time, and also this morning seeing how many are disappointed and genuinely gutted by this result is actually surprising and upsetting to me. It was a very emotional time on the lead up to this referendum. People were really identifying with Scotland as an independent nation. There’s been a lot of emotional rhetoric and talk and vilification of people who disagree. I’m kind of glad that it’s over in many ways, I think now we just need to look forward to how Scotland is going to progress as part of the union because that’s what we are and that’s what we always have been, in my lifetime certainly. It’s about how we can make things better now rather than being bitter about the recent result. I think there’s a lot of a positive to be taken, I think there’s positives to be taken from identifying with England, Northern Ireland and Wales as a united nation. There are obviously negatives too; I grew up in the ‘70s under the Thatcher government and in the ‘80s as well. Scotland was definitely dumped on by that administration and I’m hoping those days are behind us now and we can move forward with a bit of positivity.

Cook, Mayberry, and Doherty.

SP: CHVRCHES doesn’t strike me as a particularly political band, but do you see this having a personal impact on you or the band?

Cook: I don’t really now, no. I think what this has done is it’s made Westminster realize that Scotland has a voice; if it didn’t before it does now. And I think things are hopefully in place to make us more of a devolved Parliament than we even were before. We’re not really a political band, not in terms of national or party politics, but in terms of social politics we are, particularly Lauren is very outspoken about gender politics. That’s something that is near and dear to us, but we don’t tend to talk about religion and national politics very openly [laughs], because that’s not the really the job of the musician, in my opinion. Although a lot of people would disagree with that, its certainly not where we’re coming from.

SP: This has been a really interesting talk, is there anything you’d like to add before I let you go?

Cook: Not really. This is our last tour of America; it’s maybe our ninth time here on this record and it feels like the end of a really long and exciting journey for us. Certainly in the way the band and audiences have grown in the last 18 months. What better way to finish up stateside than by playing Pygmalion? It’s going to be a real celebration and we’re excited about it.

Check out CHVRCHES on Saturday evening in Downtown Champaign at the Highdive Outdoor Annex. They’ll be joined by Tycho, The Range, Common Loon, Bishop Allen, Twin Peaks, and plenty of others. Grab your tickets and head out there.

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