There is a genuine sense of vulnerability and hunger surrounding POP ETC: Their songs are raw and emotionally complex, their music colorful, catchy, and unique. POP ETC stand out among the fury of indie pop/rock music makers for channeling an intimate connection with their own humanity into self-aware, universally relatable anthems and ballads.
Theirs is the kind of music that teaches you something new about yourself.
A pop-ish band by nature and by name, POP ETC’s music doesn’t quite fit into any genre – hence the “etcetera.” Though the trio consisting of Chris Chu, brother Jon Chu and Julian Harmon have been making music together for over ten years, POP ETC came into existence only in 2012, born out of the group’s previous moniker, The Morning Benders.
With that name came a stylistic change that proves itself to be an indelible part of the band’s identity. “I wanted something that was really descriptive,” says songwriter and POP ETC frontman Chris Chu. “When people ask what kind of music we play, I’ll say “pop, etc,” because it’s just what we play.” POP ETC don’t feel the need to restrict themselves. To drive the point home, the band’s eponymous debut album’s cover art lists a plethora of genres, under which lie the words, “POP ETC.”
That was nearly four years ago now, and a lot has changed in the world and for this band over that time. Relationships have come and gone; the world has been traveled; lives have been lived. Souvenir, released 1/29 via the band’s independently-owned Pop Etc Records, marks POP ETC’s second full-length release, and serves as the physical stamp for the band’s collective and individual experiences over the past three years.
POP ETC are in it to win it, and every moment counts on Souvenir: Each of the album’s ten tracks bears the weight of extreme scrutiny and time-tested perfection. Just as its name suggests, this album was built to last; it is an impressively cohesive set of guitar-driven pop/rock, adorned with keyboard riffs, synth pads and experimental licks that add just the right amount of memorable charm and flare. This seems to be the POP ETC musical guarantee.
Additionally, it helps to know that this album is the product of three talented music-makers, and not a mechanical pop production system. Chu and his cohort set their standards high, and they do it by themselves: As Atwood Magazine continues to insist, independently-made pop style music is an unquestionably noteworthy feat.
Souvenir has something for everyone. We start with “Please, Don’t Forget Me,” a strong album opener with the drive of a rock song, but the vocal glint of Magic Man or Smallpools-like indie pop. “You’re finding a way to move on; I know my place in your heart is long gone,” professes Chris Chu in the song’s verse. It may not be one of the album’s singles, but this song sets up the album for all its deep introspection and important life questions.
Listen: “Please, Don’t Forget Me” – POP ETC
For truly, how many records open with the question of how to deal with the past? It’s Nombe’s “Kemosabe” scenario all over again, but this time the perky guitar pop disguises the emotional context. When a relationship ends, is the door closed? Do we shut that person out from our lives, never to interact again, despite what may have been many years together? How can something so precious and special terminate, never to be touched again? Surely nostalgia runs through the veins of even the most forward-facing people… And yet, this is an important notion that anyone who has experienced a relationship’s end will, at some point, ponder – especially if communication goes from a daily occurrence, to no occurrence at all.
Recall that this is POP ETC’s first song on the album. There are nine more of these, each one as potent as the song before, challenging the individual to think – really think – about life, in all its “beautifully messy glory” – to pull from the band’s personal statement.
Souvenir continues: We hear the heavy influence of the 1980s in songs like “Vice” and “Backwards World.” “I Wanted To Change The World But The World Changed Me” has the longest song name, but the most direct and powerful message. “I used to be chasing after something, but now I just shuffle my feet,” laments Chu in the song’s profound, if not overbearing chorus.
Listen: “I Wanted To Change The World But The World Changed Me” – POP ETC
These topics of maturity, meaning and purpose are difficult to express through pop music, and it is easy for a critic to berate a band for attempting to combine realness with a traditionally plastic genre. Yet this is the genius of POP ETC: They exist for those of us who want that abstract combination, and the music they make is good enough for them to get away with it relatively unscathed. Like many artists who came before them, POP ETC embed happy music with unsettling complexities, allowing those who want to celebrate to celebrate, and those who want to think, to think.
It stands to reason that POP ETC is a genre unto itself. If we accept this as true, then Souvenir must be the purest presentation of that genre, a glass-encased display of a musical style so completely self-aware that it takes on a life of its own. This is not music for everyone, but those who like it are likely to love it, and those who love it will both empathize with, as well as hopefully learn from, the many life lessons POP ETC have consciously and unconsciously laid out across Souvenir.
Atwood Magazine took a moment with POP ETC’s Chris Chu on the eve of Souvenir‘s record release to discuss his band, their brand new record, and anything else that came to mind. Sitting in a quiet room upstairs at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Chris opened up about his recent demons, as well as the many factors that drove POP ETC’s music over the past three years. Learn more about that secret ingredient that makes POP ETC so special in our exclusive interview, and be sure to give Souvenir a solid listen: You may just discover something new about yourself in the process.
Watch: “What Am I Becoming?” – POP ETC
A LIFE LESSON FROM POP ETC
Atwood Magazine: Thanks for chatting, Chris! Let's start off with the name, POP ETC. Was there any reason for the name?
Chris Chu: Lots of reasons! For one, I wanted something that was really descriptive, so when people ask what kind of music we play, I’ll say “pop, etc,” because it’s just what we play. It makes sense. “Brand” is kind of a dirty word, but I do like it as kind of a concept that’s larger than just a band name. For example, we’re putting this out on our own label, basically, which is called “Pop Etc Records,” and we do all these limited-run t-shirts and clothing stuff that’s almost like a fashion line. I like being able to use “Pop Etc” as a bigger things for all these different arms.
I'm a novice to POP ETC, because you guys have been around for quite some time -
Chris: We have, in various incarnations.
Something feels special about this moment, for you, though. Maybe it's because I finally found you, but a lot of people are finding you guys on SoundCloud, which is where you have you biggest fanbase right now. How do you feel about that - am I picking up on something?
Chris: Yeah you are, I mean, I feel… It’s hard to say. We’ve been making music for a while, and I think – from making music ourselves, and also just having a lot of friends in bands – I don’t know, there’s some kind of alchemy involved in making an album that is then received well or successful – and those are not mutually exclusive (sometimes it’s one or the other); but yeah, it’s very mysterious. For me, it feels like it’s coinciding with my own personal excitement about this album. We took so long making it, I mean we wrote hundreds of songs until we found this family that worked well on this album.
We wrote hundreds of songs until we found this family that worked well on this album.
How long is so long?
Chris: Three years, almost? When I say that, a lot of people assume it was a couple months here, and then you take six months’ vacation or something, but it wasn’t! We were really working regularly, and we threw away a ton of shit, obviously.
As an independent act, do you have vacation time?
Chris: Not… specifically. I try to just parlay our tour stuff into a trip. We often go to Japan, and I’ll always make sure I have extra time there, because I love Japan and I have a huge friend base now in Tokyo because I’ve spent so much time there over the years. So yeah, to answer your question, we’re psyched and very excited as well.
It feels like there's something in the air. Is the Tokyo/Japan fan presence based on anything in particular?
Chris: Well, I don’t know! Our band has done pretty well over there, and that led to me being asked to produce some other bands there and do some songwriting for stuff, and that’s grown our awareness there.
A bit of culture absorption?
Chris: Yeah, yeah. And also, I was actually born in Japan, even though I’m Chinese – it’s a long story, but they really like that over there, and they like the story of that and how I came back and got re-interested in the culture, and my roots, and growing up there. I’m saying it like it’s not true – it’s true! – I really love Japan, and I respect and love the shit out of that culture; it’s amazing! So that’s probably a part of it, too; they sense that excitement.
Now, you're the songwriter for the band.
What is it that makes POP ETC special for you?
Chris: I think probably our relentless experimentation – our change. We’ve made four albums in between The Morning Benders and POP ETC, and it’s changed vastly – to the point that, every time we make an album, there’s people asking, “What happened to the last album? Why aren’t you making that?” And now there’s three different groups of that as we’re making our fourth album. I say it like it’s a choice and we’re really courageous, but that’s not really the case – it’s more just that I’m very restless, and I get bored of making songs that sound too similar, so I just like to try different things.
This album sounds pretty different all the way through; there's a lot of up-and-down-ness, I think.
Chris: Yeah, we like the arc. We still like to listen to full albums, so – I know a lot of people don’t do that…
I'm the same way - I will respect any band who puts out a full album, because to be quite frank, it doesn't make sense to put out a full album anymore these days.
Chris: No; the business model is horrible!
There's no reason; you can do singles, and you'll probably be fine - but that doesn't give your music a home, then.
Chris: I agree; I’ve thought about that a lot as music has transitioned into this digital collection, because who knows – everyone’s on Spotify now, or iTunes; when the platform changes, where is all of that going to go? You know? And I’ve already experienced that a few times using different services, and now there’s stuff that isn’t on the new one – for forever, Spotify didn’t have the Beatles! That’s insane to think about a huge service maybe not having a really core aspect of music history.
I'm afraid of people forgetting about Prince, for that matter.
Chris: Yeah! You can name so many artists like that, and it takes out rediscovering things in your own collection. I love having records and CDs and just looking through and being like, “Oh shit, yeah that… Meant a lot to me ten years ago.” It’s hard to do that on iTunes and stuff – you can, but it’s different.
So did you guys have vinyl made, for that matter?
Chris: We did!
What's it like being in an independent band?
Chris: I don’t know, I don’t put too much stock in terms, just because I know bands that have a pretty independent mindset that are on majors, and I know independent bands that are really doing things in a very commercially-oriented way. For us, we like the freedom; no one’s telling us what to do or how to make our music, or anything – and we’re already pretty harsh critics. The idea of having more people trying to tell us how to do something sounds pretty scary.
The idea of having more people trying to tell us how to do something sounds pretty scary.
Where does your pressure come from?
Chris: That’s a good question, I should bring it up with my therap – no, –
This IS your therapy session, Chris! What don't you get?
Chris: [laughs] I don’t know, it’s just something deep inside me that keeps me going! It’s something that, again with Japan, I really related to: They are so into craft! I mean, there are just guys rolling ramen and soba noodles, like for eighty years there’s a dude there, just so old, on the edge of being gone, just rolling the noodle. And like, that’s amazing! He’s spent his whole life doing this, and he’s the best at it! I connect with that – the idea of working: Putting in hours, and trying to make something great.
I connect with that – the idea of working: Putting in hours, and trying to make something great.
Nobody would ever give someone that kind of respect here.
Chris: In America, there’s this pressure to invent something, or be at the top – all these entrepreneurs and stuff, which is great and cool – but in Japan, people are very happy working on something in a quaint way, or in a more singular way – and people respect it! They just have so much pride in their work, it’s great! I wish I could convert myself to that mindset.
Do you have pride in Souvenir?
Chris: I have a lot of pride in it, but I’m never content!
Listen: “Vice” – POP ETC
What changed between your last record and Souvenir? What makes Souvenir, Souvenir?
Chris: Well, the first album was very conceptual, in that we had these ideas of an independent band making pop music, and doing it in a way that was basically the opposite of how pop music is made, which is along an assembly line, where there’s six or seven writers on a song, and then mixers, and producers, and all these people – and you get this thing that can be great, but we wanted to try doing that with just the three of us. It was conceptually driven, and I think in a way it was more clinical – whereas with this album, we took so long with it that we were just writing about our lives as we were living them each day, and changing, and being able to record at home. If I woke up and it was shitty out and I was kind of depressed, I’d write a song that has that melancholic tinge to it. I think that was the turning point: Writing from that raw, emotional space. It was also our most collaborative album, too, which I think made it sound different. My brother and Julian, they almost act as curators, because I’m sending them all this stuff and they’re saying, The verse works, but the chorus doesn’t really work, or maybe, That song sucks; throw it away, or whatever it is – they’re giving me that feedback, and helping. It’s not quite writing, but it is hugely influential. Then obviously, once we get to start recording songs, everyone’s playing stuff and just throwing whatever against the wall and seeing what sticks.
If I woke up and it was shitty out and I was kind of depressed, I’d write a song that has that melancholic tinge to it.
I believe these are your words: That the record is about embracing how unpredictable life can be in all its beautifully messy glory. What was the messiest part of life over the past three years?
Chris: Just getting older… I’m thirty. Turning thirty is a milestone, and over the last few years, approaching that age… You’re thinking about, What is life? What am I doing here? I think, as many people do, probably, at that age – or at this age – you kind of realize how random life is. I had this idea that life was going to play out in this way, and I had these goals and ideas of do this, get married, have a kid at this age, have all my successful platinum records on the wall, whatever! And it just doesn’t unfold that way. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a straight line: It’s a crazy, random, roundabout thing, and sometimes you take weird detours. That’s the feeling I get from the album: Struggling with that. There are moments that are frustrating, and there are moments that are cathartic and just accepting that it’s messy.
What song means the most to you?
Chris: Musically and lyrically, it’s different. Musically, I love “Vice,” the second song on the record. There’s something about that song that just really clicked for us. It was one of the last songs we did, and it went through a lot of different incarnations, but once we finally arrived at the version that’s one the album, it was very exciting. We felt like we were revolving around this thing, and we finally got it, you know? And then on a personal level, I really love the song, “I Wanted to Change the World but the World Changed Me,” which is a song I was inspired to write when I was in a clothing store – some shitty clothing store, buying socks – and our song came on, an old song of ours, and it instantly transported me back to that time. Just thinking about how different my life and my mindset was… and it set off that song.
Listen: “I Wanted to Change the World but the World Changed Me” – POP ETC
Any most meaningful lines? For me, my favorite line in the record is, It's part of me, part of you, but it's wasted from 'Running in Circles'.
Chris: I’m glad that it spoke to you! I guess I just was saying thing basically, but I love the lyrics for “I Wanted to Change the World…” The chorus, “I used to be chasing after something, but now I just shuffle my feet,” which I think kind of sums up how I feel sometimes. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think; I feel like, when I articulate it, it sounds slightly defeatist or something?
Chris: But on the record, I don’t think that’s the takeaway, because the music is uplifting and there’s a positivity to it. I grew up listening to Pet Sounds a lot – it’s one of my favorite albums, and it’s so sad lyrically, often. But the music is so sugary, and I love that kind of contrast, so I’m always drawn to try to write songs like that. With “I Wanted to Change the World but the World Changed Me,” that’s the feeling I wanted to give, ideally.
I don't know if you see this goofy smile on my face, but I was about to go into the fact that some of my favorite music has a huge contrast - it's just the complete juxtaposition, either the saddest music and the happiest lyrics, or vice versa! When you put those two together, you realize the true craft of making a song is not black and white, either.
Chris: Yeah, well that’s why you write songs. I mean, if you just wanted to have lyrics, then you’d write a book, or write a poem or something. To me, that’s the point of writing songs – to have those things playing off each other.
I recently connected with someone about how both of us write songs from a dark place; our songs are dark and revealing about ourselves and our inner emotions. I'm a very happy guy, and as a result, my songs tend to sort of reflect all those other emotions that I don't let out to my friends. How do you find songwriting is for you, in terms of what it does to you and where it comes from?
Chris: Because I’m writing so much, it changes drastically. I relate to what you’re talking about in your songwriting, because I do feel that it is a kind of therapy, in a way, of just exercising these demons or these things that you’re struggling with. And I’ve learned a lot from writing songs, because in the same way that people keep journals or diaries, or whatever – just articulating something that’s swimming around in your head – it helps you gain some perspective.
What was the hardest thing for you to put onto this record?
Chris: “What Am I Becoming?” was a really tough one. Speaking to what we were talking about before, there were moments in which it felt too dark and too negative in a way that, for me, didn’t feel like it was expressing exactly what I wanted to express. We had a couple versions that we finished, and we were like, This isn’t us! It’s too gnarly – it’s just too grating. It was hard to mix that darkness with tones and with specific lyrics in a way that made it feel soft around the edges, even though it is an intense song.
Listen: “What Am I Becoming?” – POP ETC
Do you feel like it's hard to stick to a certain template? Do you ever wish you could make those songs that don't fit in? I'm sure there's a backlog where you have some grunge songs and some punk stuff that's never going to see the light of day.
Chris: I mean, it’s always hard. It would be nice to just have something that you could do whatever you want, all the time. But to be honest, we give ourselves a lot of freedom, so we do explore a lot of different things. I’m not really drawn to write punk songs or grunge songs; I love pop music, and that’s part of why when we discovered that about ourselves, it’s another reason why POP ETC is a really fitting band name for us: We just love pop music, and that’s a very broad term, so it covers a lot of territory.
Some bands can make really great music for thirty years, but it never hits at the time that that style of music is hitting. I feel like for you guys, your style of music - this thing that you've fallen into - is kind of at the zeitgeist right now. It's that punchy, indie pop, to use a term that has no meaning. It's got a bounce, it's got a flavor to it; there's real lyrics, there's real humanity behind it. I feel like that's what's happening for you right now. Do you feel that to be a true statement?
Chris: Yeah, I mean… I believe that is true, to some degree, but my understanding of that is more just from reading a small sample size of other peoples’ analysis of it. It’s harder for me to pick that out, especially with the ’80s influence that’s happening these days. It’s been happening for a little while – I do understand what you’re saying, but I also think that’s just the timing of now being far enough, but still kind of close to the ’80s, that it makes sense to pull from it.
It's cool again.
Chris: Just as in ten years, or five years, I bet, people will be pulling from the ’90s. It happens.
I hope so. Who were some of your biggest influences for this record?
Chris: Tears for Fears is a huge one – I talk about that a lot, but it needs to be said. The Cure – I love The Cure, and from an emotional standpoint, I love that songwriting. It’s like the original “emo,” or something, before emo was such a dirty term. Kate Bush, too.
Is this album an album that was supposed to reflect a live show, or is the live show more reflective of the record?
Chris: No, the live show always comes second. It’s not that we don’t put a lot of time into it and prioritize it when it’s time to do so, but the studio is too great an instrument to not play it. You’ve got to use it and all the colors it provides! Growing up, like I already talked about, The Beach Boys, and The Beatles, too – they’re such studio brats, messing around and figuring out weird ways to try things different. That’s what gets me excited about music, so we need to do that. Also, more people are going to hear the recorded version, so it makes sense. We want to capture the feeling and the essence of a song on that – it doesn’t need to be live every night. Then again, you get cooped up in the studio for years, and then all you want to do is go out and play live, so…
Is that where you're at now?
Chris: Yeah! It’s kind of maybe overdue, a bit… But yeah, I’m totally excited to not only be playing live, but also to be playing specifically these songs. They went through so many different versions, and all that – and also, our process is so insular! It’s just the three of us and maybe a girlfriend or our manager – so there’s five people hearing it, and at certain points you’re just like, Fuck, what is this gonna be?! And then as soon as we start putting out songs and playing them, and you see people react… In live, you get to see that visceral reaction so quickly. It kinds of reminds you, Oh yeah! We’re making music that people can listen to.
What can we expect from the show tonight?
Chris: We’re playing pretty much all new songs! We’re pretty psyched, obviously; it’s our record release!
Congratulations again! Any last words for your fans on what this record means to you?
Chris: Thanks so much! We called it Souvenir because it’s a souvenir for us. We spent the last three years making it, and all this stuff happened to us, and we tried to infuse it all, from all three of our lives, into the record. When I listen to it, it brings me back to that time, which is awesome. But I’d love for our fans to have that experience themselves, and if they listen to it – and I’m sure you have albums like this too, where you listen to an album and it brings you back ten years ago – I would love for our record to do that for people at some point, down the line. I know that it’s a dream, but it would be nice!
Why not? You can dream! You're allowed to do that!
Chris: Yeah, I can dream! I’m an idealist.
POP ETC will be on tour in the US throughout March, so don’t miss their invigorating and explosive show.
POP ETC on the Advanced Placement Tour 2016
with BANNERS and The Moth & The Flame
2/29 – Triple Rock – Minneapolis, MN
3/01 – Subterranean – Chicago, IL
3/02 – Shelter – Detroit, MI
3/04 – Adelaide Hall – Toronto, Canada
3/07 – Brighton Music Hall – Allston, MA
3/08 – Santos Party House – New York, NY
3/10 – Foundry – Philadelphia, PA
3/11 – U Street Music Hall – Washington, DC
3/12 – Terminal West – Atlanta, GA
3/15 – Bronze Peacock – Houston, TX
3/19 – Cambridge Room – Dallas, TX
3/21 – Marquis Theatre – Denver, CO
3/22 – Club Sound – Salt Lake City, UT
3/24 – Chop Suey – Seattle, WA
3/25 – Doug Fir Lounge – Portland, OR
3/28 – Social Hall – San Francisco, CA
3/30 – Club Bahia – Los Angeles, CA
3/31 – House of Blues – San Diego, CA
tickets & more info at popetcetera.com