Live review of Chvrches from Death and Taxes Magazine.
Since breaking out on BBC 1, thanks to local radio DJ Ally McCrae, Glaswegian trio Chvrches have become a hype band of the highest order. While for two decades the fertile indie-pop scene in Glasgow has gone head-to-head with Melbourne and Stockholm in terms of quality; Chvrches are really the only band that has managed to break through the clutter and emerge from Scotland as a proper pop outfit.
But while Chvrches are a ‘hype band’ on the surface, they don’t seem to give in to the record industry’s need for sexed-up photo shoots and overly-produced pop anthems. Lauren Mayberry, their lead singer and quite possibly the most formally educated person in popular music, is hardly the typical pop singer. She’s not a sex symbol, like some of her female contemporaries, and she’s not interested in being one either. Take her to Facebook and call her ‘hot’ or ‘sexy,’ and she might tear you a new one through a well-written letter. Expecting some drunken midnight Twitter rant about feminism? Won’t happen, she’s too smart to become that kind of pop star.
Chvrches simply defy the norms of the genre they are associated with. Most of their debut LP is self-produced and recorded in a small home studio, and during each performance, Chvrches play their instruments live and manage to recreate the sonic clarity of the record through Mayberry’s shrill vocals, and the musical kinship between Martin Doherty and Iain Cook. Their sound, whether you like it or not, is not manufactured or based on borrowed samples and nauseating loops found in the vast majority today’s EDM scene.
I actually saw Chvrches perform earlier this year, where they seemed a bit disconnected with the audience and frankly, underwhelming and stiff on the stage. Of course, a lot has changed in the last few months. Just recently, I began to hear the band’s music played regularly on popular terrestrial radio, a real surprise for someone who had to tap into BBC feeds to catch Chvrches live on sessions with Zane Lowe and Huw Stephens. During their triumphant return to Los Angeles for a sold out gig at the Wiltern, I thought I’d see if Chvrches could live up to the massive hype they’ve accumulated over the past few months.
Wearing black shorts and a wavy white top, Mayberry drinks a hot cup of tea and occasionally turns to her side (her only real dance move), during noisy synth-heavy breakdowns on “Gun” and “Recover,” two of the most glittery, yet intensely artistic cuts from their debut LP, The Bones of What You Believe.
“I don’t really dance,” Mayberry tells the crowd, while sheepishly smiling, brushing the hair over her gimlet eyes, and proceeding to explain why dancing in front of thousands of people is a just a bit awkward. Turning to her side during the breakdown of “Lies,” Mayberry reminds me of a beautiful geisha-android, far more advanced than most of us, but not yet able to fluidly project the movements of the humanoids that stare at her in awe.
She might just be too smart for the room. At 25, Mayberry has a master’s in journalism (a former music journo), a four-year law degree, a band with a hit record, and a strong position against online misogyny. Her marketed image, which could be a shrewd decision on her part, is something of an icy electro-pop persona.. But in reality, Mayberry is a bit shy and surprisingly down to earth; hardly the mysterious and cold pop queen depicted in interviews and photo shoots.
“It’s not very punk rock,” Mayberry tells the crowd, softly giggling while taking a sip from a cup of warm vocal soothing tea, as opposed to anything that would interfere with her precision behind the microphone.
Stepping through the manufactured fog, standing in front of a dazzlingly geometric archer’s target logo, Mayberry looks like a triumphant Elvin warrior from Middle-Earth, ready for vocal target practice. And while it’s occasionally difficult to decipher her Scottish English during breaks between songs; Mayberry’s vocals shine though with bright clarity over the pounding tribal drums and laser-beam synths that define Chvrches.
Deep within the set, Doherty takes over the singing and hands over the colorful blinking MPC to Mayberry, as he begins throwing his arms around and dancing whimsically like an intensely caffeinated Michael Stipe. The rabid dance moves during “We Sink” seems to shock the crowd, who begin to drink more booze and dance, harder, while still waiting to hear the hit single, “The Mother We Share.” When Doherty is done, his baseball cap magically remaining on his dome, the places goes wild; he manages to win everyone over with his inability to give a fuck about any asinine critique of his dance moves and hip-hop aesthetic. He proceeds to thank the crowd, and Los Angeles in general, for allowing him to walk around outside without a jacket in the “Fucking winter!”
The whole thing is brilliant, and seems to project an aspect of Chvrhces you don’t see on the record or during an interview. At some points, especially when Cook picks up the guitar and Mayberry clasps the mic, tipping forward while projecting her voice, Chvrches seem like an ‘90s alt-rock band that shines through soaring vocals and pounding beats.
Since I saw them last, Mayberry seems to have gained an immeasurable amount of confidence on the stage. She seems to connect with the audience by giving more of herself, and her band mates seem more open to embracing some of their rock ‘n’ roll tendencies. It’s an emotional directness that exists on their record, but early on, seemed to be lacking during the live show. During the Wiltern gig, the trio members seem to melt together to produce a complete sound that’s polished, but also full of textured alt-rock atmospherics that separate their sound from some of their contemporaries.
The Scottish trio now seems poised to do something special, well outside the bounds of ‘electro-pop’ or ‘EDM,’ and more in line with a proper band that can pump up the volume and create a big sound that’s forward-thinking, emotionally rich, and saccharine, but never too bubble gum or driven by hype, and hype alone.