An Interview with Django Haskins of The Old Ceremony
Posted September 13, 2012on:
Django Haskins is the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for The Old Ceremony, whose fifth album, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide, was recently released on their new label, Yep Roc Records. With his side project, a tribute to iconic 70’s band Big Star, Django has also shared stages with the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Ray Davies, and FP’s unrequited crush Sharon Van Etten. In anticipation of TOC’s Sept. 18 record release party at Santos Party House, editor Keith Meatto chatted with Django (whom he has known since they were students at Yale) about the new album, vibraphones and guitar solos, unreliable narrators and unusual holidays, mass avian death, politics, literature, and the power of stars.
FP: How is a fairytale a form of suicide?
DH: Well, the title isn’t meant to be taken too literally, but to me, the idea is that a fairytale (or a mythology) can either be an archetype that leads you toward greater things, a cautionary tale to keep you on the path, or — here’s where the song comes in — a hologram whose unreality you don’t always fully realize. It’s not that mythologies are inherently dangerous; but without a good understanding of the difference between real life and fantasy, they can be. You can kill someone with a glass of milk; it all depends on how it’s used.
FP: The new album seems to have a quieter and more subdued sound than previous records by The Old Ceremony, and perhaps some more country influences. Were these conscious choices?
DH: We’ve always had some country influences: my living in North Carolina and growing up with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson means there will always be a bit of that. As for the subdued thing, I may not be the best judge, as I think of Sun Kil Moon as appropriate party music.
FP: One instrument that distinguishes The Old Ceremony’s sound is the vibraphone. How did the band come to have a vibraphonist?
DH: I agree, the vibraphone is a key part of the band’s sound. When I was putting the band together, I got a call from a friend who insisted that we needed a vibraphone, and that his friend Mark Simonsen was just the man to do it. Turns out he was right on both counts. It’s an amazing instrument (again, in the right hands), and it allows Mark to add all kinds of unusual textures.
FP: As in the past, you take guitar solos on the new record. Why do you think so few indie rock guitarists do anymore?
DH: I have no idea why they don’t. I do it because it’s a different way to express myself that doesn’t involve words. That’s why other guys in the band take solos too — vibraphone, violin, organ — it’s a way to have a completely unscripted section of a song that will be different every night.
FP: I hear a lot of Tom Waits, Tom Petty, and Elvis Costello in your music. Who are your musical influences in terms of playing, songwriting, and singing?
DH: My musical influences are really scattered. I do love those guys you mentioned, as well as Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Paul Westerberg, Thelonious Monk, Dylan, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, Nick Lowe, Astor Piazolla, Neutral Milk Hotel, Serge Gainsbourg, Wilco, Frank Sinatra, REM, the Shirelles, Neil Young, Nina Simone, the Kinks, CAN, Miles Davis. Music allows so many different approaches that I can’t be bothered to pick just one, whether it’s listening or writing.
FP: What is Beebe, Arkansas? And who’s the female vocalist on that song?
DH: Beebe, AR was the site of a bizarre phenomenon a couple of years ago when, on New Year’s Eve, thousands of blackbirds dropped dead all over the town. It was littered with dead birds for no apparent reason. Then after I wrote the song, it happened again (again on New Year’s Eve). It just got my allegorical brain revving. Christy Smith, a wonderful songwriter with Tender Fruit, sang the song with me, and did an amazing job.
FP: One of the new songs is called “Sink or Swim.” Is that your attitude toward life?
DH: I guess this is the trouble with writing in the voice of an unreliable narrator. Everyone thought Randy Newman hated short people or the Bruce Springsteen was really jazzed about being born in America. I wrote the song after watching the GOP primary debates, one after another, and being revolted by the way that they seem to feel no responsibility for their fellow citizens, much less fellow humans. It’s written in the voice of someone who thinks that if someone dies from not being able to afford insurance, then ((shrug)) that’s the free market at work.
FP: Another new song is called “Middle Child.” Are you one in your family?
DH: I’m not, but my lady is. Middle children are a pretty unsung lot, and I thought it was about time that they got their own song.
FP: Two of your new songs are about holidays in unusual locations (“Elsinore” and “The Royal We”). What’s the most unusual trip you’ve ever taken?
DH: Ha, I never noticed that. We did a European tour last summer that involved some pretty exotic locales. Driving through the hills toward Prague, barely seeing through the rain and mist, not speaking a word of Czech or having any idea where we were (our GPS didn’t cover the Czech Republic) was one of the more memorable moments for me.
FP: Speaking of travel, you’ve recently played some big festivals (South by Southwest, Barbican in London, and the Primavera Fest in Barcelona with the Big Star revival project. How did that come about and what have you learned from the experience?
DH: Our friend and sometime collaborator Chris Stamey put the Big Star Third project together in order to bring Big Star’s last, unperformed record to life with full orchestration. It was a mammoth task, and he deserves all the credit for carrying it off. It’s been quite a thrill to get to know these folks, and I’ve made some great friendships through the show. Singing backup with Jeff Tweedy or Ray Davies, singing duets with Sharon or Tift Merritt, all these experiences have been fun and goofy and remind me how lucky we all are to be in the rock and roll business.
FP: Speaking of business, what are your thoughts on the state of the music industry in 2012?
There’s a music industry in 2012? Actually, my thoughts on it have changed somewhat as a result of seeing what Yep Roc has been doing with our record. The pie-in-the-sky era of the record business is gone, and ain’t coming back. But despite the miniaturization of music (both literally and figuratively) in our lives, nothing speaks to people in the same way, and I don’t believe that we will ever be satisfied to hear music only in ringtones, advertisements, and video games. Maybe that’s the Old Guy in me talking. Hey, I mean, we just put out our new record on vinyl.
FP: As in the past, some of your new songs (“Elsinore,” “Day I Was Born,” and “The Royal We” contain literary allusions. What are some of your recent favorite –and all-time favorite—books?
I read a lot of non-fiction these days. But I have also been enjoying E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate). I also read Travels with Charley not too long ago and enjoyed his ornery voice. As for all time favorites, I love Fitzgerald (Gatsby in particular), Salman Rushdie (Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh) and Bulgakov (Master and Margerita).
FP: Clearly discernible (and often literary) lyrics are another hallmark of your songs. Do you write lyrics before you write music or vice versa?
I never write the lyrics first. Either they come at the same time or I write dummy lyrics and eventually fill them in with real ones. I can’t really do the lyrics separately because they depend so much on the rhythms and shapes of the melody. Otherwise they end up sounding clunky and superimposed. I guess that’s just the way my brain works. I admire people who can do lyrics first though.
FP: Your non-musical writing projects include a biography of your great-grandfather, Karl Howell Behr, who survived the Titanic, and a touring memoir, both of which we have excerpted on Frontier Psychiatrist. How are those coming?
I am working on the Behr biography, but for the past couple of years, my main writing focus has been on my other project, “Painting the Town,” which is a hybrid touring memoir and urban history book. I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel on that one, at last. Once I’ve reached a stopping point with that, I’m looking forward to turning back to the biography, which has been rolling around my brain for years now. In the meantime, I was lucky enough to be guest editor for Magnet recently, and am working on some other short pieces for different outlets.
FP: We first met as students when you were studying Chinese and I was studying Japanese. Can you still speak, read, and write Chinese? How has studying the language influenced your music?
I can still speak and read Chinese. My writing is horrible. Languages have always been a way to exercise my brain and stretch in into new shapes. That it also requires development of the ear makes it particularly fun for a musician. But apart from a couple of Mandarin songs I’ve written for TOC, I haven’t been using it much lately. Though I did revive my college Spanish when the Big Star show played Barcelona recently, which was fun.
FP: The first and last songs of the new album both contain references to stars (celestial, not rock or big stars). Are you a stargazer?
Not really, but I think that thematically (specifically with this album’s themes), stars are interesting. We see them but will probably never reach them in our lifetimes. We organize clusters of them together into shapes that supposedly mean something, but the meaning is all in our heads. Plus by the time their light reaches us, they may be already dead.
Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. The Old Ceremony plays Sept. 17 at Standard Hotel East Village (invite only; to request an invite contact the band on Facebook) and Sept. 18 at Santos Party House.