For Chvrches, the Internet can be a poisoned chalice
Chvrches chat to Ed Power about online trolls, their struggle to maintain credibility and refusing to take the easy route to fame
With her girl-next-door smile, manga babe eyes and sad angel voice, it was of course inevitable Chvrches singer Lauren Mayberry would become an object of obsession for tragic indie boys (this just in: she doesn't want to be your girlfriend).
Less expected, surely, has been the torrent of misogynist abuse directed at Mayberry via – what else? – social media. She's received rape threats and worse – one particularly noxious creep, claiming to have her home address, intimated he would call around and assault her.
"During this past tour, I am embarrassed to admit that I have had more than one prolonged toilet cry," Mayberry wrote in a newspaper piece in September, outlining the extent of the vitriol. "After all the sniffling had ceased, I asked myself: why should I cry about this? Why should I feel violated, uncomfortable and demeaned? Why should we all keep quiet?"
There are no tears this morning, it's a pleasure to report. Seated in her dressing room, Mayberry is in a positive frame of mind. That's partly because things are going well for Chvrches, a dolorous synth trio whose soaring success – a top ten LP was followed by a surprise Mercury Prize nomination – suggests misery truly loves company, especially when the misery is upholstered with delicious electro beats.
But she has also taken steps to neutralise the sexist bilge and that's making life easier too. In the wake of Mayberry's piece for the UK Guardian Chvrches shut down the direct messaging section of their Facebook page. The woman-hating trolls would have to take their poison elsewhere. It's hardly an ideal solution, she knows – pretending a problem no longer exists isn't quite the same as getting rid of it. Still, it means her days are bearable and that has to count for something.
"This is the major bummer about the internet," says Mayberry. "It can be a very negative place. For us, it's proved a poisoned chalice – it's allowed us reach an audience, the majority of whom are smart, cool people. There are a lot of negatives as well. You have to either try not to deal with it or go in head first, come what may."
She hasn't googled herself in months. Alongside the positives (Chvrches have basked in generally swoonful reviews) there's too much toxicity. Gaze into the maw of the web long enough and it feels as if your eyeballs are bleeding.
"I don't look at the internet to feel good about myself, that's for sure. It's emotional self-harm. I choose the strongest moment of the day to do my social networking. I've learned never look at the YouTube comments. It's a den of trolls out there."
The sexism isn't confined to sad, angry men (and a few women presumably) with an excess of time on their hands. After Chvrches' first show, an A&R guy took Mayberry aside and promised to make her the next Pixie Lott (for the uninitiated, Pixie Lott is what would happen if Simon Cowell got his hands on a random member of the Made in Chelsea cast).
"I was sort of honoured that he would direct the comment at me," she says, chuckling. "He could have said it behind my back. As soon as we heard him we were like 'get that dude out of here'. He was definitely sleeping with the fishes from then on."
That Mayberry's looks would be a potential distraction was something she and bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty were aware of from the start. They've taken steps to neutralise the issue, insisting on being interviewed as a band and declining any media appearances deemed too 'girly' (a fashion spot in a ladies magazine was nixed for this very reason).
"You've got a pretty girl and a couple of guys," says Doherty. "You know people are going to connect the dots – to think, 'well we put her up front and we'll get a number one record – happy days'. We have no interest in that. Any record companies that pitched that angle were told to fuck off so fast."
The band began in Glasgow in 2011. Mayberry, a law graduate and journalist, had asked Doherty to produce a project she was involved with, Blue Sky Archives. Meanwhile he and Cook were contemplating starting a new group, with a poppier polish than previous endeavours. Hearing Mayberry's voice, Doherty realised he had found the missing piece of the puzzle. The trio cut their first demo within a few days. Six months later, they were British pop's hot new thing (because you are wondering, they chose "Chvrches" because it conveyed gravitas and was easy to Google).
Mayberry is in her 20s but Doherty and Cook are craggy veterans of the Glasgow indie scene, neither of whom will see 35 again. Clearly they've learned a lot across their decade plus in the industry (Doherty was a touring member of lo-fi crooners The Twilight Sad, Cook hefted guitar in post-rockers Aereogramme). When Chvrches had a YouTube hit with early single Lies and every record company in Britain was banging on their door, they chose to play it cool. No, they wouldn't rush release an album – or even churn out another single. They had a long term strategy; blowing up overnight was not part of the plan.
"There are people in the music industry who like music and are not completely motivated by money," says Cook (this is evidently meant to come as a bombshell). "Those are the people we are in business with. They understand breaking a band can be a long-term undertaking. Potentially we are a group with a career ahead of us, if we go about our business the right way. We are not a band that pops up today, is number one everywhere and then, like that, is gone."
While their determination to succeed on their own terms is admirable, surely Chvrches' straight-edge approach risks coming off as preachy and sanctimonious? Many female artists are willing to talk about their 'personal style' and to mug for the cameras in a nice frock and do not walk away from the process feeling hopeless sell outs. Who are Chvrches to judge?
"To be clear, I don't have a problem with anyone doing that," says Doherty. "You get increased exposure, you make money faster. The trade off is that you sacrifice credibility. There's a give and take. None of us are comfortable making that trade. We want to be recognised first and foremost as songwriters."
Does it bother the band that Mayberry remains the overwhelming focus of attention, seeming to bring out the obsessive in fans? Type her name into a search engine and the first thing that comes up is her supposed age (she's 26), followed by a list of alleged boyfriends. People are actually trawling the net for this stuff when they could be playing Candy Crush Saga or sharing True Detective spoilers.
"We don't talk about our personal lives," says the singer, perhaps misunderstanding the question. "Not that we are particularly interesting. But we don't go there. We believe in separation of church and state."
Mayberry pauses, wrinkling her nose. "Maybe that should be 'the separation of Chvrches and state," she adds, breaking into a sweet, unaffected laugh.
- The Recover EP has just been released. Chvrches return to Ireland for the Longitude festival in July.
SHINY HACKY PEOPLE...
Before she was a glamorous singer, Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry earned a living as a lowly freelance journalist (her biggest 'get' — Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland). She's isn't the only performer to swap media for music.
Neil Tennant Prior to helping invent wry electro-pop, the Pet Shop Boys frontman edited cheesy pop journal Smash Hits.
Courtney Love The grunge maven's pre-fame career encompassed an exceedingly brief stint working as a photographer with Hot Press — so brief, in fact, nobody at the magazine could actually remember her when she mentioned her tenure in an interview.
Jessie Ware Nu-soul chanteuse Ware interned at a London tabloid and landed a job at Britain's Jewish Chronicle. The lesson she took from the experience was to 'mind what you say around journalists'. Such cynicism, Jessie!
Paul Banks You know him as Interpol's always frowning lead singer. However, in the days before the band, Banks worked in the glamorous world of New York magazines, contributing to Interview and Gotham among other publications.
Morrissey Moz's pre-Smiths endeavours included a stint as a budding pop culture journalist. He published biographies of the New York Dolls and James Dean and wrote a book about obscure b-movie actors, though this was not released until 1998.
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