Synth Pop sensations CHVRCHES on the importance of having hardware

October 25, 2013
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After forming in 2011, Glasgow’s Chvrches lit up the Internet with their day-glow electronic pop fronted by fiery vocalist Lauren Mayberry. Synthesists Martin Doherty and Iain Cook build burbling electro tracks propelled by heavily compressed beats that breathe and pump energetically behind layers of buzzing synth arpeggios and Mayberry’s irresistible hooks, effortlessly fusing early-’80s new wave with modern hip-hop and EDM elements. As their first studio album The Bones of What You Believe debuts, the buzz for the band has quickly outgrown the online community that first embraced them, causing many of their U.S. dates to sell out in less than five minutes. Plus, they’ve just been asked to support Depeche Mode in Europe later this year. We caught up with Iain and Martin in Los Angeles about how they crafted the songs on Bones and how they take them on the road.


Photo by Eliot HazelTell us a little about how Chvrches came together.

Iain Cook: I was in a band called Aereogramme for eight years or so. Towards the end of that period, Martin and I started working together on a couple different things. I was producing and working with his other band. 


How did you both go from the harder rock of your previous bands to Chvrches, which is almost purely electronic?

IC: One night in San Francisco, things were going pretty badly. I remember sitting down next to Martin and saying, “Let’s just do something else.” It was about five years before we actually sat down to write together and we just went into the studio for two days and started throwing ideas down. We started to form something really exciting pretty quickly. Around that time, I was producing an EP of Lauren’s band. We asked her to try some vocals on our songs, and sure enough, as soon as we heard her voice with the synths and everything, we said, “This is amazing!”


In the early days of the band, what gear were you using?

IC: In terms of the recording rig, we used [Steinberg] Nuendo to track everything, but we try to keep as much hardware in the studio as possible so that we’re not relying heavily on plug-ins—other than the [Universal Audio] UAD stuff, which is pretty phenomenal. It’s not quite the same level of character you get from actual vintage outboard, but it’s about as close as you can get without dropping about 100 grand.

Martin Doherty: The tunes usually start by being influenced by equipment—they’re so heavily influenced by just a sound—like a pad or a tape echo. There’s no substitute for hardware for going from being uninspired to having the bones of a tune in 20 minutes. All from messing about with one piece of gear, and it can come from Iain or myself, or Lauren will come up with a vocal hook. It’s very much a democracy, this band. There are no passengers.

IC: We were also starting to collect synths around that time. Our basic setup was a Minimoog Voyager, a Roland Juno-106, and a Prophet ’08. Pretty soon after, we added the Mopho x4 and the Tempest.


So, you’re Dave Smith fans?

MD: Oh, yeah. He actually got in touch with us the other day when we were in San Francisco and he invited us to his studio to road test the new Prophet 12. 

IC: There was such a great energy in the room because they were gearing up to ship and they had the whole company in the office—which was, like, eight people. They updated the firmware of our Tempest and signed it. 


Do you bring any of the hardware synths onstage?

IC: We have the Voyager, the Juno, and the Prophet ’08. The Juno is the one thing I’m terrified about because if that thing goes down, we’re in trouble. The tuning sometimes goes weird on those things, if there’s too much humidity in the room or whatever.


When I saw you play in San Francisco, you were also doing a lot with Native Instruments Maschine.

MD: Maschine is pretty integral to the live show. We use the library in the studio for drums when we’re not using the Tempest, but we’re not using it for that onstage. We’ve got our whole library of samples loaded into Kontakt and we use Maschine to control it all—from vocal samples to massive stacked keyboard sounds that we’d need five synths to recreate live. We want to minimize load on the computer so I’ll just load in the individual notes we need. 


Tell us about working with producer Rich Costey on mixing the album. . . .

 IC: He was our first choice for mixing because he’s so well known for his rock production and we wanted to move away from clean electronic tones into something that’s really punchy and kicked-up. 

 MD: His outboard chain for the entire mix is terrifying.

 IC: Just the stereo bus at the end costs probably about half a million pounds, and it sounds like it. [Laughs.]


It’s cool to be working at that level on a debut album. For a lot of bands, the first album is more the “bedroom” record.

IC: Actually, this kind of still is the bedroom record because we recorded it in a small basement studio in Glasgow. No live room or anything—just a bunch of synths and a computer. Because we tracked it all ourselves, though, there was a budget to get it mixed properly—to have Rich Costey make the most out of our raw materials. 


That’s a great way for bands to maximize their budgets: Track everything yourself and then hire a pro mix engineer.

IC: We actually found it quite difficult to take our hands off mixing the record because we had the songs up to a really good place. We thought we’d do it ourselves from start to finish but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity of seeing what someone like Rich would bring to our music. 

MD: To prove we could do it all ourselves would’ve been quite a statement, but then the time window got smaller and smaller. So we spoke to Rich. I love those Mew records he did. I’ve been a huge fan of Rich’s work for years, so if we were going to go with anybody, why not go with the best? 


You’ve got some upcoming dates supporting Depeche Mode. Were any of those earlier electronic bands an influence?

IC: Oh, hugely. We grew up listening to that stuff. When we heard we had the opportunity to play with those guys it was just about the most exciting thing we’d ever heard. 

MD: When our manager told us, “You’ve been offered these Depeche Mode dates,” I got this thing like, “Is this an offer or are we just in the running? I don’t want to hear about it if we’re just in the running because it’ll keep me up for the next three weeks.” Even when he said, “No, it’s 100 percent confirmed,” I still couldn’t believe it until they announced it. It was that big a deal.


With the touring such a runaway success, do you expect a break or any time to work on new music soon?

IC: Well, the idea is, we’re going to be writing a lot of our second album the road. We’ve got a lot of ideas for setting up a studio in the lounge of the bus.

MD: We’ve got the Tempest on the road with us, and the Teenage Engineering OP-1, and the Moog Minitaur. We’ve got a wealth of soft synths, too. I grew up on Arturia. I really respect it. If you don’t have the hardware, it’s a really good substitute—we still can’t afford a CS-80! [Laughs.]

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