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Cover Story: Chvrches • “Screen Team”

| August 1, 2021

Churches 2021 – Photo – Sebastian Mlynarski & Kevin J Thomson

On the surface, Todd Strauss-Schulson’s 2015 horror-comedy The Final Girls was a prescient showcase for then-young acting talent, like Vera Farmiga’s sister, Taissa, future  Silicon Valley star Thomas Middleditch, and the always-hilarious Adam DeVine, along with the relatively veteran Malin Akerman – all working overtime to sell the surreal plot, wherein Farmiga’s Max Cartwright character is transported with four of her high school besties back into Camp Bloodbath, the 1986 cult classic of her late scream-queen mother Amanda (Akerman) who is suddenly alive again for her daughter to save in the time-looping old footage. And once the original ‘Final Girl’ — the standard blood-spattered sole female survivor of a slasher pic — gets offed by accident when the new arrivals alter the script, can Max save Mom and herself, when there can be only one Final Girl? If she wants any kind of closure on her parent’s tragic death, she has to pick up the killer’s machete and wade into his arterial-spray wake herself.

In the process, the movie becomes much more than the sum of its promising newcomer parts — something surprisingly moving that touches on family bonds, mortality, legacy, and ultimately knowing when to let go of treasured memories. It’s not a masterpiece, exactly, and it’s a stretch to buy Akerman reprising her “Bloodbath” as a fresh-faced camp counselor naif. But if you suspend disbelief, The Final Girls is a lot of fun, with countless satirical, self-referential in-jokes that immensely pleased Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry the first time she watched it last year as part of research for her trio’s new Screen Violence concept album, it’s fourth, out August 27 on Glassnote. Naturally, splattery metaphors burrowed their way into its danceable yet dark synth-rock studies like “Lullabies,” “Nightmares,” “Violent Delights,” “Final Girl,” and a hip-shaking, depression-inspired “How Not to Drown,” featuring an apt cameo from Britain’s reigning King of Goth, The Cure’s legendary Robert Smith. But many complexities are happening just beneath the record’s surface, swears the Scottish-born, now Los Angeles-based Berry. And no one should ever accept anything Chvrches does at mere face value.

“We’re big cinephiles,” the singer/lyricist says of her Glasgow bandmates, producer Iain Cook and multi-instrumentalist Martin Doherty, who also relocated to California with her at the same pre-Covid time in 2019, ostensibly for extracurricular songwriting assignments; they currently reside only a few blocks from each other. “And I’m not necessarily a gorehound, but I’ve always been drawn to horror movies because of what they speak to within me if that makes sense,” Berry speaks in a soft, speedy, burr-inflected lilt that belies the gravity of her carefully considered thoughts, which always seem to add up perfectly. And she doesn’t slow down to accommodate the listener — you either jump on board her idea train or get left in a cloud of dust at the last topical station. She has some big societal issues to unpack, sans apologies.

“So for me, the song “Final Girl” is playing with the concept of the final girl, and how we’re all obsessed with it,” the former journalism student goes on to explain. “There are so many films and TV shows that are about dead women and dead girls, but the dead girls and the dead women don’t actually get any character development — they’re just a plot point to tell men’s stories. Like, Twin Peaks, I love [it] to the ends of the Earth. But Laura Palmer? She’s just a plot device for the most part in that series. So the idea of “Final Girl” is also about personal experience, where I think people have been obsessed with the…kind of, I guess, grotesque violence around the band. And then if I write that AS the final girl in that story, then that gives me a way to talk about it, and that makes it all feel not so tragic.”

The violence Mayberry references isn’t the splattery Camp Bloodbath kind, nor is it some imagined slight. It’s the kind of everyday subliminal brutality that all women instinctively understand and regularly pick up on in many male-female interactions. And it’s something most men rarely perceive or even bother to consider: From their earliest girlhood years, women are taught — or generally warned — to fear men. Don’t get in cars or vans with strange men, don’t accept candy or gifts from them, be on guard when one comes walking confidently toward you — not just in a dark alley —but pretty much anywhere. Because crossing the wrong man’s path could result in physical abuse, kidnap and/or rape, and in some extreme cases, death, possibly by a machete-wielding lunatic.

Young boys are instilled with no such lifelong fears. But offhanded words can cut just as deeply as Mayberry can painfully attest. In 2013, she’d had enough of displeased online trolls commenting on her physical appearance in concert, and — employing her case-building journalistic skills — she addressed their litany of overtly sexist crimes in a fiery op-ed for The Guardian; silently tolerating such caveman-atavistic behavior was enabling it, she asserted long before the #metoo movement got post-Harvey Weinstein traction. After founding a feminist Glaswegian arts collective called TYCI (for Tuck Your Cunt In, now dissolved), she’s never backed down from a fight with the oppressive patriarchy, even going so far as to indict Donald Trump as an unpunished sexual predator justifiably. When she first spoke about the callous treatment of women in show business, it was a lonely position to take, and she wasn’t exactly celebrated for drawing a this-far-no-further line in the sand.

But just because women’s voices have grown into a universal chorus in no way signals the end of this problem, sighs Mayberry, a Christ-age 33, spiritually believed to be the most eye-opening year of your life. Hence —just in “How Not to Drown” alone —her telling lines like “You can’t kill the king” and “Kiss the ring.” Yes. It’s a pointedly papal allusion, she admits. “But what that, to me, is about is being walked over by rich and powerful dudes.” With TYCI, she never felt ahead of the feminist curve, but behind it, as it felt like it was modernizing old Riot Grrrl tropes, but now that the cultural zeitgeist has recognized the mass behavioral infractions, she’s still skeptical about any lasting change. “I feel like the media aren’t necessarily engaging with the conversation for the right reasons,” she says. “Somebody asked me recently in an interview with a local radio station, ‘What’s your big #metoo moment?’ And I gave them a very shocking answer.” Then she waited expectantly for the logical follow-up query, which never came.

“This guy just moved on to his next question,” she continues. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this guy knows that he has to ask that question, but he’s not engaging with me talking.’ If that makes any sense.” This is why she’s extraordinarily proud of Screen Violence, she notes. “Because I feel like this is the first record where we’ve all written songs that reference these things, whereas all the conversations around our band — when it came to me — have always been about my gender and my feminism. But that was never IN the material; that was never IN the records. Iain and Martin pointed it out to me the other day that this was the first time I was getting asked about lyrics.” She pauses, weighing the significance. “Maybe I just did a good job on this record, or maybe these lyrics are better than my previous ones,” she ponders. “But isn’t it mad that my job is writing those words and singing those words, and basically nobody ever asks me about them — all they ever ask me is what do I think of #metoo and why do I hate men so much? That’s a pretty odd way to spend your creative career, I think.”

Or it simply could be a case of a composer rising to an elevated and multi-layered thematic challenge like Screen Violence. The titular screen alone could denote the hypnotic faces of our omnipresent cellphones and handheld devices, which hold our attention whenever we’re not planted in front of our watchful Big Brother work computers. Then there is our sanity-maintaining — perhaps life-saving, in some cases — home TV screens, where we all sought refuge during the pandemic lockdown, exploring a brave new world of streaming-service opportunities. Amplify the metaphor to IMAX magnitude, and you’ve got those familiar old movie-theater screens, now dusted off after a year of disuse and ready for business, wherein watching once-traditional summer blockbusters like F9 becomes something of an existential question. Do I really want to huddle with the potentially unvaccinated masses just to watch Vin Diesel crash increasingly expensive automobiles? Or would I rather sit quietly at home, stream it later with microwave popcorn, and not risk any insidious illness. Because — as scientists are now discovering — our coronavirus antagonist is going nowhere, and it just might have chosen the loge seat right next to yours. So which screen do you prefer? Your choice probably reveals a lot about who you really are and whether or not you’ve learned any life-transforming lessons from our shared, globe-spanning experience in 2020.

The flickering cathode X-ray imagery of **Screen Violence, oddly enough, had their beginnings in the real-life VistaVision panoramas of Southern California, which Mayberry and Doherty grew both familiar with and fond of after relocating to L.A. to further their extracurricular songwriting collaborations two years ago. Veteran studio whiz Cook — who wisely added then-newcomer Mayberry’s sprightly vocals to his undulating synth soundscapes (alongside Doherty’s fluid guitar lines) back in 2011, an experiment that led to Chvrches’ deft **The Bones of What You Believe debut in 2013 — remained behind in Scotland while his bandmates journeyed West, several lucky months before Covid-19 hit. Doherty was an old hand at professional sessions, but it was a whole new frontier to Mayberry. And she took assignments as they came, learning on the job.

“So the two of us would go in and work with another artist on something, but it wasn’t like an ‘L.A. writing room’ in the big scary sense,” recalls the vocalist, who acclimated so well to the new surroundings she penned a Screen track about it, the twang-guitar-gilded thumper “California,” with its jarring lyrical caveat “You’ll die in California.” “But I never wrote for anybody that wasn’t myself, and I never thought about things from anyone else’s point of view in that way. But there’s just something that feels so wholesome about asking somebody else what it is that they’re trying to say and then lyrically trying to figure out a way to help them say that. I feel like that’s more nourishing than just writing songs to put in a pile and sell to somebody that you’ve never met, you know? So I think this has been a really good thing for our own writing, as well.”

Were there occasional charges the duo was tasked with helping who didn’t pan out? Yes, Mayberry chuckles, not naming names. “There were, uh, some vibes that have been trickier, where I’m like, ‘Huh. Do we really want to talk about that? Okay. I guess we will!’ But so much of our writing for the last ten years has ended up being very much about US, so it’s been a nice change — a nice refreshing change — to not be the center of the thing if that makes sense. When you’re going in to help somebody else, you can’t really take your own ego into that, so it doesn’t really matter what you do in your band or on your own time because that’s not your job at the moment. And I think it’s been nice to have that juxtaposition.”

So while fans might view standalone single “Here With Me” — Chvrches’ soulful 2019 team-up with Marshmello — as an obvious home run, Mayberry is more proud of the quieter ones. “For me, a success is if somebody leaves the (writing) room happy with what they got,” she ventures. “I never really think about it any other way because you never really know what’s going to happen with a song or with a record when somebody leaves. But — especially when it’s a female artist, and given all the experiences that I had in my life and my work — if somebody feels seen and listened to, and that they actually accomplished something that day? Then I think that I’ve done my job.”

The Mayberry/Doherty cottage industry was picking up steam when the pandemic shut everything down. And not to paraphrase Dickens, the singer sighs, “but we chose a really good time, bad time to be here because now we can’t go anywhere.” Chvrches had already planned on taking 2020 off after two solid years of touring behind its third **Love is Dead opus. And as she dug into her horror-flick schematic for Album No. Four, watching a slew of gruesome gorefests in the process, she again stumbled across Joel Schumacher’s 1987 cult-favorite **The Lost Boys. Around the same time, she was delighted to discover a newer entry like **Final Girls. Set in the fictional seaside California town of Santa Carla, **Lost Boys wound up inspiring her moribund “California” lyric. “For me, that song was like writing through the lens of freaky Santa Carla, about people dying in California, and they’re being killed by vampires — that’s one read on it,” Mayberry says. “But then an actual read on it is how we moved here to get writing jobs, and how none of that really matters now, and now you’re probably going to die in California, completely disconnected from all your friends and family. And you only know one guy (Doherty), and he’s in a house down the road, but you can’t really see him.” She takes a deep, calming breath, exhales.” So it was a VERY cathartic piece when we wrote that one, I think,” she adds.

However dark their firmament, the stars all seemed to align for Chvrches in 2020, just the world shuddered to a halt. The band name was still in the public eye, thanks to the Marshmello collab and “Death Stranding,” a track commissioned for a video game of the same name by renowned **Metal Gear Solid designer Hideo Kojima. Mayberry had an empathic new understanding of her own songwriting skills — ‘Plays well with others,’ her pandemic report card would have read — and Cook and Doherty were feeling the urge to revisit vintage synth-rock sounds and warmer textures from the ‘80s, via fave bands from that period like OMD, Depeche Mode, plus New Order and its Joy Division precursor, and even — on the sinister-carnival-evoking Final Girl itself — Rio-era Duran Duran. They had even set aside the suggestive album title, which Mayberry had found in a decade-old book of nixed potential band names. It didn’t take them long to agree on an allegorical theme, where Elm Street crosses paths with Camp Crystal Lake — machetes optional.

“We were really lucky for the most part because we’d planned to take 2020 off to make the record,” says Mayberry, who got into the spooky swing of things by growing her hair long and dying it blonde to resemble Drew Barrymore (perhaps channeling Barbara Crampton) in one of her all-time favorite nail-biters, Scream. “We only had a little summer touring planned, and that was a fortunate position to be in because a lot of bands we knew were just gearing up to put out albums (at lockdown). So I think there’s an energy to this record that’s really special because it was made in a vacuum — we worked remotely, and the band didn’t really exist outside of the three people that were in it anymore.” Sans tours, press junkets, and promotional duties like TV appearances, she asks, rhetorically, “What IS a band when you take all those things away? It’s about writing, and last year, that became a steady, consistent thing. We’d meet up every day on Zoom and do our writing, and you’re working on music with your colleagues, but also your friends, in real-time, talking about the horrible shit that everybody was going through.” As awkward as it sounds, she adds, she’ll treasure that trial by fire, always.

Spare time, of course, was spent Netflixing down the ghoulish rabbit hole for film research. Besides Final Girls, Mayberry can easily pinpoint three spectral favorites that topped her list after repeated viewings: Carrie (“Stephen King writes female characters so well, and that movie means so many things, on so many levels,” she praises); the original **Halloween (“Because John Carpenter is the absolute greatest — he’s making the music AND writing and directing the films, and it’s just impressive to me that he did that,” she says); and, of course, the satirical **Scream.

“And it makes a lot of sense as a reference for this record,” she reveals, “because it is that meta, talking-about-the-medium-whilst-making-the-medium kind of thing, and I think that’s incredibly clever. The sequels I could do without, but the original is great, and the whole point of me dying my hair was to kind of play with the tropes of women in horror. So if I can be blonde like the Drew Barrymore character, who only lasts for five minutes, what would people project onto you? Because in order to be the true final girl, you have to have an innocence, and the audience needs to root for you.” She pauses for effect. She’s given this considerable thought: “But what if you don’t have that? What if you feel like the Scream Queen, but you’re actually not the Final Girl? What do those things mean? So maybe only a few people other than me will pick up on these things. But that research was really helpful for my writing process.”

In the cover art for the album’s syncopated folk/pop/dance pastiche of a single, “Good Girls” — which sneeringly deconstructs society’s simpleminded sexist strictures for what constitutes a female of good moral breeding — Mayberry even taps into the Nagel-print-retro look of a Brian De Palma femme fatale, circa 1984’s Body Double. And she unveils her brilliant ideas in such an authoritative, rapid-fire volley that she effortlessly packs a two-hour talk into 35 condensed minutes. So we don’t have to discuss the new reigning pandemic Scream Queen, the brainy Samara Weaving of Mayhem, The Babysitter, and Ready or Not fame. But she has plenty of time to address the mascara-sporting white elephant in the room, singing along on “How Not to Drown,” a certain Mr. Robert Smith, The Cure being another musical influence that Cook and Doherty took on Screen Violence board.

“I still feel very what-the-fuck about it — I can’t believe that it actually happened,” Mayberry gasps, sounding fangirl giddy. “But honestly, it was just a bizarre, happy accident, which I feel has been on par for us. The biggest things to have ever happened to Chvrches have always been the loose things — it’s never been something that we wanted desperately or tried to get to happen in some way. It’s always been some weird accident, where somebody met somebody at a bar and said, ‘Oh, I LIKE that band!’” This boon came courtesy of Chvrches’ manager Campbell McNeil of Lunatic Entertainment, who casually informed a lawyer he shared with The Cure that his trio (which now unofficially includes drummer Jonny Scott) wouldn’t mind opening a few upcoming dates for the band since Smith was finishing a new album. Nothing more invasive than an innocent have-their-team-contact-our-team request, she swears. “Campbell was just looking ahead, you know? Doing what good managers do,” she recollects. “But Robert Smith doesn’t HAVE a manager, so then he got an email from him saying, ‘Aloha, Campbell! I hear you have been looking for me. What do you want?’ So then Campbell had to call US up and go, ‘Uhh, guys? I just did a thing…so what DO you want?’ And we were like, ‘What?! What do we ask for? I have no idea where he even came from!’” Chvrches dutifully sent Smith early Screen demos as work examples, she adds, and he happily opted to contribute to “Drown.” “That was the one that he picked out,” she says proudly. “And hearing his voice on that song is so insane, but hearing him sing words that I wrote is incredibly bizarre, as well, especially given what the song is about. It’s really a full circle, so you never know where things are going to end, I suppose.”

Script-wise, however, it’s supposed to end with the Final Girl dispatching the masked serial killer with his own chainsaw. Or, as Mayberry warbles blithely in the anthem of the same name, “And you know that she should be screaming.” But this defiant auteur enjoys no longer taking cues from any directors. “And with some movies, if you package them in a certain way, people are going to want to watch them, and they’re going to take on — and engage with — the ideas in a way that.

Might not have otherwise,” she firmly believes. So with Screen Violence,” she concludes, “I like that there are layers to it. Like, if you just want to listen to this record and think, ‘Oh, it’s a horror concept album that Chvrches made because they love horror movies because they’re geeks like that,’ then that’s fine. But it’s also a bit meta because it isn’t really about that at all.”

-Tom Lanham

Appearing November 9 at Aragon Ballroom

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