Touting its hardcore-departure record, Ceremony comes to Sweatshop | Concert Preview

With The L-Shaped Man, its second album on Matador Records, Ceremony takes a huge side-step away from fast, unapologetic grit. That was the driving force in the band’s first three records.

Even in 2012’s Zoo, Ceremony’s intentional direction with Matador Records was apparent. From a first glance, Ceremony’s The L-Shaped Man suggests an entirely reborn band from the aggressive, screaming punk of 2006’s Violence Violence, namely because every single aspect of the band’s instrumentation simmers into its calmer, less angsty version with downtempo drums and melodic guitars.

Listening to the entire discography in one sitting is a cheap shot at trying to understand Ceremony’s progression in the span of a decade, says guitarist Anthony Anzaldo. He accurately explains it as “drastic or stark” until the realization that 10 years has passed between the first and last albums.

On The L-Shaped Man, vocalist Ross Farrar’s low drone is clear, matching Jake Casarotti’s steady drums, before Farrar slips into his more recognizable growl on “Root of the World.” Anzaldo and Andy Nelson’s rhythmic guitars play along with Justin Davis’s rumbling, groovy bass.

Ceremony refuses to take the safe approach of sticking with the same sound that catapulted them into recognition within the national hardcore punk scene. The L-Shaped Man is a nod to the ‘80s post-punk that has always silently influenced its direction until now. Ceremony is not a complicated band, Anzaldo says, and its minimalistic approach speaks for itself in letting quiet space be its own instrumental tool.

Ceremony plays Sweatshop Gallery on Saturday with fellow Bay Area acts, hardcore veteran Tony Molina and psychedelic post-punk Creative Adult. Omaha grind punk act FLAK opens the show. RSVP here.

Before Saturday’s show, we talked with Anzaldo while on tour in in Chicago. Anzaldo has roots in Omaha: his parents grew up in the area and his grandparents still live here. His grandfather, Sebastian “Subby” Anzaldo, was acting mayor of Omaha in the mid-’90s.

We caught up with Anzaldo about writing a breakup album, the ideal of continuous progression and the influence of art in The L-Shaped Man.

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HN: You probably already know I’m going to ask about this transition from hardcore punk, which was already happening with Zoo, to this calmer, more mature post-punk. What was this transition like?

Anthony Anzaldo: You can listen to our records in a span of a couple of hours, but those couple of hours span ten years of our lives. So it’s really easy for it to seem sort of drastic or stark. But for us, we grew a lot in those years and we all have very different tastes in music. And we’re all very, not to toot our own horns, but well-rehearsed in our music and accomplished musicians outside of punk.

Doing the same thing twice or making the same record again have never really been the interest. We mess around until something sounds good and then once we have three or four songs that we really like, we have a frame of reference for the rest of the album, in that vein. So that’s really all it is.

HN: So was that the way you wrote on all the records or just for The L-Shaped Man?

AA: The L-Shaped Man was definitely more of a collective. Usually the records prior, someone comes in with a chorus and then we would all structure a song around that. Or someone would make a suggestion on how to change a riff or another part of the song from that blueprint. For a lot of the songs on this record, we would go into the practice space with nothing, with literally someone just kind of jamming on something and we would do that for a few hours until we found something good. It’s a very rhythm-section-heavy album, which was fun for me because I can kind of get really spacey playing live and playing melody lines.

HN: Was there sort of a fear of alienating fans with the new material?

AA: No. I mean, if you’re still on board with Ceremony, you’re still along for the ride. It’s been a long time since we made really fast, abrasive hardcore songs. So I think there’s a lot more hope in gaining new fans with that. I mean, you lose fans every record, even if we stay the same. A talking point for most of the interviews and what I keep saying is, what hardcore band’s fifth record is your favorite by them? Usually none. Usually it’s just those first couple of records that are the most acclaimed ones. So I think if we stay the same, we would get just as much criticism. We wouldn’t be able to sustain as much if we stayed along the path of those earlier songs.

HN: I noticed piano in “Hibernation,” which I didn’t hear in the rest of the discography, unless I missed it. What other instruments are used on this record that weren’t used on the others?

AA: I think for this one, just piano. We used this guitar amp that almost sounds like an organ for a lot of the loud part in the chorus of “Bleeder” and a few of the more open parts. This was the first album we recorded live so there’s essentially less instrumentation on this one. There’s a piano in “Separation,” which, actually, we didn’t even write. John Reis, who’s the producer on this album, heard this melody line and just played it and sent it back to us and said, “Hey, do you guys think this sounds good?” This was months after we recorded the album, but we said, “Yeah, that sounds great.” So aside from that, this is our most vulnerable, stripped-down album. We did it all live, and there weren’t very many overdubs or anything of that nature.

HN: So what was recording live like, since that was the first time you did it?

AA: It was great. I think it really came through positively on the record. We really got to thrive on each other and groove on each other and I think it really shines through on the album. Sometimes it’s a little challenging, like when someone messes up and you have to do the whole thing over again, but often you can overdub that part or just keep going, depending on the severity of the mess-up. But yeah, it was great. I would record every record that we ever did exactly how we recorded this last album, with John Reis and recording it live. It was the best recording experience I ever had.

HN: And that was the first time you ever worked with John Reis?

AA: Yes.

HN: When I was reading through interviews, I saw a lot of comparisons to Joy Division for this record, and I know that your band is named after one of their songs. Does that comparison get annoying at all?

AA: It’s not necessarily annoying. I understand there’s a lot of people who listen to Ceremony and see that. I think Joy Division is maybe just the closest thing to The L-Shaped Man that they are familiar with. I’ve listened to Joy Division so much in my life. Like Black Flag, Led Zeppelin, and any other band like that, I don’t really put them on or listen to them or think about them so much anymore. So it doesn’t work like a direct influence …. obviously those songs are embedded in us. There’s a lot more Chameleons and Siouxsie and Echo and the Bunnymen that have more of that Joy Division. But is it annoying? I can’t control what other people think and I have no interest in that. It would be almost narcissistic of me to expect people to feel or think a certain way when they hear a piece of music. You know, music is starting a conversation. If that’s what people feel, then that’s what people feel and I can’t help that.

HN: Since you are named after a Joy Division song, but you started out as a hardcore band, where can we find that influence in the discography other than this record?

AA: I think that subject matter in the songs. The simplicity. I think that’s been a common denominator throughout the band’s discography. We’re not a very complicated band.  We have always let space kind of shine as a writing tool. And I think with Joy Division, those lyrics and our lyrics have some parallels as well, like imagery, definitely.

HN: Ross does most of the lyric-writing, correct?

AA: He does everything.

HN: There are a lot more minimalist guitar parts and, like you said, very rhythmic playing that allows us to listen to and focus on the lyrics a lot more than a hardcore record. How important is it for you to be able to channel the emotion from the lyrics in your material?

AA: I think that it’s more the other way around. It’s Ross that makes the connections to the music. [Without the guitar parts in place], he’s not going to have the motivation to write something meaningful or honest. Ross’s lyrics were very stark and moving for this record. I think we know just from being musicians and artists and writers that we know if we wrote this busy song, this guitar-heavy song, there would just be this feeling of disconnect. So when we were writing specific parts, like the bridge or something, it would hit us immediately if we knew Ross could go along with this. I think it was good for Ross to touch base while writing words and hearing where we were at. It was the obvious choice of what should happen as far as the style of the music went.

HN: When you were writing Violence Violence 10 years ago, what kind of music did you imagine you would be writing now?

AA: I always saw us progressing. From the first 7” to Violence Violence, there is this creepy, minimalistic intro guitar. There are two instrumental tracks on that album. I think that even starting from Violence Violence, we were starting to progress. But we try not to think too far into the future. I think it would have been a disservice to Violence Violence to think about 10 years down the road. It’s not really something I’ve thought about yet. To be honest, even now, thinking about how we just got done with the album and we’re playing these songs for the first time and thinking about making another record and going into the studio and writing gives me anxiety. We’re just starting this, getting The L-Shaped Man into the world. The thought of another album, I can’t wrap my head around. We put so much of ourselves into making these records. To think more than a year or even six months down the road is not something I feel capable of doing.

HN: I read that this was a break-up album for Ross’s break up. Knowing that, how did that affect your writing the guitar parts?

AA: Ross and I were both going through very similar situations. It was really hard. It was a dark time for both of us, and I think without those experiences, we wouldn’t have this. This record is absolutely a reflection of this mindset when we were making this album. There’s no question about it. The break-up album is kind of like the Joy Division thing. We live in a time where everything has to be quick and instant and a snappy tag with everything. A break-up album is really great for that. But really, it’s more about coping with loss. I think that Ross’s words could apply to a number of scenarios that people go through in their lives that don’t necessarily have to do with a woman and a man splitting up in a relationship, just more so how you deal with losing something that was an intricate part of your life for so long.

HN: I want to talk about the concept of this “L-shaped man.” Ross said in an interview that there was this conversation in which it was decided that the basic body shape of a man is an ‘L’. What more can we gather from the album title other than it’s about an ordinary man?

AA: That story is a little silly. I think more, it’s about this painter named Leslie Lerner who is from the Bay Area like us, and had this painting we saw when we were in South Korea or Japan that was in an airport we had a layover at that really moved Ross. The painting, I believe, was called “Your Life in France,” or maybe it was “Your Life in America.” It was one of the song titles on the album. Ross found out later that Leslie Lerner died on his birthday. And Leslie Lerner has two L’s for his initials. So Leslie Lerner is a big influence in the story of The L-Shaped Man. A lot of characters in Leslie Lerner’s paintings are characters in this album, like the one-armed man in “The Bridge,” and a lot of song titles and imagery are influenced in The L-Shaped Man.