Name: POP ETC
Progress Report: Chris Chu talks about The Morning Benders’ transformation into POP ETC and the band’s soon-to-be released new record…
Last month the band formerly known as the morning benders officially dropped that moniker (due to its perceived connotations to being a homophobic slur) and rechristened themselves POP ETC, apparently much to the dismay of fans that had become enamored with the band since the release of 2010’s Big Echo. The band also let loose with a free mixtape that hinted at a new and not too surprisingly pop-focused (considering their poppy new name) direction. Fans will have to wait until June to hear the band’s self-titled POP ETC — which is either their third full-length album or their first, depending on how you look at it — but early reactions from the interweb’s comment section have been surprisingly polarized. I had the chance to speak to front man Chris Chu about how all of these changes came to be … and what happens next.
STEREOGUM: Obviously the story of the new POP ETC record is very much tied up with the band’s name change and musical change of direction … how did all of this happen????
CHU: Ha! Well, that’s a loaded question. You know, we’d been listening to a lot of different kinds of music, as we always are, and we’d been on the road for almost all of 2010 supporting Big Echo. We had really started to rediscover all of this ‘90s pop music and R&B stuff that we’d all grown up with — stuff like Boyz II Men — which was the first album I ever bought — and Mariah Carey, D’Angelo, Dr. Dre — stuff like that. It was the stuff I listened to back before I was ever in a band or had really learned to listen to music analytically at all, it was just music that really struck me on a gut level. In the last two years I really rediscovered a lot of that music and I started to realize that there was so much more to that music than I had ever realized before — a certain level of proficiency and craft that you take for granted when you are listening to music as a teenager. So, reinvestigating that music really led us in the direction of exploring pop music. We also started to feel like we identified more with what was happening in the pop world then what was happening in the indie rock world.
STEREOGUM: How so?
CHU: It just seemed like in the indie rock world there was/is this tendency to shy away from direct ideas or really direct emotionalism. There’s a lot of music with great melodies and great lyrical ideas but it’s all buried under reverb or lo-fi production, or songs with really beautiful melodies but with lyrics that are really intentionally inscrutable and opaque. Sometimes, of course, that works really well and it’s cool to have this level of mysteriousness to the music, but it can also feel really noncommittal. I get the feeling that a lot of bands don’t really know what they want to say or they don’t really care enough to make some kind of impassioned, direct kind of statement … and I just don’t really identify with that. We wanted to make an album that was very direct and unapologetic about its melodic and lyrical ideas … and that sort of provided this new understanding and a new way of thinking about what pop music actually is. It’s such a weird thing to wrap your head around — trying to figure out what constitutes what “pop music” actually is. People say to me that they can’t define it but they know it when they hear it. For me it’s a certain commitment to a specific idea — a melody, a lyric, and a rhythm — around which everything else is kind of organized. So, to me that was a very powerful concept to try and explore and it became something we all wanted to try. I’m sorry, that was probably more than you bargained for!
STEREOGUM: No, not at all! We’ll come back to the business of changing the name, but putting that aside, do you have a sense that this is where the band was headed — musically speaking –regardless?
CHU: Definitely. We actually took a long time with this record, much longer than we have in the past. This is something that we’ve been working on for a long time. Some of these songs were written in the van while we were touring Big Echo back in the early days of 2010, so this music has been in the works for a while now.
STEREOGUM: Where was the album recorded?
CHU: We did it at home and in LA. In Los Angeles we worked with Andrew Dawson — a super talented engineer/producer who has worked with people like Kanye and Lil Wayne. He worked in worlds that we had never experienced and it was a totally different kind of production and a different way of working. Then we came to NY and worked with Danger Mouse. We wrote with him — which I’d never done before. It was a really interesting experience. We tried to really embrace these new ways of working, writing, and recording … all of which really pushed us outside of our comfort zones, which I think is a good thing. It was healthy for us.
STEREOGUM: Do you think this new sound and new name will attract a different audience for you?
CHU: I hope so. I just want there to be new people who’ll get into what we’re doing and that old fans who are used to the morning benders’ old songs will be open to experiencing us in this new way. It will be interesting to see how people take it in.
STEREOGUM: As someone who is familiar with your older work, I don’t think these new songs are that radical of a change — it’s not as if it’s indiscernible as being the same band.
CHU: Good. That’s good to hear.
STEREOGUM: It’s been a little while since you guys made the announcement that you’d be changing the band’s name and you released the mixtape. How has the reaction been? And were you surprised by the reactions from fans?
CHU: You know, it has been pretty surprising. It’s been cool because … well, it unfolded in this very interesting two-part way. We made the announcement and there was this very overwhelmingly positive wave of feedback that came back to us — messages from fans and reactions from various communities that were stoked on it for a variety of different reason. Overall it felt very positive. What has been surprising to me—and something very hard for me to relate to — have been the homophobic comments, which were sad to hear but also kind of reaffirmed why it was good to make the name change in the first place. That has been kind of surprising. It’s hard for me to understand the mindset of the person who, even if they have those kinds of beliefs, would feel the need to call out people in a band — people they don’t personally know — and say things like, “You guys are a bunch of fags!” It’s just such misdirected energy. Also, there has been reaction on both sides — people who were happy about the change, people who were not so happy about the change — that was just really extreme. I can’t imagine getting that bent out of shape about a band changing their name. If it was a band that I liked and respected, I guess I’d just assume that they had their reasons and that would be … not that big a deal? For example, there was a lot of really heated discussion on our Facebook page about it. There were lots of long comments and people going back and forth either defending us or criticizing us. In the end I’m kind of stoked that people had such strong feelings about it, but it’s still really surprising.
STEREOGUM: I thought the statement the band released regarding the name change and the reasons behind it was very thoughtful and, most of all, pretty clear as to what your thinking was. As a gay person, I really appreciated the fact that you wouldn’t want to have the name of your band to have connotations to a gay slur … though, truth be told, I was only vaguely aware of the term “bender” as a slur.
CHU: We’ve heard that a lot, but mostly from Americans. It’s more of a slur in the UK.
STEREOGUM: Still, I really appreciate that. I know that if you’ve been doing a band for seven years and building up a fanbase, the idea of changing your name is not an easy decision to make and not one that any band would take lightly.
CHU: Thank you.
STEREOGUM: And the idea that you would change your name — and issue that statement — out of your own homophobia, or the fear that someone might mistake your band for a bunch of homosexuals … is ridiculous.
CHU: There are also people who think that we should have kept the name and stood by it as a way of making a statement, a way of trying to re-appropriate this word. I could certainly understand that way of thinking and we thought of that as a way to move forward, but it just seemed like that would involve having to keep explaining ourselves over and over. It just seems inefficient and nonrealistic. There’s no way for us to control the way people would perceive that word or what it would mean to them, but we can control what we put out into the world and how we choose to represent ourselves.
STEREOGUM: So how did you come up with the new name?
CHU: We wanted something that was powerful. I think that “pop” is kind of a dirty word to a lot of people, so I wanted to embrace it as something that elicits a powerful reaction. Also, I’ve always said that we were a pop band whenever anybody asked us and I use that word in a way that’s very amorphous and kind of flexible, but I think that’s how it should be used. I think there’s a very pop sensibility to everything we have done and for everything that we will do in the future. It doesn’t feel limiting to me, in fact, it feels very open ended. We’re coming from a very pop music kind of place, but we layer that with our own weird touches and ideas … our spin on it is the “etc” I guess.
STEREOGUM: How will it be touring this record? And how will this new music fit in with the morning benders’ back catalog?
CHU: I can’t totally answer that yet because we’ve mostly just been focused on the new stuff, but we’ll definitely be playing the old songs and I think we’ll probably reimagine them to some degree … but that’s kind of what we’ve always done from album to album. When we toured for Big Echo we sort of reimagined the songs from the first album and, in a way, the songs from Big Echo as well. I think it’s gonna be a learning process to see how all these different families of songs will work together live, but it’s something we’ll figure out. I know that people are gonna be coming to the shows and expecting to hear some of those older songs, so we’ll try our best to make everyone happy in that regard.
STEREOGUM: What will the rest of this year be like for you?
CHU: We’ll definitely be touring. The record comes out in June and then the touring and everything else will start. It’s all coming together.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to mention that I really enjoyed the mixtape you guys released. How did that come about?
CHU: Oh, thanks. Well, everything came from the same recording sessions. We went into the studio with more songs than we’ve ever had before, so when we finished we had about 19 or 20 songs. We had all these extra tracks that didn’t quite fit on the album and we felt like those extra songs tended to sound like something halfway in-between Big Echo and the new stuff. So, they kind of provided the perfect transition. We decided to put together a mixtape and we got really into the mixtape concept. We liked the idea of approaching it in the same way hip-hop mixtapes are often released but with our focus being more melodic. It’s sequenced and assembled like a mixtape and the little interludes you hear on there are these little melodic improvisations that we did to provide transitions between the tracks. We just wanted to do something kind of unexpected and not so traditional, songwriting-wise. Do you know what I mean? I feel like that sounds really confusing. We’re trying to adopt the same way of thinking that we took in making the record and apply it to everything else, whether it be making videos or playing live.
STEREOGUM: I would imagine this might be a nerve-wracking time for you guys as a band, what with all the big changes and everything, but this must also be a really exciting time, no?
CHU: Definitely. It’s a very exciting time for us. I just can’t wait for the record to come and for everyone to hear it. We’ve tried to inhabit this weird sonic space that seems to exist between these two different musical worlds—people who love indie-rock (or whatever you’d like to call it) and people who are into more mainstream pop music. Seeing how people react to it has really been half the fun … at least so far.
POP ETC will be released 6/12 via Rough Trade. You can still grab the mixtape over at their website. And check out their tour dates opening for Dirty Projectors below.
08-06 Orlando, FL @ The Beacham Theatre
08-07 Fort Lauderdale, FL @ Culture Room
08-09 Atlanta, GA @ Variety Playhouse
08-10 Asheville, NC @ Orange Peel
08-11 Knoxville, TN @ Bijou
08-13 Nashville, TN @ Cannery Ballroom
08-14 Louisville, KY @ Headliners Music Hall
08-15 Pontiac, MI @ Crofoot Ballroom