Lauren Mayberry, who describes herself as “a very nostalgic person,” has held on to lots of mementos from Chvrches, the band she fronts. In 2019, she rediscovered a list of old band names that Chvrches had once considered when they first formed a decade ago. One name jumped out at her: Screen Violence.
“[The three of us in the band are] all big movie nerds, generally,” Mayberry said over Zoom from Los Angeles, speaking to Slate just over a week before the new album’s release. “And when we first started the band, a lot of bonding was done in the pub, but a lot of bonding was done watching those kinds of movies.” Movies that the phrase “Screen Violence” automatically calls to mind: “It would be like, the Nightmare on Elm Street series and lots of John Carpenter and Videodrome and all that kind of Cronenberg-y stuff,” she said.
Chvrches’ love of horror movies never went away, and now Screen Violence has returned. The phrase serves as the title for Chvrches’ fourth album, which is out Friday. Work began in late February 2020, with the band later split over two continents—multi-instrumentalist Iain Cook returned to Scotland while keyboardist Martin Doherty and Mayberry remained in L.A.—forcing the band to complete the album virtually. The members shared mood boards with one another to help define the tone, and Mayberry produced a document describing the titular phrase, helping to develop the album’s haunting aesthetic. Mayberry looked to visual influences for crafting the album instead of musical ones, specifically horror movies. “Watching a lot of those films and trying to think especially about women’s stories and narratives within those films was a big part of my preparation,” she said.
Centering women in these stories became important for Mayberry while working on Screen Violence. Women are often relegated to the sidelines in both factual and fictional narratives, which tend to depict graphic violence against them instead. “We’re always talking about the killer, [but] we never talk about the girl who got killed,” Mayberry said. “And even in things that I love, like True Detective or Twin Peaks, so much time is spent talking about dead girls as a plot device to serve other people.”
This common dynamic, and particularly what it leaves out, ended up informing the album. “Nobody ever really asks the woman what it’s like in her situation, when we get obsessed with violence against women.” Mayberry said. “We’re obsessed with the secondhand, grotesque observation of violence. We never ask why it’s happening, or what happens afterwards. And I guess that’s what a lot of the songs are about.”
The horror genre has a specific resonance for women, she added, including for the singer herself. The objectification, brutalization, and disempowerment that women undergo in these films doesn’t just happen on screens; it can be the daily reality for life as a woman as well. “I feel like all women know what it feels like to feel watched, to be part of that kind of voyeurism without your consent, to feel hunted, to feel chased. We all know what it’s like to be bargaining and negotiating for your existence in one way or another.”
Mayberry’s fascination with these themes—and how as a public figure she’s constantly aware of other peoples’ perceptions of her—bears out across the album’s lyrics. “I’m getting tired of trying so hard to be adored,” Mayberry sings on “Lullabies,” while songs like “He Said, She Said” and “Good Girls” deal with the impossible standards placed on women. On the song “Final Girl,” named for the horror movie trope of the woman who faces off with the killer at the end of the film, Mayberry sings, “In the final cut/ In the final scene/ There’s a final girl/ And you know that she should be screaming.” Those lines are a reference to the horrifying reality of being a woman, and feeling powerless to change it. Of those lines in “Final Girl” in particular, Mayberry says, “That’s about all the things that women silently put under their tongue and there’s certain things that women are never told to do, we just know how to do them.” The lyrics also speak to the claustrophobia of being forced into specific roles as women, and of not having agency.
Like the Final Girl locked in a narrative she feels she has no control over, Mayberry too has often found herself part of a discussion that wasn’t even relevant to her music. “So much of the narrative around the band, so many of my conversations about the band are never about music, or lyrics, or my actual work, my actual art,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s about feminism, gender, and the internet. I’m definitely down to be part of that conversation. But it is bizarre when you wake up one day, and you’re like, ‘This is all people ever talk about. And we’ve never written any songs about that.’ ”
But on this record, Mayberry was trying to find ways to flip the narrative. “You can take the gaze that’s put on you and weaponize it and turn it around, and … you look like the Scream Queen, but you’re writing songs that feel like they’re about the Final Girl,” she said. As part of her effort to fully embody the album, Mayberry even dyed her brown hair blond, to look more like one of those iconic cinema Scream Queens.
The references to horror movies and the horrors of being in the public eye had an explicitly personal relevance: namely, experiences with online abuse, which Mayberry has faced for most of her career. In a 2013 op-ed for the Guardian, she described the rape threats and misogynistic comments she was regularly subjected to because of her fame, largely also because she is a woman. She again spoke out when she received a torrent of similar abuse following the release of Chvrches’ video for their 2015 single “Leave a Trace.”
In 2019, Chvrches issued a statement condemning their “Here With Me” collaborator Marshmello for working with Chris Brown and Tyga. “We like and respect Mello as a person but working with people who are predators and abusers enables, excuses and ultimately tacitly endorses that behavior,” the band said. “That is not something we can or will stand behind,” referring to the fact that Brown was charged with assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009 and allegations that both Brown and Tyga had assaulted and/or sexually abused women, including Tyga allegedly having a sexual relationship with Kylie Jenner when she was underage.
Following this, Chvrches, but especially Mayberry, received death threats and misogynist attacks. Even Brown participated, commenting on one of Chvrches’ Instagram posts, “These are the type of people I wish walked in front of a speeding bus full of mental patients.”
Despite the harassment and the toll it took on her mental health, which could lead many others to drop out of view entirely, Mayberry felt the pressure to keep going. “I could tell that the wheels were coming off the bus psychologically, as we were going through those times,” she said. “But I was like, ‘We can’t stop, we have to keep going.’ And that’s when there were a lot of the panic attacks and recurring dreams that are things that are written about on the record.”
It was somewhat inevitable that Mayberry’s experiences with the media and misogyny would make their way onto a Chvrches record eventually, but this time, it’s on her terms, set against a sometimes haunting, sometimes winking, comically over-the-top horror backdrop. That eerie world-building comes across in the lyrical imagery, but it’s present in the music as well, mixing up Chvrches’ brand of shimmery synth pop with darker shades of goth and post-rock. “How Not to Drown” (which features Prince of Goth himself, the Cure’s Robert Smith) starts off with a gloomy synth intro that feels like it came straight from a film score before Mayberry sings, “I’m writing a book on how to stay conscious when you drown.” “Final Girl” has spooky synth chords and foreboding guitar, which also call to mind the sound effects from horror movies as Mayberry sings, “Don’t want to find your daughter in a body bag.” During the eerie spoken-word interlude on the dramatic “Nightmares,” Mayberry speaks, “It might have looked like love but it tasted a lot like blood,” Even the more pop-leaning tracks like “Asking for a Friend” and “Good Girls,” which wouldn’t have felt out of place on Chvrches’ earlier records, have lyrics like, “I don’t want to say that I’m afraid to die.”
Screen Violence has had a lot of meanings for the band: a possible band name, an album made through screens, watching horror movies together, and even the real-life danger women face daily. What it amounts to is an impressively cohesive and immersive piece of work, with lots of dimensions—and it’s not all doom and gloom.
“My only fear is that people write this record off as an album about internet trolling,” Mayberry said, referencing the online harassment that influences some of the album’s lyrics. “I’m like, no, it’s an album about fear and disappointment and disillusionment, but also of regret and all those things. It’s about trying to find peace with something and perseverance and hopefulness and escapism.”