Christopher Chu is the lead singer and songwritfer for The Morning Benders, a rock group from San Francisco.
I must say, I can’t really trust a rock musician that’s up at 10:30 AM.
(laughs) Yeah. It was kind of testing my strength. I’m recording up at Dreamland, so I need to be up.
What are you working on upstate?
I’m producing a band up here, doing their record. It’s at the studio Dreamland, this old church they converted into a studio in the woods. It’s pretty rad.
I really like Big Echo, man. Gotta say it was a lot different than what I was expecting. It's pretty dense and intricate, not much at all like the stuff on Grain of Salt.
I would say that some of that stuff you’re talking about, texturally and arrangement-wise, was a big product of me getting more into production, more into using the studio as an instrument. That’s part of it. Another part of it is that we had, with our first stuff, played it for a while, toured three or four times around the States, so we were really itching to work on some new material. We’d been growing for a while, listening to a lot of different kinds of music, more diverse artists. The first stuff we were more into 50s and 60s and 70s, the early classic stuff. Which I still really like I’ve just listened to it a lot. For the new stuff, there’s a lot more modern influence and it’s all over the board, 80s, 90s. It was a product of us wanting to try something new.
What’s it like working with Chris Taylor? What did he add to the process?
Great! I love that guy. It’s a little different than most of the other stuff he’s worked on because we had tracked the album in San Francisco before Chris was involved. I had planned to do it all myself, produce it and everything. When it came down to the point after everything was tracked, it was a lot denser and I knew it was just going to be a different-sounding record. Being deep in the process, we decided it would be a good idea to get a fresh pair of ears on it. So that was the initial reason we reached out to Chris. I had been in contact with him for a little while, sending him stuff, talking about recording, and I always loved all of his work. So he was someone that we had thought about working with at some point but we never had an idea of what capacity.
He told me about buying someone a 21st birthday shot at one of your shows. One of the guys in the band.
That’s true actually. He came to one of our shows when we came through New York, and we’ve always vibed out really well. When it got to mixing, I asked him if he might be into doing that, and he was super supportive and into the stuff, and said he would do it. He started working on it and it just became clear that we were going to get a lot deeper into it, so I went up to New York and I was there for a couple weeks. We ended up tweaking, shaping the sound and stuff. He was definitely an influence. We did it in the church where they record a lot of their stuff.
All that gear.
Exactly. So there’s that sound of that studio.
He didn’t like my Grizzly Bear vs. Panda Bear cage match idea. Maybe he just had the idea before I did and was nervous that I was thinking about it too.
That’s probably it. He was mad someone heard about it somehow.
Is there something on this record that’s the most evolved Morning Benders thing you’ve done?
I really like bands that don’t try to hone in on a specific sound. I just find that really boring. Sometimes it works, like a band has five albums with this one kind of formula that they’re working from. But I’m more of a fan of bands that change it up all the time, like The Beatles or Radiohead. Or Beck is a good one, all these reinventions—I think that’s really cool. I’ve always just been in the mindset that we need to try something new every album. So that was definitely a part of this. We didn’t want to feel hindered by a specific sound or previous stuff. So we’re just trying to be as free as possible. I’m not sure if there’s anything that best represents what we were going for.
We spent a long, long time picking the songs and sequencing it, figuring out the flow and vibe of the record. That was really important. I guess that’s something we’re proud of too.
I understand you just moved here. What’s that been like?
We’re pretty new. I’ve been in New York, in Brooklyn subletting with a friend, for like two weeks and then I came up here. So it’s really new. I love New York. I’ve spent a lot of time here because all my family, all my extended family on both sides is up here so I’ve been up here every summer for most of my life. I always knew I would want to come here, so it wasn’t like we totally had no idea. Along the lines of what I said before, I think that music is a big product of the environment you’re living in. I’m just curious to see where that puts us.
Everything’s so competitive here. It’s frustrating, but I think it keeps you humble. I mean, it keeps me paranoid, but it keeps most people humble.
I kinda like that. I think it keeps you moving, you know?
There’s so many awesome people here.
It’s a double-edged sword. It pisses you off, but it eventually pushes you to do something else.
Do you try to adopt a perspective akin to your favorite artists while you’re writing a song? Or how does your songwriting process work?
I think it goes both ways. First and foremost, my favorite bands and artists are people that I feel are heartfelt, you know? Even though they’re messing stuff up you can always tell it’s with the most meaningful intentions. When I’m writing a song, I generally don’t have any influence or anything in mind. It’s more instinctual at that point and it usually just comes out the way it does. And I figure out if that’s going to fit. But when it comes down to production and arranging, there’s definitely an idea of looking at it through someone’s lens. What I find interesting is mixing and matching all those different lenses. You have these weird, different elements pulled from different places. I think that’s one big thing we’re doing, that goes along with the album being called Big Echo, trying to pull from all these different places, these sounds from 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, mashed together in a weird way.
I mean, I just feel like there’s an overwhelming amount of music out there that’s just so easy to consume now. How do you reign that in some, taking all of these influences and translating it into a cohesive piece?
That’s a good question. But I think that’s the magical part of it. I think it’s different for other bands, but for us, we don’t really approach things conceptually, lay out plans. We just play stuff that sounds cool to us and we just do it. We don’t really care where the idea comes from. It’s just matter of approaching it with that, not confining yourself to anything.
With the Internet, it’s totally crazy. There’s all this music that used to be obscure that now is popular, easy to grab. It’s changed everything.
What are you excited about that’s coming up? Outside of the record, of course.
It’s kind of amazing to me, that it’s coming out in a few months. That’s a big deal. It’s been done for a little while just as a result of the music industry. How to prep it, all that shit. So that sucks. I’m excited to see what different people are interested in it that weren’t interested in the first record. Like I was saying before, we didn’t conceptualize the need to reach this new audience. It’s just interesting because it’s pretty different from the first stuff.
It might not have the immediacy. I feel like it’s denser and more interesting, but not as bouncy as “Grain of Salt” or something.
That’s what I’m curious to see. It’s immediate on some points. I think it’s the best thing we’ve done, obviously, I guess people always say that about the latest thing they’ve made (laughs). We definitely were trying to make it, if possible, immediate and a grower. Trying to capture everything; one of our goals is to make these songs that are joyous and these songs that are really melancholy, or putting together sounds that are analog and digital, a lot of opposite, contrasting things.
But it doesn’t seem overwrought.
We didn’t want to do that, so we’re trying to arrange the song in the way that feels right. But on top of that, we had budgetary and time constraints. We recorded the whole album in ten days, so we had to hone in on the components we wanted to focus on. It never became this super bloated thing, with the orchestra in there, some huge thing.
So I was thinking about these Radiohead shows, which are totally great, except for the fact that it takes them like five minutes between each song to setup for the new arrangement.
That is kind of crazy. I actually heard from Chris that Jonny toned down his setup recently. He used to have this massive pedal thing. They’re sort of the kings of that though, I guess. It’s kind of gnarly when they’re wheeling in the grands between each song.
And all these 50s original make Gibsons.
It’s really hard, watching (laughs). It’s kind of sad. You’re like, if I even had two or three of these setups to switch between, it’d open up things so crazy. But they have a different setup for every song.
Someday that’ll be you.
I see what you’re saying, that it’s kind of annoying to see that happen. It’s kind of cool, on one hand. There the quintessential band for that, they’re the most perfectionist, nitpicky bunch. I kind of like when a band just goes out and reinterprets their stuff. You don’t see that a lot with Radiohead; sometimes you do, maybe with older songs.
But there’s something about a bar band, just hammering through their set.
That’s pretty cool. I remember seeing, when I was younger, Queen. And obviously they have a lot of crazy production going on. But when they play live, because they’re all so good at their instruments, they don’t need that stuff. They can just play as a four-piece. I’ve kind of changed my opinion on them, but Freddie is crazy. He’s just bringing it.
I feel like great bands have two people butting heads, just like The Beatles. Marr/Morrisey. Yorke/Greenwood. Waters/Gilmour. Are you guys like that?
We actually aren’t like that. It’s weird. We have trouble sometimes trying to figure out what’s right in arranging stuff. But generally, once we find it we agree on it. Sometimes we’ll just sit in our practice space playing songs for hours and hours and days and days and nothing’s sticking. It’s super frustrating, but it’s probably a better scenario than fighting all the time.
The Morning Benders Interview
Photo By Matt Jacoby