Hailing from San Francisco, the morning benders (who prefer to keep their name humbly lower-cased) came of age this year with the release of their second album, Big Echo (Rough Trade). But the quartet has been active since 2005, recognized for a polished, lush, Pacific-coast sound with swooping crescendos and Beach Boys vocal harmonies. But beneath the surface, Big Echo, co-produced by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, features a slew of musical influences that defy such easy classification; in fact, the band recently instigated a move to Brooklyn to explore a new sound frontier. We recently chatted with vocalist/guitarist Chris Chu about shrugging off constraints — and California.
Each time I listen to Big Echo, I pick out a musical influence I missed before. The ’50s California pop vibe and doo-wop bits are evident from the start, but what other genres or bands drove the songwriting?
There’s less of an influence in songwriting process versus arranging and recording. When I write the songs it’s more mysterious where they come from — they’re spontaneous — but when it comes time to record and dress them up, we pull in different sounds we like. So there’s that ’50s thing you’re talking about, but there’s also this diverse set of stuff we’re including. I guess one that people haven’t been talking about is Kevin Shields from My Bloody Valentine, especially on “Excuses.” While a lot of people have been keen on the ’50s influence, we’re trying to have the song start in that form and morph into a noisier, washed-out version of that ’50s thing, a la Kevin Shields.
Each song is quite different from every other. People have been using the ’50s influence as a blanket statement to describe the album when I think it only comes into play on one or two songs. It’s very much a conscious decision to go for something special with each track, otherwise I think it gets boring. At the time I was listening to Big Star, specifically Third/Sister Lovers, Blur’s Think Tank, Neil Young’s On the Beach…that’s kind of a staple though. It’s hard to name influences with Big Echo because, like I said, each song has multiple influences that we’ve put together in weird ways. Hopefully the results are something you haven’t heard before. The goal was to mix all that together in some unrecognizable way.
In previous interviews you talked about your first album’s self-imposed limitations, like sticking to a certain era’s sound, or playing with a small set of instruments. With your stylistic transformation to something less restrained, how did you manage to keep your songs structured?
It’s two different things for me. The song comes first, and the song’s structure is already there before the song is. The rest is making sure that what the song is trying to communicate comes across. We’re constantly checking ourselves to see that anything we add is not extraneous, that it’s something that’s making the song more powerful, because otherwise, what’s the point of putting something on there? A lot of people have been tuning into the fact that the new album has a bigger sound, but I think that part of why it sounds big at times is because at other times it’s stripped down and bare.
Were any of those music classes you took in college applied?
It’s hard to say. The classes I took in school were always about such a different, classically oriented music. It’s hard to think about those rules, tendencies, and composers in the context of pop music. For me, I try to not let it enter my mind too much, because I would rather not be thinking in terms of old rules. But it’s helpful to understand musical language, from looking at chords and knowing how different things harmonize and work together. It probably works more subconsciously than a conscious effort to recreate anything I learned from Bach chorales. Once you learn what certain chords are called, or you hear a change and recognize that it’s like a 1 chord going to a 5 chord, that’s something you can’t undo, but at the same time, it’s not like I’m writing a song and I say, “I need to go to this chord.” It never happens like that. That’s something I was weary about from the beginning of deciding to study music, because I never wanted to get too deep into rules.
How was it co-producing the album with Chris Taylor? Were there ever any disagreements?
It was actually really smooth and kind of amazing in that way. I’ve worked on some records with other bands, and it’s common to get into disagreements … not even disagreements … it just takes a while to gain clarity about a vision. But with Chris, I think part of why he decided to do it was that from the get-go, it was just clear we were on the same wavelength, and he knew what needed to happen for the songs to be crisp.
You’re officially bicoastal! How do you think living in New York will impact the sound you’ve cultivated? Will distance make the heart grow fonder for those Pacific textures?
I’m not really sure. I’m positive that it will change, and that’s part of why I wanted to move to a new place. I recognize that the music we’re making is a result of the environment we’re in. I really just want to keep changing all the time, and moving seems like the next logical step, but as far as how, I really don’t know. I would get tired of being in the same place, writing the same kind of songs, or making the same kind of music over and over. I don’t feel connected to art that is super conceptually driven. I want to write music with a band where it happens spontaneously, and where we’re not imposing restrictions on ourselves. It’s kind of hard to trace the changes, but I’m sure it is changing.
For your New York shows, do you plan on crowding the stage with other musicians, or do you plan on sticking to the core lineup? Are you leaning in favor of the minimalist and acoustic or grandiose and orchestral approach?
I think it’s going to change every tour. For the one we just did, we had the four of us and a friend do some stuff on songs as like an honorary set member, but in terms of the New York shows, I’m not sure what we’re going to do yet. After doing that video for “Excuses” and having that be something a lot of people have seen, I almost don’t want to try to redo that, because it seems like it would just end up being a watered-down version of that. I think what’s cool is that we inevitably have to make decisions to change things in the song, change things from the record to do something new for the live setting, and that will be hopefully more exciting for the audience. I think we’re going to do something different for each New York show in terms of the songs we play. And we might have some special guests.
We haven’t figured it out yet. We’ve been on tour for the last two months. We’re just driving to New York right now. Unfortunately there’s never enough time to plan things…maybe that’s good for things to happen spontaneously, it’s good energy. When we play live it’s a whole different ballgame. I think Big Echo works in a lot of ways because it has a lot of subtleties and nuances. Those sort of things tend to get lost in the live setting, so it becomes a shifted focus to something more extreme, more blunt. Maybe we’ll do a song that has a riff that’s more subtle and in the background for the recording, and we take that and make that as more of a focal point. I think the loud parts are even louder and harder, and the soft parts are even softer and quieter, so you just have these even higher peaks and lower valleys. It makes it more exciting for us.
And how about your upcoming tour with Broken Bells? How is it different headlining a tour versus being an opening act?
It’s completely different. It’s going to be hard to shift back. We did support a lot in the last couple of years, and then to do a headlining tour for ourselves was really nice. I felt like it was one of the first times we got to say our piece and present it how we wanted to present it, versus when you’re supporting you have all these limitations, you’re trying to win people over rather than just playing to your fans. Unfortunately, we can’t take the liberties that we do on our headlining set, but we’ll try to make something that’s really action-packed.
We spent some time trying to figure out where the record was going to come out, and part of why it took us so long to release this record was because we were trying to find the people that really loved the record and would work hard on it. All of Rough Trade’s history aside, we met this guy, Steve, who runs the label, and he had this strong response to it, and it was a blessing because we now had this direct line to the label. He was the most excited about the band. We talked to a handful of other labels, and everyone seemed to be genuine, but the excitement that Steve showed us from Rough Trade was unparalleled. Then, looking at the history of Rough Trade, obviously the fact that they’ve been around for so long and represent a cool community of musicians, cool mindsets, all factored into the decision. At the end of the day it was because they were really excited about it.
Could you imagine self-releasing Big Echo?
It’s kind of cool to say you’re self-releasing something, and I like the aspect that you have your hand in everything and maintain that control, but at the same time, it depends on the time you have. It’s near impossible to do that and be a touring band, but for me it’s been really helpful having Rough Trade. It made it easier for us to take our focus off that and focus on being on the road. It’s been the busiest tour we’ve had — we’ve been doing multiple shows a day. I don’t think it would be possible for us to handle all the release stuff in addition to that. We’re busy all the time as it is. I couldn’t imagine taking on any more responsibilities.
the morning benders perform at Mercury Lounge Thursday, April 22; MHOW on Saturday, April 24; and Mercury Lounge again on Wednesday, April 28.