Upon the release of their second full length, Big Echo, The Morning Benders feel worlds away from their first endeavor (Talking Through Tin Cans). With the production help of Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, the band retains their sunny, vintage pop sound while also displaying a vast maturity between releases. Big Echo is all about exploring the dichotomy of conflicting emotions in addition to the layering of analog and digital sounds. PopMatters spoke with lead singer, guitarist, and general mastermind Christopher Chu about Big Echo, cuisine recommendations, possible corporate conspiracy theories and brotherly love.
What instruments do you play?
Well, live I play guitar and sing, but for this new record I ended up playing a bunch of random stuff like pianos, organs, weird sounds and strings.
How do you get that cinematic kind of sound, especially on “Excuses”?
Cinematic, that’s a good question. I’ve heard other people refer to that song as cinematic. It’s an interesting word, makes sense. I think a lot of the sounds of the album came about or resulted from a couple things, one being that I was spending more time on production in the studio. I started listening to music in a different way. Listening to sounds of records and how sounds work together. The other thing is the mindset, too. I think we went in there wanting to try something new and use the studio to its fullest potential—take advantage of the instruments and the gear. We wanted to free ourselves from the conceptual limitations from the first album.
You got to know Chris Taylor [Grizzly Bear] and both produced the record. What kind of studio was it?
We tracked the record in the Bay area at two different studios with just me and not Chris. So we had this whole record tracked and we ended up having sounds and ideas as a result of wanting to try what I just talked about. So when it came to mix we wanted to find someone to give it clarity. Chris had always been a supporter of the new stuff and had a good vibe. He came in to mix the record. We were thinking he would just do that but we ended up going deeper and really changing the record. Reshaping a lot of stuff.
What is your musical training like?
I studied music at Berkeley but it’s a very different kind of music. I studied composition there. To be honest, it doesn’t really apply that much to what I’m doing in this band. Although moreso in this new album. There is a part where I arranged the strings and actually wrote out the part for the violin player. So that was kind of cool. Then [with] studio stuff I just picked up from working and recording our stuff.
I was going to ask about the strings in “Excuses”. When I said cinematic, I meant that they sounded like they were out of some old black and white movie.
Those strings were the one violin player by herself. I tried to make a little of orchestra out of it by having her play a bunch of times. Also, it’s these fake strings that I messed around with from a synth patch that I programmed. What we want is to pit the real organic strings against the digital fake strings and have both those there. Something you’re getting a lot on the album is having these different opposing sides giving the album a diverse quality—all these sounds that are analog but filtered with digital means. I play synth next to other sounds that are analog; [we use] the happy sounding textures in a song that’s really sad, trying to have all of these emotions piled up on top of each other. That’s why we called it Big Echo, I guess.
That is so cool. I guess it also refers to the wall of sound with everything building on each other.
Yeah, totally. We are into using delays and reverb, like that idea of feedback or existing in this digital or fake space on a record. It’s interesting listening to a record that is really like that.
Are all the vocal parts your voice?
Yeah, for the most part. On “Excuses” it was all me because I wanted to make the feeling of looping and feeding back.
Is there a particularly weird instrument you used?
I wouldn’t say anything weird. We did use a lot of old, cool stuff. This one studio we recorded at had a great collection of old organs and delays, old amps and guitars. There’s some computer sounds with the fake strings and sampled sounds and stuff like that.
What have you been you listening to lately?
I’ve been listening to the album by The xx a lot, which is really amazing. Someone posed it to me in relation to our record. I was thinking about how different they are. [In] The xx, every song is similar sounding in a way and it works really well. It’s an amazing album. You can picture them just in their basement or something playing the songs all the way through. It sounds like that’s what’s happening.
It sounds like one continuous take.
Yeah, and there’s this specific set of sounds they used, whereas for us for each song we wanted to be different, to go somewhere else completely. All these different sounds pulled from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, current sounds we like, we threw in there to make every track special and different and hopefully it connects.
Does it sound really not 70s?
It’s weird. From a production standpoint there were a lot of sounds from the 70s but it wasn’t like a quintessential 70s record.
So you live in Brooklyn now? What part?
I’m staying in Greenpoint right now—it’s temporary. It happened in a spontaneous way. I love New York; I’m glad to be here.
You’re from California originally?
I was born in Japan but then grew up in Southern California and went to school at Berkeley.
So you are sort of a dual coaster.
And the record was done bicoastal which goes along with the analog/digital, happy/sad, dark/light, etc.
It all comes back to that.
Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to have it all.
Would you ever do another covers album?
Yeah, I wanted to record some cool R&B recordings. All of our recording stuff got stolen on the Grizzly Bear tour. I’m going to buy some new stuff but I haven’t decided yet what to get.
That really sucks.
The good thing about it was that it made us focus on the record a lot. With the first album we had all this content going into it. With this record we spent so much time making a cohesive record and the sound of it all.
What do you do when you’re not playing music?
Cooking, eating food. Picking out good food and being healthy. I like to exercise. Living in Berkeley, I was spoiled because there’s such a great organic movement and [there are] farmers markets everyday of the week. I am used to using fresh stuff to cook—good tasting and good for you. It’s hard to find balance when you’re eating out.
Do you end up taking food with you on tour?
It’s probably the worst part of touring is not being able to cook. I usually go to Trader Joe’s, although I usually don’t like to go there. It’s really wasteful. The packaging is awful. They package produce in like three or four things of plastic and Styrofoam. They’re really shady. I’ve read the wording they use on their packaging to make it seem organic and natural when it’s really pumped full of chemicals. It’s good on tour though, they have better options than McDonald’s.
Do you have a favorite food?
I think my favorite food is all things Japanese. I really like home cooking Japanese style rather than sushi, although I like sushi. Rice bowls, fish and stuff.
What are you having for dinner tonight?
I’m going to meet my brother at a place in Chinatown that we’ve been going to for a long time. My dad grew up in Brooklyn and so we’ve always known about this place. If you’re ever out for food in New York, it’s called Joe’s Shanghai. It’s pretty famous, look it up.
Is your brother in your band?
Yeah, that’s a new development. It’s awesome. He’s younger. We have a really great relationship and he’s always been mature for his age, probably because he was always hanging out with me and my friends. We’re both on the same page that’s sort of indescribable unless you have a sibling or best friend like that. It’s really special.