College-town vibes are alive in the dark basement of the Ohio Street house in Lawrence where Fourth of July practices: Pacifico bottles, Predator on TV, a long discussion about litter boxes. The band of brothers — Brendan and Patrick Hangauer, Brian and Brendan Costello — is prepping for the release shows it's playing this month for Empty Moon, another unsparing album of dizzy folk-rock tunes. The group makes two appearances in Kansas City this week: Friday night at the Brick (with Ghosty and the Devil) and an in-store Saturday afternoon at Vinyl Renaissance for Record Store Day.
The Pitch: What has changed in the three years since Before Our Hearts Explode?
Brendan Hangauer: I think the main difference on this record is that Kelly [Hangauer] isn't in the band anymore, and we don't have as much keyboards and organs and trumpets and girl vocals, and things like that. We've been playing shows with just the four of us, and we wanted this record to be stripped-down in a way where we could play it live pretty much the same way it sounds on the record. More of a rock feel. And we recorded it with Chris Crisci, who I think knows our sound really well. I'm a really big fan of [Crisci's bands] Old Canes and Appleseed Cast. He had kind of a punk approach to recording where it's like, if you mess up your part a little bit, he'll be like, "Yeah, that's the take we should use." When I first heard the record, I was like, "Wow that is pretty raw." But as I listened to it, that part of it really grew on me, and now I think it's our best-sounding album for sure.
You guys have put your stuff out on Range Life Records since the beginning. You moved to High Dive Records for this one. How come?
Brendan Hangauer: My brother [Zach Hangauer, Range Life founder] is out in San Francisco now, and Range Life has kind of turned into more of an electronic thing. And if we were doing this new album on Range Life, he could really only afford to do a digital release. So I was shopping it around to labels and stuff, and then Jeff [McCoy] got in touch and said that he had started a label and that the only band on it so far was the ACBs, which is a band we've played some shows with and think is awesome. And we'd known Jeff for a while, just from him coming to our shows and saying he was thinking about starting a record label. But I mean, lots of people say lots of things after a show and a hundred beers, or whatever.
Brian Costello: Yeah, I think at first, when he would talk label stuff to us, none of us took him really seriously. But now, watching him man the merch booth and everything, he's super-organized. He totally knows what he's doing, which is really nice.
Brendan Hangauer: And now I pretty much talk to him five times a day. When I got the vinyl test pressing of the album in the mail a couple months ago, I played it on my record player, and it was off a little bit — it was too fast. And I was freaking out. I called Jeff, and he was just all over it. He got ahold of the guy who cut the lacquer. He was on the phone with me being like, "I'm not putting out anything you don't feel 100 percent about." Totally supportive. Then I went and listened to it on my roommate's record player the next day, and it sounded perfect. It wasn't the vinyl. It was my shitty record player. But, yeah, that's kind of how he is, just a dude who's on your side no matter what, even if you're totally wrong.
I like how the record starts with the jolt of your voice on "Empty Moon."
Brendan Hangauer: That was actually Zach's idea. I still talk to Zach every day. He's the guy I talk to first and foremost about every creative thing. He's the person I trust the most to tell me the truth about stuff I do. Originally, that was the last song, and "Berlin" was the first song. Then Zach was like, "Uh, that's kind of a dark song for an opener." So we swapped them.
It seems like there's been a bit of an exodus in the Lawrence music scene in recent years.
Brendan Hangauer: Definitely. But there's still some great bands and musicians in town. Danny Pound, Cowboy Indian Bear, Hospital Ships. Y(our) Fri(end) is a new one that's pretty good. And a lot of garage-rock bands: Up the Academy, Mouthbreathers.
When you were starting out in the mid-'00s, your sound was pretty well lined up with college-kid tastes. Now it's all about Skrillex and EDM. Is it harder to get college kids out to your shows these days?
Brendan Hangauer: Well, KJHK is sponsoring our release show here in Lawrence. But, yeah, I definitely feel like there's a disconnect with college kids. At the same time, it used to be all our friends who came to our shows — it was kind of a party, an excuse to get drunk and dance and socialize. Now at our shows, I'll look at the crowd and won't recognize any of the faces.
Brian Costello: I've noticed lately, we're getting more dudes in the front row singing along to every song. You'll see guys hanging out before the show, and you're like, Are they here to watch the game or something? Then we start playing, and they're right up front. Whereas it used to be girls up front. I would have never guessed that dudes would be really into what we're doing.
Patrick Hangauer: I think college kids still listen to everything, even though it sometimes seems like they only listen to Skrillex or whatever. There's still college kids coming out to rock shows around here.
Brendan Hangauer: We've played some shows at dorms and stuff. It goes OK. Once we played an event at one of the "cool" dorms, and there was an announcer off to the side of the stage raffling off Xbox 360s. Some kid won, and half the audience followed him up to his dorm room. I mean, these kids are 18 years old. You have to remind yourself how idiotic you were when you were 18 years old.