Django Haskins of Durham, NC’s The Old Ceremony wants to cut the crap. He has no more patience for idealized love songs that seep into your blood like sugary cereal, leaving you tired and empty. In fact, he finds them harmful. With his band’s new album, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide, their first for Yep Roc Records, Haskins’ artistic awakening reaches full flower. More than any of their past records, Fairytales coheres around a central theme: of awakening to the world as it is and learning to see the beauty in its harshness. Meditations on love (“Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide,” “The Royal We,” “Day That I Was Born,”), politics (“Sink or Swim”), and scientific progress (“Star by Star”) all return to this central theme, as does the haunting “Beebe, Arkansas,” based on the bizarre phenomenon of 5000 blackbirds dropping dead on a small town overnight two years in a row. It is an album of late night reckonings, punctuated by hopeful blasts of sunshine. And for lovers of classic songcraft, it is a gold mine.
The past two years has seen Haskins singing, playing, and MC’ing a tribute to Big Star’s Third album, in which Big Star drummer Jody Stephens and legendary producer Chris Stamey are joined by members of REM, the Replacements, Posies, Wilco, Yo La Tengo, labelmate Robyn Hitchcock, Sharon Van Etten, even Ray Davies of the Kinks. Performing with many of his heroes in New York, Austin, Barcelona, and London has brought Haskins’ distinctive baritone and rakish sense of humor to new audiences, and it has given him a chance to pay back some old debts. “Alex Chilton’s music has always been a powerful influence on my writing,” Haskins admits. “Getting to sing his songs and perform with so many people I admire has been both a learning experience and an incredible rush. The fact is, everyone on that show owes a debt to Alex, and Alex owed a debt to a bunch of earlier soul and Brit-invasion artists. It’s an unbroken chain of cheerful thievery and gratitude.”
The Old Ceremony began as an atmosphere as much as a band. Songwriter Django Haskins had amassed a raft of songs that just didn’t fit within the confines of the various Costello-esque rock outfits which he had led for years in New York and then in North Carolina. These darker songs required a more nuanced touch, a cinematic approach, in short, a certain atmosphere. They demanded sounds that couldn’t be found in most rock clubs. He created the Old Ceremony to bring them to life, and soon, it became a thriving organism and his exclusive focus. The band garnered early comparisons to Tom Waits, Serge Gainsbourg, Nick Cave, and Leonard Cohen (from whose album the band took its name). Early shows took the shape of events, where fans could come and dip a toe into the dark, continental atmosphere spun out by these songs. Years and many tours later, The Old Ceremony has long since pared down to a core of five members, covering bass, guitar, drums, violin, organ, vibes, and keys, but the focus remains squarely on Haskins’ songcraft and the cinematic textures the band brings to it.
With their new album, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide, these textures arrive with unusual clarity. Haskins’ focus may partially be the result of his other recent pursuits: he has spent much of his downtime in the past two years working on two non-fiction book manuscripts, excerpts of which have been published in respected literary and culture blogs and weekly arts newspapers. At first glance the two projects, a biography of Haskins’ Titanic survivor great-grandfather; and a sprawling tour memoir/urban history tract that tries to make sense of four cities that TOC frequents; may seem completely unconnected to Haskins’ songwriting career, but in fact, they all deal with similar themes. “I’m interested in the uses of mythology, whether it be a family mythology or a city’s mythology, and how it can obscure reality in harmful ways,” Haskins says. Thus, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide is the product of a tireless, obsessive search. Comparisons to fellow-travelers of dark, cinematic meditations like Cohen or Waits are no longer necessary, for The Old Ceremony has forged its own distinctive sound to accompany Haskins’ songs. It is the sound of seeking: for new textures, for hidden corners of experience, for a flash of truth in an otherwise confusing world.
The band consists of Django Haskins (voice/guitar), Mark Simonsen (vibraphone, organ), Gabriele Pelli (violin/keys), Dan Hall (drums), and Jeff Crawford (bass). They tour extensively in the US, Canada, and Europe and have performed with CAKE, Avett Brothers, Chuck Berry, Mountain Goats, and others. Their songs have appeared in numerous films, including Push, I Do and I Don’t, Leading Ladies, Familiar Strangers, and Elephant Sighs (for which they also composed the score). Their fifth album, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide comes out August 21st on Yep Roc Records.