The 405 meets POP ETC
The Morning Benders were pretty much the pinnacle of modern day indie rock, weren't they? They had two hugely successful records under their belt – the iTunes Indie/Alternative Album of the Year Talking Through Tin Cans in 2008 and 2010's Big Echo, which received the prestigious Best New Music award from Pitchfork, too. But let's not forget their ridiculous touring campaign either: the Berkeley, California band have played with a flurry of other quintessentially indie bands, ranging from Death Cab for Cutie and Grizzly Bear to Yo La Tengo and MGMT.
All signs pointed to The Morning Benders sailing smoothly to stardom. But after the release of charity EP Japan Echo in mid-2011, things went a bit quiet back at base camp. Then, all of a sudden in March of this year, a tweet happened. "This will be the last tweet from The Morning Benders. Thank you all very much." Blimey. Talk about dramatic! I mean, what were we meant to think? Was there a melodramatic internal squabble, a record deal gone bad or just a lack of creative steam? In the end, it turned out to be the complete opposite, as the group was to rebrand themselves as POP ETC. from that day forward. A statement on the band's website basically cited the derogatory connotations of the word 'bender' as what led to the decision to change the name in just under a thousand words. Really? It's a sign of the times when a band's identity can be so easily skewed and misinterpreted like kids in the corner of the school playground, giggling and shouting "gayboy" at every other passer-by.
And so, when I caught up with Chris as POP ETC. were preparing to rehearse at their practice space in the band's new home of Brooklyn, New York, an elaboration on the name change was certainly a burning question in my mind. Perhaps, through exploring the new directions in sound that band have taken on their third; self-titled record, I'd find an answer.
"We're a band that are really interested in changing things all the time," Chris tells me. "We had these songs and we knew that they felt completely different from anything we'd done before, so we knew we had to treat them differently, too." Indeed, the change in dynamic is clear right from the get-go, as opener 'New Life' literally breathes new life via crystal clear synths and off-kilter samples. "In terms of me as a writer - writing on piano or guitar – I have a certain tendency with my chords and my direction. But when I was working with samples and loops - with different sounds and textures - it brought me into a different place with my melody that I just never thought I could go with my guitar."
One of the strongest traits of the record is Chris' ability to construct an intriguing narrative within his songs. But with all pop music, it's often hard to believe some of the stories that they churn out, and the lines between the truth and the constructed are often blurred; constructed on purpose out of the artist's imagination. "It's definitely a weird hybrid of all of those things," says Chris. "A lot of it is autobiographical; a lot of it is commentary on certain things that I was seeing in a lot of pop music I was listening to. I'd say every song [on the record] has a lot of examples of all of those things."
'Halfway To Heaven', he tells me, is a great example of this fiction-non-fiction hybrid. "I wrote that after listening to a lot of R&B and hip-hop," he says. "On the one hand in these worlds you have these people talking about partying and leading provocative lifestyles with all these huge rooms and gold chains, but on the other hand you have people saying they're blessed by God for allowing them to make this music. To me, that's really odd, and so this song was inspired by this other perspective that kept coming up in hip-hop and R&B I was listening to."
"But it's also something I struggle with all the time, I have a complex relationship with religion. I should be trying to give back to people in more ways. In a way it feels like I'm honouring the gift I've been given. But all this started from someone else's perspective, so it's a mix of it all, you know?"
Musically, as the name would suggest, pop is on the forefront of the agenda here. The front cover even highlights it, standing out amongst an array of other genres in a shining, golden spotlight. "I like to tell people that POP ETC. is the name of our band, but it's also the kind of music we play." This is undeniable – hooks fly at you left right and centre, and some of the melodies are so sugar-sweet that you might end up confusing them for Carley Rae Jepsen if you heard them on the radio. "If you look at the other genres on the cover," Chris continues, "I wanted to show that all of those feed into pop, and that's there's a lot of freedom in pop. If you look at pop over the last fifty, sixty years – it's changed immensely. The name really suits us because we are interested in changing and growing with the times when we're done with exploring all these different sounds, and that's what I love about it."
An elaboration on the name change. Hurrah! Chris' fascination with pop intrigued me, and I decided to delve deeper into the mind of somewhere with such close personal ties to the bubblegum-chewing machine; asking him what pop records were the biggest influences during the recording process. "Well, there's a lot," to which I have no doubt there is. "Obviously, The Beatles," he tells me. "I grew up on them, I consider them the greatest pop band of all time. They kept changing their sound and trying new things out, that's what I love about them."
"We listened to a lot of 80s pop. Cyndie Lauper, Prince, Madonna, we really love all that stuff." I love this too. "A lot of 90s R&B, D'Angelo is one of our favourites." Obviously being with their name, you'd expect a strong knowledge of pop to be in the family. But seriously: you'd lose to Chris at a pop music pub quiz any day of the week – the guy really knows his stuff. "Max Martin, Terius Nash; all of these songwriters and producers were huge influences on us."
But with a desire to change a grow; I'm suddenly left wondering if POP ETC. is just a phase. "We thought a lot about the name and what we wanted to do - not only for this album but in terms of moving forward into the future as well. We want to try every different iteration of pop music available and follow pop as it changes as time goes by. We are confident enough to be unapologetic about being pop."
It's this line that crosses the The Morning Benders over the line and into POP ETC. territory. No longer are they a band concerned with touring alongside the latest buzzband, or being at the forefront of internet hype. It's what makes the new record so great, too: these guys aren't afraid to embrace pop music and be inspired by all of its otherwise derogatory and stereotypical connotations. This is a band trying to be something they want to be, rather than what people – fans and record labels alike – expect of them.