Going on a Bender at SXSW 

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Securing a spot on everyone's "bands to see at SXSW" list isn't that difficult, really. Take the Morning Benders, for instance: Just release a snappy pop album and tour relentlessly for maybe two years. For its follow-up, craft ten richly orchestrated songs built to endure, get a dude from Grizzly Bear to co-produce, sign to Rough Trade, make a viral video with some famous friends for a song called "Excuses," move across the country to New York City at the coldest, most miserable time of the year, play an over-capacity show at the Market Hotel with Surfer Blood, and have it all come to a head the week before the entire indie-rock community migrates to Austin for the biggest industry event of the year. Speaking with Chris Chu, the Benders' shy, soft-spoken lead singer/songwriter, on the night of their album release show for Big Echo, you'd think it would be easy—except for maybe the actual SXSW part. That's a total clusterfuck.

The L Magazine: There's an obvious focus on production and creating a dense sound on the new album. Were you worried about making something that goes against the lo-fi "don't care about how it sounds" trend right now?

Chris Chu: It wasn't a reaction, necessarily, although I guess culturally where I see myself on that spectrum is "opposed." Like, I do care about all that stuff. I like to be a passionate person. Or, I am. I don't like to be. It just happens that way. So I guess there might be a connection there, but it was more just because I'm interested in production and most of the music that I love is really well-made and really great-sounding.

The L: And Chris Taylor co-produced with you. How does that work? I mean, do you divvy up the responsibilities, or who trumps who if there's a disagreement?

CC: Yeah, it's kind of ambiguous. The way it went down, basically, is I started the project in San Francisco, and I recorded the whole thing there. I was planning to just produce it—that's what I did with the last album. Then we tracked it, and it just sort of became apparent that it had become such a dense, insular thing that I didn't feel like I had enough clarity. I had been talking to Chris for a while. We had actually been talking about recording, but we were never able to work the schedules. It happened that he was free for a month, so I came to New York and we worked on mixing for, like, three weeks. It ended up taking two or three times longer to make it, which is kind of rare. But the reason was, we got a lot deeper into it, and that's when we decided we should produce it together because he was having an influence on some of the sounds, and mixing for me is a pretty hard process. Some people kind of just twist knobs, but for us, it's shaping the songs.

The L: Were there disagreements? I'm not trying to dig up dirt, I would just think it'd be hard to give up control as the songwriter.

CC: A few rare times. The thing is, I had met him a few times, talked to him about music, sent him songs. I do have a hard time letting go. It's very precious to me, and when I recorded it, I had all these sounds in mind that I wanted. But because Chris understood so much about where we were coming from and I knew I'd get to come to New York and do it with him, I just didn't feel that nervous about it. And, honestly, once we started doing stuff, we were so much on the same page that it was a non-issue. We got in a few really minor disagreements, but that's it.

The L: Was that part of the reason you guys moved to New York?

CC: Naw. I had been thinking about it for a while. All my extended family lives here, so I've been coming here since I was a 5-year-old. We were putting it off for a long time because we were touring so much, but as you get older—or as you continue being in a band—you just kind of make a decision that you have to live your life even with all this crazy scheduling shit happening. So we just did it.

The L: Did you consider any other cities?

CC: We just felt like we wanted to move somewhere that was very different than San Francisco, so there's kind of two ways you can go: go to the country, or go to the most cityish place. We're in a band, so we decided we're going to come to New York.

The L: I was going through some of your old tour dates, and it seems like you guys have played a bunch of venues here. Do you have a favorite place to play in the city already?

CC: I don't know if I can pick favorites yet. Bowery was awesome, probably the best. Mercury Lounge is really fun. I mean, the Market Hotel—I had no idea what I was getting into, but it ended up being really fun. There were some sound issues and stuff because we were the first band, but it was just completely insane and packed.

The L: This is your third year at SXSW. Do you even know how many shows you're playing yet?

CC: Well, we wanted to do, like, three. I think we're doing seven. We just got a lot of good offers and didn't want to turn them down.

The L: Have you learned anything from the last two go-arounds that could benefit you this time?

CC: I think just knowing what to expect is pretty powerful. The schedule is intense and chaotic. But no matter what you do, you can't prepare. Just know it's going to be a shit-show.

The L: Do you feel any pressure going into it this year knowing you're one of the buzzier bands?

CC: The odds are always working against you at SXSW. The sound's bad, it's all rushed, you're in these kind of fake venues a lot of times. I guess I'm always nervous about it sounding right. And with playing so many shows, trying to make each one kind of special is tough.

The L: How long has your kid brother played in the band?

CC: My brother is a recent addition. It's amazing. I guess it could be really bad, from stories I've heard, but it's ended up being awesome.

The L: As kids, did you say to each other, ''We're going to be in a band one day!"?

CC: Not at all. Basically, we've just gotten along so well all our lives, and we've always seen eye to eye. Musically, there's no equivalent to someone that you've lived with and have been raised the same way and listened to the same music growing up. It's just so amazing on a gut level, how easy it is.

The L: Your publicist was telling me how sweet your Mom is and how hard it is for her to have her two boys gone. Was there any hesitation from your parents about your decision to move and devote so much time to the band?

CC: Well, like I mentioned before, we know a lot of people here. Both my Mom and Dad, actually, are from here, and she loves New York. She was obviously sad but gave us her blessing.

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