Originally from the San Francisco Bay area, Ceremony (formerly known as Violent World) released their own concoction of musical mayhem in the form an EP, titled Ruined, in 2005. Six years and three full-length albums later, the hardcore punk five-piece found themselves in strange waters under their new label, Matador Records. Ceremony released their fourth album, Zoo, in February 2012. The record’s 12 tracks unveiled a new sound filled with clean textures and more old-school punk rock song structures.
Paste caught up with Ceremony’s frontman, Ross Farrar, on his way to the Drunken Unicorn in Atlanta, Ga. The band was already a few dates into its international tour, which will take them all over the United States, Europe and Australia.
Farrar talked about Ceremony’s new album, the strange metamorphosis of a punk rock singer and how his love of Fugazi is actually a borderline obsession.
Paste: So you guys are in the middle of massive tour right now. Playing shows almost everyday. Are you excited for the months ahead?
Ross Farrar: It’s ok. This trip has been us mostly driving and hanging out in a sweaty van, reading, listening to music, just trying to do something to lessen the monotony of time. I’ve been pretty chill. I’ve been sleeping a lot so that takes a lot of time out of the day.
Paste: The shows have been going well?
Farrar: The shows have been going really, really well. This is our first time touring for a long period of time with Zoo, so it’s been great.
Paste: Are fans warming up to the new album?
Farrar: The reception has been a little different. In our hometown in the Bay area it’s been great, but when we started to go towards Arizona, New Mexico, and more towards the middle of the country it wasn’t as great. They were more into the older stuff. There were younger kids at the shows and they obviously wanted to hear stuff from Ruined or Violence, Violence. But we played in Orlando last night and Gainesville the night before and people were really enjoying the new stuff. After the show people were coming up to me saying, “I love the new record” or “I really like hearing the new songs live” and stuff so that was cool to hear.
Paste: I know this tour will have you playing several gigs in Australia. Does Ceremony have a big following in the Land Down Under?
Farrar:Yeah, there is. I have my personal email on Tumblr, and I get messages constantly from kids in Australia saying, “Come back to Australia.” I think the last time we were back there was in 2008. The punk scene is pretty much exactly the same [as the U.S.]. When I was there I didn’t seen any differences.
Paste: There’s a pretty great short documentary on Ceremony playing at the legendary Gilman Street venue in Berkley. In the documentary you were going to take a different approach to your live shows on this tour. Are they more mellow?
Farrar:I would say that personally speaking, our new songs compared to our old songs have a very different vibe when you listen to them. I’m not really feeling them the same way I feel our older songs. They’re not songs that I’m gritting my teeth, spitting and punching my self in the head. They’re just different vibes. There a bit more dance-y with a little bit more rhythm. It’s just changed a lot since the beginning years. I just look different when I play the new songs compared to when I play the old songs. It’s funny because I notice the change. We will be playing a new song and I’ll be doing something different on stage and then we’ll go into an old song and I go into a time warp. I go back to an old mode that’s more angry. I morph back into 2007.
Paste: You guys moved to indie label Matador last year and with it came some changes, which you can definitely hear on your new album. Zoo sounds much more clean and reminiscent of old-school punk and rock. How did that change come about?
Farrar: It was very natural. We didn’t really talk about specifically what we wanted to do. We just went into the studio and wrote songs like we’ve always done. The first songs we wrote were “Brace Yourself,” “World Blue” and “Repeating the Circle.” Those are very, very different from any songs we wrote on Rohnert Park. It was just us trying to do something new. We as musicians didn’t want to play all those old songs all the time. We obviously want to try something new and see if we could do it and experiment a little. They just naturally came out that way.
Paste: So what all goes into a Ceremony album?
Farrar: We have a practice studio that is halfway between where we live. Half of us live in the North Bay and the other half live in the East Bay. We meet up at this studio and we just write songs. There’s nothing really exciting about it. We don’t go into the forest for a week, light incense and do weird shit like that. We just go into this old raggedy studio and write as many songs we can in the time allotted. We all kind of do little things. We all have a say on all the songs. On the last record we didn’t have Andy [Nelson] with us because he was living in Philly at the time. Everyone in the band does something musically. I’ve been known to write riffs with my mouth. Jake plays guitar and Andy obviously plays bass, and we all bring a little something to the table. I just started trying to learn bass, so hopefully I’ll get better at that. Maybe I can do something with that musically.
Paste: So some Farrar-provided bass riffs are in our future?
Farrar: No, probably not. Not in the near future. I would like to through. That would be cool. I’m just self-teaching you know. I got an acoustic bass at my house, and I just use that all the time basically.
Paste: I know on Zoo you guys got to work with John Goodmanson of Sleater-Kinney fame. What was that experience like?
Farrar: We had never done studio production before so that was a totally new thing. He came down to the Bay area and hung with us for a few days. He twisted the songs a little bit saying, “Maybe you should add this,” but he had a really big part in the making of “Video.” He changed a lot up in that song and helped construct it. Besides that, just him coming to our area and hanging out was really cool. He was a really mellow guy, and there was never any problems or any tension. It was just a very relaxed environment for us to write the record.
Paste: So with the changes on this album has there been any backlash from “hardcore punk purists”?
Farrar: Being in this band and doing this for so long, we know those people are going to talk shit about it and hate on it, but there’s going to be people who like it. We obviously wrote those songs consciously. There’s no point in worrying what other people are saying. I don’t really give a shit if people don’t like it or not.
Paste: Which is part of what it means to be a musician.
Paste: Where there any themes you were working with on Zoo?
Farrar: It was more like a collection of songs. Lyrically, there’s all kinds of different stuff going on. There’s the song “Community Service” that can be taken in a few different ways, but it’s about being burdened and not doing certain things or having these ideas about society that you’re supposed to have. The song “Brace Yourself” is about living and dying in California next to the beach. It’s about my grandfather basically. It’s kind of traditional, generational things. There are songs about living in the world and being in society in general. But most of the songs have to do with human beings and our connection with each other, how we interact. I was just writing lyrics about people and life on Earth in general.
Paste: What kind of stuff are you listening to on tour?
Farrar: We were just staying at a friend’s house, and we were watching a Fugazi documentary. I think I’m in another one of those Fugazi kicks in my life. I’m going through every record and listening to them all five times in a row. I’m just getting obsessed about it again. That is one of those bands who I take a lot of interest in. I’ve always been obsessed with them in some way. About every year I start listening to all those records again.
Paste: So after this international tour, what’s next for Ceremony?
Farrar:After this tour we’re going to go back in the studio and start writing again. The plan is to just keep writing records. Keep changing the music, making it weirder and more interesting. Just put out more music. That’s it.