From the sound of the needle dropping on the opening track, "Excuses," it's clear that the Morning Bender's new album Big Echo is all about nuance. Talking to Chris Chu, the band's lead singer, it becomes apparent why: form follows function. Chu speaks carefully — he pauses before answering a question and shies away from making bold or sweeping statements. For example, he cautioned at putting too much emphasis on any of the band's recent success: "Excuses" was picked as a best new track by Pitchfork, and in February, according to a web site that aggregates such statistics, the Morning Benders was the most blogged about band on the Internet.
"It's definitely been crazy at times," said Chu about the last few months. Then he switched the conversation to talk about how proud he has been of the fan base's role in their success: "We really only put out two or three things for people to see with hopes that every one of those things would lead people back to the record. ... What was most amazing to me, and just very encouraging, was to see people take ownership over those things and start spreading them themselves."
One of the releases Chu refers to is a video of the band performing "Excuses" with their friends at Different Fur Studios in the Mission district. Chu describes the exercise as inspired by stories of vintage Phil Spector recording sessions — the producer would pile multiple drummers, bassists, and vocalists into a room to create a "wall of sound" that became a hallmark of pop music in the Sixties. Among the faces in the video, billed as the Morning Benders and the Echo Chamber Orchestra, are some familiar Bay Area musicians: Chris Owens of Girls, John Vanderslice, Gram Lebron (formerly of Rogue Wave, presently of Port O'Brien), and the Mumlers. The video went viral shortly after its release, quickly racking up more than 100,000 views, and showing up on music blogs around the web.
There's no question that a large share of the Bender's support is rooted, like the band itself, in the Bay Area. The Morning Benders first formed in 2005, while three of the members were undergraduates at UC Berkeley (the fourth member, Jon, is Chris' younger brother and current Cal student). They've certainly earned their success. After cutting their first record in 2007, the band opened for Grizzly Bear, the Kooks, Death Cab for Cutie, and RaRaRiot, and appeared at a slew of music festivals (Noise Pop in '08 and '09, and Outside Lands last year). They embarked on their first headlining tour after the release of Big Echo at the beginning of March.
It not just the sound of vinyl static on the band's sophomore effort that infuse the record with a distinct sense of time and place — the band's surf-pop vocal harmonies frequently invite comparisons to the Beach Boys. The album was recorded and tracked in California, then Chu holed up at in church in New York with Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor to mix the thing. "What started as just kind of mixing the record turned into something that was a little more than that," Chu said. "We ended up like kind of crafting the sound of the record in a lot of ways and kind of re-doing some sound and stuff." The result is lovely — songs that slosh and creep and bounce around you in an inexplicably visceral way.
And they reverberate in more ways than one, hence the album title "Big Echo." Chu says the album and title were inspired by "all this music that we loved from the Sixties and Seventies and Eighties and Nineties and recent stuff and it's all kind of thrown together in like an echo chamber or something and you hear how it all combines and morphs in this, hopefully, unique special thing." Thrown along with them are sounds collected from different places and interwoven throughout the album. It's these subtleties that Chu says give the recordings "a lot more character, and they're a lot more charming because of that — you can listen to it over and over and kind of find these new things." At the same time, there are some challenges re-interpreting them for a live performance. "In a live setting you really want to catch people's attention," said Chu. "We ended up making a lot of things more extreme live I think. The quiet parts are stripped down and then the loud parts are even louder and noisier."
The band will be in San Francisco on March 30 playing at the Independent, supported by the Miniature Tigers and the Mumlers, and there is a long list of things Chu would like to do in the less-than-a-day of spare time he'll have back in the Bay. He wants to see the cat he's left behind (Zoe), grab a bite at Zaki Kebab House in Albany (his endorsement of the restaurant was issued with more force than any other statement in our conversation: "It's really, really good," he said. "Kind of incredible, actually"), and browse the racks at Ameoba (a gift certificate is burning a hole in his pocket).
And reunite with some friends. The same friends from the "Excuses" video? Maybe onstage at the Independent? Chu wouldn't say so in as many words. "I don't want to say anything yet, but we are trying to do something special for that show. So."