Press from 2006
Old Ceremony, New Sound
Django Haskins and company release their second CD
By Orr Shtuhl, Correspondent
Huddled in their homey studio, the guys in the Chapel Hill band The Old Ceremony have a lot to think about.They're busily rehearsing for Saturday's show at Cat's Cradle, the release party for their second CD, "Our One Mistake." They're testing different song orders and reworking segues. They even discuss the elaborate window display that now adorns Schoolkids Records on East Franklin Street.
One of the few things they're not spending much time pondering is precisely what genre their music fits into. That label has proven hard to pinpoint. They've been called "chamber pop" and "Old World pop," and the band itself has used "pop noir," but none of these have satisfied frontman Django Haskins.
"I'm always tempted to bring up three or four bands and say it sounds like a combination of them," he said. "But I want to be like, 'We sound like us; just figure it out.'"
Those three or four bands he uses as examples vary, but Haskins draws from a venerable list of influences, from Stevie Wonder and Tom Waits to Cole Porter and Astor Piazzolla. And, of course, the Beatles. That's because while The Old Ceremony's sound may traverse styles of jazz, blues and tango, a sense of accessible pop anchors its work -- a fidelity to melody. "I was raised on the Beatles," Haskins said. "I just love three-minute pop songs so much, it's hard to get away from."
The eight-piece ensemble appears timeless in the Durham home studio, a medium-sized room made smaller by floor-to-ceiling stacks of amps and guitar cases. A couch and futon weave between vintage drums, and a new marimba sprawls next to a dusty Vox organ.
The studio belongs to vibraphonist Mark Simonsen; it sits hunkered behind his house like an unassuming toolshed. Having practiced there many nights, the band members had broken the place in and were comfortable going into last summer's 10-day recording session. "It worked out really well," said producer Thom Canova, chucking a ball across the yard for Max, the band's mascot Labrador. Canova said that because the band didn't have to worry about paying for studio time, they could settle in and play their best. "The money factor is really crazy in a big studio."
Meanwhile, Haskins settled into a different writing style for the band's second record. Early Old Ceremony songs tended to be ballads sung by various characters, a batch of seedy knaves and ne'er-do-wells. But for this CD, Haskins' tastes shifted to a more direct voice. "We've stripped away a lot of the theatrical aspects a little bit and anything that got in the way of feeling it directly," Haskins said.
It's not the first time he's adapted in order to better connect with his audience. After attending Yale, where he studied literature as well as four foreign languages, he spent a year in China teaching English. There he performed his songs in expat pubs for an international crowd, where he learned to communicate across a language barrier. "It made me concentrate a lot on writing melodies, just because they didn't understand the words," he said. "To me, languages are the most interesting things to study. You learn more than the words; you learn the mindset and the culture. ... It's one thing to say something conversationally and get the meaning across. It's another thing saying it as art."
Haskins moved to New York City upon returning to the United States, where he spent seven years writing songs and recorded three solo records under his own name. When he moved to Chapel Hill in 2003, he spent a year in the pop trio International Orange, which also included members of Ben Folds Five. At the tail end of that year he formed The Old Ceremony, a project that grew out of an eclectic collection of songs he'd been keeping on the side.
But even as he extols the worldly brilliance of French and Italian pop composers, the bookish Haskins would love to paint himself as a classic crooning showman. That's a persona he's embraced ever since he was a teenager growing up in Gainesville, Fla.
"When I was 16, I went to watch this Elvis impersonation contest with my girlfriend," Haskins said. "Everyone was all dressed up, but no one was really singing." Haskins took care of that. He entered the contest at the last minute, sang -- and won. With the prize money, he bought his first and only professional microphone, the one still uses today. Like a three-minute pop song, some things never lose their charm.
- Chapel Hill News, 10.4.06
Elan and Circumstance
The Old Ceremony's unorthodox pop erudition
BY BRIAN HOWE
When I told a friend I was going to interview Django Reinhardt, she was understandably confused, especially considering that the Belgian jazz guitar legend died half a century ago. "Shut up," she said, mouth agape. It took me a moment to recognize my error. It was an understandable one. I mean, how many Djangos do you know?
I meant to say Django Haskins, frontman of The Old Ceremony, whose sophomore album, Our One Mistake, is due Oct. 24 on New York-based label sonaBLAST! Haskins, who was indeed named after Reinhardt, has had almost 29 years to consider his namesake. "If my parents had named me Tupac, I'd probably be a rapper," he quips. "I think [names] do have a lot of power, in terms of the way you see your destiny. I started on classical violin at about age 4, so I thought I'd slipped the trap, but then I started on guitar when I was about 12 and realized that's what I wanted to be playing. I love old jazz, but I don't play jazz, so I don't feel bad about it."
The scion of two folk musicians, Haskins grew up in Gainesville, Fla. Playing music was as common as dinnertime. He characterizes those family times as a Victorian parlor by way of '60s counterculture: "We would sit around the piano and my dad would play, and we'd sing folk songs, jazz standards, the Beatles, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan." Haskins began to perform publicly in the seventh grade, doing '60s Motown covers. By high school, he was writing his own songs. So many children use those teenage years to reject the values and traditions of their parents. It would have been an ideal time for Haskins' punk-rock phase. That it never happened speaks to the dedication to craft manifest in The Old Ceremony's confident, polished pop.
"I got into the Stooges for a while," he recalls, "and I was really into the Replacements. But they were kind of half and half--they had a punk rock side but were definitely writing with a nod to the Beatles. I never got to that scorched earth point where I wanted to throw away all harmony and start from scratch." After high school, Haskins studied English literature and Chinese at Yale. It was his studies in Chinese--and the subsequent year he spent living and playing in Hangzhou--that had the greater impact on his songwriting. One track on Our One Mistake, "Bao Qian," is even sung in Mandarin. "That's when I really started learning about melody," Haskins says of performing for an audience with whom he couldn't communicate with language, "and learned about selling a song when you perform it, really getting behind it."
Having been a musician in comfortably traditional and thoroughly alien settings, Haskins split the difference by spending seven years in New York City, from whence he toured Europe and the United States as a solo artist and recorded three albums. But he had trouble maintaining a touring band. "The thing with The Old Ceremony," he explains, "is that it's a band in the sense that we're all really in it together. That's what I couldn't find in New York. It's a financial thing. If someone's trying to make a living playing bass in New York, they've got to spread themselves really thin just to make ends meet."
But affordability and availability weren't the only reasons Haskins chose to make North Carolina his home in 2002. "I had toured down here and really liked it," he says. "I wanted to get further south again, and I liked all the colleges being around, which make it more liberal and international and culturally varied."
Never one to lay low ("Django," after all, means "I awake" in Romany), Haskins formed International Orange with Robert Sledge, Britt "Snüzz" Uzzell and Jason Fagg shortly after arriving. While the project is on indefinite hiatus after releasing a single EP, the soon-to-be Old Ceremony frontman achieved a valuable insight from the experience. "I've never had a band that was made up of three songwriters," he explains. "Since I was 12, I was always the primary songwriter in my projects, so I learned a lot about arrangements. The vocal arranging was a blast, these three-part harmonies the whole time."
Haskins brought the collaborative spirit he'd cultivated in International Orange to The Old Ceremony. "I had a bunch of songs that didn't have a home and wouldn't fit in a regular rock band setting," he says. "At first I just had a concept of the band I wanted to put together, and I knew a couple of the people I wanted to be in it. But it's evolved into this amazing, organic thing, where everyone brings a lot to the process."
Our One Mistake is more understated than the Old Ceremony's self-titled debut, with an emphasis on restraint and subtlety. "There's a lot of mixed emotion," Haskins says of the album. "The first record was a lot more theatrical, and there were more layers between me and what was being sung. There are some great aspects of doing it that way, but I tried, without being a 'singer/songwriter,' to be as earnest as possible on this record. The songs I can connect with emotionally tend to be the best live."
It's fair to regard the album as an intersection of Randy Newman's gruff flamboyance, Nick Cave's gothic élan and Leonard Cohen's pithy wisdom. At the mention of Cohen, Haskins--who named the band for Cohen's New Skin for the Old Ceremony--shakes his fist in the air triumphantly. "That's wonderful," he exclaims. "I love Dylan, but lyrically, Cohen's the best songwriter. Dylan takes a lot of wild swings and lands some great ones, but Cohen just stands there and takes one perfect shot."
The idea of the deliberate, tradition-honed shot, as opposed to the wild flailing that breeds the instant gratification of blog hype, is writ large in Haskins's career choices. He's not just hoping things stick. "The musicians I respect most are the ones who had long, semi-obscure slogs. They'll never be on TRL," he says, noting he probably won't, either. "I'm fine with it, as long as it feels like it's moving forward, artistically and on a career trajectory. There's no point in trying to chase some trend that's already passed by the time you identify it. We're not moving to Canada or anything."
- Independent Weekly, 10.4.06
Masters of Ceremony
Chapel Hill band brings a sense of the theatrical to its concerts
David Menconi, Staff Writer
For musicians with day jobs, the natural order of things is you dress up to work and dress down to rock. But that's just one of many unusual things about Chapel Hill's The Old Ceremony.
By day, frontman Django Haskins dresses casually while teaching guitar and songwriting; and by night, Haskins and his bandmates dress sharp in coats and ties, and they play even sharper."Yeah, we're the opposite," Haskins says. "Part of the idea of The Old Ceremony is that it's fun, but there's also a level of seriousness to it. That's part of the suit thing, which isn't us trying to be retro. It's more showing respect for the audience and the music. People used to do that in Sinatra's day, and it fell by the wayside. So that's why we do it, rather than to mimic any particular era or style."
Appearances aside, The Old Ceremony's elaborately arranged "pop noir" brings Rufus Wainwright, Randy Newman and Ben Folds to mind (especially James "The Kid" Wallace's stellar piano-playing). While it doesn't sound anything like the late great Squirrel Nut Zippers, The Old Ceremony is that group's logical heir in one important respect: Like the Zippers, TOC puts on performances that feel like events, not mere shows.
"Theatrical" in the best possible sense of the word, TOC's "Our One Mistake" (Sonablast Records) sounds like a dozen mini-movies in which each song tells a story -- the doomy mood piece "Reservations," the lover's plea "Talk Straight," the jaunty declaration of independence "Papers in Order," even a song sung in Mandarin Chinese ("Bao Qian"). It's impossible to hear "Reservations" without thinking of video possibilities with Haskins dressed up like a bellhop or a maitre d' at a fancy establishment.
"I've always liked bands that create an atmosphere around the music," Haskins says. "When we were forming the ideas that came to define the band, we came back to people like Astor Piazzolla, who wasn't an actor. But he had a lot of drama in his music, some darker aspects." The group's formula started coming together about two years ago, when Haskins formed The Old Ceremony (named after Leonard Cohen's 1974 album, "New Skin for the Old Ceremony") during the final stretch of his previous group International Orange. A self-titled 2004 debut was promising enough, but "Our One Mistake" hits at a much higher level with far better writing and playing.
"In terms of writing, I tried to focus on being more direct and open," Haskins says. "That's why opening with 'Talk Straight' made sense -- that song is partly to myself. Playing live, the most direct songs have been the most satisfying. The other thing is that the band has really come into its own. There's a lot more cohesion to the arrangements because they happened more organically. I'd bring in a song, and the band would really put it through the ringer, make it better."
As cinematic as "Our One Mistake" is, it's also fitting that the album has an indirect connection to the movies. It's been released on Sonablast Records, the label owned by movie producer Gill Holland (whose credits include "Loggerheads," "Dear Jesse" and other films).
"He came and saw us play on somebody's recommendation, and that night he said, 'All right, let's do it,' " Haskins recalls. "Which worked out great. We knew we were going to record and we'd even booked the studio time, but we didn't know how we were going to pay for it. So it really came together.
"There does seem to be some sort of strange, strong momentum to this. With this record, we do feel like The Old Ceremony has been getting the benefit of some forces beyond us, which we're grateful for. It's tough to tour on $3-a-gallon gas."
- Raleigh News-Observer, 10.6.06
The Old Ceremony is a rootsy, American slow rock, the kind of rock that you get when you mix a little bit of Tom Waits' grumbing croons and a whole lot of Paul McCartnian songwriting elan. TOC welcomes all the hokey riffs we're used to hearing in good pop, but it's nevertheless powerfully earnest music. "no we won't be fooled for long," songwriter/raconteur Django Haskins sings, adding with a high-pitched moan, "by [sic] love!" The band calls it pop-noir. But in truth, this is folk; this is rock; this is precisely what it's supposed to be.- K.C., Knoxville Metro Pulse, 8.3.06
Django Haskins is, without question, one of the best songwriters on the East Coast, a sartorial savant and eloquent wordsmith able to embrace both the pizzazz of romance and the love-skunk bules of the common man in arresting three-minute vignettes. Frank Sinatra, Randy Newman, and Astor Piazzolla mark his long list of musical heroes, and his talent rests also on an ability to meld these influences into something all his own. - Grayson Currin, Independent Weekly, 6.07.06
The Old Ceremony reinvents death country as showtune hoppers, a dramatic mix that gets the toes tapping. - TimeOut NY, 6.4.06
The OC (had to be said) have little of the bubblegum sheen their forshortened name might imply; instead they run smoke rings around a midnight train pulling in its wake murder ballads, bad seeds, and maudlin cafes. - Chris Toenes, Independent Weekly, 3.24.06
Chapel Hill-based songwriter Django Haskins steps back in time with this nine member pop-noir orchestra, bridging modern singer-songwriter with Depression-era mood setting. - Charlotte Observer, 3.24.06
Songwriter devoted to pop, anything but ordinary
By Robbie Mackey
Jan 25, 2006
DURHAM -- Django Haskins lights up like a 6-year-old when he talks about his new motto:
"Come home to Paul," says the Yale grad, grinning ear to ear, half-embarrassed by his own enthusiasm. The Paul in question, of course, is the dorkiest Beatle -- McCartney, an undisputedly hokey but undisputedly gifted pop genius, whose sing-songy work is often overlooked in favor of the arty output of fellow Beatle songwriter John Lennon.
It's a peculiar phrase, but from the other side of a table at Fuse Restaurant and Bar in Chapel Hill, Frank Sinatra's face plastered across the chest of his black T-shirt, Haskins offers some explanation:
"We all know that Paul is a complete cheese ball," Haskins said. "But you've got to separate that from the music, and come home to the fact that when you were 5 or 6, the Beatles songs that you loved were Paul songs -- and the reason is they're so melodic and so warm and loving."
Beatles fans can squabble over Haskins' words until they're blue in the face, but that'd be missing the point altogether; Haskins' adoration of McCartney and his carefree aesthetic is telling of the singer-songwriter's rich pedigree, and of his devotion to pop in its most dictionary form.
A student of song since his youth in Gainesville, Fla., Haskins -- who'll be performing at Blayloc Café in Durham this evening -- extols the simplicity and generality of pop music with a liberal hand. Motown as pop, Ol' Blue Eyes as pop, Beck as pop -- to Haskins there isn't much you can sing along to that doesn't qualify.
"To a lot of people 'pop' means something like radio, Top 40, Billboard or MTV," Haskins says. "For me, the only significance that pop really has is that it is completely general -- it's not classical, not specifically some other subgenre like blues or jazz or something. Everything that's kind of accessible is pop music, and for me, the best writers and musicians are people who are open to everything, people who are obviously just music fans."
Haskins is, quite obviously, "just a music fan."
Raised by folkies and logging time in bands since the age of 13, he teethed on Neil Young, stayed at home with Paul, and then worshiped at the altar of The Replacements.
Before fronting The Old Ceremony -- a Chapel Hill based noir-pop collective -- Haskins was a member of local super group International Orange, a studied rock trio featuring Robert Sledge of Ben Folds Five and Snuzz of Ben Folds' touring band.
Indeed, with a healthy local following, coverage in Billboard Magazine, and songs soundtracking slow dances on WB TV shows like "Felicity," Haskins has become an accomplished songwriter and a dashing bandleader.
That's the reason it's so hard to envision him at the beginning of his journey, a journey that strangely began in China, where the bilingual grad taught English at a university. It was there that Haskins decided to take his music seriously and pursue a career behind his guitar back in the States.
"I had this American friend over there who was 10 years older than me," says Haskins. "He'd played music when he was younger, so he was the guy I'd go to with my new songs. One time he just looked at me and said, 'What the hell are you doing in China? Why aren't you doing this?' "
Haskins needed little more encouragement than that, forgoing a second year at the university, and moving to New York where he would live for nearly a decade, honing his craft around town, figuring out just what the business was all about, and more importantly, finding out what he wanted to say as a songwriter.
"In New York, I think there's almost too much going on, too much coming at you for you to really think clearly, and create," says Haskins, who moved to Chapel Hill four and a half years ago. "The psychological pressures of living in New York produce a more dense and tense music. I've kind of found that out from living here. I'm really able to step back and ask myself, 'What kind of music do I really want to be making? And how do I do it?' "
That music is the Old Ceremony organization.
Of course, Haskins admits that the blueprint was in his head far before the band came to fruition, but that it only truly surfaced after he moved away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
"I think I would have been too busy in New York to even think about it. It took me a while to get to this, but I had an idea of what kind of band I wanted to put together," says Haskins. "And I got to develop it a whole lot before I even started putting it together."
After years of relying on stripped down folk tunes and razor sharp pop, Haskins opts for the tastefully lush with his noir-ish Ceremony.
But that's not to imply that he's forgotten about Paul. Not at all; the band's self-titled debut, out this year on Alyosha Records, isn't populated by grand compositions that wow with sonic trinkets.
"They're subtle bells and whistles," says Haskins. "I think that's a strength of the band -- a real focus on songs. I really see the guitar as a tool, not as an end in itself. I see us as a band, as a means of presenting a song. It's organic, but the jamming isn't the end in itself. To me at least."
"Typical songwriter," he concludes, mockingly, chuckling a bit at his own hokiness.
But Haskins is wrong. If he were a typical songwriter, the world would be filled with a lot better songs and no one would have to come home to Paul, cause they'd already be there.
- Durham Herald-Sun, 1.27.06
New Sounds From the Old Ceremony - Chapel Hill exports dark, funny pop.
by Joel Sparks
The first thing you notice is the vibes, a desk-sized array of wooden bells that compares to a kid’s xylophone like a Hummer next to a tricycle. Then you might hear a violin warming up with scales, and what’s this? A cello? Two keyboards? An accordion? But fear not. You haven’t stumbled into a pit orchestra’s garage sale. All this serious equipment goes into the dark, rich blend of rock that is The Old Ceremony, like a cornucopia of nuts and candy going into an outrageous new Ben & Jerry’s flavor. As the group’s self-titled debut made its way onto many Best of 2005 lists, we sought out bandleader Django Haskins and some of his numerous associates for a little Q&A.
OT: You’re a new band. Why "The Old Ceremony"?
Django: The band's name comes from the Leonard Cohen album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, which is a reference to circumcision, I believe. There's nothing like a good circumcision joke to break the ice—Lenny's a laugh riot.
OT: Tell us about the album.
Django: The new album is our attempt to just capture the sound of this band as it develops. I brought a lot of songs to the band when we first started playing together, and the ones that seemed to reflect the band's personality best, and the ones that took on lives of their own when we played them live, were the ones that were chosen. Even though the album is fairly richly textured, with strings and horns and vibes and organ and piano and guitar, etcetera, we recorded most of it live in a little room, just playing together like we would at a rehearsal or show. I think that live aesthetic gives it some air that studio recordings don't always have.
OT: What is "pop noir," exactly? Who are some of TOC's influences?
Django: Well, "pop noir" is just an attempt to classify, for those who require advance classification of some kind, the essence of what we do. It means cinematic, theatrical, and moody pop music. We look to people like Astor Piazzolla, Sinatra, Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen as fellow-purveyors of dark, theatrical pop.
OT: How did a rock band come to incorporate vibraphone, violin and all that old-school keyboard work?
Django: We're lucky to have some seriously badass jazz musicians in this group, and they bring their ears and their chops to the songs in a unique way. I was really trying to put together a group that would stretch the traditional boundaries of "pop" or "rock" music, and the unusual instrumentation seemed to fit with that ideal.
OT: Which songs get requested the most?
Django: "American Romeo" and "Blood and Oil" are two of the more requested songs off of the album. Other ones we hear are "Afraid of Love" (a deceptively positive love song) and some of the newer material like "Bao Qian" (a song written almost entirely in Mandarin Chinese, so who cares if it's happy or sad words? For the record: it's sad).
OT: Do you even have any happy songs?
Django: You know, we do have some happy songs, like "Radio Religion" (about the redemptive power of pop music) or "American Romeo" (though it’s also tongue-in-cheek), but many of our songs tell somewhat darker stories. I'm not sure why, but I find them more interesting than happy ones. It's pretty boring to watch cars sail by on the freeway, but once one of them slams into a wall, well, just try to look away.
OT: Now some questions for everybody...What were some highlights of your previous musical experience? How does playing with TOC differ?
Django: Playing in International Orange with (Ben Folds Five bassist) Rob Sledge and Snuzz was a great experience. I enjoyed the back-and-forth of having three songwriters in the band. But The Old Ceremony is amazing—I love bringing in songs and watching them take shape when bounced around the brains of all these great musicians.
Violinist Gabriel Pelli: I recently toured Europe with a Kirtan chant band: ancient Sanskrit call-and-response singing...The Old Ceremony stands out because all the musicians are absolute pros on their instruments. And Django’s songwriting is able to convey deep feelings without resorting to clichés or formulas.
Vibe player and organist Mark Simonsen: Once, I accidentally ate [Deep Purple guitarist] [sic] Steve Morse’s pre-show guava.
OT: If you couldn't play music, what would be your calling?
Django: New York City cabbie.
Mark: I have a hard time imaging life not being a musician...I come from a lineage of farmers and would have loved that kind of life, but in this day and age, I’m not sure that’s even an option.
OT: What's the worst place you've had to sleep on tour?
Gabriel: Sleeping in the van on a sub-zero night in Philly on a previous tour, with police cars and choppers whizzing by all night.
Mark: I once slept on the floor of a commune called the Beehive in Brattleboro, Vermont. It was so disgusting that we now refer to the Beehive as the Behind.
OT: What's the best road food you've had?
Django: Kielbasa at a Ukrainian restaurant in NYC.
Mark: Steak sandwich at the Williamsburg Café in Brooklyn.
Gabriel: Cracker Barrel, hands down. The fireplace sure is a nice touch.
-On Tap Magazine
BEST BET: The Old Ceremony channels Sinatra, Randy Newman and Astor Piazzolla through the sexy, sartorial songs of Django Haskins. - Independent Weekly, 1.18.06
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