The Morning Benders attracted enthusiastic attention when they released their debut album, Talking Through Tin Cans, in 2008, touring with The Kooks and Death Cab For Cutie. However, it wasn't until their second release Big Echo, which came out this past March on Rough Trade, that the band truly made its breakthrough.
Earning quick praise for their lusciously edgy, melodically dissonant alt-pop sound, The Morning Benders also drew plenty of SXSW buzz after a six-show juggernaut. They've since toured with Broken Bells and have crisscrossed North America on two headlining tours.
The band, which began in Berkeley, California and is now based in New York, is touring Europe this summer, but will return to the New York area on July 27-28 to play two sold out shows with The Black Keys at Central Park's Summerstage. They'll continue on the road with The Black Keys and also on their own, with upcoming stops at Lollapalooza and Montréal's Osheaga Festival. This fall, The Morning Benders will embark on yet another headlining tour; dates at Webster Hall on November 18, San Francisco's Fillmore on October 16 and Los Angeles' Henry Fonda Theater have already been announced and tickets are on sale now.
Not long ago, the quartet of singer/guitarist Christopher Chu, guitarist Jonathan Chu (yes, the guys are brothers), drummer Julian Harmon and bassist Tim Or dropped by The Alternate Side's Studio A to perform "Promises," "Wet Cement," "All Day Light" and "Cold War." They also told Alisa Ali about working with Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor, their speedy recording session and where to find good Berkeley pizza:
Alisa Ali: What would you say is the difference between the first and second album?
Christopher Chu: We’re a little older, we’ve been through a lot. But I think the big difference was the mindset going into it. With the first album we had a concept and a sound that was governed by a handful of artists that we were really into, generally from the 60s and 70s, and Big Echo was more free. We were just thinking that anything’s fair game, pulling sounds from wherever and throwing it all together.
Alisa: How long did it take you to write the songs from this record?
Christopher: We wrote all of the songs, probably, in a period of two months. But I usually write them in spurts like that. I haven’t written many songs recently but hopefully they’ll come again in a spurt. I bank on it (laughs).
Alisa: You just don’t write down little ideas, things of inspiration that you see every now and then?
Christopher: I think it just takes a little longer for me to digest the stuff that I see or I’m inspired by. I won’t see something and run home and write a song; I’ll wait for a couple of weeks.
Alisa: What was the inspiration for “Promises?”
Christopher: The songs are mysterious in some ways. Sometimes I’ll write a song and not really grasp the meaning. A few weeks later I’ll look at it and go, “oh, yeah. That’s why I wrote that song.” “Promises” is kind of about how time affects your life, how you might get swept up into making certain decisions arbitrarily. All of a sudden you have this life you didn’t expect you’d have.
Alisa: Do you guys, in the band, ever wonder what Christopher is talking about in a song?
Jonathan Chu: Well, we’re brothers so there’s this connection. We don’t even usually talk, it’s just automatic.
Christopher: We just stare at each other, all day. It’s very boring.
Alisa: (to Julian) What about you?
Julian Harmon: I don’t really listen to the lyrics (all laugh).
Jonathan: For a while we all thought that certain lines were different lyrics. We were all singing different lyrics trying to harmonize with with each other and it wasn’t working. That’s when we reverted to the "ooohs."
Alisa: What about being brothers in a band?
Christopher: You know Liam and Noel from Oasis? It’s like the polar opposite of that.
Alisa: You’ve always played nicely together?
Jonathan: Yeah, we share our toys.
Alisa: When did you all start as a band?
Christopher: It’s been about three or four years. But it’s gone through some different incarnations, starting with some songs and not knowing what was going to happen and then it changed into the band that it is now.
Alisa: Did Morning Benders start with all of the same players?
Christopher: No, it didn’t. It kind of started with myself recording and writing songs at home. But I never really intended on performing by myself. It was always with a band in mind, even though the people weren’t there yet. We’ve been together for a while now and it’s helped mold the sound into what it is now. We all met in Berkeley, going to school. I met Tim because he was studying music which I was studying as well. And Julian was just a local god (laughs). He was famous. He can’t walk down the street in Berkeley because there’s so many people after him.
Tim Or: He was on an episode of “Rachel Ray.”
Alisa: You were on “Rachel Ray?”
Julian: Yeah, I haven’t seen it. I went to my favorite local pizza shop, Cheeseboard Pizza, and she was there.
Christopher: It’s the best. It’s one kind of pizza, but different every day. There’s no sauce a lot of the time, which is kind of the curve ball.
Alisa: That’s weird. I like things to be saucy.
Christopher: Then you might not like this place.
Alisa: Your music is a bit saucy.
Christopher: “Wet Cement” is pretty saucy.
Alisa: What about the recording process? Did you lament over specific mixes?
Christopher: A bit. There was some lamenting. But it went pretty fast. We tracked the record in less than ten days and we did the bulk of it in this one studio where we camped out for a bit. A big warehouse called The Hangar in Sacramento. We knew we had limited time so we went to the studio and threw down every idea and sound and anything we thought we might use, even if it was outlandish. I think that’s what let us to the most surprising stuff. We used everything in the studio that we had access to: old guitar amps, glockenspiel, Farfisa keyboads, tape delays, pump organs, and all of this random stuff.
Alisa: So you spent a lot of time rehearsing before you recorded?
Christopher: Yes and no. We spent a lot of time familiarizing outselves with the songs, especially the rhythm section. We tracked the songs live and it’s really important to have the rhythm sections figured out. I like going into the studio not having things too figured out or having too much of an idea of what you’re going after because that’s kind of limiting. The reason we were able to utilize all of that stuff [in the studio], even though we didn’t know it was going to be there until we got there, was because we were had a moldable model in mind, that led us to more interesting places.
Alisa: You worked with Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear. How did that come about?
Christopher: We liked each other, I guess! (laughs).
Alisa: You toured with Grizzly Bear.
Christopher: No, that was after the record was made. I had written Chris a long time back as a fan, when Yellow House came out, saying how much I liked the sounds and it was right on point. To my surprise, he wrote back and said how much he liked one of the songs that we had up [on MySpace] which was an early demo for Big Echo, the song “Excuses" which is the first on the record. We lucked out with Chris being willing to do it. We thought that he wasn’t going to be able to do it at first and we tracked the whole album in the Bay area. It just so happened that he was available for the next phase, which was mixing. It took off from there and we did a lot more than what you’d normally do in mixing. We crafted the sound of the record into a whole new thing. It came together really naturally.
The Morning Benders Tour Dates
July 12 - Atomic Cafe || Munich, Germany
July 14 - Hanna Bi || Marina di Ravenna, Italy
July 15 - Baia S. Giorgio || Bari, Italy
July 16 - Neapolis Festival || Naples, Italy
July 18 - Super Bok Super Rock Festival || Portugal
July 21 - Festival De Affaire Festival || Nijmegan, Netherlands
July 22 - San Sebastian International Jazz Festival 45 Edition || San Sebastian, Spain
July 26 - DAR Constitution Hall || Washington, DC#
July 27 - Central Park Summerstage || New York, NY || SOLD OUT#
July 28 - Central Park Summerstage || New York, NY || SOLD OUT#
July 30 - Great Plaza at Penn's Landing || Philadelphia, PA#
July 31 - Bank of America Pavilion || Boston, MA#
August 1 - Osheaga Festival || Montreal, QC
August 3 - Kool Haus || Toronto, ON#
August 4 - Kool Haus || Toronto, ON#
August 7 - Lollapalooza || Chicago, IL
August 7 - The Metro || Chicago, IL
August 8 - Val Air Ballroom || Des Moines, IA#
August 9 - Anchor Inn || Omaha, NE#
August 11 - Iroquois Amphitheater || Louisville, KY#
August 12 - Ryman Auditorium || Nashville, TN#
August 13 - The LC Amphitheater || Columbus, OH#
August 14 - The Fillmore Detroit || Detroit, MI#
October 10 - Austin City Limits || Austin, TX
October 14 - Henry Fonda Theatre || Los Angeles, CA