Photo: Brian Valdizno
On National Coming Out Day, San Francisco’s Popscene hosted a party for a band of native sons. Following their migration to Brooklyn, The Morning Benders, errrrrr POP ETC, returned to the Bay Area on Thursday for the first time post-name change operation.
Earlier this year, the band’s announcement that it would be switching names was suprising, coming at time when things for the Morning Benders were certainly on the up. They had finished touring on their widely-acclaimed sophomore LP, Big Echo, appeared in a commercial or two and made the requisite Coachella-appearance. Still, something didn’t seem to sit right. In March, band frontman Chris Chu announced the decision as a conscious move away away from a derogatory slang term in England, where “bender” refers to “homosexual.” “We were told our band name was the equivalent of ‘the Morning Fags’ in America,” wrote Chu said in a statement on the band’s website. Given the circumstances, dumping the original moniker was understandable…
…but, POP ETC? Really?
Of all the names possible, the choice by Chu and Co. seemed bizarre if not a total hoax–the Onion article of possible band names. But as reality–and later the autotune–set in, we watched on in horror and, later, dejectedness as the generic, caps-lock stylized and abbreviated appellation stuck to a group that had once seriously considered calling itself The Beatles 2. On Thursday, the Berkeley-born band, new name and all, made its return to its former stomping grounds.
But before POP ETC could make its homecoming appearance, Popscene was treated to a pair of openers on the event’s 16th anniversary. As a slow drizzle misted over the entrance of Rickshaw Stop–perhaps deterring early concert-goers–Strange Talk took to the stage just as fellow Aussies Cut Copy and Bag Raiders before them for their San Francisco debut. The Melbourne favorites, jetlagged from their trans-Pacific journey, immediately launched into their small catalogue of songs, which to date, features a a self-titled EP and a smattering of covers. With singer Stephen Docker prancing around in a red Letterman’s and a platinum blonde cut like he was straight out of the Cobra Kai, Strange Talk cut through “Eskimo Boy” and “Sexual Lifestyle,” whose lack of lyrical inspiration could be forgiven for the sake of moving feet and body writhing. “Climbing Walls” with its Yesayer-ripping guitar echoes and Cut Copied choruses proved an effective closer.
The same could not be said of any offerings from Brooklyn’s Violens. The ugly duckling on a pop-heavy bill, the trio known for their “palette of exquisitely crafted sound” according to one release, drowned out the happy-go-lucky vibes of their Australian counterparts. With heavy guitar distortion and echoed vocals slamming out of speakers, patrons rushed for the bar and away from the amps, only to be relieved by the unexpected end to songs and uncomfortable between-song pleasantries. Note to mic guy: turn off the echo before speaking.
After setting up their own gear, POP ETC hit their first chords just after midnight for what would be an experience unlike anything from their Morning Benders past. Dropping the guitar, Chu ditched his indie rock singer-songwriter past for the expressive pop showman, keen to display a vocal range–that sometimes wasn’t there–on “Live It Up” and “Everything Is Gone.” Heavily autotuned, Chu backed by brother Jon, unexpressive drummer Julian Harmon and an additional bassist and synth player, ran the show, which lacked the emotive depth of anything we’ve come to expect of the Morning Benders. Gone were “Cold War” and “Promises,” replaced with songs like “Back To Your Heart,” where hooks come first, and everything else is second. In a live setting, that may be all that matters, however. Popscene’s patrons seemed delighted by the band’s new beginnings, with the shouted choruses of “Keep It For Your Own” winning over even the most skeptical of Morning Benders’ holdouts, while “Rock Your Body” seemed relatively self-explanatory. The only foray into old memories, “Excuses,” seemed unwelcome. Unquestionably the band’s biggest hit in the past, the offering was out of place, an unpopular respite that brought an awkward sing-a-long in the midst of a dance first, sing later atmosphere.
While it seems silly that a name change could also force an identity shift, on Thursday night, POP ETC gave little deference to its original incarnation, leaving behind a seven-year-old identity for a new sound. And with Chu belting out “YoYo” on the floor amongst the crowd for the band’s closer, POP ETC didn’t seem to care. They were just another band, making their San Francisco debut within the hallowed walls of Popscene.
POP ETC- Keep It For Your Own (download)
Strange Talk- Climbing Walls (download)