A lot has happened since the last time I talked to Chris Chu. In 2010, The Morning Benders were headlining a sold-out Troubadour with rows of fans camped out in front of the stage hoping to hear masterful and sometimes even orchestral indie rock such as “Excuses” from up close. Since then, Chu and his band has changed their name to POP ETC (turns out benders is derogatory slang for gays in Europe) and the sound has undergone an overhaul, as well. In anticipation of the self-titled new album (which comes out on June 12) the band released a raw, self-directed video as well as a mixtape of bold, R&B-derived pop complete with Auto-Tuned vocals last week. The transformation seemed crazy until I realized that the band has never been afraid of production and that David Bowie followed up Diamond Dogs with Young Americans and Altered Images added as much polish between Pinky Blue and Bite. Chu and POP ETC look young but have toured with the likes of Broken Bells, The Black Keys, Grizzly Bear, and Death Cab for Cutie and know what they’re doing. I hit up Chris on the new songs and sounds.
MW: Can you tell me about the mixtape? Is it experiments, outtakes, or something else?
CC: The mixtape is actually a collection of all original songs (except for the cover of Björk) recorded around the same time as our new album. Basically, when we started recording we realized the songs were divided into two families. One group became the mixtape and one became the POP ETC album.
MW: So what’s the difference between the songs on the mixtape and the new album?
CC: We recorded bits of all the songs at home, but for one reason or another some of the songs seemed to take on a more homespun feel than others. Those ended up on the mixtape. And in general, the mixtape songs were a bit slower and mellower. More atmospheric.
MW: A lot of artists use Auto-Tune when they can’t sing. Can you talk about using it when you actually have vocal chops?
CC: Yes! I think there is a lot of confusion around Auto-Tune and the way it works. Like any effect, there are different ways to use it. Some people who really can’t sing use auto-tune as a crutch, just the way people have used reverb and delay for years to cover up blemishes or bad performances. This is nothing new. On the other hand, we’ve tried to use Auto-Tune as an additional tool–another color in our pallet.
Not all our songs have auto-tune. Some do and some don’t. We found it particularly interesting to have both in the mix. Sometimes you’ll hear a tuned voice in the right ear and a raw one in the left ear. Sometimes we use auto-tune as a texture. Sometimes we use it because we feel it better fits the character in a particular song. There are a lot of reasons why we use it, but we are always thinking about how to best serve the song. People already know that we can sing, so I hope they don’t feel we are using it as a crutch or that we are being lazy. Auto-Tune doesn’t write the songs for us. We write the songs and the melodies. Robots didn’t make this music; it’s still us!
MW: Do you think some of those types of songs might actually be harder to pull off live?
CC: Definitely, but we are up for the challenge! It’s really fun transforming songs for the live setting. We want to incorporate a lot of stuff that is unique to the live show. Stuff you can’t hear on the album.
MW: Many bloggers seem to be comparing the newer sound to ’80s R&B, but are you into new wave/soul stuff like later Style Council or The Blow Monkeys?
CC: We’re into everything. Definitely dig a lot of new wave/soul stuff although I don’t go that deep. I only know one Style Council song, I think. Love Prince, of course, who I feel like a lot of the more soul-ish new wave stuff was influenced by. Dig the straight new wave stuff like Altered Images. Orange Juice. Of course, the straight pop stuff, too. Cyndi Lauper is an all-time fave. Madonna!
MW: Any particular reason for the change-up in style? Is this something you’ve always been into?
CC: I think we’ve always told people, for as long as we’ve been a band, that we want to keep changing. We aren’t one of those bands that hones in on one sound for five albums. It works for some people, but not us. We want to find ways to continually excite ourselves, and that means putting ourselves in new environments, getting out of our comfort zone, and trying something fresh every album.
MW: Did you have to re-learn songwriting, or is it simply style and production?
CC: In a way, yes. I’d say 50 percent of the songs were written on guitar and piano, the way I always write. The other 50 percent were written to loops or beats. It was a lot of fun. Sometimes writing to a beat takes you to a place melodically that you would have never thought to go on your own. Also, writing with Danger Mouse and my brother in this way made for some new kinds of songs.
MW: You’re about to hit the road with Dirty Projectors, but do you have feelers out for less indie and more mainstream pop-oriented shows? Any dream lineups?
CC: That’s a good question. We like a lot of different stuff. Dirty Projectors is one of our favorite bands, but we’d love to tour with Katy Perry, Robyn, or Drake. We kind of occupy a weird place right now, where we are a bit too indie for the full-on mainstream and too poppy for the indie kids. But I think that’s why we ended up here. We were drawn to this place that feels kind of undefined. It feels fresh.