Interview with The Morning Benders: Reaching Dawn’s Early Light with Big Echo

You don’t need to have a sunup hangover or dawning erection to “get” the Morning Benders’ sly moniker. One of the coolest baroque pop units to hit the scene since the Elephant Collective went south ‘round 2000, this spellbinding SoCal quartet integrates orchestral labyrinths with quixotic lyrical melancholia in a dearly Epicurean manner.

Though founding front man Chris Chu started his first band during college in Berkeley, California, he never intended on being the main singer/songwriter. However, when the laptop recorder hooked up with a few fellow Bay Area artisans (settling on bassist Timothy Or, drummer Julian Harmon, and soon after, Chu’s brother Jonathan), the Morning Benders were ready to go beyond the escapist dream-pop comprising two formative ’06 EPs.

A meritorious full-length ’08 debut, Talking Through Tin Cans, surged forth with sparkling melodies that resonated inside surrealistic catacombs, greeting a readied underground audience immediately. Its rudimentary production, possibly the source of the album’s satirizing “Tin Can” reference, added a distinctive primitivism somewhat reminiscent of ‘90s indie wunderkinds, Neutral Milk Hotel. Comparisons to the Shins’ easygoing tunefulness are merited and the engaging Beatles harmonies (via XTC on sympathetic alleviation, “Patient Patient”) never falter.

Returning to the studio with more gumption and finesse for ‘10’s ambitious allegorical anodyne, Big Echo, the Morning Benders fashion fresh stylistic tones without abandoning the recreational adolescent guilelessness that got ‘em on the map.

On opening cut “Excuses,” spiffy Spanish guitar winds its way into Spaghetti Western faux-strings as subtle South of the Border folk harmonies gently sway. Sixties-styled rock guitar reinforces the acoustic-strummed uplift of percussion-doused mediation “Cold War” where pots, pans, forks, spoons, toy piano, and timpani underscore a hand-clapped chorale that’d maybe suit Crosby Stills & Nash. Chu’s high-registered hushed tenor navigates across unhurried dirge “Pleasure Sighs,” a sullen death march nearly as ominous as haunting guitar-stammered lament, “Hand Me Downs.”

Chu’s impressive contextual designs may be rooted in simple Chamber pop eloquence, but so are Dr. Dog’s —another worthy contemporary band banking on steadfast traditionalism and ably plying engagingly dulcet harmonies to ringing melodic intrigue. He embellishes the Morning Benders latest compositional batch with a truly refined classicism, pitting contemplative quietude and somber ethereality against the ascendant existential rage fueling the fieriest fervency consuming Big Echo.

I spoke to Chu via phone one muggy summer afternoon.

Who were your early musical influences?

When I was growing up, it was ‘60s music like Pet Sounds and the Beatles. As I got older, I listened to everything. When we were making Big Echo, I listened to a lot of Talking Head, Kate Bush, Big Star and Blur —even new music by Dirty Projectors.

Were you shooting for hypnotizing dramatic grandeur with Big Echo?

I had some semblance of an idea in my head. But more than that, my goal was to go in the studio and take advantage of what that space had. So it’s all the result of using the space we recorded it in and the old gear they had and the mood that unified the theme.

You had self-produced Morning Benders debut. How did Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor help transform the second album through his knob-twisting techniques?

I actually planned to produce the second album as well. We started recording in San Francisco, but when we were finished tracking the album and had all this tape I was deeply in the middle of it all, wearing all these hats, and couldn’t get any clarity or objectivity listening to it. Around that time, I sent some of these songs to Chris and he wrote back saying he’d help mix it. That was the perfect role we needed him for. So he got involved in the mixing stage and had us focus in on what we were looking for—choosing some of the sounds and making it crisper, stronger and more dynamic.

Morning Benders have been compared to the Shins, but I think your compositions are headier, developing more complex twists and turns.

(Laughter) It’s hard to say how the songs come about because it’s always different. For me, the songs do get worked out early on and stay in my head and I try to find a mood. Especially with Big Echo, a lot of the songs when I wrote them, I had an idea already what the sound should be and the amplitude and the space it needed to be recorded in.

Did you choose ‘Promises’ as the first single because its climactic choral crescendo, reminiscent of the Beatles via Apples In Stereo, was less complex than the arguably better and more exhilarating ‘Excuses’?

We put out those two songs at the same time (prior to the album’s release). I’m hesitant to say why one became the first single over the other. The idea was to take two songs we wanted to do something with— one was the video and the other an MP3—and give them away. I really wanted to pitch the first two songs and not take the record out of context. That was my main impulse behind that decision. I figured if we had to give it away on MP3 in this day and age, we’d use the opening two tracks so when people got the album they’d continue on their on way.

A non-LP track, ‘Go Grab A Stranger,’ caught my attention online. It sounded like ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ on a drunken Radiohead bender.

I’ve had that song for awhile. I wanted to put it on Big Echo, but I was never happy with the arrangement we did. We could never figure it out exactly. I had the chance to go back in the studio a few months ago and finally got something I was happy with. There’s a lot of dark songs on Big Echo, but that had a combination of darkness and aggression I really didn’t think fit the record.

One of the more aggressive Big Echo recordings was ‘All Day Day Light,’ an enthusiastic guitar rocker.

I wrote that to sum up the feeling you get when you realize how insignificant you are in the scheme of the huge world we live in and how much is going on and being experienced. There was the double-edge sword where you feel anonymous but comforted by the fact you’re not alone. People have been dealing with that all the time. I was thinking about Talking Heads when arranging that.

Your mixture of loud and soft as well as dreamy mysticism versus nightmarish realism exemplifies the shift in dynamics taking place on Big Echo.

There’s usually these dynamic curves to thesongs that are accentuated in the studio. That’s where I have the most fun building songs.

How have the new tunes developed live?

We’ve been playing mostly Big Echo songs, changing up the arrangements. We knew there was no possible way to re-create the album so when we play live we had to switch it up. The live show’s more blunt and to the point—more epic—bashing people over the head to keep it exciting. I get the songs from so many places. We took the title, Big Echo, because it matched the sound of the album and the way we recorded it. Big spaces we wanted to embrace—that roominess with echo. We also wanted the title to reflect how we pulled the music from all these different places and times. We wanted to take all these different types of pop music and throw them into space and see how they bounce and echo off each other.

What’s the local Berkeley scene like these days?

To be honest, we’re removed from that doing our own thing. I love Berkeley but it lacks venues outside the pop-punk Gilman Street scene that Green Day came from.

Watch Morning Benders open for Black Keys at Central Park Summerstage July 27 and 28.