For those who believe youth is wasted on the young, allow me to introduce Christopher Chu. The morning benders frontman and 21-year-old Berkeley grad (who scored his music degree in a measly three years) is midway through his band’s second national tour of 2008. He’s also hard at work on the quartet’s third album, which he hopes to have wrapped by January ’09-a follow-up to last May’s Talking Through Tin Cans and July’s downloadable freebie, The Bedroom Covers. Oh, and we can’t forget to mention the benders’ recent sold-out touring gigs with The Kooks and Ra Ra Riot, a soon-to-be-released live iTunes session, their S.F. Weekly Music Award nomination, and a slew of glowing reviews, write-ups, and praiseworthy pats on the back from some of the industry’s best regarded folks.
Before you write off these guys as just another successful product sprung from the corporate machine, you should note that Talking (the band’s debut full-length) was the first release from the newly minted +1 Records. A true gem of a pop album (and one I have yet to tire of since first giving it a listen in March), the disk is filled to the brim with delicate guitar parts, twinkling pianos, and achingly lovelorn lyrics. Driven by Chu’s signature sing-song vocals, the benders’ sound has managed to enamor fans and critics alike, drawing comparisons to the Beatles and Beach Boys. Not too shabby for a group of guys who can’t even legally rent a car. Below, Chu phones in from the road to talk future plans, current tours, and the whole “age thing.”
You’re playing in Atlanta tonight with Ra Ra Riot. How is that going so far? It’s good. It’s been interesting. We haven’t really been down here before. We kind of toured the more major cities on the last U.S. tours we’ve done. So it’s kind of a new experience, ya know?
How did the two bands initially pair up? We just played a show with them a couple months ago and met them then. They were all real nice and we all got along. Then it all just kind of worked out, timing-wise and it seemed like a good fit.
It’s been kind of non-stop for you guys since May. Have you started to feel the stresses of full-time touring? It’s not really stressful. It’s what we want to be doing anyways, so it works out. It’s definitely a lot sometimes. It gets crazy when we’re playing shows all the time, or rushing from show to show, or handling a bunch of stuff. It’s just kind of overwhelming, I guess. But at the same time it’s usually more exciting than stressful.
Any on-the-road horror stories? Ya know, we haven’t had anything too bad happen. We got caught in a couple storms – that was pretty scary – during hurricane season. We broke down in our van, but that was a while ago, that was before the album came out. I think since, post-album, it’s been pretty good. [The album’s been] good luck. [Laughs.]
You’ve also gotten to play a couple of huge music festivals this summer, including the close-to-home Treasure Island Fest. Any bands or artists you’ve seen that have just blown you away? Yeah, totally. I mean, we don’t get to see the other bands as much as we’d like to, but let’s see: At Treasure Island I really loved this band Dr. Dog, who I’ve known for a while. I mean, I’ve followed them for a while, but I had never seen them. That was really great. Who else? I saw Spoon a little while ago. That wasn’t at a festival, but I always love seeing them. They’re amazing. Those are the two that are sticking out right now.
How did you four meet? We all met in the city of Berkley. Three of us went to school there and then Julian, the drummer, he already lived there. So we kind of just met him from hanging out in Berkley because he has a big social network – he grew up there.
Did you grow up in Northern California? No, I just went up there for school. I grew up in Santa Monica. Actually Tim and Joe both grew up in Thousand Oaks, so we all are Southern California people – although we never met down there.
Who came up with the band’s name – and why the preference for an all lowercase spelling? [Laughs.] There’s not a preference, really, it just seems to look better that way. I don’t specify for people to do that, although I hear that maybe Johnny is or something. That was not my – it was like an unwritten rule. I don’t know. It’s one of those phenomenons. I wish I could give you a better reason, but it’s just one of those things. It came out of thin air.
You guys are all between the ages of 20 and 23. Do you look at being so young as an asset, or a setback at this point in the game? We definitely don’t feel really young. People throw that at us a lot – and I can understand why. I also think maybe we look younger than we are: or maybe we are young. [Laughs.] Some of us are young. But for me especially, it just kind of feels like the right thing to do – it’s what I would be doing no matter how old I was. And I think I’ll be writing songs forever, so it’s kind of the next logical step. You write songs and you’ve got to play them for somebody, you know?
And you finished at Berkley in just three years in order to do what you’re doing now: That’s no small feat. I was at a crossroads of either dropping out after two years or rushing through and finishing in three, so I just finished and got on with my life. When you have something else you want to do more, you just kind of get it done.
And am I correct in that you produced, mixed, and engineered all of Talking Through Tin Cans yourself? Yeah. I did it with another person, but I was involved in all that stuff, yes.
And you majored in music. Did they teach you that stuff, or was Berkley’s program all theoretical? Oh no. It wasn’t any of that. It’s all very classical and theoretical. There was no music production; I just kind of picked that up on my own from working at a studio for a little bit and just recording from home.
What is the songwriting process like for the four of you? It usually just starts on acoustic guitar, or piano, or something at home. And then we bring it in to the practice space or the studio and just kind of mess around and play things that come to us, and it usually just comes together pretty organically. We don’t want to conceptualize or talk about it too much. We just kind of want to play it for a while and see what clicks.
You’ve kind of mastered the art of singing about deep, depressing stuff while still maintaining an upbeat, poppy sound. Was that a conscious choice, or simply how the music and lyrics came together? I would say that it was semi-conscious in the sense that I was going through this time in my life, and writing these depressing lyrics, but I was trying to cheer myself up at the same time, or make it like this cathartic thing. [It’s] kind of like exercising… What’s the word? Ex-or-cising, not ex-er-cising. Like getting the emotions out, in a song or on paper, and just sort of getting it out there, which was sort of an optimistic thing, a way of moving on. I think that’s where the more sunshine-y, happy side comes from.
Lyrically, there’s a lot of heartbreak-fueled material on the album. Were those emotions something that built up over time, or was there one relationship that kind of kick started the writing process? It was definitely a pretty singular incident, and I wrote all the songs within a month or two of each other. It was a pretty concentrated thing. That’s actually how it seems that the next album is shaping up too. I wrote another batch of songs that we’re trying to do for the second album pretty soon.
Have you gotten any feedback from this mystery heartbreaker? Yes and no, and I wouldn’t say there’s one – well, I guess it’s primarily one… When you’re writing about relationships, you’re kind of just drawing from this pool you have from every relationship you’ve had. In that sense, it’s not a singular person. I think that helps make it a little more relatable or universal for people.
Tell me a little bit about The Bedroom Covers. That album just came out of a desire to keep putting stuff out, because I hate how slow the music industry is. I was trying to get stuff out in like six months instead of waiting like two or three years, like people do. It never happened, so we just wanted to put out some shit for free. [Laughs.] I’m always pushing to get real albums out as soon as possible. I’m trying to get the next one out quickly, but with the Internet it’s a nice thing that you can kind of do it yourself. So we put that out, and we have some more stuff lined up that we can hopefully put out in the next month or so, just to keep giving people music.
It seems like the Internet also helped to get you guys heard by a lot of people really early on. You’re now collectively blogging on your site fairly frequently. Is this something you enjoy doing, or something that’s more mandated by the record company? It’s not because of the record company at all. We had it before we were working with anyone and it’s just sort of a good place to keep people updated – and it’s a good place to give people free music. You can do that sort of on MySpace or whatever, but if you’re going to do a free covers album, it’s a lot easier to post it on your blog so people can get the whole thing and experience it like that, which is what we want to do. It’s just sort of the perfect avenue.
You’ve been called out for a having a pretty distinct voice. What draws you to cover a song? That’s one of those things that’s not pre-thought out or anything like that. It’s just songs we like that we’re playing around the house or listening to a lot. Most of the songs are just some of my favorites. That’s really a big part of it. Every now and then – well, a lot of the time, actually – there’s a song that we all really like. And we might be playing it around the house, and we would never think about covering it [on a record] because it’s just so ridiculous sounding. So I guess we just kind of used the self-editing process to pick out some of the ones that sounded a little better.
Finally, it seems things are slowing down after your December 5 show at the Rickshaw? What comes next? It’s not slowing down at all. [Laughs.] In December and in November we are going to be recording our next album, I think:. March is South by Southwest, and then so-on. We’re going to be busy.
And your UCSB show is one of a few your doing by yourselves. Is there anything we can expect? I think we’re probably going to play some new stuff, and maybe we’ll throw in a cover from The Bedroom Covers: It’ll be cool.