The two biggest surprises Chris Chu, principle songwriter of The Morning Benders, revealed to us this past Friday were that his entire band justs moved to New York and that he is really skinny. Not that you need to be particularly thick to make such orchestral, glamorous songs, but we’ve always looked at Morning Benders as descendants of The Beach Boys or The Mamas and Papas, and you’ve got to have some weight on you to have that kind of authority. But even without the pounds, Chu and the rest of the Benders have made an incredible album in Big Echo, their first for Rough Trade, co-produced with Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor. “Promises,” the first single from the record, has mouth percussion and electronic drums and a slouchy bass all set against a twinkling piano and a lurking BPM. It’s a perfect example of how they use a myriad of elements, time shifts and crescendos and still come away with the smooth coherence of perfect pop. Download the song below, and make the jump to read our interview with Chris.
Download: The Morning Benders, “Promises”
Big Echo is a pretty sprawling record, it sounds very majestic, but you don’t look like bloated Beach Boy. Where did this record come from?
We were listening to a lot of bloated Beach Boys, druggy types, or I have been, I guess for my whole life, listening to a lot of that stuff. I think maybe that sprawling, the really big, diverse quality to the textures and stuff came from getting more into production, that’s something that’s changed the way I listen to music in the last couple years. As opposed to the first album where we pretty much just wanted to do it live and have five or six elements we were working with, this one, we tracked it live as well, but then when went to work in the arrangements, we had a free-for-all and wanted to use different textures and anything we could.
You produced the record with Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear—what was it like working with him?
It was awesome. I love that guy. I remember we sent him the basics of our record—we started in San Francisco before we knew he was going to be involved—and I sent him a track and he did some stuff with it, worked his vibes, and he sent it back and I got it and it was exactly what we were looking for, it was perfect. So we didn’t really to conceptualize it or do too much with it, it was a gut collaboration. It was great.
Everything is really precise in this record, really crystalline. Was it nice to have that out of your hands a bit so you could put the details on it?
Yeah. I’m kind of a control freak, so I was not sure at first if I wanted to “pass it on” so to speak. We did the album in such a fast, crazy way, trying to throw any idea out there and pack these songs full of stuff, that when it got time to do mixing and the arrangements of the songs, I was really overwhelmed with trying to dissect that, so to just get a fresh pair of ears was the first idea. So that’s when we thought Chris would come and do mainly mixing, but we got together and we vibed out and it ended up being a lot more than mixing as we got further into it.
What’s your relationship with the rest of the band when writing songs?
It depends song to song. Especially on this record, a lot of the time I would start out with more of an idea of textures, or more of an idea of a guitar line, and the song would be built from that. Whereas the first album was more traditional chords, lyrics, Beatles kind of songwriting. Because of that it was more varied. Sometimes I’d come in have more ideas for parts and we’d work it out, sometimes it would be a really rough thing and we’d spitball back and forth.
I’ve been listening to Big Echo in the context of what’s popular—this lo-fi pop sound. I was thinking about Best Coast, and I think you could be two different sides of the same coin. Part of what’s nice about that kind of pop is how loose it is, but it’s now unique that your record is so structured.
I agree, but I also feel like the idea I have for this album is that we really want to do both. We tracked it in a week or less, the bulk of it, and powered through it, this rough live stuff. We didn’t have time to perfect the guitar part. But we had spent hours and hours just playing to figure it out, so the parts are there. It’s not like Brian Wilson status to do 40 takes to get the French horn sound.
But it still sounds confident.
We really care about it and we want that come off, whereas a lot of people want it to seem like it’s cooler if they don’t care.
I’m curious how moving to New York will change your songwriting.
That’s one of the reasons I wanted to go to a new place. Not even necessarily here, but I feel like the music you make is a big product of where you live. I don’t feel like we would stop making music if we stayed there, but I really wanted to keep moving and changing. I really wanted to keep exploring new territory. I hate bands that never change and have their “sound.” It’s annoying.