In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Since forming in 2005, Ceremony has never been concerned with punk rock’s conventions. The same year they formed, they released the Ruined EP, seven songs of pure virulence that served as their update on West Coast powerviolence. Almost immediately, it spurred debates about whether the band was authentic or not, and those discussions have followed Ceremony throughout their entire career, as every deviation in style has made people question their intentions, while the band remained relatively tight-lipped on the subject.
Ceremony singer Ross Farrar promises that the band’s next album, their follow-up to 2015’s The L-Shaped Man, will be another jump, even if it’s too early to describe it just yet. “It’s very much in the vein of… our band,” he says. Noting that they wanted to write something with a bit more energy, he describes it as being “very, very, very California.” Even as he finds himself living in Syracuse, New York, as he pursues his MFA in poetry, his home state’s influence remains as pronounced as it was a decade ago. “There’s no way for us to escape this part of ourselves,” Farrar says, noting how the state has influenced nearly every move the band has made during their career.
But as the band continues to refine their latest batch of songs, we asked Farrar to look back at Ceremony’s full-lengths and put them in some kind of order. He was decisive in a way that he qualified as being “boring,” but he was frank about why. “I’m proud of everything we’ve made in some way. I don’t like every single song on every single record. There are some duds,” he says, “But I think there are little pieces of each record that are worthy of praise, and I’m grateful for that.” Instead of being prescriptive in his rankings, Farrar opted for descriptions, explaining the assorted fascinations that inspired each album, using his past experiences to frame how he views Ceremony’s discography in the present day.
Noisey: Looking back on Violence Violence now, what are some things that you dislike about it or wish you could have changed?
Ross Farrar: Just going off the top of my head, one thing I would change is making it more of its own thing and not putting some of the older songs on it. I’d like for it to be its own organism. I think we could have taken a little longer to do it, and I wish I would have done the art for the record myself. No offense to Linas [Garsys] or anything, he did great stuff for us, for both Ruined and that record, but I’ve done most of the art for each of the records. Now, I wish I could do a separate version of it myself as a reissue or something. I think I could do something really minimalist and cool with a rose against a white background. I really wish I could have done the art, but what can you do?
Following up the Ruined EP, what were you going for with the first album?
That was very early, so we wanted to make something that was kind of antithetical to the culture we were in. We named the band Ceremony after this really beautiful song by New Order, but then we were playing this really fast, aggressive music. We wanted that divide. That was really, really important to us. We had the roses design, and we had certain elements that we wanted to be softer, but then we wanted to have this very caustic music to go on top of it. As far as making art, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to have that schism.
Thinking about hardcore at that time, things were skewing toward youth crew revival and real posi-core kind of stuff, then this record comes out and the thing you hear the most on this is you yelling “fuck” over blast beats. What was informing your decisions to move away from that?
Well, funny enough, I was coming out of a break-up situation. There’s a lot of lyric work in the songs that has to do with heartbreak, being lonely, missing someone, but a lot of people don’t ever think of that record as a break-up record, but it kind of is. I wrote a lot of lyrics during that time because I was, you know, sad. [Laughs] And that goes back to the aesthetic I was just talking about, because we wanted to talk about love but have this sound of pure hate. We were listening to a lot of powerviolence stuff like Slight Slappers, Crossed Out, Spazz, a lot of Bay Area powerviolence, and we made music that reflected that, I guess.
And that’s basically when people started having debates about your band and whether or not you were actually powerviolence.
We knew we didn’t want to do that aesthetic. We didn’t want to go all out with it in the way a band like Scapegoat would. They went all the way with the aesthetic, from the look of their record to how they recorded it, and that was part of the art they created. They wanted it to be reflective of that genre of music. We were just listening to that stuff, and we wanted to make music, but we didn’t want to be parroting another band. We just blended elements of that kind of music into our music.
It’s interesting, because Still, Nothing Moves You is very much an extension of Violence Violence in a lot of ways. There are terribly fast songs and there are some slow, sludgier movements that we have. But that record really just gets more artsy in all kinds of different ways. The look of it, the physical aesthetic of it, was more artsy, and with the music there was a lot of variation in the tones and rhythms. We did songs like the first song, “Dead Moon California,” and that’s such a big leap from Violence Violence. It has that strange, slow introduction that’s like something we would do on The L-Shaped Man almost, then it goes into the fast, blasting rhythm. My friend Cody Sullivan who did the art for the Scared People EP, he was like, “That’s an art-punk record. It’s so weird and wacky.”
What was inspiring you as a writer at that time? Did you feel more comfortable bringing in things that had been outside of Ceremony’s purview before?
I was living in San Francisco at the time and I was doing a photography program at the City College of San Francisco, and I was involved in all kinds of arts, not just photography. I was doing illustration, I was writing, I was getting into literature. I was never into literature when I was in high school because I was just a terrible little shithead back then. I just wanted to ride my skateboard, spraypaint, and do bad things. But once I moved to San Francisco that’s when all the art started taking off and that really informed what I was making.
I was reading a lot of the Beat poets because I was living in San Francisco, you know? And I was working in the Barbary Coast at a porno shop, which was kind of weird. I was living this strange life as a 19-year-old. From 19 to 21 I stayed there, and I was living this weird, beatnik dream. [ Laughs]
That’s the age to live that dream if there ever is one.
Exactly, exactly. I was just living this weird art life.
What were you trying to express with the album’s title, and even the cover photo?
The photograph is of a wall that my father painted. He’s a house painter who does interior and exterior work, and he was working for an architect. Because he was working for an architect, he kind of had agency to do whatever, so he painted the wall black but left one of the bricks white as a kind of signature, as a statement. I thought that was pretty wonderful. As far as the band was going, we were this strange anomaly in the punk and hardcore scene of music. Anthony [Anzaldo, guitarist], if you look at it from the perspective of now, he looked fluid with his sexuality—he would wear makeup, he had his really long blonde hair. We were the black keys of that scene. Well, not the band, but as a euphemism. We were the black sheep or something. That record reflected that. That was the statement we were making, that we were making a record and we were making it differently from other people, and I think it did come off like that. It was a very weird record, for sure.
How was it knowing that everything you’d put out would be put under the microscope, from decisions about artwork all the way down to the way Anthony dressed?
We knew that was going to happen. We were weirdos, with the way we were playing, the way Anthony dressed, the art I was making, we were ready for the backlash. We knew it was going to happen and we still know it’s going to happen. It’s always going to happen. There are always going to be people who are like, “This isn’t what I thought this was going to be and therefore I am threatened by it.”
This was a big deviation sonically from what the band had done before. It’s hailed as a classic now, but what was the reaction like when it was released?
None of the record labels we’ve ever worked with, they’ve never said anything to us like, “Oh, this is too strange” or had any kind of restrictions. But we kind of went into that record knowing that people weren’t going to consider us a super fast, or even aggressive, hardcore band anymore.
That was a big record for us. When people talk about the band they seem to say Violence Violence or Rohnert Park are the big ones for them. That’s usually the case for a lot of bands: Their first record’s huge, then they’ll have a deviation of some kind that people think is great. I look back on a lot of those songs and I still love a lot of them. There are a couple songs that we didn’t put on the record and I still think should be on there, but that’s neither here nor there. I was doing a lot of field recordings, which is where you hear a lot of those voice recordings throughout that connect with this feeling of helplessness, sort of.
What made you want to integrate those field recordings into what Ceremony was doing with Rohnert Park?
One of the main inspirations for me was that band The Books. All their music is kind of found sounds, and I was big on that. At the time, I was doing this zine that was all stories of people on the street. It was me going up to them without any kind of contact and asking them to tell me a story from their life and I’d record it. What I found doing that was that people would open up in these crazy ways. I was a stranger, but they would tell me these very prolific, life-altering events, and then I’d just press the stop button and walk away, and I’d have these incredible stories on my microphone. But The Books were the main inspiration for that.
When bands exist for a long time, people either shit on them for staying the same or for changing too much. From the start, did you want to make Ceremony something that poked holes in that framework?
We definitely knew going into it that we just wanted to be ourselves. We wanted to make things organically and just let them flow into each other as they may. You’ll notice that each last song on each of the records is the perfect segue into the next record, and there are some other songs that are reflective of the next record. On Rohnert Park, we did “The Doldrums,” which was pretty wacky. People were like, “What the hell is this? It’s a slow song? And his vocals are kind of monotone?” And that goes right into Zoo. We have songs that are very, very similar to that song. But it just happened that way, there’s no rhyme or reason to it.
Looking at Rohnert Park, the way the record is addressing suburban complacency, from the lyrics on down to the artwork. What about those themes were jumping out to you at that time?
Well, check it out. I moved out of San Francisco in early 2009 and I moved back to the suburbs to live with my sister. My sister owns the house that I grew up in, she took over the mortgage from my parents, so I’m sitting in this house thinking to myself, “Oh my God, I’m back in the suburbs. Kill me now.” I’d been living in the city for five years doing God knows what, having a crazy life, then I’m back in Rohnert Park and we make the Rohnert Park LP. That’s just what was happening in my life at the time, as I was just stuck in the doldrums. It was totally reflective of my life at the time. Still, Nothing Moves You sounds like a kid stuck in the confusion of the city, just in a place of chaos, really. Then you look at Rohnert Park, and it’s the dolor, the sadness, the mundane. That’s what the whole record is about.
Even the choice to make the CDs say Rohnert Park CD and the vinyl say Rohnert Park LP, it’s a record that’s just kind of plainly stating the obvious.
I’m glad you bring that up, because the typeface is almost like a Helvetica situation, and the white background, it’s almost like you’re standing in front of Costco looking at it like, “Oh God, I have to go into this shit.” That was very much on purpose. We wanted it to look very utilitarian, like it was a necessity to have it look like that.
Like I said, the last song on the record before always kind of sets up the next one. We did “Into The Wayside Part III,” and that was Anthony’s song, actually. It had this kind of wandering, suburban drawl to it, and we were just in this headspace. We were going into this record in the headspace of, we were given this gift to put out a record on Matador and, to us, they were huge inspirations. I remember listening to that first Interpol LP when it came out and I was just obsessed with that record. Thinking about it now, that brought me the inspiration for all kinds of different things, even just the name of the band, or what I was listening to at the time. That first record blew everyone’s hair back. Then there was stuff like Belle & Sebastian. We just couldn’t believe they asked us to do a record. We wanted to make something awesome, and what we were writing at that time was just more upbeat punk songs. It was in the vein of Rohnert Park but just a little bit dancier.
What about Zoo makes you put it in this spot?
I could switch this as my favorite record with The L-Shaped Man, they kind of go hand-in-hand. I really love some of the songs on this record. It’s such a mix-up of feelings. When I think about that record, the first thing that comes to mind is movement—just the energy in that record. There’s obviously slow sections, but I think of songs like “Citizen,” that’s one of the mainstays for me. It’s like a pulsating thing. That’s what I think about when I think of Zoo.
The way the record looks is very voyeuristic. No one knows what that image is, I’ve never told anyone what that image is, and it’s supposed to be this mysterious void which has to stay that way. Even the title, it’s like, “What is this?” It’s Lynchian or something. What a lot of his art speaks to is the unconscious, or what Freud called the uncanny, that area in our brain that is there but we don’t know is there and we can’t tap into it. I wanted it to be something like that, this piece of art that can’t be defined in any way and just sits in this nebulous world almost.
We went to Seattle to record this record and we stayed there for two weeks, basically in isolation. None of our friends came and visited us, we didn’t see many people, I slept on a couch for two weeks, I wasn’t drinking and was sober the entire time, which was very different from anything we’d ever made. [Laughs] It was weird. Especially with the vocals, I was really experimenting. I took so much time to make each song sound a little different and to make each song sound a little freakier than the last. I wanted it to be this thing that was somehow created from an unknown source. No one knows what the record is about, no one knows what some of the songs are about, and there’s just a looming voyeurism that was kind of a social commentary on the time. A lot of blurred images, a lot of strange, static, television stuff going on. We had the song “Video” that was about seeing something, and it affects you, but you don’t know why. You’re seeing a fiction, and it’s moving you to the point of tears, but it’s not real. With a lot of things we do on our phones, we do a lot of these things unknowingly and there are a lot of repercussions that come from that.
Where Rohnert Park was kind of about existing in a suburban stasis, this one seems to be focused with re-entering the world and just being overwhelmed by all of it.
Oh, big time. At that time, after Rohnert Park, we were touring so much. We’d done US tours back and forth five or six times, we’d been to Europe a few times, we’d been to Australia, we’d been to Japan; We’d gone all over the place. We weren’t stuck in any zone anymore. We’d had these prolific experiences all over the world, losing our minds every single night, and maybe the record is an extension of that in some ways. We had just broken out of everything and were doing whatever we wanted. We had this freedom of going from a punk record label to Matador, and our lives were just wild at that point, being in this band just changed my life and it just changed my persona totally. If I hadn’t done any of this, I’d be a much different person than I am now. And sometimes I wish I wasn’t such a crazy psycho, but the band did it to me. [Laughs]
What about The L-Shaped Man makes it your favorite?
It was such a long journey. We had three years between records and so much shit happened during that time. Life changed so drastically and quickly for me. It’s been said the record is about a break up—well, it is for me, at least. I was living with this woman, we separated, etcetera. It’s all just representative of what happened. It was such a big change from Zoo to L-Shaped Man. The music changed, I changed, everything changed. I really like Zoo, and I think they’re almost tied. Almost. [Laughs] I don’t know why that is really, but I think it’s from the perspective that I’m trying to make something that has a little more energy and maybe a little more reflective of Zoo. Being a live band is a big part of our identity, and The L-Shaped Man was just coming from a place of pure desperation emotionally. I was just screwed up at that time.
I wanted the demos to be the record. If you listen to the demos, there’s not much feeling to my vocals. It’s much more monotone, things repeat, it’s kind of incantatory like it’s a spell or a hymn or psalm or something. That was one of the problems with that record on Matador, they wanted something with a little more energy. The demos, that’s how I wanted the vocals to go. I had to actually go back and record the vocals a second time and give them a little more oomph. But if you listen to the demos, that’s the record. That’s where I was at.
Was it hard to go from something more opaque to fully exposing yourself and being so transparent?
Yeah, it was hard. [Laughs] It was a very vulnerable time for me, and it shows on the record. But people never would have thought in a million years that we would go from Violence Violence to L-Shaped Man. I think, for a lot of people, it was too much. It was too far out of the realm of how they perceived our band. I have no apologies for that, it’s who we are and it’s what we made, but it very much was a violent change.
This record was incredibly divisive when it was released. Do you think people have come around on it at all?
It took a while. It was so hard to digest, and it was such a strange veer, but it seems they’ve come around to it now. In life, you’re not always a hardcore person, you’re not always stagediving. Sometimes, in life, you feel quiet. This band is a reflection of that. There are wonderful times of energy and there are very dark times of sadness, or whatever emotion you use for that definition. That’s the way our live show is, too. We play things from every generation of the band. Sometimes you’re going crazy and sometimes you’re taking a break and letting things sink in. It takes time for it to saturate.