Is it possible to make California pop while living in New York? The Morning Benders, whose breezy melodies have received comparisons to California dreamers the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, recently tossed their knapsacks over their shoulders, took one last whiff of Telegraph Avenue's pungent patchouli scent, and left Berkeley for the wilds of Brooklyn. Leader Chris Chu still has access to his old apartment off Shattuck, thanks to his girlfriend, who's attending community college in the East Bay. But she'll eventually transfer to a four-year school, which makes his long-term plans a bit cloudy.
"I always picture myself raising a family here, whenever it gets to that point," the 24-year-old songwriter says over a cup of appropriately named prosperity blend tea in North Berkeley. "But as far as the immediate future, I'm not really sure."
In the spring of 2009, the Morning Benders started on their bicoastal ways. Chu went to New York to finish the band's new sophomore release, Big Echo, with Grizzly Bear bassist and producer Chris Taylor in his converted-church studio. Taylor was originally slated just to mix the record, but the two soon found themselves "drastically recrafting a lot of the sounds," according to Chu, and it could be argued that somewhere along the way, the Morning Benders stopped making California pop. Guess that answers that question.
"I tried to make it sound a little meaner," says Taylor, who shares production credit with Chu. "I liked how the tunes felt so warm and nice, and I thought it would be kind of fun friction if they had a little harder edge. It was fun for both of us, and we became really good friends throughout the process."
Big Echo, which came out earlier this month on the fabled Rough Trade label (home to the Smiths, the Raincoats, the Strokes, etc.), is a beautifully textured album. It's less about the classic-pop hooks that drew listeners to the band's 2008 full-length debut, Talking Through Tin Cans, and more about a carefully crafted experience that feels important from beginning to end. It came together with a bevy of studio tricks and instruments, including piano, pump organ, Farfisa, Wurlitzer, tape echo, lots of amps, and myriad percussion. Things are slower and more deliberate this time around, and while Big Echo can get experimental, it's also wonderfully dreamy. Inevitably, it'll receive Grizzly Bear comparisons.
"People are saying, 'This is such a Chris Taylor thing, this sound,' and I'll be like, 'Well, [the band] actually did that,'" Chu says. He adds that people also mistook Taylor's parts for trademark Morning Benders sounds: "I think it's kind of cool that way. It adds to the mysteriousness of the record, where things came from."
The music isn't the only aspect that's been updated on the new record. Lyrically, Chu has expanded his worldview, tackling the bigger issues that accompany getting older. (And before you scoff at him for doing so at such a tender age, remember that Mark Kozelek was once caught singing about how "24 keeps breathing in my face like a mad whore.") So instead of screaming, "Why can't you just say what you mean?" as Chu did on Tin Cans' "Loose Change," now he "can't help thinking we grew up too fast" during "Promises," a song that's "about the way that life takes hold of you, and 20 years later you realize that you've grown a lot and you're not sure what happened."
"The first album was a product of what I was going through at a specific time — the story of a relationship, pretty much," he says. "But with Big Echo, I was really interested in the idea of nostalgia. It's this gray area of feeling [and] this weird thing that you're longing for something in the past, but it inevitably leads you to thinking about your life, or thinking about the future as well."
Judging from the group's quick ascent, it's easy to assume that the near future will be kind to the Morning Benders. Chu launched the band less than five years ago on his own, but quickly expanded it into the proper group that made Talking Through Tin Cans. If Tin Can's influences weren't obvious enough, a couple of months later the Benders copped to their debts on a free download, The Bedroom Covers, which included remakes of songs by Fleetwood Mac, the Cardigans, the Smiths, the Ronettes, and other pop heavyweights. The band spent plenty of time on the road hawking its wares before returning to the studio to make Big Echo. During its recording, original guitarist Joe Ferrell decided that he'd had enough of the band thing, which opened the door for Chu's 19-year-old brother, Jonathan, to join the group. The Benders are rounded out by bassist Tim Or and drummer Julian Harmon.
"It's a really special thing to have a sibling who listened to the same music growing up and has similar tastes," Chris says. "It's just less explaining — it's a gut-level thing that he gets it. It's kind of a blessing to have him around."
While the younger Chu — who, like Chris, moved to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley — continues to hold down the band's Western front, the elder has spent a good portion of 2010 on the other side of the country producing the second record from alt-pop outfit and fellow Brooklyn transplants Miniature Tigers. That band's major-label budget allowed them to spend quality time at Dreamland Recording Studio near Woodstock, and gave Chu more chances to flex his increasingly toned production muscles.
The Morning Benders are on their inaugural headlining tour, which arrives at the Independent on March 30. It'll be their first local gig since they stopped being locals, so expect a few extra displays of nostalgia. And if it's anything like the live-in-the-studio take on Big Echo's "Excuses" that spread rapidly online last month and helped build a pre-album buzz, the place should be packed with familiar faces. The virally delicious video found a who's who of area musicians, including John Vanderslice, Girls' Christopher Owens, and the Mumlers, helping Chu and company pay tribute to Phil Spector's wall of sound. (The Mumlers will definitely be at the Independent show, since they're opening, as are Miniature Tigers.) Those who attend the Tuesday shows will hear the new sound of this New York pop band, but as Chu explains, you can take the boy out of California, but you can't take the California out of the boy.
"It's weird that people have written that word 'New Yorkers' — we're not New Yorkers," he says. "There's a lot of people living in New York who aren't New Yorkers yet. You know when someone's a New Yorker. It stands out. And we're just such a California band."