West Virginia has not been the site of many positive things lately. Between Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution exposing the state’s school cafeteria failings and the recent mining disaster, residents of the Mountain State could use a win wherever they can get it. Enter Morgantown, WV’s Librarians, who recently released their sophomore LP, Present Passed, an album that deserves to dominate ears this summer.
After releasing their dance-punk indebted debut, Alright Easy Candy Stranger in 2006, the Librarians spent a few years growing up and reinventing their sonic aesthetic. Their latest release, Present Passed is a florid psych-pop album that deftly weaves together influences as disparate as the baroque pop of the Zombies, the moody post-punk of Echo and the Bunnymen and the hypnotic grooves of Animal Collective—sometimes all in the course of the one song.
PopMatters spoke with the band’s co-leader, Ryan Hizer, about Morgantown’s surprisingly cool music scene, those fickle things called influences and the band you should really be listening to: Big Ass Manatee.
I’m curious about the music scene in Morgantown [West Virginia]—what is it like down there?
It’s pretty awesome. We started playing here in about 2004, and it kind of evolved over time to touch on different genres. I guess it used to be more of a Guided By Voices sort of pop/rock-influenced scene, and now it’s a little more experimental. Not crazy experimental, but a little less jangly guitar and big drums and stuff like that. It’s always been really strong. It’s a really cool place to play music, but it’s kind of isolated though. Not that many people know how cool it is here.
I actually went to college in Knoxville, TN [another small, Southern college town] and it seems like the trajectory of the music scene down there is pretty similar to what’s been happening in Morgantown.
I feel that’s kind of happening everywhere. Those experimental tendencies are coming out of more and more bands nowadays than they did in the early part of the decade.
Do you have a lot of bands that you consider like-minded peers?
Yeah. I mean, none of us necessarily sound like each other, but we all share the same sort of curiosity about what you could do with music—existing outside of those basic ideas of what makes a song.
They’re your kindred spirits.
Yeah, we all get along and understand what we’re all trying to do, even if we’re not trying to do the same thing.
Your first album [Alright Easy Candy Stranger] has a dance-punk vibe that is completely absent on Present Passed. Listening to Present Passed, it feels like these two albums were made by two different bands. What was the motivation for changing your sound so drastically?
Well, when we started, we were all 19 years old and freshmen in college. So, we were just trying to figure out what we liked about music to begin with, developing our own tastes and things like that. It’s been six years now and we’ve sort of gone through our fads. The first album was even more influenced by what was coming out at the time like Les Savy Fav and all that post-punk/angular guitar stuff. The new album is certainly influenced by its time, but I think we tried to not emulate what we like as much on this one, and just write some songs that we were kinda proud of.
One of the first things that drew me to Present Passed was the breadth of influences on the record—influences that are all interwoven pretty seamlessly. Were there any particular touchstones for this album or a sound you guys were striving for?
We didn’t really discuss a particular sound. We knew that we wanted to do something that was unlike the last album, and we kinda just attacked it with the idea that we would see what happened. We recorded it ourselves this time, so we had the luxury of recording at our own pace and making sure it was turning out how we wanted it to. They’re definitely different albums, but we really like it that way. I’m sure the next album won’t sound anything like this one.
So, you guys self-produced Present Passed? It sounds amazing. I never would have guessed that.
[laughs] Well, a lot of that has to do with the mix. Our friend, Dave Klug—who I used to be in a few bands with—mixed it, and he did a mind-blowing job on it. If you hear the mixes we did ourselves, they don’t sound nearly as high quality as what Dave was able to do with it.
What’s the division of labor like within the band? Are you the main songwriter?
I guess. I usually come up with the primary idea for a song, and I’ll even go so far as to make an entire fleshed-out demo of a song with parts that I think other people might like to play. Trey, the other vocalist in the band, writes songs as well in the same fashion. Ideally, we like to get the basis for the song down and then get together and work on it together and try to build it up. I will say that the lion’s share of the songwriting falls on Trey and I.
Can you tell me about Big Ass Manatee [a side-project]? Does that include all of you guys, or just some of the Librarians?
It’s all of us and a few of our friends—a few more guys. That was my junior year of college, which would have been 2004-2005. I was just screwing around in my bedroom making little fun remixes of songs, and just gave them out to my friends. Then, this girl I know said we should really play a show with it, and I was like ‘Man, I have no idea how we’d be able to play this live.’ It was a weird idea. Anyway, we got it together and pulled it off. It’s actually probably more popular locally than the Librarians.
Is that a way for you guys to continue flexing your dance muscles?
Yeah, absolutely. Because we really wanted to do something completely different for this new Librarians album, but we were like “we still get to do this”: be a super fun, live, dance-y, party band on the side.
Now that you bring it up, do you guys do pretty well as the Librarians in Morgantown, or are you more well known as Big Ass Manatee?
Initially, there was more for the Librarians, but we’re probably more well known to the random Morgantown student as Big Ass Manatee. I would like to think it’s split down the middle, but, really honestly, we’re not on the tip of everyone’s tongue down here as a band. As far as our little music community goes, we’re certainly known, but to the general populace in Morgantown, I don’t think most people know about either band, honestly.
So, should I turn this into a Big Ass Manatee interview?
[laughs] I can do both. I can play two roles here.
It will be a double feature. What are your plans for the immediate future? Will there be a tour to support Present Passed?
We’re working on a month-long tour, which probably won’t happen until September because we don’t really know a lot of people. We need to scour the Internet for contacts and bands that might want to play with us. In the meantime, we’re gonna try to do some weekend dates and play some places that we’ve already played before in our little tri-state area like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
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