PVRIS: Divine Intervention
The American electro-rock band’s frontwoman Lynn Gunn on her fascination with everything Victorian, her experiences with the supernatural and recording their powerful sophomore LP in a haunted church
The most striking thing about a conversation with Lynn Gunn is how different she sounds while speaking as compared to when she’s singing on a record as PVRIS’ charismatic frontwoman. “I am in Alabama right now,” she tells Rolling Stone India over the phone and her voice is soft and cheerful—a sharp contrast to the soaring, rasp-tinged vocals on the band’s latest LP, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell. Gunn explains she and bandmates—guitarist Alex Babinksi and bassist Brian MacDonald—have managed to catch a brief break in the middle of their ongoing tour and aren’t about to let it go to waste. “We’re all on the bus about to watch a scary movie and it’s a full moon outside… the movie’s called Don’t Breathe. I heard it’s awesome.” I’ve seen the movie and it is indeed awesome but petrifying. Gunn sounds relaxed by the notion of it all and it’s terribly endearing.
PVRIS burst into the alt-rock scene in 2014 with their debut LP White Noise, grabbing attention with their haunting synthpop/rock sound and striking supernatural-themed music videos. Since that debut in 2014, the American electro-rock band’s schedule has been jam-packed; 2017 alone saw them support UK arena-rockers Muse and American alternative band Thirty Seconds To Mars, launch a new album with several music videos and embark on their own headlining tour (which will extend all the way into 2018) with dates in the U.S. and Europe. Even after all this, the band feels there’s more to be done—Gunn wants to bring their atmospheric shows to even more countries. “I really want to go to South America, India… anywhere and everywhere it’s possible.”
In our previous conversation in 2016, Gunn had mentioned the band planned to “go above and beyond anything we’ve done before” on future LPs and they seemed to have fulfilled that promise with August 2017’s All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell; the sonic and lyrical maturity is undeniable and Gunn attributes it to the natural process of growing up as a band, interacting with audiences and learning more about themselves as individuals. “After touring for pretty much three years we really got a good idea for a record that will translate really well live, translate into larger settings,” she shares. “I think that might’ve been the only kind of pre-planned aspect to the record. Other than that, it was really just kind of in the moment… There was no rhyme or reason to it.”
All We Know… features generous doses of big, echoing synths and anthemic percussion while Gunn’s vocals are significantly grittier than on White Noise; every emotion on the record is raw and palpable. “For me, personally, I was in a really rough mental spot just in general as a human being, not as a bandmate,” Gunn confesses. “That was the biggest struggle while making this record… to kind of comeback from like a really serious burnout. But as far as coming up with being inspired, there was no problem with that. It was more about reeling in the ideas.”
A lot of aspects of the album fell into place through several twists of fate and the title—taken from Emily Dickenson’s poem ‘Parting’— was no exception. “It’s actually pretty funny,” Gunn says with a laugh. “We were having a hard time thinking of a name for the record and [the poem] kind of just kept popping up randomly so it was right in front of us the whole time.” Gunn explains she found it when she was listening to a TED Talk and the speaker quoted the last line of the Emily Dickenson poem. “It just hit me at that moment.” The poem fit the references to heaven and hell and duality made in All We Know… and since the album was recorded in a church, they were able to symbolize that connection as well.
When it came to building the visuals around the record, PVRIS recruited their long-time collaborator Raoul Gonzo who has directed almost all of the band’s videos thus far. “‘Anyone Else’ is our 14th or 15th video with Raoul now,” says Gunn. “So over the past two years we’ve really kind of been on the same wavelength and completely understood each other’s vision for this record.” The vocalist also had an extremely hands-on experience this time around, co-directing on every video with Gonzo. She mentions she wanted to incorporate her fascination with the Victorian era into PVRIS’ artistry, but was unsure if the two would go well together. Gonzo erased those doubts completely. “I remember getting on the phone with Raoul a couple of months before filming and we started brainstorming and it kind of just lined up perfectly. He brought up the Victorian era visuals without me saying anything.” The resulting videos retain the eeriness that always surrounds PVRIS’ visuals but an enhanced version of it; everything is sharper, bolder and more haunting. Victorian-style manors, antiques and mysterious shrouded figures are abundant while the band remains in sharp, clean-cut, modern clothing. “We dove into this weird world we wanted to create which was in the middle of something modern and something classic—a paradox.”
The conversation turns to the allegedly haunted church where PVRIS recorded All We Know… and Gunn feels there was definitely something there. “The owner had told us [it was haunted] in advance but it was nothing crazy. We’d feel cold spots here and there and hear footsteps of people walking around but there’d be no one there… But nothing crazy happened until the last few weeks.” She explains that the band was in the middle of tracking drums at the time and their sound engineer had set up a little editing station at the basement. That’s when they started hearing people walking around the bottom of the stairs heading to the basement and they saw lights constantly flickering on and off. Gunn decided to set up a couple of little experiments with candlesticks and ping pong balls to test out if there was indeed a presence. “We had a lot of crazy stuff happen with that,” Gunn says. “There was definitely something there and definitely something that was listening and paying attention to what we were saying.”
I ask her if she was afraid of the supposed entity at the church and her answer comes very close to the essence of PVRIS: “I think a lot of the paranormal, especially haunting, is an imprint of somebody’s energy that is kind of trapped where we are.” Several examples of the band’s fragmented, harrowing and surreal artistry come to mind and their aesthetic universe attains clarity just through that statement. Gunn concludes, “It’s all different planes of existence… overlapping.”
Watch PVRIS’ video for “Anyone Else” below: