Brooklyn band The Library is on Fire has been steadily gaining momentum since debuting live at Glasslands Gallery in 2008 (with the Tings Tings opening). With a sound that’s reminiscent of the early 1990′s American indie/alternative rock scene, the songs are a noisy, yet melodic whirlwind of raw guitar riffs, bass and drums, very loud when performed live. “We’re all about volume and sex,” jokes Pete Sustarsic, the band’s drummer.
2009 was quite a year for the band, who played countless shows in New York and threw a lot of parties (read: DIY concerts) at TLIOF HQ, the loft in Bushwick where two of the band members live (the third lives a few blocks away) and where they’ve showcased other acts such as Pterodactyl, Oneida, My Device and Doug Gillard, to name a few. In the same year, the band released an EP called Blue Rider and The Looking Glass Fern, which lead singer and guitarist Steve Five refers to as the band’s heavy record, “Because the guy who recorded us was a hardcore dude and didn’t know what else to do with us besides making us sound like a metal band,” he says, laughing. The Library is on Fire also completed their second full length, Magic Windows, Magic Nights, just released on Fill In The Blank Records.
With their name taken from a poem by 20th-century French poet Rene Char (a favorite of Five’s), The Library is on Fire was at first a manifesto written by Five, a collage artist with an MFA degree in Creative Writing, and it became a recording project in 2007 when he was living in Kent. The debut album, Cassette, was released in 2008, and not long after, Five, an Ohio native who had lived in New York for a stint a few years earlier, returned to the city where he was joined by fellow Ohioan Sustarsic and bassist Mark Shue (from Virginia), completing TLIOF’s line-up.
I caught up with all three members of The Library is on Fire right before one of their recent shows in NYC.
How did you all meet?
Mark: Steve and I met at an art opening for Robert Pollard, and we realized we had a lot of common interests.
So, Steve and Pete, you’re both from Ohio, did you know each other before moving to New York?
Pete: A little bit – we knew of each other when we were living in Ohio, but we didn’t start hanging out until he moved to New York. Then we started living together, once we fell in love (jokes!).
“But their love life is a little rocky,” jokes Mark, to which Pete responds, “I’ve been on the couch.” “We have a working relationship,” adds Steve. [with everyone laughing]
Tell me about the manifesto (The Library is on Fire) that you wrote.
Steve: The manifesto came from my personal beliefs about life. At the time, I was picking myself up from hitting rock bottom, and had a very laid-bare approach to life in general. The manifesto is basically a call to action for doing something with your life before you die, or for doing things despite being faced with oblivion. Most of it was included in the liner notes to Cassette, our first album, but the typeface gets more and more difficult to read the further the liner notes go on. That in and of itself is pretty The Library is on Fire-esque: the breakdown of knowledge.
On the making of Magic Windows, Magic Nights:
Steve: We recorded about half of the album using an analog 4-track. We used a Tascam Porta One that we found on Craigslist for about $75. It’s the first commercially produced 4-track. Guided By Voices did their first two records (Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand) on that same model, and Bruce Springsteen recorded Nebraska on one as well. It has a very distinct sound quality to it. I also did some field recordings for incidentals between songs on an old Solid State cassette deck. We had a lot of the ideas hashed out with pre-production and everything before we went into the studio with Todd Tobias. And we’d booked a couple of shows right before recording, so we were tight when we went into the studio. It went by really quickly — we just sort of banged it out.
Mark: We did the basic tracking in three days. In all total, with mixing and everything, it was maybe not quite a week and a half. We did a couple of shows during the studio time as well, while we were doing the tracking.
Steve: We were very efficient, I think. And we even had guests! Derek Stanton from Awesome Color came down from Michigan and recorded a solo with us. He kind of has the same way of doing things, so he just came in, plugged in and did it without being too much of a prima donna about it! [laughs]
Pete: I’m excited that the record is finally coming out. We recorded around Christmas 2008, but when I say 2008 that makes it sound like years ago. [laughs]
Steve: Yeah, we finished it in January 2009, and we had it mastered and then remastered it over the summer with a guy Brooklyn who had really good equipment. We’ve been thinking about this record and dealing with it for a long time, so it is kind of a relief to have it out now.
So is your writing style a collaborative effort?
Steve: Yeah, it has been. Mark has written some of the songs, and I’ve written some. And there have been a couple of songs where we would bring in the bones or structure of a song and then hash it out in a band set up. “Monkey in My Chair” and “I Am Warrior” are songs Mark wrote. “Smoke And Mirrors” I wrote sort of the structure for, but it really came to life within the band set up.
Mark: We had this rehearsal space in Manhattan where we rehearsed for a while, and we had a slot super late at night. We’d come in and get drunk and, like, play. There was this furious pace – we were only in there for two or three hours at any given time, maximum once a week. We were sleep deprived and there was this sort of fiery pace and haze in which the songs were written. I think the pace that it was recorded at was an honest reflection of how it was conceived.
The new album seems little mellower, slower overall, at least on my first listen.
Steve: I feel like I got better guitar tones on the new record, but in places it’s probably heavier than the first one. It also has more dynamics, so there are some softer spots.
Pete: It has heavier parts and it has softer parts, whereas Cassette was more even straight through. But this album doesn’t feel weird. Everything kind of makes sense and it flows well, and there are peaks and valleys in it, which I enjoy.
Does the title Magic Windows, Magic Nights have anything to do with the loft in Brooklyn? If not, where did it come from?
Steve: The album title isn’t directly from the loft, though we do have a nice view of Manhattan. The title actually came from a book called Inspiration for Printers, from the West Virginia Printing Co. It’s this crazy book with all these different strange illustrations and fonts, all really well made with quality ink and paper. They don’t print ‘em like that anymore. The company has since merged into a bigger, boring company. I found the book in the dollar racks outside Strand bookstore in Manhattan. When we were flipping through it, we first saw the phrase “magic windows,” and we thought that was awesome. Then we saw the phrase “magic nights” and thought that was awesome and couldn’t choose. So we chose both.
Who are some of your influences?
Steve: I’d say the usual suspects like Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Guided By Voices. Matthew Sweet was a really big influence of mine when I was probably about 13, so I’ve never been able to escape that sort of sappy lovelorn kind of thing. [laughs] And also a lot of post-punk and 1990s post-hardcore, like emo hardcore before it was like what people call emo now — bands like Born Against, Fugazi, The Monorchid, Universal Order of Armageddon. Nick Drake also is a big influence of mine. I spent a year learning how to play some his songs, in between one of my old bands and this band. Devo, The Shins, Iron & Wine, I could go on and on!
What other things are you involved in, besides TLIOF?
Mark: Library is the first band I played in after moving to New York, although I’ve done little side projects with friends here and there. I’d played guitar before, but bass was new to me. I just sort of started playing it like it was a guitar, and now I mostly just prefer playing bass.
Steve: I have a side project with Todd Tobias called Brother Earth, where he does the music and I write lyrics. I also work at a bar called Trophy, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it a day job. (Pete jokingly interjects, “It’s a night job!”) It’s a big DJ bar, so there’s a lot of house music and disco and hip-hop, stuff that I wasn’t necessarily steeped in, but I’ve made some good friends and now I have a pretty good grasp on DJ culture. The DFA Records crowd hangs out there a lot.
(Steve is also a sound and recording engineer, having toured with Ex Models, and engineering albums by Red Dawn II, Oneida and usaisamonster; Mark works in advertising and Pete at a sushi restaurant in Manhattan.)
(Mark jokes that Pete plays in “about 37 other bands,” but one other band that he is currently playing drums in is Oberhofer.)
You are good friends with the Brighton band My Device and had an East Coast tour with them last year. Do you think you’ll have any more shows or tours together?
Steve: We’d like to. We’ve been talking about maybe doing a European tour together, so maybe that’ll happen.
Mark: We’d also talked about doing a split release with them.
Steve: We’re doing another sort of album called Missed Connections that will be out on iTunes in April or May. It’s a collection of demos and other unreleased recordings that didn’t make it onto the albums. We don’t actually have much planned yet in terms of supporting the new record. We’ll continue to play in New York, and hopefully there will be another East Coast tour and maybe the Midwest in the fall. –Teresa Sampson, Photos by Tear-n Tan