While other high school kids in Santa Monica, Calif., were listening to Green Day and starting up garage bands, Chris Chu was immersing himself in the Beatles and the Beach Boys and educating himself in music theory.
He missed out on groupies, but he got a solid grounding in how to craft a pop song. When he finally got around to writing songs, while pursuing a music degree at the University of California-Berkeley, he quickly generated buzz on the indie-rock blogosphere. Then he and the others in his band, the Morning Benders, had to learn to be a working band.
“We didn’t know anything about how booking stuff worked, or promoting and all that,” says Chu, 22. “It was just playing with friends.”
They caught on fast. After releasing two EPs on their own, the Benders signed to +1 Records and released a full-length debut CD, “Talking Through Tin Cans,” in June. The album’s 11 melodic, strummy gems, some of which come from the first batch of tunes Chu wrote, were greeted with warm reviews, most featuring variants on the words “boyish” and “youthful.”
The commercial response surprised the band, as the album hit the Top 20 on iTunes and the Top 30 on Billboard’s Indie Albums chart. The Benders then toured the country for the first time, opening for the Kooks.
Somehow amid all that activity, the Benders found time to record 11 of their favorite songs - covers of artists ranging from Roy Orbison and the Ronettes to the Talking Heads and the Smiths - for the informal album “The Bedroom Covers,” which the Benders are giving away for free at (www.ambenders.blogspot.com).
Some have compared the move to Radiohead’s decision to let listeners choose their own price, but for Chu it harks back to the Beatles and the Beach Boys in the mid-‘60s, when they were cranking out classic singles and albums every few months.
“I’m hoping that we can start putting music out more,” he says. “That’s probably why we wanted to do those covers for free, just instant gratification: throw them out there, and let people download them right away. Our album came out two months ago, and now we have another album of covers for free for people. I like bands that do that.”
Making music all the time is made easier for the Morning Benders because three of the musicians - Chu, bassist Tim Or and guitarist-keyboardist Joe Ferrell - share an apartment in Berkeley. The fourth, drummer Julian Harmon, lives a few blocks away.
“I think we’re sort of blessed in that we are all pretty good friends,” Chu says. “There are a lot of bands that are bandmates before they’re friends, and that’s kind of weird to us.”
Chu says the group already has enough material for the next album, which it hopes to release next year. Now it’s just a matter of getting some time off the road and finding the right studio, which is where Chu truly feels at home.
“By the time we were done with the album, all I wanted to do was get on the road and play our songs. But now I’m really itching to get back into the studio,” he says. “Why I write songs in the first place is to get in the studio and start working. I really like to use the studio to its full potential, as another instrument or whatever. Then playing live is a completely different experience that’s really great, as well.”
Included as a bonus track on “The Bedroom Sessions,” the eerie, disorienting remix of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No,” gives a hint as to the direction of the Morning Benders’ next album, and shows there’s more to the band than simply ‘60s pastiche.
“I’ve been messing around with a bunch of different things, just trying to expand our palette,” Chu says. “I’ve been listening to a lot of shoe-gaze stuff of late. I think we’re going to try to add a lot of different sounds on the new record.”
Chu declines to detail long-term ambitions for the band, other than to say that he expects to be writing and recording songs for the rest of his life.
“We don’t ever want to be waiting around for things to happen,” he says. “We just want to keep having something we’re working on, all the time, and keep going as long as we can.”