One would be hard-pressed to find a more entertaining or quick-witted band in town than the Hibernauts. On a recent Tuesday evening at Blueberry Hill, the groups discussion topics jump from the relative merits of the sitcom Roseanne, to the subtle differences in meaning between the words obscenity and vulgarity, to reminiscing about teenage shenanigans.
But what stands out the most during an interview with the genial local indie-rock quartet is the laughter. And camaraderie. Chatting often seems like a competition between the four, to see who can crack each other up the most by doing impressions, telling ribald stories, tossing out pop culture references or taking good-natured digs at one another. Red-haired singer/guitarist Jack Stevens and burly, long-haired bassist Bill Vehige (picture director Kevin Smith, only with glasses) unleash sarcastic one-liners and hilarious comments that are biting and clever without being mean-spirited. Slight, soft-spoken guitarist Tom McArthur adds thoughtful observations on the band and its music, while earnest drummer Brett Ramsey the youngest member of the band, at 24 chimes in with guileless, unflagging enthusiasm about, well, everything.
Now, a solid combination of humor and intelligence doesn't automatically make a band good. But for the Hibernauts, booming personalities go hand-in-hand with a dynamic live show and inventive songwriting and an ever-increasing positive buzz around town. The new Periodic Fable should only help matters: It's one of the best local releases of the year to date. Fable is difficult to pigeonhole, although echoes of classic well-constructed Britpop, Sloan's lush power-pop, the droning dourness of the Walkmen and the jagged quirks of Modest Mouse are all present.
More important, each of the disc's seven songs feel like driving down a winding road, a path full of so many twists and turns you're not sure what's around the next corner. "Into the Storm/Out to the Sea," for instance, starts with an insidiously catchy keyboard melody that winds around kicky, danceable rhythms; the middle section features sharper, strident harmonies and prominently plucked guitar notes; and the end evolves into an atmospheric mood piece with ambience reminiscent of Flaming Lips. (The dreamy, wistful vocals especially conjure Wayne Coyne.)
Elsewhere, the Secret Machines-like "People Better Than You" begins with showers of shimmering riffs and builds steadily to a conclusion of harmonies that criss-cross and overlap like a giant fireworks display. The jittery dance-punk and quivering riffs driving "Sleeping in Space" could filter out of any club involved in the modern Los Angeles indie-rock scene. And the highlight "Scissors" starts slow and sparse, before hand-claps, distressed guitars and an anguished chorus of, "You always pick scissors!" coalesce into a delightfully moody mope-rock gem.
In terms of its crisp production values and exuberant atmosphere, Fable is similar to another recent local release: Gentleman Auction House's The Rules Were Handed Down. Which isn't a surprise, considering that three members of that band Mike Tomko, Eric Enger and Steve Kozel were integral to the sound of the Hibernauts record. (Fun fact: McArthur played bass for GAH at its first gig. Vehige's deadpan retort: "Tom's the Pete Best of Gentleman Auction House.")
"There's a lot of mutual respect between the two bands," Ramsey says. "We don't have terribly similar sounds, but we just like each other so much. We want to see them do well, they want to see us do well."
The Hibernauts tracked the instrumental portions of Fable at Tomko's house/home studio in what Stevens terms one "grueling weekend. It was basically a big sleepover, a bunch of stinky dudes hanging out." (Vocals, on the other hand, took three months to record.) But the time and effort that Eric Enger (who co-engineered Fable with Tomko) and Steve Kozel (or as Vehige calls the Fable producer, "Steve 'One More Time' Kozel") dedicated to the album clearly made all the difference in the world to the Hibernauts.
"The reason the album sounds so good is because of the amount of time that Steve and Eric put into it," Vehige says.
"Steve was in the tracking room at all times," Ramsey says. "He also had to deal with giving us suggestions about how to change our songs. With this band, the way we write songs, we work as one unit. [When] someone else jumps in and goes, 'Hey, I think you should do this and that,' it's a hard pill for us to swallow, especially since we've never done this before. [But] they did a really, really good job. It's the best version of us."
It's not an exaggeration to say that the current lineup of the Hibernauts is also its best version. Jack Stevens and Tom McArthur have known each other since high school. Back then, the pair played in a band called the Grovers, which lacked a singer. (Quips Vehige: "You guys were in a band, and neither one of you sang? Guess you guys could have taken that as a clue." Cue laughter.) Vehige and McArthur became friends and roommates while attending college in Columbia bonding over the Wu-Tang Clan, a four-track rap project and, Vehige says dryly, "I think it would be remiss to not mention pot."
But when Stevens and McArthur eventually moved back to the area and formed the Hibernauts, the band had other, different members involved. It wasn't until late 2004 that the duo looking to take the band in different directions tapped Vehige to play bass and found drummer Ramsey.
A Troy, Illinois, native and then-SLU student, Ramsey was drumming in a cover band called Machismo, playing songs by Led Zeppelin, Radiohead and the Rolling Stones.
"When you're a drummer, everyone's always going, 'Hey man, I got a buddy who's looking for a drummer, he plays acoustic whatever.' You always get it," Ramsey says.
However, in the Hibernauts' case, this nagging first from Stevens' ex-girlfriend, who happened to work in the same office as Ramsey, and then from Stevens himself paid off.
"He came in, he fucking rocked," Vehige recalls of a tryout rehearsal. "We're trying to play it cool. We're not going to be like, 'Hey you're in the band' right away. He's like, 'Well you know, just call me if you guys decide I'm going to be in the band.' He walks out the door and we're like, 'He's in the band.'"
The quartet's comfortable interactions reflect that instant chemistry. Vehige describes the band as "a family of four" and that's the most concise (and correct) summary of the Hibernauts around.
"Me and Jack, we've been together fourteen years playing music," McArthur says. "Within a month [of the current lineup being together], it's like, we've never really had any situation before where it was such a tight-knit group of guys [and] great friends."
As Ramsey puts it: "It used to be the Jack and Tom show, the Hibernauts. Now it's like a band."
"I know Gentleman Auction House, Eric [Enger] shows up with a song written and basically doles out parts to play," Stevens adds. "Some of my favorite bands are like that like Spiritualized, it's basically one guy that's conducting the whole thing. I would hate to be in a band like that. I like the democracy of this band.
"This band is just totally based on...I don't know, synergy I guess, for lack of a better term," he concludes. "None of us are very good, but...the sum is greater than its parts."