Q&A + Giveaway: The Morning Benders' Chris Chu Explains His Band's Ever-Changing Sound, How To Eat Healthy On The Road And Why He's Jealous of Bon Iver
Earlier this week, in advance of the Morning Benders's upcoming performance at the Kessler Theatre on Saturday night, we caught up with the Northern California-based band's frontman Chris Chu.
His band had just returned from the European leg of their tour, and was preparing to travel the US in support of their new critically acclaimed disc, Big Echo. The album, thanks in part to the production of Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor (who also produced Neon Indian track "Sleep Paralysist"), is a textured and layered sunny California pop gem.
The Grizzly Bear influence is easy to pick out on certain parts of the record. But, mixed in with Morning Benders '60s inspired pop, the result is an album as fun and vivid as the beautiful artwork on the cover.
We spoke with Chu about being and anti-rockstar, working with Chris Taylor, and a possible hip hop influence on the next record. Check it out after the jump.
Also there, you'll find out how to win one of two free pairs of tickets we're handing to the show, courtesy of its promoters.
Want a free pair of passes to the show? Just be among the first two people to email Pete, starting right now, with the words "Bender's Big Score" in the subject line. Good luck!
Update: Contest is over. Congrats to our winners!
So how did you guys come up with the name Morning Benders?
Well, when we named ourselves that it was sort of tongue in cheek, because we're not that way at all. We're not the kind of guys who go on benders. We're actually kind of the opposite. We actually sort of lead the anti-rockstar lifestyle--super healthy. We try to exercise a lot while we're on the road. So it's kind of ironic in that way.
Is it difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle when you're basically living out of a van surviving on beer and bar food?
Yeah, it's totally understandable why people start drinking all the time and getting into that rhythm, because when you're on the road nothing feels better than to kind of unwind and do whatever's necessary to have a sort of lightheartedness to carry on. It's a really intense lifestyle. But I like being as healthy as I can, and eating good food is super important, because once you get on the road and you're eating at truckstops and McDonald's everyday. It wears on you, you know?
How did you guys get started?
It started with me writing songs in my room. I never really intended it to be a solo project, I just didn't have a band at the time, and I wanted to just kind of get started. So it started with just the songs. I had those for a while and I started fleshing out ideas, but it quickly turned into a band with the first three guys I could find. They were different members than the ones we have now. I think we all knew it was a temporary thing at the beginning, but like I said, I intended it to be a band even though I didn't have a band formed yet. And over the course of a year or so I found people who were more of the right mindset and had the same kind of musical touchstones as I did, and that's how we have our final line-up today.
Has the songwriting changed to accommodate a full band?
The songs come from a personal place and they're changing all the time, but that's more a result of my main goal as a musician and a songwriter, which is to try something new all the time. I never want to say something I've already said. It's more just having that mindset, because the songs are all different like when it comes to arranging and treating the songs, to best serve them we need to try a different approach each time because the songs are different so they require that.
Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor co-produced Big Echo with you. His signature is all over the record. Was there a struggle to find the direction of the songs or did it come easily?
It actually worked out nicely. We started recording the record in San Fransisco on our own, and I was sort of the de facto producer, because we didn't have anyone else and I was doing it myself, so I felt like I got all these ideas down and I kind of said my piece. Our sound and songs were established at that point, so when we went to Brooklyn to mix the record with Chris, we weren't really fighting during the recording of the record--that stuff was already put on tape, and where Chris really helped was to organize those sounds and making it clear. That's the whole reason we brought him in so there wasn't much arguing going on. The reason we had worked together in the first place is because we had talked about music before and we felt like we were on the same page, which is essential when you're collaborating on something.
When you tracked did you have him in mind?
Yeah. When we wrote the first album, I was listening exclusively to music from the '60s and '70s and one of the big changes between the first album and Big Echo is that I started listening to more modern music, and also music from the '80s and '90s. The big revelation was finding a lot of new bands that I was into. That hadn't happened to me before. Grizzly Bear was definitely one of those bands, Dirty Projectors and Spoon, Beach House--just a bunch of them. I would say it was just thinking about music in a more modern way than we ever had before.
What kind of crazy adventures happen on the road?
It depends. Sometimes we play a show in some random small town in Germany and there's nothing to do, so we have to lay low. And then we're playing a show in Barcelona and we're out until six in the morning because that's what they do there. It just depends on the night. We have toured so much. We're at the tail end of an entire year of touring. I, for the first time, feel like I need to pace myself in a lot of ways. It's a matter of laying low on certain days and if we're in an exciting place, taking advantage of that.
What do you mean when you say you want to pace yourself?
I think this has been the first time we've realistically thought about how we're going to keep this band sustainable. In light of all the opportunities that have risen, we always want to take all those because we're very much of that mentality where we want to do everything that we can but at the same time, this year is the first time we've had to say no to certain things because we have to think about our health and think about retaining the energy we have in the band and not burning out.
What does the future hold for you guys?
We're finishing this tour, then we go to Australia, and after that we're going to chill out for a while and think about recording another album. I pretty much have all the songs written, but what's really important is figuring out what environment we want to record the songs in. That's such an important thing to me and it's such a huge part of why Big Echo sounds the way it does, because we recorded it untraditional places on two different coasts. So I'm thinking about what we can do that's unique and different because you don't want to do those things again.
So what is so inspiring about recording in odd places rather than studios?
For me it's just about embracing production and how you can use the studio to add to your songs versus distract from them. For a long time I was scared of production because I thought it would take away from the songs. My main goal was always to serve the songs. I had an epiphany around the time of preparing to make Big Echo is that you can use these interesting spaces and use your recording techniques to add to the songs and make them more powerful and speak more clearly. So, for me, it's trying to pick a space that translates to the recording, so when people listen to it they can imagine themselves in that place, or it transports them to a different world where they can hear these songs and listen to them on their own terms.
What kind of spaces to you have in mind for the next record?
I'm not sure yet. We try not to plan things too much because we like things to unfold naturally and spontaneously. A lot of the music that I loved in the '90's, like hip-hop and stuff like that--it's so interesting because that sound is so revolutionary and you hear it in Top 40 pop music today. It's kind of like the opposite of what we did on Big Echo, which was a really tight sound and a lot of the sounds are direct, and there isn't an echo to it or a lot of space to it. I've been feeling like that would be a cool direction to go--to check out the other opposite end of the spectrum.
So collaborations with Kanye would go over really well on the next album?
That would be awesome! I've been super jealous of Bon Iver. Apparently he sang on like 10 or 15 songs with Kanye, which is my dream. I love Kanye.
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