From left: Jonathan Chu, Timothy Or, Julian Harmon, Christopher Chu
Christopher Chu grew up in Santa Monica, came of age in Berkeley and is the lead singer and guitarist for an ascendant Bay Area band on the cusp of becoming the latest indie-rock wunderkind to rewrap '60s California pop with fresh gauze—which, by contemporary definition, means Christopher Chu is a New Yorker.
“We don't think of ourselves as a New York band,” Chu says, with Lower East Side street cacophony audible in the background. “You need to be around somewhere long enough for it to really affect you. But there were people here who embraced us immediately and said, ‘You're a New York band now,' and that's been really cool.”
It's been all of four months since Chu's band, The Morning Benders, relocated to Brooklyn to put the finishing touches on their sparkling new album, Big Echo, but nothing provokes a “welcome home” hug in New York quite like critical clamor and sold-out shows. A few hours before playing their third straight NYC sell-out, Chu is munching on a post-soundcheck snack of dumplings and musing on the Benders' new home.
“It's kind of a cliché to say that there's a certain laidback feeling in California, but I think it's definitely true,” Chu says. “There's maybe a little more of an energetic, vibrant, can-do atmosphere here, so it's been a nice change of pace.”
That artistic velocity is perhaps more fitting for a group that—despite specializing in the kind of summery, multi-layered languidness their band name invokes and Big Echo delivers—will spend much of 2010 fulfilling a hectic tour schedule.
“It's nice to have two home bases because that's what it feels like now,” Chu says. “Everyone in San Francisco still believes in us as a San Francisco band and we are that in many ways, but we feel comfortable here, too. We have the best of both coasts.”
It was in Berkeley, however, that dawn first broke on The Morning Benders. Chu began his songwriting in earnest while studying music at Cal and played solo for several months before forming the Benders (Julian Harmon, Timothy Or, Chu and his brother Jonathan).
The band slowly built momentum through a flurry of EPs, their 2008 debut Talking Through Tin Cans and a slew of eye-catching shows with the likes of The Black Keys, The Kooks, Death Cab for Cutie, Yo La Tengo and MGMT. But accelerated exposure spurred by Big Echo hasn't exactly translated into an indulgence of insight.
Aside from occasional Twitter soliloquies—cursory celebrations of gelato, Chevy Chase cinema and random bicycle encounters with Zach Braff—Chu is miserly with his information dissemination. Even the band's official media “biography” accompanying Big Echo clocks in at a Tweet-friendly 76 words.
“It's a conscious decision,” Chu says. “I think dwelling on the backstory can be distracting sometimes. We feel like everything you need to know about us is on the record, so you should focus your energy on that. We just want to focus on making good music, not a good bio.”
Of course, Chu's sonic roots—as a devotee of everything from Phil Spector (more Wall of Sound, less murdering of B-movie actresses) and R. Kelly (seriously) to The Beatles and The Beach Boys—filters through the Benders' pet sounds on Big Echo.
“Instead of calling it glo-fi or chill-wave or whatever, I just say we play pop music and that forces people to listen and figure it out for themselves,” Chu says. “There are all these different shades of pop that make it this valuable, mysterious thing.”
The same could be said for Big Echo. The album exhibits both focused restraint on the curtly captivating “Cold War (Nice Clean Flight)” and symphonic depth on the florid expanses of “Excuses.” In either case, Chu's voice—immense relative to his gaunt frame—is the centerpiece around which all the instrumental flourishes are set.
“We just wanted to go into the studio and use everything we could get our hands on with no conceptual constraints,” Chu says. “When it was finished, I did feel like it was more special, more honest than anything we've done before.”
The video for “Excuses”—a sort of East Bay indie-rock version of “We Are the World”—further propelled the band into tastemaker consciousness with its word-of-mouth (or at least word-of-YouTube) communal passage.
“That's ideally the best way to do it,” Chu says. “It's harder because you're relying on people to connect with it on their own, but it's also more rewarding when you get the feeling that it's resonating with people.”
Enough so to catch the attention of Broken Bells (James Mercer of The Shins and Danger Mouse of Gnarls Barkley), who were impressed enough to invite the Benders on tour. Audiences have subsequently had a similar reaction.
“The tour overall has been amazing,” Chu says. “It's different than anything else we've experienced. We keep playing these shows thinking that the magic we're feeling is going to wear off, but every night—wherever we are—it's still there.”
The Morning Benders play with at with Broken Bells at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay on Tuesday, May 18. www.themorningbenders.com.