New Music To Know: POP ETC

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(Rough Trade Records)

(Rough Trade Records)

On November 13, the final Twilight saga soundtrack will be released. The franchise has been beautifully curated, featuring original tracks from a constellation of artists that include Death Cab for Cutie, Muse, Ellie Goulding and Christina Perri. One potentially unfamiliar name on the Breaking Dawn Part 2 soundtrack this time around is POP ETC.

This band are familiar to blog loving music heads under another name. They were previously known as the Morning Benders — a group beloved for their bedroom tapes and sleepy, West Coast influenced production. Their album Big Echo earned Best New Music from Pitchfork and universal acclaim from critics as well as opening slots touring with the Black Keys and Broken Bells. In spite of their success in indie rock arenas, the guys decided to ditch their name, revamp their sound and move from San Francisco to New York City to start anew.

It’s a tough decision to scrap your brand and signature sonic style to start all over agan, but the band see it as more of an opportunity than a risk.

“We were called the Morning Benders before. When we named ourselves that we kind of did it as a joke because we weren’t really big partiers and we thought it was funny,” explains singer Chris Chu. “Morning benders, going out and drinking all night, whatever. And then a few years later after touring around a lot we found out that bender has this other meaning in Europe and other parts of the world where people use it as a slang for gay, in a derogatory way…It came off in a way that wasn’t like us. We’re wouldn’t do anything like that. We decided to change our name and it coincided with this change in sound. We had a lot of new ideas and it worked out really well to change it, and change everything at that point. And now we’re POP ETC.”

While some indie bands have let the mainstream embrace them, POP ETC have decided to take a different tack and embrace the sound of the mainstream instead. The guys largely produced their new self-titled album on their own, but did work with Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, Norah Jones, Gorillaz) and Andrew Dawson (Kanye West, Lil Wayne, fun.) to create a a very different sort of record from their previous output. That includes a vocoder, which Dawson expertly used in his work with T-Pain and West, but is an unexpected addition to POP ETC.

“At some point we just got really into pop music and rediscovered a lot of the pop that we great up with,” Chu says. “We felt like the directness in the production, the bigger, fuller sound, and the crispness of the sounds [as] opposed to some of the more indie or rock leaning stuff really spoke to us.”

The band’s guitarist Jon Chu says when he listens to West’s “Monster” now he can hear particular keyboards that Dawson suggested they use on the POP ETC album. While the band’s experiences working with seasoned studio veterans gave them a leg up, they also looked to their own past as music lovers for inspiration when creating POP ETC. That inspiration included a master of pop music and the man who helped create Taylor Swift’s mega-hit “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”

“A lot of the pop producers, listening to [Swift producer] Max Martin, who’s the big guy behind everything, and Dr. Luke; The-Dream [who is also known] as Terius Nash and Tricky, that combo,” Chris Chu says, highlighting the production styles they favor. “Discovering a lot of the artists that we listened to like Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men and D’Angelo — stuff that we grew up with and didn’t think too much about at the time but then rediscovered later and realized that not only did we still really love it but we were hearing all these new things about it.”

The guys reconcile the idea that pop music isn’t as worthwhile a genre by pointing out one simple fact: what’s cool is constantly changing. It’s akin to the idea of letting history be the judge instead of worrying about today’s critics. They invoke the argument that Madonna was considered a throw-away pop artist at the start of her career. Today’s guilty pleasure can easily become tomorrow’s icon.

“Any time someone calls something cheesy or corny, it makes me want to check it out,” Chris Chu says. “To me that shows that it’s something that people of the moment, of this current culture don’t understand. That’s sort of what it is: cheesy and corny is just opposed to being hip or being popular.”

Can a band embrace pop music, to the point of including it in their name, and remain cool while eschewing the constraints of coolness? POP ETC’s experiment in upsetting the cart is the first of it’s kind, so keep an eye on them to see.

POP ETC is available now. The band have also contributed an original track to the Breaking Dawn – Part 2 soundtrack, available on November 13.

-Courtney E. Smith, CBS Local

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