The Morning Benders
If you haven’t heard The Morning Benders’ astonishing second album yet, put down this fine publication and go score yourself a copy any which way you can. ( At an independent record store, please – Ed ) Since a relatively quiet release earlier this year, Big Echo been collecting accolades like seashells, including a coveted Best New Music tag from Pitchfork. Words like “sunny”, “summery”, “Cali-pop”, “coastal” all pop up with regularity, but it’s hard to find another landscape that captures the languid shimmer of their sound better than the watercolour beach of the album art – so perhaps it’s their own fault. Still, Chris Chu, founder and frontman, seems a little weary of his music being lumped in with indie music’s current fixation on hazy Californian summers.
“I’m a little confused by it, because I don’t quite get what a California sound should sound like,” he says, speaking from the back of a darkened tour van. “A lot of bands from California sound pretty different. But I will say that because we, the four of us, are from California, we all grew up there, there is something about California that’s made its way into our music. Maybe it has more to do with the approach than the actual sound,” he muses. “We approach things in a pretty laidback way, we often go into the studio with songs half-finished and just figure it out as we go along. Maybe that’s a Californian approach,” he grins.
Far from the lo-fi warblings of the chillwave crowd, Big Echo is actually a flawlessly structured chamber pop record; but soaked in wall-of-sound production and Chu’s irresistibly clear, wistful vocals, it sounds more like Grizzly Bear emerged from their Yellow House into the sunshine for an end-of-summer picnic. ‘Bear’s Chris Taylor co-produced and mixed the album, and it’s all too easy to detect his touch in the cautious space between the harmonies and multi-tracked guitars. Chu says Taylor brought a certain clarity to the process. “[Chris] has a really good ear for picking out all the little spaces where the sounds are clear and where they translate well… We had all this sound recorded to tape and all these different ideas that were pretty cluttered, and for him to come in at that point in the middle of the process – not being in too deep, but having a clear ear – I think that helped a lot.”
Like Grizzly Bear, the ‘Benders are now Brooklyn-based. But, as tends to happen, taking the band out of Cali doesn’t take the Cali out of the band. Chu acknowledges an unavoidable debt to The Beach Boys – although not in the way you might think. While the rich, sweet harmonies of Brian Wilson’s classic pop songs do pop up on Big Echo, what Chu finds more fascinating is the darkness lurking beneath the waves. Songs like Cold War (Nice Clean Fight) and Promises hide bitterness and regret in plain sight, dressed in jangly harmonies and woah-oh backing vox. “It is something I recognise in my songs a lot,” admits Chu. “I think it just comes from the songwriters that I really like, there’s always that duality there.”
He cites Brian Wilson as the patron saint of sunny-but-sad. “The Beach Boys are associated with that sunny-sounding pop, but a lot of the time the lyrics behind those songs are really sad; they’re pretty dark. Brian was a pretty sad guy… Those songs are really rooted in fear.”
The Morning Benders are clearly not afraid to wear their influences on their sleeve, releasing an album of lo-fi covers near the same time as their first album, 2008’s Talking Through Tin Cans. Heavy on Spector-era girl-group tracks like The Crystals’ He’s A Rebel as well as under-used cuts from The Velvet Underground and Smiths back catalogues, it’s easily read as a statement of purpose by a young band devouring all the music they can. Chu says while his listening habits have shifted since, those sounds had a definite influence on Tin Cans.
“Things have changed sort of naturally – not that I don’t really like any of those people any more, I still do, but some of the stuff I’m listening to now is nowhere to be found on those covers,” he says. “That was the first music that I was really passionate about, and I just listened to it so much that I think I burned out on it.”
Chu’s new directions are already starting to take shape, with the continuously flowing structure of mixtapes and beat tapes holding particular appeal to him now. “Creating a really fluid story - I wanna try to maybe do that with the next album.
“I mean,” he qualifies, “it’s something we did to an extent with the last album, but I think we could make it even more extreme.”
In the first of a series of mixtapes for US blog SayMayDay, he put together a sweetly hazy mix of summer jams, including Smokey Robinson, Bibio, The Radio Department and the Avalanches, as well as a unique little cover: himself singing Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me over a J Dilla beat. The entire mix is perfectly formed, but that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it slow-jam shimmer is worth the price of admission (read: free download) alone. We get talking about Dilla’s Donuts, with its layers of hidden messages and twisted beats that demand almost obsessive listening. “I really loved doing [the cover], so maybe I’ll keep it up,” says Chu.
“The thing I find really interesting about hip-hop in that way is that there’s a whole other layer to the sampling, because you have another entire song and another entire body of lyrics involved in the song… It’s another palette, I guess, to expand your sound. The possibilities are amazing.”
THE MORNING BENDERS play the sold out FALLS FESTIVAL in Lorne over December 28-January 1, along with Interpol, The National, Joan Jett, Public Enemy, Klaxons and heaps more. For all info, head to fallsfestival.com.au. For those who missed out on Falls tickets, they play a sideshow at The Corner Hotel on Wednesday January 5 – ticket from The Corner box office, 9427 9198 or cornerhotel.com. THE MORNING BENDERS’ new album Big Echo is out now on Rough Trade, through Remote Control.