When the Morning Benders discovered that their name translated to a derogatory term for homosexuals in other parts of the world, the Berkeley, CA natives made the decision to drop it from their group as well as overhaul their sound. Now known as POP ETC, the three-piece have stepped away from the strummy, lo-fi rock that distinguished their sophomore release Big Echo and taken a renewed interest in the FM hits they grew up loving. Boyz II Men, Tricky, and, more recently, The-Dream are among the benchmarks of their upcoming self-titled album, which received production assistance from pop veterans Danger Mouse, Andrew Dawson, and 88-keys. Even though they’ve undergone a sonic makeover, their penchant for sturdy melodies and stacked textures remains their signature. Hive caught up with frontman Christopher Chu to talk about their new name and sound, why their interpretation of R&B transcends any trend, and how they’re hoping to champion a genuine appreciation for pop music in the indie community.
It was a brave move to change your name and risk losing your fanbase that’s not plugged into every single happening on the Internet. Are you happy with the choice you made?
It was something that we struggled with because we knew a lot of people wouldn’t find out about it and even if they did it’d take a year or two for a lot of old fans and some maybe never will but it was an important thing we needed to do and I don’t really think we felt like it was a choice. If we had known that Morning Benders had a different meaning in other parts of the world, we never would have named ourselves that in the first place. Just because we had been the Morning Benders for a while didn’t change the fact that it was a problem.
How did you settle on the name POP ETC?
We spent a long time thinking about it but we knew, in the midst of touring behind Big Echo, it wasn’t just the name we wanted to change — it was everything we were thinking about, including the next stage of our music. What we really liked about POP ETC was that we felt it encapsulated this new album, but we’re also all really interested in pop music. Pop music is so broad, even though some people pigeonhole it into one thing, so we felt like it gave us a lot of freedom and we liked the idea that we can grow with it in the future.
How long had you been considering switching to this new sound?
It happened really naturally because it started with different music we were listening to and finding interest in back in 2009 and 2010. There’s even a couple songs on the album, like “Halfway to Heaven” and “I Want to Be Your Man,” that I had written for Big Echo but they didn’t fit and I knew they’d be for this next thing. We wanted to make an album that was really a statement, which is so rare in pop music because it’s all about the singles, and that took a long time. There’s a few songs that are about change and wanting a fresh start.
“When I hear something and I like it then that means it’s good. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If there’s something that hits me on any level then it’s worthwhile. I think we wanted to make an album that we hoped would prove that to people because we made a pop album but we did it only for ourselves.”
Is the song “Everything Is Gone” one of those?
For sure, it’s one of the darker songs on the album. That song and “Halfway to Heaven” were inspired by a lot of R&B and hip hop I was listening to. The culture of both of those genres is so excessive with the lifestyles they lead and huge parties that they go to and having huge cars and big jewelry and, for “Halfway to Heaven,” I was thinking about the place of Christianity or god in hip hop or R&B culture because it seems at odds with praising an excessive lifestyle. Right now our resources are dwindling and everything is going to shit so where does that leave us? There’s a line “It seems like your chain is wearing you down,” which is the image I had of people wearing all of this jewelry and being afraid to let go of it even though it’s not practical or useful but it’s just become so embedded in our culture that you can’t let it go.
Do you see any overlap between your take on R&B and some of the other
indie artists reimagining it, like How to Dress Well or James Blake?
What we’re doing is pretty different mainly because How to Dress Well or James Blake treasures a certain sound or approach rather than song. The songs on their album are more like collages, the vocals are buried in a way where you can’t understand what they’re saying, and for us we’re aiming to make the message really clear. Even if we use effects, we want the lyrics and melody to be clear so there’s something you can grab ahold of — it’s reactionary to indie artists referencing pop music and R&B because it’s hip. Whereas, we love pop music and hip hop and R&B and want to do something that’s unapologetic about that. It’s been embedded in our music forever but for this album we really wanted
to run with it.
It does seem like now, in 2012, as opposed to 2009, R&B and pop music are being taken more seriously, especially by critics. It’s a good time to be making pop music as an indie musician.
Totally. I feel like there’s this weird divide because everyone loves pop music but there’s still a hesitancy in indie communities or subcultures where people are still afraid to admit that they like pop music — or they put a disclaimer on it like, “Yeah, I like that Katy Perry song because it’s catchy.” It’s not a legitimately good song, they just like it because it’s “catchy.” I don’t like making distinctions like that. When I hear something and I like it then that means it’s good. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If there’s something that hits me on any level then it’s worthwhile. I think we wanted to make an album that we hoped would prove that to people because we made a pop album but we did it only for ourselves. It’s probably the least palatable music we could make for our given fanbase that we existed in but we wanted to show people that pop music can be art, and we really take it seriously and it can be done in a way that people won’t feel badly about liking.