Synth-pop trio CHVRCHES are back in action with both a brand-new album, Screen Violence, and a string of tour dates stretching into the near future to support its release. The band - Iain Cook and Martin Doherty, with Lauren Mayberry on vocals - has also enjoyed a close relationship with video games in recent years. A track of theirs appears on the soundtrack to Mirror's Edge Catalyst, 'Warning Call', and they were a high-profile presence on the music of Death Stranding - their song, 'Death Stranding', was featured prominently in the promotion of Kojima Productions' 2019 game, and played over its end credits.
Knowing that this is a band who knows their games, and that they've a new record to promote, GAMINGbible jumped at the chance to get Iain and Martin on a transatlantic Zoom call for a conversation spanning the making of Screen Violence, collaborating with John Carpenter, early encounters with 8-bit and arcade games, the process of working with Hideo Kojima on Death Stranding, and how many hours is too many hours to spend playing Destiny. You can read on for highlights from our time together - or watch the video below to enjoy faces alongside the voices. What a rare and exceptional treat, truly.
Parts of the interview below have been edited for length, and this does not represent the entire conversation which can be seen in the video version.
GAMINGbible: Screen Violence has come together in very different circumstances from the three albums that preceded it. How's that been for the band, working remotely and bringing a record together during a global pandemic? That's not a very normal way to do thing...
Martin Doherty: It's not easy, and it's not been normal at all. If you take out the obvious social challenges, and the fact that the world was f*cking on fire effectively, and then introduce the Atlantic Ocean - Iain lives in Glasgow, I live in the States - so it was really hard for us to collaborate in the beginning. That was until we started figuring out ways we could work together, in real time. That was a massive breakthrough.
It was full of challenges, but once you overcome those things, it starts to feel like second nature. There was a good two or three months where we were working every day, and it just felt like, as if we were in the same room. We were hanging out on the stream, like hanging out in person. So it (the pandemic) didn't affect the end result hugely, other than stuff seeping in... Darkness seeping into the songs when you felt you'd be trapped indoors forevermore. That stuff kind of affects your mood, which affects your writing. But once we got over that, it was really fun. It was a fun process.
GB: There really is that vein of darkness in the music, still. The band's pop sensibilities are there, for sure - but this is an album with some bite to it, in the lyrics.
Iain Cook: I really feel that the darkness, or whatever you want to call it, has always been a part of what uniquely makes us. And I do think that because of the pandemic and the lockdown, and the general climate of the world, it's helped us bring that out to the fore. But in my opinion, [this album] is the most authentically CHVRCHES thing that we've done. It feels it's most true to our personalities and tastes. We've spent 10 years becoming the band we always set out to be, which is a really good feeling.
MD: I should point out that if we'd tried to do this on our second album, we'd have exploded. If we'd have had to try to make our second album [in these circumstances] we'd have come way off the rails, and we'd still be trying to make it now. Secretly falling apart behind the scenes.
Watch the video for 'Good Girls', from Screen Violence, below...
GB: This seems like a weird thing to say but, did really being in a bubble help you at all? So many bands talk about recording without outside interference, but that's never the case. They go out, they meet people, they take on board influences and opinions. But with the pandemic, you just had yourselves to bounce ideas around.
MD: That's interesting. I think there's something about isolating - literally isolating - that forces you inward. In regular life, you have all these distractions. For me, that's a place of discovery, living life. And when you can't do that you have no place to look but inward. The things that make up your musical core rise to the surface. I don't want to use the word 'comfort' because I don't feel this is a comfortable-sounding album for us, but we have had to look inside to get uncomfortable, which is unusual. Because it's been easy to make CHVRCHES albums, in a way, in the past. These synths, this sound, let's go. But when you've nowhere else to look but in here, manage your mental heath and the world around you, it's suddenly: oh, what do I actually represent as a human being, as well as a musician? And all of these things come to the surface like, why did I listen to (The Smashing Pumpkins album) Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness five times this week in the car? That gave me some sort of tether to sh*t that was normal, when things are very much not normal all around me.
GB: Have you used games to socialise with at all, during this period of enforced isolation? Or just to manage your own mental health?
MD: I have abused games my entire life for that exact reason. I am a video game addict, straight up. You can see my account on Wasted on Destiny - there's this website which counts the hours you've spent on that game - and it's not pretty reading. It's multiples of thousands of hours. And that's Destiny 2 - so if you total that up with the first Destiny, f*ck knows, man. And for all its flaws, there's still not, in terms of gunplay, a better shooter. If there was, I'd be playing it. There are things that could and should change, but the core of that game remains untouchable in my opinion.
I'd kind of lost my way with shooters for a while, and it was Iain who got me into Destiny. I bought it and played it, and I think I had the same barrier as a lot of people: played the first four hours, and that's fun, but didn't get the endgame. Iain was like, nah, come back, the endgame is where it's at, raids is where it's at. The grind past the campaign is where this game really comes alive. So he got me hooked. And he f*cked off, didn't he?
IC: I dipped out when it was getting really intense. I think the grind was putting me off, where you had to play for eight hours to get a new piece of gear that was super-rare but you had to have it. I got tired of it all, but I came back for Destiny 2. It never hooked me in the way of the first game. I felt like when I came back that it was too much to catch up on. You log in and there's five million notifications with sh*t that you have to do - and with my personality, it's too much. But I did, contradictorily, become obsessed with Final Fantasy XIV, which is a game that I'm still playing. I don't have as many hours on it as Martin does on Destiny, but it's starting to become obscene.
GB: How do you balance your work responsibilities and, y'know, life, with a game like Final Fantasy XIV, which is basically a whole second life?
IC: Sometimes it doesn't balance out that well. I do think that when we're on tour, there's tonnes of downtime, you wake up and you have eight hours to kill before soundcheck, then the gig and that's it. Those are the times when our gaming addictions really take over, and take us to somewhere we like to be, rather than inside a grey dressing room inside a venue somewhere.
MD: I used to tour with one of those fliptop displays you could plug into a PlayStation. Such was my level of Destiny addiction at the time, when I was playing a lot of PvP. I was really competitive. So the whole day, every day, was me in this room grinding away, alone, for eight hours, like I'd clocked into work, just getting really intense. Carrying this... basically a box of drugs around. At least it doesn't kill you.
IC: It can do. You should see some of the horror stories from Korea.
GB: Do you almost look forward to long drives between venues then, or waits at those venues, so you can get into your games?
MD: The great thing, not to be a mad fanboy, but Switch changed everything. I've always played Nintendo consoles and always enjoyed portable consoles, but never to the level of immersion that you get with a good game on Switch. Like Breath of the Wild, or Mario Kart... Well, it's been around forever. We used to have a Mario Kart time trial league with a bunch of people who are in indie bands. And game devs. While on tour, I'd sit on the bus just trying to beat this time trial.
IC: There's a tipping point with that, where you have to spend three or four hours to get point zero one of a second past the person who's at the top of the heap, and it really gets down to... I don't know, there's some super-deep level of reactions and memory that becomes so time intensive, in order to make any progress. So I think that's where we fell off that.
MD: That's Iain's way of saying I'm the best, that I was unbeatable.
IC: There was a member of a very well-known Scottish indie band who wiped the floor with all of us in the end. He did! It's true. We should resurrect the league.
MD: That's Julian Corrie, who joined Franz Ferdinand but he's also a solo act called Miaoux Miaoux. He played with us, with Franz, and he's really good. Eventually I stopped playing, I stopped beating him, Iain, because I could no longer be arsed spending five hours a day beating him. And I was beating him consistently before I decided to stop, so thank you for clarifying that. Wiped the floor... he's making that up. See, this is what you get when you invite us onto a gaming podcast.
Watch the video for 'How Not To Drown' featuring Robert Smith, from Screen Violence, below...
GB: I'll pivot to the music you've made for games. With Death Stranding, and its title track, how did you come to work with Hideo Kojima, and was the process of making that song any different from your other material?
MD: The easy part to answer is how that came about. When you're a band for as long as we have been, we talk enough about video games on Twitter that people realise we're not just trying to shoehorn our way into the games business, we're actually hardcore. You make friends in the games industry, and one thing gradually leads to another. There's this guy I really love, Geoff Keighley, who really helped us a lot in linking us up with Kojima-san (director of Death Stranding). He found out that Kojima was a fan of our band, and brought the parties together. We went to Kojima Productions in Japan, we hung out and bonded, and saw some of the game. I don't know if he was feeling us out to make sure we were legit and not some chancers, but it meant as much to us as we said it did.
Soundtracking the end of that game was a massive cosign (endorsement) for us. Anyone who looks at this will understand the level... they'll know who Hideo Kojima is and know what he's done in gaming, and that experience was kind of the first crossover moment. And then we worked with Robert Smith (singer of The Cure, who guests on 'How Not To Drown') and that was a similar thing. One icon of gaming, and one icon of music. It's the ultimate holy sh*t moment, you know what I mean.
IC: And I feel that working with Kojima, he wasn't specific at all about the creative [side of it], which is interesting given his reputation as a kind of auteur, y'know, someone who is totally hands-on from top to bottom with his world. But maybe that's what he does - he finds artists who are already within his world, and just asks them to do what they do. It was really useful to be in his studio, and see him playing through a bunch of Death Stranding himself, to immerse ourselves in that world and imagery. And that helped with the music and the lyrics. We went out for dinner to this nice sushi bar and we were just like, Jesus Christ, is this our life?
MD: People in gaming and tech and sport, and movies to an extent, are far more interesting to me than people in the music business. I can see the biggest musician ever, sat in the same pub as me, and be like, whatever, who cares. But if I saw a Celtic player I'd be like, oh my f*cking god, or if I saw Kojima, I'd be losing my mind. I guess it's when it's outside of your world, it takes up a different place in your heart.
GB: And that live performance of 'Death Stranding', at The Game Awards in 2019, did that kind of make that whole thing real, like it hadn't been before? Here's you, in a games space, performing your music to a huge game directed by one of gaming's highest-profile creators...
MD: Iain put a lot of hours into the orchestral arrangement, and we had to go to one of these big sound stages, and they had this huge orchestra recording the track, with all the things you'd expect for a big movie soundtrack. And I'm looking at it like, how the f*ck did we get here? A couple of chancers from Glasgow, here we are. This is it, you're doing it mate.
IC: The producer took us into the room with the orchestra, and introduced us, and it was weird. So strange.
MD: That performance was amazing. Geoff (Keighley) and Kojima-san had a lot to do with it, with the art style, and a guy who works really close with us who's also a big gamer, Louis Oliver. Putting together that production for that show was pretty special, when I look back on it. Were we really there? Dressed up amazing. My god, this is no joke. If I remember rightly, they made it rain inside. I was like, oh my god, this is big time. Don't touch the synths.
IC: It was probably the first time it'd rained in Los Angeles, that year.
Watch CHVRCHES perform 'Death Stranding' at The Game Awards in 2019, below...
GB: Where did gaming start for the two of you, and did any of those early experiences carry through and influence what you do now?
IC: For me, they've (games and music) always been kind of separate. I feel that whatever I've been doing in my life, video games are always by definition an escape from that. Other than the occasional crossover that we've been lucky to do, I've never really thought about combining the two worlds, and composing music for video games. Not to say we wouldn't give it a go. But for me, it was Space Invaders and Asteroids in the early '80s, and then getting a ZX Spectrum home computer. I still have a passion for the arcade, and games like OutRun, those were just like, f*ck, I want to live in that world, and live in that music. I still play it to this day, it's great.
MD: Growing up, I was born in '82, so I was the prime age for the Mega Drive and the SNES. I remember playing Sonic the Hedgehog and loving it, at a mate's house, but I never owned a Mega Drive. I was a SNES guy. The first game that really blew my mind on the SNES was Super Mario World. It just felt deeper than any other game, as a child, it was world building, it was a whole other level of immersion, based on my earlier experiences with games. Everyone had their older cousin who had like an Amstrad or a Commodore, and I have vague memories of that, but I didn't really come into my own until consoles.
Mario Kart has been a constant through my entire life. It's the only game I've played every single version of. When people think about fandom, I don't have a lifelong band fandom - the music I liked when I was nine isn't the music I liked when I was 19. But the games that I liked when I was nine are the games that I like when I'm 38. That's f*cked up. That's how video games tap into a whole other part of the brain. Or that's certainly the case for me. As I grew up I got really into shooters, obsessed with Pro Evo and then FIFA, and I swapped them every year.
Those early, formative experiences on the Super Nintendo, and then the GameCube... the 64 obviously, with GoldenEye... But the 'Cube was the next time when my mind was truly blown, with Resident Evil 4 and that stuff. It just never left me. It still hasn't, and they won't ever. I'm gonna be 90, and all up in that metaverse with a 19-year-old body avatar, flying around and doing whatever it is. Hopefully my brain has been downloaded to another human skinsuit by that time, so I can live forever. Which is basically the point of all of this, is it not?
CHVRCHES' album Screen Violence is out now on EMI/Glassnote. The band tours the US and Canada in November and December 2021, and the UK in early 2022 - find dates and ticket information on their official website.
Featured Image Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski, Kevin J Thomson, Kojima Productions
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