At first blush, "Cold War (Nice Clean Fight)" song sounds like the product of twee—jangling guitar line, cooing high tenor vocals, the gentle background toot of keyboards. It's much more idiosyncratic than that, though. There's a bit of icy remove to the tone and vocal delivery—appropriate to the song's title—that recalls Peter Bjorn and John's big hit "Young Folks." But what really makes this work is the percussion, the spice that takes this to the next level. Odd handclaps, noises and muffled, distant timpani imbue it with a curious depth, while oohing vocals croon like passing clouds.
The lyrics are fun. Like a referee, singer/guitarist Chris Chu warns, "We want a nice clean fight, no blood no bite." Instead of letting emotions rage, he suggests, "When the end is near, let's just be frank/ Just let it sit, be still," returning to the pugilist metaphor. Even as his heart boils like an iron smelt, he reins it in and hopes to keep the war cold—an admirable if often difficult proposition. --
We spoke to Chris Chu in Brooklyn, a week before the release of his band's second full-length, Big Echo.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Are you at home?
CHRIS CHU: No, I'm in Brooklyn. I've been recording here the last two months, and then the tour starts here next week.
I'd heard you were moving there. Not permanently?
It's sort of to-be-decided. We're not really sure. Everyone just had a sublet, so we have no apartment, which is kind of a crazy way to live, but we knew we were going to be on the road a lot so we didn't want to commit to anything.
I thought you just finished working on an album.
I was producing another band. I was working on someone else's album—a band called Miniature Tigers who's going on tour with us.
Not too long ago you were a studio assistant learning the ropes, and here you are producing now.
It's cool. I sort of always saw myself as doing production stuff because I'm not—I'm more into the music as opposed to the technical side of things. Even though I am interested in that kind of stuff, my mind doesn't work as well with that. So it's been great doing production stuff and having someone else help out with engineering.
How did "Cold War" originate?
It's weird that you picked that song because it was probably the hardest one to pin down, and we almost didn't put it on the record. It was like the last choice. The reason we picked the songs for the record is because we wanted something that would work together as an album and flow together, and the sounds work together. So in the end I think it works perfectly, having that short song and the way it ends and goes into the next song. It ended up being great. But it's kind of a mystery, that song. And it kind of came out of nowhere, and it's this quirky little short thing. I wrote the song at home, but when we put it together we kind of did it on the fly.
Where did you get that kind of gonging percussion?
Starting out that song, the first thing I tried was like a guitar, but then we all went into a room and banged out all this random percussion stuff—homemade stuff, like bowls with forks and spoons, coke bottles and stuff like that. So a lot of what you're hearing is that. And we did that like four times so there's tons of layers of that kind of homemade percussion, and then we added tympani and did some stuff with a kick and floor toms to try and get it. We also tried to do a kind of hip-hop thing with the low-end to give it some thump. Beyond that, there are all these kind of random sounds on there that I think just make it really weird and interesting.
At the beginning, there's some odd percussion. I couldn't tell if it was muted woodblocks or handclaps cut short.
There's handclaps on there, too, and I think we're banging the table at certain points. So that might be the wood.
How percussion is placed can make such a difference in the tonal quality of a song.
That's sort of what I find interesting about most recordings—how the nuances like that effect things, and we spend a lot of time injecting that into every song on the album. There's all these little nuggets you'll find after listening five, ten, 15, 100 times.
I thought the really nice background vocals gave it kind of a Bacharach feel.
That's funny, I never thought of that. But I do like his work, and I really like that soundtrack he did for Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid], which sort of reminds me of that kind of style, now that you say that. Those background vocals are kind of static, so we inserted some major 7ths and it just keeps doing that. The 7th becomes a 9th on the next chord. I don't know if that means anything to you.
I could maybe bang out a simple bassline but that's the limit of my talents.
Well, to be honest, I don't think that most of the music theory stuff is that useful, aside from communicating things about music, but that's about the only time. I mean, basically what happens with those backing vocals is that because they end up making these more complex chords because the chords in the song are changing beneath them.
So was there some personal experience to this? Were there some fiery breakups?
Sort of, yeah. It's actually more about how you handle that, like emotionally. It doesn't really need to be a specific thing. Actually a lot of songs on Big Echo are like, they obviously draw inspiration from personal experiences. But I tried to write with a lot more broader scope. The first album was very personal, like first-hand perspective stuff. The Big Echo is more like grander issues. I think what you're keying into on that song is it's sort of about the process you go through when you're caught up in your emotions from love.
It seems almost like a magazine admonition, like "Try to chill out about it."
Yeah exactly. That's where the title comes from too.
Yeah, well it feels generalized without being completely abstract.
That's the ideal, is to make it big enough for everyone but also make it feel super personal, too.
Tell me about the process on Big Echo, as I understand it was pretty different than Talking Through Tin Cans.
With the Tin Cans stuff, we were thinking about it in a very limited mindset, on purpose. We just wanted to sound a certain way and sound like some of the bands we were listening to at the time. That was kind of a small little collection of bands like the Beatles, The Beach Boys, Neil Young and stuff. But what happened with the Big Echo stuff when we went into do it, I guess we'd been listening to so many other kinds of music and so much other stuff, that we wanted to break outside of that barrier and go into the studio not having any limitations in terms of "a sound" we were going to go for or anything like that, just hoping something a little more special might come out of combining all these different sounds and influences and just making something that was a little more free
For me when I listen to the album, I can pick out the different sounds we were going for, the different vibes that are evocative of the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and everything. That was kind of the idea and part of why we called it Big Echo. It's kind of all this stuff thrown together and bouncing off each other and interacting in weird ways. And then you have these strange juxtapositions of sound and stuff you wouldn't hear from an artist in the '70s because they generally work out of the '70s bin. But we're coming at it from everything.
In what ways did working in a studio have an impact on what you do?
That was definitely a big part of what changed for this album. I had produced some other stuff, too, and just gotten more interested in using the studio as another instrument and getting into aspects of production that I didn't even notice before. After thinking about it, it changes the way you listen to music. You start hearing how these sounds interact and how it really serves the song or helps to make a song something different. I think ideally you use it to enhance what you're trying to get from the song, so it doesn't distract. For me, because I'm the songwriter, I guess I've always gone at production from that angle —trying to serve the song and not feeling stifled by that fact, embracing production to serve the song.
At the same time, it seems there must be a learning curve to producing your own stuff, balancing being a performer and being the producer.
Yeah that becomes hard at times, having to wear all these different hats and even just logistically. When you're in the studio, you're just running around all the time trying to figure out all these things because you're coming at it from two different sides. But for me, it's almost one and the same at this point. I write a song. I think about the guitar sound. I have to go into the studio later and find that.
So when you think of a song, it's the whole song and not just the chord pattern or whatever.
Exactly. And I think that's the heart of what changed in our sound, being able to integrate those things. I talk to a lot of people who are either one way or the other. You're into production or you're into songs, and I think that is just a limiting way of looking at it.
Tell me about Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear's contribution. I understand it wasn't a traditional mixing job.
What happened is that we tracked the whole album in San Francisco, and I had done it up to that point, just thinking I would mix it like I did the last album. But as a result of being a lot freer this time around, like I was saying earlier, we really just had so much stuff thrown onto tape. By the end of the sessions, I just felt like I couldn't look at it clearly, anymore. I was too deep into it to be able to mix it. So that was the initial idea, to reach out to Chris to get a fresh pair of ears on there. And he was really supportive. Once he heard the stuff, he was super excited to get involved.
What ended up happening was I went to New York to mix the album with him, and we ended up doing stuff that you wouldn't traditionally think would be happening in that phase. We ended up kind of making a lot of new sounds even though we didn't track anything. We re-effected stuff. We did it in a church so we got to use the natural reverb of the church. For me, it's not like we created something completely new, it's more like we just really honed in on what the songs and recordings were going for. They just became a lot more focused by the end of those sessions, and I think Chris deserves a lot of credit for that.
I wondered how important it was to have him involved at that point, especially since his work is so focused on the creation of a sound.
I guess I wouldn't have been able to feel comfortable collaborating with someone if I didn't feel I could communicate with them in a way that they got. So when Chris said he was interested, just from my knowledge of his work and being a huge fan and meeting him and talking to him, it was like the only option. If he didn't do it, I don't think we would've brought in another mixer. I would probably have just done it myself because I'm kind of finicky about who gets involved and who gets to touch our music. Chris was a perfect match.
Finally, what can you tell me about your opening act, Miniature Tigers?
We just did this record with them. It's called Fortress. I guess I brought sort of a similar mindset to what I was thinking with Big Echo and doing there, inasmuch as I was being really free with it—just having fun and exploring the space we were recording in, and all the cool gear they had there. It ended up sounding like a really special record to me.
Is it in the indie pop vein?
I'd say it is. It's maybe a little less indie and a little more just pop, but it also has some kind of oddball characteristics and just some weird idiosyncrasies. [There are] some more humorous or lighthearted moments and more zany stuff that you wouldn't expect. That makes it really interesting and exciting for me to listen to.
Morning Benders plays with Miniature Tigers and Acrylics Friday, March 12, at Local 506. The 9:30 p.m. shows costs $10.