For The Morning Benders, a big echo doesn’t necessarily mean a big noise, but the latter is certainly what these Californian boys encountered following the release of their sophomore album Big Echo earlier this year, easily giving Webcuts one of our favourite albums of 2010. Perfectly formed and lavishly constructed, Big Echo stretched its influences across the decades, from the lush ’60s doo-wop harmonies of “Excuses”, the ’70s Californian pop-rock of “All Day Day Light” to the peer rivaling, stark echoes (which the album lives up to its name) of “Hand Me Downs”.
For all that was known previously about The Morning Benders, Big Echo could well have been their debut — sounding ready-made and arriving out of nowhere as all good debut albums should — but as interviewer Chris Berkley of Static goes to great lengths to point out, this is not the case. Speaking to guitarist/vocalist Chris Chu on the road in Europe, we find out the origins of The Morning Benders and the pros and cons for ditching the home-town advantage for the full-time budding band camp that is Brooklyn, New York.
There’s something of a frenzy surrounding the release of Big Echo. Have a lot of people been treating The Morning Benders like you’re a new band with this record?
Yeah, I think just because we did something so different with this album. It surprised a lot of people and interested a new group that had never heard of us before.
Do a lot of people think that The Morning Benders are a new band? I guess if you’re reaching a bigger audience with this record and people are discovering you for the first time, do they seem to know there is an earlier record that you guys made?
I think people know about it. It’s just that they’re made not that familiar with it. There’s always a group of people that have been following us for a long time and are always asking about the old songs and everything. For the most part, even if they don’t have the old album they’ve at least heard about it or read about it somewhere.
That’s the thing. Maybe they’ve heard about it but not too many of them bought. Maybe that was the problem.
Yeah, I think that’s the difference with the new album.
In a sense, similar I guess like the first Grizzly Bear record, the first Morning Benders album was essentially you that made it, is that right? Was it much more of a solo record?
Well there’s a band on it. It’s just different than the band we are now. The line-up was in a bit of turmoil at that point. When I decided to put a band together, I didn’t really plan for it. I just wrote a bunch of songs and knew that I wanted to play them in a band, as I never wanted to be the solo singer/songwriter guy. A lot of it was spearheaded by me at that point, and now that he have this band more fully-formed, Big Echo was more collaborative than the last album.
So was the first record a kind of casual thing where if the people were available you got them in to help you out?
There was a group of people we were playing with, and actually, Julian, the drummer, is the same drummer I’ve been playing with for a long time, so we’re really close. But the other two guys were just more permanent members in the end.
You’ve certainly tested these people’s devotion as well, once you got the band into shape because then you all upped sticks and moved across the country from California to New York. Was that to kinda see if they were in it for the long haul?
That wasn’t actually my decision, so it wasn’t like I was testing anyone. We all wanted to move somewhere for a while. All four of us are California kids, born and raised, so we just wanted to try something different. We’ve lived in California all our lives and I think it’s helpful to continually surround yourself with something new that’s inspiring and helps you to keep moving. I find, just as a songwriter that it helps me a lot, when I go on tour to get the juices flowing again and when I get home from tour I end up writing a lot of songs, and I kind thought the same thing would happen by moving to a new place. You just start thinking about things differently.
I guess because it takes you out of your routine, that stuff you’ve seen a thousand times already.
Exactly, even though those routines are necessarily artistic or musical I think that they definitely affect each other.
Weren’t there enough Brooklyn bands there already? Couldn’t you pick somewhere where there was a little less populace of other bands already living?
The thing is, a lot of our friends already live in New York, friends in bands and friends besides that, and I think for us we were less worried about where we would fit into with a musical scene or with bands because we already had our stuff together. We weren’t competing against a bunch of local bands, trying to get on slots and stuff like that. We already had a team together and we already had our album done. We knew it was coming out on Rough Trade and I think as a result it helped us move to New York and not have to deal with a lot of stuff that new bands do when they move to a city like that that has a lot of bands because it can be kinda cut-throat.
In sports terms, you’re way up the ladder already, is what you‘re saying…
Exactly. For me that made it more appealing. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to move to New York and had to deal with the competition and all that, if we were at that point as a band. Luckily we were kinda past that point already.
So you moved to New York after Big Echo was already done. You’d already well and truly encountered Chris from Grizzly Bear who helped you work on this record. Were they a band you’d seen out on the road or had done shows with?
Actually, we hadn’t even played or met the rest of the Grizzly Bear guys until after we did the album. Chris and I had been in contact for a year or two prior, just because I had written him a little note after their album Yellow House came out just telling him how much I had enjoyed it and enjoyed the production especially. To my surprise he wrote back and told me how much he liked some of these new songs we were working on, which happened to be a few songs from Big Echo, and that’s when we started talking and then we got to meet each other a few times when we toured through New York and got to hang out and chat and he was always someone I felt was on a similar page, we could kinda communicate.
And kind of encourage what you were doing, or what you wanted to do with the second record?
Yeah, very encouraging, very supportive, and from the moment he heard the songs he told me how much he liked them and how much he believed in the direction that we were heading and just supported that change. We changed a lot from the first and second album. There wasn’t anyone around that knew that. It was all kinda happening behind the scenes.
Did you have any reservations working with an outside on your music and especially someone from another band?
I’m kind of a control freak. I’m always scared of introducing anyone else into the equation that’s going to influence the way the songs turn out. What I think happened with Big Echo which is nice is that we recorded the album ourselves in San Francisco and I was kinda the default producer at that point, and we were able to get everything we wanted to down on tape and we did that as a band. That was nice not having any added pressure from another collaborator. When Chris got involved during the mixing part, it was the perfect phase to have another pair of ears come in and start giving some advice and some input, because we had already said our peace, so there was no danger of the songs being covered up or steered in a direction that we didn’t feel comfortable with.
You’ve basically come up with all the content and it was just him helping you get past that final hurdle…
Yeah. He helped us organise it and make things a little more clear, a little more powerful.
Had it been on your mind to spread your wings for the second album? The arrangements and the scope of the songs on Big Echo sound quite different, as you say, from the first record. A track like “Stitches” has a lot more atmospherics going on than anything possibly on the first record did.
I think that a lot of that was me thinking as a producer a little more and I’ve been working in a studio between the first and second albums a fair amount. Just listening to music differently and listening to how well some bands and producers use the studio, as another instrument and as a way to colour the sounds in your songs. Up to that point I was kind of anti-production or anti-studio as I felt like so many bands are over-produced and that production can easily get in the way of a song and can be distracting. But what I found when I embraced it, is the production and those things became as much of my songwriting as melody or lyrics. So I was writing songs with production aspects in mind or writing songs with a drum sound or a vocal sound in mind. When you’re thinking about those things it really just opens your palette in a huge way, and when we went into the studio to do Big Echo I knew there was a lot that I wanted to explore.
When you were making the record in the studio were you less worried about how you were going to replicate it live, or did you have to think about that in tandem with making the album?
We don’t ever think about that when making the album and that comes part of like embracing the studio is really just using it and doing everything you can with it and not thinking of anything beyond that. What’s challenging and fun for us is finding the way to then take that and do it live and it ended up being kind of an interesting experience, in which we had to change some of the songs significantly in ways that we didn’t have to do with the first album to make it translate live.
First broadcast on Static on 22/07/10. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).