Book 'em
The Librarians rock the stacks.

By Phil Herrick

THE STAGE AT 924 Gilman is cramped, and judging from the way Ryan Gan is dancing, I'm pretty sure he's going to knock something over.

I'm right – it's a microphone.

But Gan, the anti-frontperson frontperson of the Librarians, isn't even fazed. Though on the record, Gan's job is limited to backup vocals and tambourine for vocalist-guitarist Damon Larson, he explodes into his full potential onstage with spastic tambourine beating and poster-worthy one-hand-on-the-hip-the-other-thrust-skyward poses. His performance is truly horrifying in its cheesiness, and yet it's unnervingly mesmerizing. It's a kind of innocence-lost scenario: everyone reaches the same guilty conclusion, "Christ, why don't more bands do this?"

Listening to the Librarians' recent debut, The Pathetic Aesthetic (Pandacide Records), I'd say the last thing that comes to mind is a late-20s Asian American dude in biker gloves doing what appears to be an intensely personal tribute to glam rock. No, you'd think the recording was the product of a bunch of high school boys who see their punk-laced power pop as a way to get laid. Or, more to the Librarians' credit, you might think of the Replacements or a younger Elvis Costello. It's true, The Pathetic Aesthetic supplies enough catchy hooks and vocal harmonies to haunt you day and night, but at no point does it prepare you for their live show.

Reading, writing, rocking

Gan's stage persona has always been at the core of the Librarians' mission. Larson and Gan formed the band back in 1999 when they were both at UC Berkeley. "It was hard to start a band in college, with all the school, drinking, irresponsibility," Larson says later in an interview at a Berkeley cafe. Sitting amid a slew of Cal students, he lays off the caffeine and rolls his own cigarettes instead – though the women around him hassle him for smoking outside.

In the beginning they played co-op parties, winning fans with Gan's unhinged performances and their poppy odes to raver girls. By 2001 they had added Lucas White on bass and Ben Adrian on drums, and the Librarians were beginning to look like a "real band." In February the group placed first at Cal's Battle of the Bands, giving them the shove they needed to get into the studio.

Soon after, Petaluma's Pandacide Records hooked the guys up with Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. But sadly, the recording sessions didn't bear fruit. "It sounded like shit, and we scrapped it all," Larson says. So the band opted to record at Feedback Loop Industries, a.k.a. Adrian's bedroom.

Snotty punk pop

The standout feature of the 12-track debut is Larson's vocals. They shine. Or maybe better: they crater the side of a mountain. Larson croons his verses in a snotty Britpop kind of way that is at once playful, funny, and unabashedly naive. Choruses like "She'll be my lover if I rock like Sammy Hagar tonight" make you laugh even as they make you shake your head with embarrassment. "I have an adolescent mind," Larson confesses.

But it's more than that. Larson's oscillating arrogance and self-consciousness swing a little too close for comfort for anyone over the age of 13. These guys have matured since high school, and they cut the self-aggrandizement with a measure of irony. Would some punk rocker who can only play power cords sing, "Why do you dress like a rockstar when you can't even play the guitar?" That'd be like the emperor admitting he has no bondage pants.

Larson says the songs dis other dopes' silly shenanigans – but he's far from exempt. "I should know. I participated in the same thing," he quips. Still, his odes to one-night stands and slutty girls can't be written off as simply pent-up bitterness. Larson's lyrics parody adolescent love songs, yet they are love songs.

To their credit, and like many other indie bands before them, everything about the Librarians is double-coded. The nuanced commentary Larson accomplishes lyrically is carried on in a not so nuanced manner onstage. And their live shows are in response to the visually stagnant indie rock concerts that bore them. "There's a certain self-righteousness in punk rock and indie that I don't like," Larson complains. "I'd go see these indie rock bands and be like, 'Why are you playing live in the first place?' "

Dance fever

Enter Gan, the frontperson-go-go boy who doesn't really do much singing. As he sees it, that's not a problem. "The frontman should be the one who says, 'You should be like me,' " Gan explains. Translation: shake your ass like you're having a seizure. "The next evolution is less singing and more posturing," he adds.

Gan's dancing stands out among musicians who try to maintain some veneer of cool. Even in the Bay Area, he explains, the trend is to neglect stage shenanigans in order to remain inaccessible. Both Gan and Larson agree this preoccupation with aloofness is a shame – everyone has less fun. "I'm always excited to see a live show," Larson says, "but usually it's mopey."

But the Librarians are optimistic. The scene is starting to change. Indie rockers are getting into hip-hop, and that's adding a new groove to the music. "Now it's – bam – in your face with this weird-ass shit," Larson says, explaining the appeal of Oakland's Gravy Train!!!! "That's what it was supposed to be like in the beginning."

And ultimately, it's the weird-ass shit that the Librarians aspire to: taking their crazed antics and fusing them with their catchy pop. Gan calls it "something new with respect for the old," and references Sonic Youth as a model. A pretty tall order, don't you think? Yeah, but the Librarians also call themselves the future of rock, as Gan says, "like it or not."

play Aug. 23, 10 p.m., Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., S.F. $8. (415) 621-4455.

August 13, 2003