“I can’t stress it enough, I feel kind of crazy if I’m not writing all the time.”
So says Chris Chu, whose Brooklyn-based band is set to release Souvenir, their second full-length album as POP ETC. But unlike previous efforts where the trio would write 15 to 20 songs at most, each influenced by certain cohesive elements, and then whittle down their favorites to a manageable album’s length, this time around Chu decided to chase his muse wherever it might take him. And by letting the creative waters flow—and flow—POP ETC have landed in a new sonic territory resulting in their most exciting work to date.
Around the end of 2012, as the touring for previous album POP ETC was winding down, Chu began writing songs for a new record, but with no clear endpoint in mind. “I feel happiest when I’m making and writing music every day, and I kind of get addicted to that,” says Chu. “I’m always looking for things outside of myself for inspiration but I also just love to see where music can go by itself, if I just start playing some chords and singing without thinking about it.” As he wrote, at home in New York and also in Japan, where he splits his time, Chu would stumble across musical moments and even whole tunes that he liked, but largely felt the urge to keep writing more and more. Driven to explore ideas of all kinds and from many different corners of his palette, Chu worked tirelessly, not even altogether recognizing what it was that drove him.
“This album revealed itself after a long period of time,” says Chu. “I kept writing songs and I never felt like an album was ready, and I’m not sure why. Multiple times I thought a record was being written and then I couldn’t finish it or it didn’t end up coming together in the right way. Many times we had so many songs it felt crazy to continue to write—it felt like we should go back and reinvestigate all these ideas we had before—but I kept feeling there was something I was after out there that I hadn’t found yet, so I kept writing ’til I did.”
What he did find in the songs, illustrated beautifully in Souvenir’s catchy anthem “I Wanted To Change the World But the World Changed Me,” was a pervading sense of catharsis—and learning how to find it, recognize it, and keep it, as we grow. Even though Chu found success through his music at an early age, he allowed the process of making this album to teach him new lessons about his craft as well as his life. And by embracing those moments of growth, he and his bandmates, Jon Chu and Julian Harmon, were able to create something that truly represents POP ETC’s lot in life, here on the threshold of the decade’s second half.
“There’s an idea in that song that pervades the whole album, that when you’re young you have these ideas about how your life should play out and these grandiose things you want to do,” says Chu. “But as I got older, I was more satiated by just being around the people I love and finding ways to be happy together. I’ve found a different perspective and I’m living in a smaller circle, I guess. But there is some sadness there, of course, just in the act of growing up and recognizing how your life is turning out different than you expected. How life is a lot messier and chaotic than you thought it would be when you were a kid.
“Part of what made the process of making this album endure is that I really love my band,” he continues. “When everything comes together and we arrange a song that turns out in a way that makes us all excited, like we’ve found the way the song is supposed to be—that’s the feeling we’re constantly after. Even while writing these hundreds of songs we ended up throwing away, you still get those little moments—that little ‘eureka’ moment where everything clicks and feels really good. It’s part of what keeps me writing and looking for new and better songs. We wanted to make an album full of those moments.”
Since they had explored so much new turf during the writing process, POP ETC thought it only fitting to continue the trend while recording, and Chu and company set up shop in his Brooklyn apartment to record the majority of Souvenir at home. Naming the makeshift studio “Headphone Cave,” they committed to tape almost all of the tracks except drums and certain vocals there, a process Chu found incredibly liberating especially in the context of the multitude of material.
“Recording at home really changed the process,” he says. “We never would have been able to write and record so many songs if we didn’t have total freedom in our studio setup. Usually I would just engineer things myself by default, and the more comfortable I got with it, the quicker I would go from writing a song to producing and arranging the track. It’s kind of a more natural way to make music because I often write songs with a groove or vibe in mind, so it’s nice to quickly get that down and show the dudes what I was feeling for a song.”
The vibe throughout Souvenir surges with energy and bristles with a newfound confidence that uplifts it even higher than the band’s previous marks. Songs like “What Am I Becoming?” and “Vice” teem with electronic elements and synapses of synths that could almost place them a few decades distant, but Chu’s earnest delivery and attitude deliver a timeless sound. In fact, “What Am I Becoming?” was one of the final tunes completed for the album and was the result of a serendipitous revisiting, and as such Chu identifies it as one of the most confident moments on the album, as he, his brother, and Harmon were reaching their collaborative peak. “That song feels very much like a product of us working at home, following our instincts wherever they took us,” he says. “I think because we were really able to explore each song until it felt 100-percent perfect to all three of us, it feels really natural even though it came together in a fractured way.”
Another boundary broken down during the making of Souvenir was around the band member’s roles themselves. Chu chalks this up to the length of time they spent together playing with different ideas, and refers to their roles as being curators as much as individual instrumentalists. “We were constantly tweaking songs together,” he says. “We produced the album as a band. We were all wearing a bunch of different hats. Julian played drums, Jon would play keyboards, but beyond that we would all contribute ideas that helped make the arrangements work exactly right. We built the songs together, and our hope is that you can hear all three of our personalities in them.”
From a massive swath of endless ideas and unlimited potential to a drum-tight, collaboratively curated and focused group of precise and polished songs, POP ETC have embraced a new path that still leads to those eureka moments they have always sought. And Chu, never short on sentiment, reflects on the album’s slice-of-life mentality with a nostalgic appreciation.
“We spent so long writing, not knowing what the album was going to be,” says Chu. “In the end, what made it come together and feel like it was ready was distance. I took some space from it and when I put it back on, it instantly transported me back to that time in such a strong way; that feeling of trying to come to terms with life turning out different than I expected. It feels like a time capsule for these last few years. We experienced a lot in our lives during the making of this record, it has a pretty heavy feeling to it—it’s a souvenir of that period for us.”