Chris Chu still believes in the album. One listen to Big Echo and you’ll be nodding right alongside him. The vocalist of The Morning Benders has a real vision for his music and approach to art, and it’s something that shows through beautifully on the latest release from Rough Trade.
Working with Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Chu and company have crafted a real gem, which shouldn’t surprise considering the momentum from their debut already garnered tour dates with Death Cab for Cutie, Ra Ra Riot, Grizzly Bear, MGMT, Yo La Tengo and many others. Here, Chu says that Petty’s right about the waiting being the hardest part, but he believes enough in the album to still be as excited as ever.
SSv: From the outside, it seems like you’ve labored at this for a bit and finally found a nice groundswell just in the last season or so. Does it feel that way on the inside?
Chris Chu: I think it’s more that we all feel super-excited right now, because we’ve been working on this record for a while. It took a while to figure out how it was going to come out and all of that, so we’ve just been waiting for this release. Now that it’s here, it’s insane that we’re finally at that point. We’ve been a little anxious. [Laughs]
People have responded really well so far, and people seem interested to hear the album. They’re writing us on the Internet, so it does feel good. It’s finally all happening.
SSv: You make allusions to the struggles overall with the album, but what were the main ones you wrestled with?
Chris: It wasn’t musically. It was just logistical stuff of when the album would come out, when we were going to tour around it, what label we would put it out on. The music industry is kind of low, which is one of the unfortunate things about it. I’d been doing my best to not get too far ahead of myself, because you just have to wait to put out music. That’s how it works. There’s a lot of prep time for everything. So we’ve been preparing for so long that we’re so ready to go on tour and play these songs and have everyone get to hear the album.
SSv: What else goes into play — is it about what else is on Rough Trade’s radar?
Chris: Yeah, there’s a lot of factors. There’s seasonal stuff. You don’t want to put it out in the winter, because you don’t want to tour in the winter. We’ve had some bad experiences with that, too, like spinning out on the ice or going down a hill through an intersection and things like that. So we’re really not into touring in the winter. Then musically we want to put it out at a time that makes sense seasonally. Not everyone thinks of that, but I think it’s really important. So we didn’t want it out in the winter as well.
Sometimes it’s also just that someone else is putting out their album that day and resources are stretched thin. Or we have a tour that we want to start on that day. Just stuff like that. There’s all these factors that pile up and you just end up pushing it through usually. [Laughs]
SSv: Musically, you said there wasn’t much wrestling, so you already had a good vision going in of what Big Echo was supposed to be about?
Chris: For me, I always have an idea of where the songs need to go or some semblance of an idea. For Big Echo, I purposefully didn’t want to work out too much before I got into the studio. So I was even hesitant to record demos of all these songs. I know that you get attached to the demos or the ideas on them, so you get into the studio and just try to make glorified versions of those demo songs. That works well at times, but for this album we wanted to go in and be free in our mindset and take advantage of the studio and what it had to offer.
We wanted to recreate a special space in the studio and make it sound like this album was made in a special place, so that when you listen to it, you feel that you’re transported for a second. Like I said, I had ideas going in for how I wanted things to pan out, but more likely, it’s just done when it feels done. You just work on a song and serve the song in the best way possible. It just clicks when it’s ready I guess.
SSv: Serving the song… can you define that?
Chris: It’s different for every song to me. [Laughs] For me, it’s making an arrangement and making sounds and textures that in no way overpower the core message of the song. I think I actually used to take that mindset even more extreme and think that every song needs to be able to be broken down into its bare bones and acoustic voice. If you can’t see that core from the outside when you’re listening to a song, then you’ve put too much on it or you’re distracting. I’ve shied away from that extremist attitude, though, and I think a good song can be defined in a lot of ways — from production or how you treat a song.
So I’ve adapted a middle ground. I still write my songs on the acoustic guitar, and I still spend a lot of time in that phase, but when we go to record them, I use the mindset of serving the song just with a little less rigidness. I think it can be serving the song as well if you follow the sound of the idea that you didn’t think of at the outset, but you go in the moment to a new powerful place. That becomes what’s important to me is finding something that has an emotional resonance, even if it wasn’t something that I intended.
SSv: How much of that is a communal effort?
Chris: There’s definitely a collaborative aspect at that point. We all contribute parts. It varies with each song, though. I’ll have a song with a feel or tone in mind and it’s a matter of working that out. Other songs are more skeletal and then we need to go in and create a backbone and the drums end up being a big part of it that I never thought of before. So it varies from song to song.
SSv: Can you talk about working with Chris Taylor [bassist, Grizzly Bear]? How much of Big Echo is him?
Chris: We obviously worked really hard on the record, and I actually tracked it and produced it before Chris was involved in San Francisco. So the ideas were there and a lot of the sounds, but where Chris really helped is when we brought him in for mixing primarily to gain some clarity. Plus it’s always good to have a fresh set of ears for things I’ve been hearing over and over.
So when I went to him in New York and met up for mixing, you normally think of that as setting levels and making sure everything fits together, but we ended up changing some sounds a fair amount. We did it in a church, so we put out a lot of the sounds into the church and used that space to craft sounds in interesting ways. It went way beyond mixing in the end, and that’s where Chris made his craft.
SSv: You mentioned being excited overall, but is there one thing in particular more so than others?
Chris: The most exciting thing for me is that in contrast to the first album where that was our first and we were new and it really is a struggle being a new band. In that, there’s so many new bands out there to listen to, so you have to be really persistent in a lot of cases. We just had all this content and videos and b-sides and all this weird versions throwing everything out there hoping to reach different people all of the time. But we spent so much time on Big Echo making it a cohesive album and it’s really special to me as a connected piece of work. All the songs that we chose and the sounds, we did it to work as an album.
So going into that, we didn’t want to dilute that or water down the album itself by putting out too much stuff. We really just put out the one track and a video. What’s exciting about that to me was that my fear is that you’re putting out so little is that people might check it out and then disappear. But what I can tell is that people are checking on it and then passing it along to others on their own. They’re taking ownership of it for themselves.
That’s really special in the music world, especially right now because everything is so fast. The Internet makes things so temporary and it’s hard to take ownership. So for me to see people making a personal connection with it and spreading it themselves, I mean we just put up a video or song and then people are taking it and showing it because they are excited about it, that’s the coolest thing for me to see.
SSv: Does it feel you’re making music in the wrong era?
Chris: I think when I was younger, I used to idealize the ’60s and the ’70s and what was happening musically then. A lot of it is true and people tell us all the time that even 10 years ago, it was just a much better time in the music industry. We’d have a much easier time making ends meet, because people were actually buying records and artists weren’t scraping all the time. But you realize when you look back, as with anything, it becomes this romanticized viewpoint. When you dig deeper, you find that there were all kinds of bands that never got recognition or whatever.
So I’ve just come to terms with where we are at and the world today. I don’t fault anyone or think that it’s negative. I just think we’re moving into a new way of doing music and to me it’s important that albums still exist, even in this new digital era. That’s why we made this and hopefully people will get to keep listening to albums because of things like Big Echo.