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CHVRCHES: Recording 'Every Open Eye' - EMusician

CHVRCHES: Recording 'Every Open Eye'

On their sophomore album, the Scottish alt-rockers build technology-imposed, synth-centric arrangements around natural vocals
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The future members of CHVRCHES achieved regional recognition playing in such Scottish indie rock bands as The Twilight Sad, Aereogramme, and Boyfriend/Girlfriend, but it wasn’t until they combined clever song craft with Lauren Mayberry’s edgy/angelic vocals and genre-crossing electronic production that the trio hit heavenly paydirt.

“Forming CHVRCHES required a big reset,” recalls Iain Cook (synthesizers, guitar, bass, vocals). “Even though we’d played in alt-rock or post-punk-type bands, this felt like a reset aesthetically. We felt a freedom to come out with whatever happened.”

“You spend so much time making music with all these restrictions that when you get to do something that at, its core, is made without rules, it’s a total relief,” says Martin Doherty (synthesizers, samplers, vocals). “That was one of our goals, to make music with no restrictions. It felt like we’d taken the lid off.”

CHVRCHES’ debut album, The Bones of What You Believe (2013), scored chart Gold with the single “The Mother We Share,” which also appeared on numerous soundtracks. Prior to the release of their latest, Every Open Eye, CHVRCHES released a single, “Leave a Trace,” which quickly scaled the charts. The song is a perfect union of electronic production, heartfelt vocals, and manicured songwriting, recalling artists like Laurie Anderson, Gary Numan, and Pet Shop Boys.

“I worship The Cure, Radiohead, and Depeche Mode,” Doherty says, shedding more light on the genesis of CHVRCHES’ sound.

“Fleetwood Mac, Prince, Michael Jackson, Kate Bush are my heroes,” says Cook, “and modern music as well, from Glasgow’s deep dance and the UK electronic scene, which continues to lead the way, even though they also take song elements from Germany.”

Self-produced and recorded in the band’s Glasgow home studio, and mixed by Mark “Spike” Stent, CHVRCHES’ Every Open Eye (Glassnote) is broader in scope and larger in sound than its predecessor. From the anthemic ecstasy of “Make Them Gold” to the requiem-like closer “Afterglow,” Lauren Mayberry’s triumphant little-girl-lost vocal meshes with Cook and Doherty’s pounding electronic landscape to create exhilarating, spine-tingling music that’s sure to have fans stomping in stadiums and singing their praises the world over.

[BREAK]

Every Eye Open has extremely dense arrangements. Could you describe how you developed all of those sonic layers, as opposed to the ways you may have worked in the past?

Doherty: The restrictions were more technology-imposed and space-imposed this time. We were making music in what was basically a glorified bedroom setup. Everything was in the box. On The Bones of What You Believe, we used three hardware synths.

Cook: On Every Open Eye, there are about 20 hardware synths. But our focus was on classic songwriting, almost traditional songwriting. That the songs are dressed up in an electronic outfit is kind of secondary to the fact that these are songs. They would work with piano and guitar.

Doherty: A number of mechanisms in the songs are borrowed from rock or guitar music; that’s our background. The British press really likes to brand us as synth pop, and I love that music, but I think we belong more in the indie world—an indie band using non-traditional guitar band instruments.

I think the album actually alludes to many different genres.

Cook: Sadly, we subscribe to the “new sound, new song” technique to get inspired to write a new song. We need a new synth or a new sound or a loop to become inspired. If I pick up the guitar and write a song I will be using all the same jumping-off points melodically. But if you write on a computer or on a synthesizer, the synthesizer has infinite sounds and rhythmic hooks and timbre hooks. They take your creativity and your brain to another place when you’re writing from the ground up.

Doherty: One of the things that inspires us in terms of songwriting is the interplay between the drums and the vocals. You can take a really strong rhythm and lay a vocal on it and harmonize it in different ways, but ultimately the hook is still there.

Cook: I’d as soon write songs to a drum beat alone than any form of chords. We didn’t write any songs just to a beat, but on “Leave A Trace,” 80 percent of the verse is delivered on a single note. But it’s only pushing against a kick and a snare. It’s almost writing without harmony in mind.

[BREAK]

Your music consistently places a naturally recorded voice against synths and programmed drums.

Cook: Having that purity at the very center of everything allows us to push things in a very nonhuman direction.

Doherty: When recording or processing vocals, we don’t Melodyne things like mad; we need that human element. It’s always been about the marriage of the natural and the synthetic. Even as far as processing her vocals, Spike Stent did all of that in post. We sent him natural vocals.

We used the Synchro Arts Revoice Pro plug-in on a particular section in “Empty Threat” on each layer of voice, then built a bunch of doubles into that, then used the single master track to align it all. Ordinarily, we’re not as crazy about that stuff. A lot of doubles on Every Open Eye are tight like that, and in this instance you’ve got the impact of four or five super stereo tracks. Revoice Pro is really interesting because without spending an entire afternoon physically aligning each [consonant], you can use that single master track to align five vocal takes in much less time.

Cook: On “Empty Threat,” we blurred those lines a little bit. We sampled Lauren’s vocal then used [Native Instruments] Kontakt to play it as another instrument. Or even just mapping it within software—the cruder, the better. We’re very much coming from the Laurie Anderson school of sampling, rather than the Ableton modern era of heavily processed, perfectly cut-up samples.

Lauren was in a hard rock band before joining CHVRCHES. How did she adjust to working in the electronic environment?

Doherty: [Laughs] Well, that’s been—not an uphill battle, but an ongoing process of growth. She’s used to being backed up by drummers who are smashing the drums. She’s 25. Her high school band sounds like At the Drive In. Lauren doesn’t get involved in the tech stuff, but we are a great partnership. She plays keyboards and samplers live.

[BREAK]

What hardware synths did you play on Every Open Eye?

Doherty: The synths that glued the record together are the Juno-106, the Roland Jupiter 8, and the Oberheim OBX-8. When we were younger, we coveted software synths: the Arturia V Collection, the Jupiter 8, ARP 2600. We always used those for demos, and they’re all across The Bones of What You Believe as well.

What accounts for the very liquid and enveloping synth sounds on Every Open Eye?

Doherty: The Roland Jupiter 8 and the Moog Voyager are our go-to bass synths. But the most important analog aspect is the Dave Smith Instruments Prophet 08, Prophet 12, and Prophet 02. The 02 and 12 are all over Every Open Eye. The 08 was all over the first record. We didn’t mic a single synth on the whole record, though. We used the API pre’s and EQs to color the sound. And we’ve got the BAE 1073 clones as well. We want to capture things as honestly as possible, and then in the box do weird shit with it rather than mess around with cabinets. It’s more about processing after it’s in the box, where we’re most comfortable.

What software was used for processing?

Cook: We made the first record with three synths and plug-ins, multitracking mostly the Voyager, Juno-106, and Prophet 08. This time we cherry-picked sounds to play to our strengths. There’s more of a breadth of sound. Instead of using a bunch of synths and hammering one, we made the most of one sound and captured it as well as we could, then EQ’d and processed it so it really sat on its own in the mix.

Eighty percent of the first album is SoundToys Decapitator. We’ve since bought a Thermionic Culture Vulture, instead of processing distortion inside the box. And were both using Steinberg Cubase. I was on Logic Audio until 5.5. I was pirating the software. Pro Tools was slow and lacked features. Using Steinberg Cubase is a PC-user hangover. Logic doesn’t feel professional when you open the software. It feels like Garageband. You can peel away all the bells and whistles until it looks like the Logic you remember. I enjoyed the mixing interface in Logic. Then you pull up one of its reverbs and it looks like 1998! It hasn’t been updated in ten years. When you pull up Logic on a retina display, you can put a finger between the pixels.

[BREAK]

What is in Lauren’s vocal-recording chain?

Cook: A Blue Bottle mic with the C6 capsule. That went into a BAE 1073 MPF clone, and then into a TubeTech CL1B compressor, into the UA Apollo interface. We did a blind test with five or six different mics, and the Blue Bottle captured a kind of aggression in her voice. She has a pure, soft-sounding voice and the Blue Bottle gave it a harder edge; it gave her voice punch without oversaturating it like some tube mics can.

What was used to process sounds in the mix?

Cook: Most of the post was done with Universal Audio; it’s expensive but a lot of the emulations are great. The UAD Roland RE-201 Space Echo Tape Delay is featured on both of our records. We also used Waves H-Delay for reverb. We’ve really been enjoying the d16 Group Devastor plug, too, and the d16 Decimort, which is the bit crusher. Devastor is a distortion plug, the d16 version of SoundToys Decapitator. And [we used] d16’s Syntorus, the chorus. d16 Group is a small developer, but really good-quality. We learned about them from Rich Costey, who used them all across The Bones of What You Believe.

How did you create the repeating synth hook in “Never Ending Circles”?

Cook: That was an accident. I literally fell on the keyboard. After five minutes of playing with it, I thought, “This is really annoying and also quite exciting.” It was the first thing we did on the record and the last thing we had to fix on the record. Spike told us to take all our tracks off iCloud in case they got hacked. I put it all on a VLC player on my phone, and that opening hook was completely missing. It was completely phase-cancelled. So Spike flipped one of the sides and EQ’d it so it jumped out more.

Can you describe how you created the vocal echo in that song?

Cook: That’s a cut-up Roland using SoundToys’ Little AlterBoy plug-in: individual tracks with all the pitch gradients tuned out of them in Melodyne. The form shifted using Little AlterBoy. The bass is a Juno-106 married to a distorted bass guitar. It was put through a bus that’s pumping with the kick drum.

[BREAK]

What’s your drum software of choice?

Doherty: We use Native Instruments Maschine hardware to run drums and vocal or keyboard samples. The rhythms are borne of drum samples. There are a couple of Kate Bush moments with these big toms, where one cell corresponds to a huge stereo tom. We work from a big drum sample library. We’ll drag the sample into Cubase and build an entire kit. We lay them out on the arrange page. We don’t use loop-based or rhythm sequences. All our drums are built in a linear fashion, from the start to the end of the song. That way it’s easier to build in intricacies and variations, and it has the visual stimulus as well. Or we might use sample sets—cleared sample sets, of course!

Cook: The Alesis HR 16 is all over Every Open Eye, as well as Linn Drum, Roland 808, 909, the Roland TR8 Rhythm Performer, and the Dave Smith Instruments/Roger Linn analog collaboration, Tempest.

There are some very strong vocal and melodic hooks to be found in these dense arrangements.

Cook: Within minutes of having Lauren in the studio, we knew this was something special. There was a real spark in the room that none of us had ever felt before. There was something very cool in the songwriting early on, and the genuine relief of not having to answer to anyone. But it wasn’t a global project until Lauren was onboard. When we juxtaposed her vocal with the synths and drum patterns, we realized, “Oh my God! That’s a beautiful combination.”

What was the biggest challenge on Every Open Eye?

Doherty: “Afterglow”!

Cook: We had a two-month fallout over the song because we couldn’t decide on the production. One version [we tried] sounds like Erasure meets Underworld. We eventually went back and listened to the original demo. Then we muted everything and time-stretched Lauren’s vocal. We took 10 bpm off the tempo. We did a wide pass with the Juno-106—just one synth and a vocal.

We also used subtle bits of parallel color from various hardware and summed it back into the box. We learned that from Spike Stent; his go-to compressor is the UA 1176 AE with a [Empirical Labs] Distressor and Retro Instruments 176 compressor; he used those with Lauren, too. He was slamming those really hard to get the color from each unit. The Distessor was knocking off like 12 dB, and we wondered “What the f—k are you doing?” But that wasn’t at total output. We knew when it was right.

What’s the biggest difference between performing for indie rock and dance music audiences?

Cook: When you play cerebral post-rock music, people come along and they’re into it on an intellectual level. But we wanted to make music that actually moved people, and not just on an emotional level. I’d never experienced that before: people dancing to our music.

Doherty: It’s called the “entertainment industry” for a reason.