Popping Up is our recurring look at new artists making noise on the music landscape. Because, hey — Madonna and Britney were once unknown, too.
Technically speaking, POP ETC is not a new band. Sure, the name might not ring any bells, but its members are no strangers to the musical world. Rather, POP ETC is a reinvention and reimagining of the Morning Benders, the indie rock outlet most known for their 2010 breakout hit, Big Echo. Same members, same songwriters, same saccharine vocal harmonies — and that’s about where the surface-level similarities stop and POP ETC begins.
After discovering “bender” carries homosexual connotations abroad, the band decided to adopt a different name for their musical output. This, however, was the first of a series of changes for the Bay Area natives; with a new name came a new pop-oriented sound, driven largely by ebullient synthesizer leads and steeped in R&B grooves — a shockingly unexpected departure from the easy-breezy, guitar-heavy orchestral sound of the Morning Benders.
Strangely enough, the most intriguing element of POP ETC involves how reflective the new moniker is of the stylistic evolution embraced by the band since the most recent Morning Benders album. “It’s kind of a reaction to all these crazy band names I hear these days — really long, weird band names, animal names and all that stuff,” explains frontman Christopher Chu. “It never gives you any clues as to what the music actually sounds like. I like the idea of a band name…somehow describing the sound.”
POP ETC, “Live It Up”
MEMBERS: Christopher Chu, Jon Chu and Julian Harmon
HOMETOWN: Originally formed in Berkeley, California, POP ETC now calls Brooklyn home.
SOUNDS LIKE: With influences culled from a group of artists as diverse as Boyz II Men, Cyndi Lauper, The-Dream and Prince, POP ETC blends the best of upbeat, quirky dance hits with soulful and earnest slow jams.
DREAM COLLABORATION: On the top of POP ETC’s list? Polarizing hitmaker Kanye West. “He didn’t even set out to make pop music, but it’s sort of undeniable that’s he’s a pop icon right now,” Chu says, citing West’s emotionally wrought electro-pop album 808s & Heartbreak. “I’m sure he knew the kind of flack he’d get for putting out an album like that, but he did it. He held it to no one except his own artistic instincts, and I find that really inspiring.”
A NEW DIRECTION: While decidedly pop in nature, POP ETC breaks a variety of the genre’s traditional conventions, functioning instead as a skillful amalgamation of multiple musical movements spanning several decades. Even the album’s artwork highlights this sonic fusion, listing genres as assorted as “disco,” “punk” and “reggae” on the LP’s cover. “We just got to this point where we really felt comfortable and confident with ourselves, and what we like,” Chu recalls. “I think we’ve always had that kind of pop-iness embedded in everything we were doing.
“I know that a lot of people who liked Big Echo will hear this album and think that we just completely changed everything,” he continues. “But, people that know me as a songwriter know that, from the beginning, all I’ve talked about is wanting to try new things, different things.”
POP ETC, “Keep It For Your Own” (Yours Truly session)
WHICH COAST IS THE BEST COAST?: Although brothers Chris and Jon grew up in California, their extended families resided in New York; summer vacations to the East Coast were a regular occurrence, exposing the siblings to a way of life far different from the laid-back vibes of their home state. “We’ve been coming to New York our entire lives,” Chu says. “I can’t help but think about the ways we were influenced by the two different coasts.”
Reflecting on these childhood trips, Chu now identifies elements of his bicoastal experiences in POP ETC’s musical methodology: “With this album, we went into it not really knowing what we would come out with, and we didn’t plan it that much. We kind of just let it happen, and I feel like that’s a very West Coast attitude.” But even in the studio, Chu’s inner New Yorker shines through. “We do everything ourselves — direct our own videos, do our own artwork, produce and write all our own stuff,” he reveals. “I feel like that’s a very New York attitude, trying to do it all yourself.”
POP-ULAR OPINION: When asked about the current influx of pop music coverage, Chu speaks passionately on the subject, suggesting most contemporary criticism of pop music “comes with this disclaimer that they’re trying to justify liking it.”
“We don’t take that attitude toward older pop music,” he laments. “We talk about a Beatles song, or a Prince song or Michael Jackson and we just say, ‘It’s really good.’ I feel like that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do — show people that pop music can come from a completely artistic place.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The group’s self-titled album, the first release under their new name, was released Tuesday (June 12) on UK label Rough Trade. The band will tour in support of POP ETC on select US dates with the Dirty Projectors this summer, with additional dates to be announced in the near future.
In the meantime, Chu and his bandmates hope the album is embraced by listeners as a sincere labor of love — not just by budding POP ETC fans, but by Morning Benders enthusiasts as well. “I think, deep down, the elements of our character are still there. We were just being really honest with what we wanted to do,” he acknowledges. “We have to be honest with ourselves and hope people will see that.”