switched on pop

John Carpenter’s Influence Is Inescapable on Chvrches’ Screen Violence

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

While gearing up to make their second album, Every Open Eye, in 2015, Chvrches members Iain Cook and Martin Doherty spent much of the recording budget buying up many of the original synthesizers used to make iconic ’80s synthpop dance tracks. Contemporary replicas of those synth sounds are now commonplace for pop acts like Dua Lipa and the Weeknd, but Chvrches has been wielding them for more than a decade — and their newest project, Screen Violence, is a great reminder of how closely we link that synth sound not just to a bygone era but specifically to the eerie music of horror films.

With the new album’s horror frame — it draws inspiration from classic fright flicks like John Carpenter’s Halloween — its lyrics explore dark themes, like the violent online abuse that Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry has endured for much of the band’s existence, a hyperconsciousness of her own mortality brought on by that abuse, and fears of losing her grip on reality. Switched On Pop’s co-host Charlie Harding spoke with Mayberry, Cook, and Doherty about the making and meaning of Screen Violence.

The image on the front of the album is of static on a TV screen that makes me think of Poltergeist and other ’80s horror. What was the concept behind Screen Violence?
Lauren Mayberry: I don’t know why I am so obsessed with horror films, because I cannot handle them at all. I don’t think I’m drawn to the sadism of it; I think it’s that there’s something in your subconscious that you’re trying to figure out, that you’re trying to process. I liked the idea of writing about your own experiences through that kind of lens. Everybody, especially women, know the sensation of feeling watched, feeling hunted, and feeling unsafe in your own life.

You wrote a widely shared piece called “I Will Not Accept Online Misogyny” for The Guardian in 2013, where you revealed the full extent of the online abuse you’ve received as a member of the band. How is this album reflecting on that experience?
LM: I think the song “Violent Delights” to me sums up what that experience felt like. The song is written about recurring nightmares and panic attacks, and that’s a tough subject. I wanted to make it vivid and visual and feel like a story because it’s something that’s followed the band around since the very beginning. And this is probably the first record we’ve properly written about it.

On the song “He Said She Said,” you sing about verbal violence, gaslighting, impossible expectations of just being a woman.
LM: Maybe it’s age. Maturity turns out at 32 or 33. You really hit your “fuck that” factor. I think when I was 23, I knew that there were double standards that were applied to me that felt confusing or frustrating, but I hadn’t had enough life experience to fully be exhausted by that. And I think that if you’re going to scream it anywhere, you might as well do it in a pop song, rather than in the house by yourself.

There’s a way that the frustrations that you’re expressing in the song feel echoed in the way that you sing the chorus. It sounds almost disembodied.
LM: I feel like that was definitely a production choice in terms of why we use the Auto-Tune, so it would feel like a call-and-response.

Iain Cook: From a production standpoint, it was a deliberate move to make that sound like an internal argument, like the sound of somebody literally losing their mind. And that speaks to what the lyrics are about. It’s that you were having this experience, and if you verbalized that to somebody, they’re going to say that you’re insane or they’re going to say you’re overreacting. So in your mind, you’re like, Am I? Am I? Am I? Am I?, all the time.

In addition to the themes of lyrical violence, I also hear the sounds of violence embedded within the production. It sounds like you’re drawing a connection with your synthesizers to ’80s horror soundtracks.
IC: I actually started doing a master’s when I was at uni on the connection between those synthetic scores and horror films of that time. It’s almost by necessity because they were low-budget films; all of them weren’t big studio films, and they couldn’t afford a composer and an orchestra. So they had to use whatever was at hand. And that happened to coincide with the availability of affordable electronic instruments. All of a sudden, you had keyboards that you could buy, and you could make the scores as [John] Carpenter did.

Martin Doherty: When you have X amount to make an entire movie — you’re John Carpenter and you can’t afford John Williams — what do you do? You buy a drum machine, and you buy a synthesizer. That, to us, will always be truly inspirational. This band started [as] just two producers in a basement in Glasgow doing all the tracks. So that ethos of DIY speaks to us very directly. It is very much built into our DNA.

As part of this album rollout, you collaborated with John Carpenter. Why did you want to work together?
MD: You know that feeling when you watch that movie that you haven’t seen for 30 years and it transports you straight back to that moment of time where you’d wear out the VHS watching it until you knew every single word? That, to me, is a lot of John Carpenter’s work. When we were discussing the idea of Screen Violence, somebody suggested that we have composers reimagine some of the songs, and our first instinct was, Oh, well, we should ask John Carpenter. We were in this headspace where, Well, if you want to work with your heroes and legends, you just ask, and maybe they will say yes.

And in fact, that’s what happened. We were lucky enough that he said, “Sure, I really liked that song ‘Good Girls.’ Can you send me the stems?” And then he said, “If you would rather not pay me for the remix, do you just fancy remixing one of mine?” We were like, “Sure.” And next thing you know, there’s a split seven-inch on Sacred Bones, and we’ve collaborated with one of the most important filmmakers and composers ever, in my opinion.

LM: And I do think, based on the lyrical content, John Carpenter has written some of the most important female horror roles ever. So I feel like if anybody’s going to be entrusted with how to extrapolate those lyrics, it should be him.

Throughout the entire album, there are themes of violence. “Violent Delights” and “Nightmares” are both about death; “How Not to Drown” feels like the other end of a murder fantasy. Why did you want to play with violence as a musical theme?
LM: I wanted the lyrics to be very vulnerable, but I had to have those moments that are like a gut punch. There should be violence in the imagery because that’s what we’re talking about. There was definitely a time after certain runs of touring when things had gotten really bad. The consensus is that if it’s on the internet, it’s not real. So if you wake up to hundreds of death threats in an inbox, it’s not real? The human brain does not make that distinction emotionally. I think I’ve definitely developed hyperconsciousness of mortality.

I’m very conscious that I really don’t want people to talk about this record like, She’s writing about internet trolls, because to me, I’m like, That’s not what’s happening. It’s writing about your experience slightly during, but mostly afterwards. That, to me, is the part especially for female characters in horror that we don’t see a lot of. Like, True Detective, a show that I love, is about a dead girl that they find at the start of the season. And then the rest of the show is about the relationship of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. She’s a plot device. Her experience doesn’t matter. It’s all about how these men have experienced her loss.

Even the way that the media talk about what happens to women in real life online and the way people report things that I have technically said to them in interviews, it is a strange secondary layer where people fixate on the macabre and the violence. They’re almost talking more about the men that are perpetrating it than they are the women receiving it. It’s a different kind of violence fetish: You are not perpetrating the first wave of it, but you’re perpetuating the discussion around it. There’s just not a lot of space for those kinds of stories

Horror so often fixates on the immediate trauma and so rarely the aftermath. Is there any healing or catharsis on this record?
LM: Well, yeah. I feel like, though much of the record is quite heavy in some ways, for me it’s about what that looks like when you get to the other side of the horizon. In my mind, I see a little movie scene, and you’re getting to the horizon, the sun’s coming up, and you made it out.

John Carpenter’s Influence Is All Over Chvrches’ new album