A strange thing happened to Bay Area band the Morning Benders in 2010. As they were in the midst of their first world tour, fans in Britain were asking them, “Is your name really the Morning Benders?” rather incredulously. Others chose to invoke their name to make more ignorant remarks. They weren’t sure what the fuss was about until they learned that in many parts of Europe, “bender” is slang for “faggot.” Needless to say, it put the band in a perplexing situation. Having played under that name for years, they had built a notable stateside buzz. On the other side of things, they had no intention of offending the gay community and compromising their potential international growth. In the midst of that world tour, their hands were tied, but now in 2012 they are parting with their old moniker, transitioning towards a more melodic ’80s pop sound, and rebuilding their brand under the name POP ETC. It won’t prove easy, but their hope is that with the cloud of perceived disrespect gone, people can once again focus on their music. After all, it was the music that people fell in love with. Life + Times caught up with POP ETC to talk about their evolving sound, risk taking, shit-talking, and penning the perfect pop song.
Life+Times: You’re break out success was your 2010 album, Big Echo. How has your sound evolved since then?
POP ETC: We try not to think about any of our previous albums when we make a new album, so it’s kind of hard to trace. For us it’s more about putting ourselves in a different environment each time, out of our comfort zone, in an attempt to push ourselves into a fresh place… musically. Now that we’ve made another album though I can definitely see the differences and connect some of the dots. Big Echo was, sonically, very much a record about subtlety, while this new album is fueled much more by immediacy. We wanted to be more direct and focused with POP ETC.
L+T: Who was The Morning Benders biggest influence in 2008? Who is POP ETC’s biggest influence in 2012?
PE: Now it’s probably Kanye or The-Dream. Back in 2008? Probably Big Star. And it’s always The Beatles, from the day we started until the day we die I imagine.
L+T: Is your recent mixtape (entitled mixtape) indicative of the type of sound we’ll hear on the new POP ETC. album, or more of a layover on your musical journey?
PE: We recorded most of the songs on the mixtape around the same time as the album, but we realized during the recording process that the songs kind of fit into two different classes. One group became the mixtape, and one became the album. I feel like the mixtape is definitely a sort of halfway point between Big Echo and the POP ETC album, which may be surprising to people that found the mixtape to be a drastic departure.
L+T: You mention that the music separated itself into two categories, the mixtape and the album. Does that mean there is a unifying theme that ties the album together?
PE: For sure. The songs on the album definitely feel like a family to me. We really wanted to make an album that was unapologetically a pop album, but also one that we felt was cohesive, and a unified statement. In today’s commercial pop world, albums aren’t really the focus. People are more often working on making singles, which is fine, there are some amazing singles out there, but as a band we really wanted to make an album. We grew up listening to albums, and we really appreciate the album as an art form.
L+T: You have the ability to craft catchy but smooth pop songs, what is the secret to writing a great pop record with artistic integrity?
PE: I’m not sure what the secret is, but for us it’s holding on to 100% creative control, doing as much as we can ourselves. I think with a lot of commercial pop, it’s made on an assembly line, so a lot of the personality and nuances are lost. When you hear a POP ETC song, it’s just the three of us. We write the songs, we play everything, and we produce it. So everything you’re hearing is the product of our collective personality.
L+T: What has been your most memorable tour stop and why?
PE: Tokyo. Too many reasons to list. Japan is an incredible place. It’s so crazy and weird, and yet it makes perfect sense.
L+T: In 2010 you were on tour in Europe, when you found out that your name had a quite a different meaning. How did that all come about?
PE: A lot of ignorant people yelling stupid shit at us. And later some more educated people explaining to us that the name may come off as offensive to some people because it has a second meaning in Europe.
L+T: How are you going about rebuilding your brand in the wake of the name change?
PE: We are just making art that is exciting to us. We do everything- the artwork, the photos, the videos … and we really put a lot of ourselves into everything that we make. There’s not much more you can do. I truly believe if we keep doing things that are honest and fresh that more and more people will get turned on to us.
L+T: If you could pick any musical mentor, who would it be and why?
PE: Kanye West. He’s just the one guy around right now that keeps challenging himself and trying new things, even if he knows some fools are going to hate on it. You can tell he’s always 100% committed to what he’s doing, and that’s really inspiring. That’s where we want to be.
L+T: You’re performing in a huge ensemble performance at the Grammy’s. Who’s on stage with you?
PE: Prince, Boyz II Men, and the J.B.’s.
L+T: What’s the biggest difference between the music scenes in New York and The Bay Area, other than scale?
PE: They are completely different. The Bay is super chill and you kind of just make shit when you feel like it. In NY there is this feeling like everyone is working on something, so you gotta get working too! I’m not sure if that’s necessarily true, but there is a momentum to New York that makes me feel that way.
L+T: Does the momentum you mention in New York manifest as a supportive fellowship amongst musicians, or more of a competitive energy?
PE: I think more of a competitive energy, although people pretend that’s not the case. There are artists we love, and we definitely have friends amongst them, but on a whole we don’t really connect with what is going on with indie culture right now. There’s actually a lot of shit talking and stuff going on behind peoples’ backs that sort of bums me out. It’s not even the fact that the shit talking exists. I get that it exists, it makes sense that people competing for attention in a certain space are going to talk shit. But the fact that it all happens behind peoples’ backs in this covert way feels kind of unhealthy. In a lot of ways, I envy the hip-hop world in that respect–people seem to express themselves much more openly and directly.
L+T: You just dropped your first video for the new album with “Live It Up.” What was the inspiration behind that song and video?
PE: Well, you know there are so many songs on the radio that are about guys trying to hook up with girls, and nine times out of 10 the guy is either misrepresenting himself or trying to find a way to take advantage of the girl. That’s a bummer. We wanted to write a kind of hook-up jam from the perspective of a guy who’s really honest and up front about his intentions, and is looking for someone that’s in the same boat as he is. For the video we just wanted to do something simple. Something in one take. Most people found out about The Morning Benders from the “Excuses” video, which I love… but for this video we kind of wanted to try the opposite. Instead of a huge group of people in a studio, just one person, in a dark void. I also felt like it would help for me to perform the song directly to the camera, because it occupies this kind of ambiguous place that’s pretty intimate and honest, but also at times feels kind of tongue in cheek. Hopefully the video helps capture that ambiguity.
L+T: Following the release of your Pop Etc album on June 12, will you be touring to promote it?
PE: Hell yeah. Don’t have dates yet, but we will definitely be coming to a city near you. We just want to keep changing, trying new things and bringing more people together. (POP ETC)