The Morning Benders—the trio headed by Berkeley Calif., native Chris Chu—are resilient. Leading up to an extensive tour of Japan in 2011, the disastrous earthquake and tsunami hit the country. Instead of carrying on with their release of an upcoming record, the Morning Benders curated a relief album. Later when touring the U.K. in support of their successful sophomore album, Big Echo, the band faced another kind of hardship when they learned that “bender” in many parts of Europe is a not-so-flattering term for homosexuals.
After careful consideration, the band decided to change its name to POP ETC (yes, in all caps). Shortly after, the band announced a new mixtape that complements the transition with thematic ease. We caught up with Chu to talk the band’s name change, the free mixtape, working with Danger Mouse and the sonic shift on the first album under the POP ETC name.
Take me though your thought process when you decided to change the band’s name.
Chris Chu: We became conscious of this alternate meaning, and it became a problem. We were aware of it for a while, and it came down to whether or not we thought we could make a bigger statement by just keeping the name and saying we don’t want to let this one slang version of this word make us change it, or we could change the name and make a statement that way. In the end, we just felt like the best thing we could do was change the name. If we changed the name and made a statement, there would be so many people who would never hear that statement and would think of the name as whatever the homophobic connotations are in the U.K. or Australia or Europe or wherever it made its way to. Even if we did our best to try and engage people and explain we didn’t mean it this way, it would still only reach so many people. In the end we didn’t feel like we had much of a choice. We wanted people to know our band name was something we stood behind and that means we’re not The Morning Benders anymore.
What other options were thrown around before you settled on POP ETC?
Chu: We tossed around a few random things but nothing really stuck. As soon as we had POP ETC in mind, we just felt like that was the best name. It was the only name I guess, after we came up with it.
Do you feel the name have given you a new sense of identity? The mixtape is very different than what you were doing before.
Chu: Yeah, definitely. On one hand we feel it’s a good fit for what we’re doing now and it’s definitely something we were thinking about but we also feel that POP ETC is a pretty broad name. What I find really intriguing about pop music is that there’s not really a sound associated with it. It changes throughout the ages and people don’t really know what pop is. A simple definition is music that’s popular but then people use it all the time with things that aren’t smash hits or whatever. It has this ambiguous meaning of you just know it when you hear it. That’s really interesting to us. We grew up with all different kinds of pop music and it was always our favorite music from all these different ages. It just felt like a name we could grow with and was all-encompassing.
Your name has allowed for this expansion, has it been well received?
Chu: It’s been an interesting process. When we announced it we had pretty positive feedback. It was actually overwhelmingly positive and I think a lot of our diehard fans we’re surprised but the overriding feeling was that they’d be getting new music, because we hadn’t released anything in a while. But what is kind of an interesting process is just reading every now and then the comments that come up on social media outlets. There’s been a handful of people who are obviously homophobic and will say that, “we changed our name to something gayer” or that “you shouldn’t have changed your names for a bunch of fags,” which is such a bummer to see and is hard to relate to, them just being homophobic and close minded, but it’s also interesting to see these people go on the internet and target us directly, the band personally with bad energy and hate. Which come to think it’s amazing that this is where we’ve allowed it to get to with Internet communication.
Every realm of art where people are putting their work into the world is open for conversation now.
Chu: Yeah, it’s definitely something we expected to some degree but no amount of preparation can prep you for when you start to see comments like that. It’s just misdirected energy and hate. But I think the good thing through all of this is that in most cases, the music hasn’t been affected. All that stuff is over the name change, and if I had to choose the bad energy directed towards the name change or the music, I’d rather they get it out of their system with the name change.
Chu: I feel good about this because the people who are going to hate on it are going to hate on it regardless so I’d rather they get it out of the way because you don’t want those kind of people for fans anyway. So when you just kind of get it through comes the relief, less distraction. We’ve gotten all of that out of the way and now you can just focus on the music.
In the past, so much of the emphasis of your work has been on the music. Big Echo was praised. Has that put a lot of pressure on this new compilation, the mixtape you just released, and the coming album?
Chu: You know, I’ve thought about this a lot. There is this sense of pressure, we want to please our fans, and we definitely do. We think about them a lot and we try to do stuff for them all the time. We give away all this free music, we interact with them a lot, I think perhaps more than the normal band.
I guess when it comes down to making music I feel like we need to do what is most exciting to us because that’s the only way we can be honest. I see this happen so much, and I actually don’t see many people call bands out on this, but what happens is there’s all these bands that are playing around with different things and trying out new skin. They’ll put out a few albums maybe and put out new, different ideas, and I like when bands do that. That exploring and trying new things gets them out of their comfort zone and brings in new things they’re unaware they’re capable of. But what happens more often than that is a band maybe does that for a little while and they strike upon something that the press calls successful and they have one album that’s a little more commercially successful and then after that every album sounds exactly like that one. I don’t know if bands do that consciously or because they have more pressure because they’re under a new label, have more fans and people telling them they want to hear more songs that sound like that commercial success, but I think people get wrapped up in this idea that their most commercially successful song is their most creatively successful and then they pigeonhole themselves. We want to be really conscious of not doing that and not turning that pressure into what is to be expected to be successfully.
This notion really highlights the mixtape. It’s emotively charged as a summer mix, so much of it screams, “I’m free.”
Chu: We knew we were doing something that was pretty drastically different for us and we wanted to give people something to celebrate the name change and celebrate our fans so we wanted to give them something free. We knew it would be a good time seasonally to check it out and have this, “pass it on to your friends.” We just wanted people to have their way with it, to just enjoy it for what it is.
When is the album officially coming out?
Chu: We have an album coming June 12, and it feels really organic to me that it’s unfolding this way. It helps people to transition with us, because we do realize it’s a drastic change. And the album has two tracks that are on the mixtape. The mixtape for us is this transitional piece. The new album if anything, is more extreme. It’s more of a departure than the mixtape is from Big Echo. I definitely feel it’s a stronger more cohesive statement. A lot of the stuff on the album came from the same session. We produced the mixtape ourselves and everything, but with the album we did more of a collaboration.
We did a song with Danger Mouse and Andrew Dawson, he’s this awesome hip-hop engineer who does all of Kanye [West]’s stuff, so when you hear the album it’s even more of a sonic shift. It still sounds like us and there’s still an intimacy but it’s also really clear that we’re exploring a lot of new territory.
The Morning Benders were identifiable from your voice. How was exploring this new sonic territory with your voice?
Chu: The reason we’re so interested in exploring new things and the reason it’s so exciting to us is because we feel like identity arrives by being ourselves and being honest to ourselves. The songs always start in the same place and my voice is always my voice so there’s these elements that will translate regardless of what we do. So what was really fun and exciting was going into this territory that we’ve never explored and embracing a different side of things.
Working with Andrew, the engineer, he does all hip-hop, pop and R&B stuff and just the recording process of that is completely different. Everything we were doing was new and different and fresh and that’s the only way we want to continue making music. If we did Big Echo over and over again, each version would be more watered down than the last. If we had to do that we wouldn’t keep making music. For us it’s worth going on because we keep having these experiences and hopefully translating them into a new sound each time. It was so fun. We’re so excited about this new album. We really feel like it’s something special. I can’t wait to get it out.
I can feel that energy in your voice. How’s the brother dynamic? He was touring with you for Big Echo but this is his first album participation.
Chu: I’ve tried to describe to people before… people thing of siblings in bands and associate how volatile it is, people thing of the Gallagher brother or something from Oasis and I always tell people me and my brother are the opposite of Oasis probably in that we never argue over things and have this instinctual understanding of what works and what doesn’t. This album was the most collaborative thing we’ve done as a band, we all contributed in ways that go beyond our instruments. There’s actually a song me and my brother wrote together and I’ve never done that before. I usually write alone. Intimate writing with Danger Mouse was pretty interesting as an experience and something we’d never tried.
How was finally making it to Japan for a tour and playing Summer Sonic?
Chu: It was kind of amazing, kind of hard to describe. I had been waiting to play Japan for so long and had built it up in my mind. It’s so special there. No country is like Japan. The shows were awesome and really unique and talking to people after was equally as cool. The people there are so appreciative of the fact that we are making music and would come play there. I don’t know if you know but Japan is one of the few countries that still purchase music and they’re obviously technically advanced enough to download it but they want to support artists. They pay a lot more money for shows and it was so evident when we came off stage to talk to people, the manifestation of how appreciative they are and how they care about artists and music. It’s amazing to be received that way.
And how about touring this summer?
Chu: We’re so excited. We enjoy touring and fans. It should be a lot of fun.
POP ETC are scheduled to tour with the Dirty Projectors this summer. Check out the dates below and new music video for single “Live It Up” from album POP ETC, which is set for a June 12 release.
2012 U.S. Tour
6 – Orlando, Fla. @ The Beacham Theatre
7 – Fort Lauderdale, Fla. @ Culture Room
9 – Atlanta, Ga. @ Variety Playhouse
10 – Ashville, N.C. @ Orange Peel
11 – Knoxville, Tenn. @ Bijou Theatre
13 – Nashville, Tenn. @ Cannery Ballroom
14 – Louisville, Ky. @ Headliners Music Hall
15 – Pontiac, Mich. @ Crofoot Ballroom