Ceremony are exhausted. The California quintet are sitting in Sandoony USA, a sparse, humid, and highly chlorinated Russian bathhouse in Brooklyn. Singer Ross Farrar, 30, sniffles and coughs while apologizing for a cold he's battling; drummer Jake Casarotti, 26, sits in sleepy silence. At the moment, the band's taking a substantial break from touring as they put the finishing touches on their fifth LP, The L-Shaped Man—and it's one that is well deserved, as the punk experimentalists performed four sets in just over 16 hours at this year's SXSW. When we first meet post-festival, they're still nursing what they call a "bangover."
"When you play a show and you haven't for a while..." starts bassist Justin Davis, 27, before Farrar interrupts, "My whole body is sore." Headbanging and violent pogoing can take its toll on punks of all ages—but after a full decade in action, Ceremony aren't as young as they were a decade ago, when the band was formed. At 33, guitarist Andy Nelson's the oldest member of Ceremony, as well as the only one who's familiar with bathhouse ethics, so he leads the rest of the band—clad in white bathrobes, ill-fitting bathing suits, and plastic slippers—through the facility. Still, he can only do so much: while in the steam room, guitarist Anthony Anzaldo, 28, is reprimanded by Sandoony staff for wearing a small pair of underwear instead of the required swim trunks.
Nelson eventually corrals the crew to a nearby hot tub, where they recount their recent SXSW trip—which marked the first time that they performed a fair amount of material from The L-Shaped Man. The crowd response to the new stuff was largely positive, if a little different than usual. "If we play a show in the middle of nowhere and no one's singing along or dancing, It's clear they're not into it," Anzaldo says, a straightedge "X" tattoo peeking above his robe. "But our new stuff doesn't lead to that type of crowd reaction."
Each of Ceremony's records has involved a reactionary departure from the sound of the one that preceded it, but none has been as big of a jump as The L-Shaped Man. Nearly five years after Farrar screamed that he was sick of Black Flag / sick of Cro-Mags on the opening track of 2010's Rohnert Park, he's traded in his adenoidal adolescent angst for a throaty baritone. The band around him has similarly scaled back, stripping down their careening rush to anxious single-note guitar lines and thunderous drum rolls. The record represents a radical head-snapping change of pace for Ceremony—one that underlines their Joy Division-referencing band name—but then, as Nelson is quick to affirm, Ceremony's sound has always been in a state of flux: "Exploration and growth are our constants."
Ceremony formed in 2004 in California's Rohnert Park community, with the group bashing away at Casarotti's parents' place. Farrar suggested the name Ceremony instead of the Misfits-referencing Violent World ("We liked the contrast," explains Davis), and the cover of their debut, Violence, Violence, features a delicately blooming rose. 2008's Still Nothing Moves You found the band exploring sludgy, discordant dirges and fuzzy ambient interludes; Rohnert Park followed in 2010, a record that preserved the band's aggression, but displayed new impulses—including the lopsided strummer "The Doldrums (Friendly City)," the dead-eyed swagger of which recalled Nick Cave a couple of decades previous (or Iceage a couple of years later).
The band's current shift could be attributed in part to Nelson, who's also put in work with fellow hardcore deconstructionists Paint It Black; he replaced former guitarist Ryan Mattos before the release of their Matador debut, 2012's Zoo, and added a newfound spryness to the band's six-string assault. Zoo certainly has its roaring moments, but the record ends with "Video," an overcast post-punk bummer jam whose pinging guitar lines owe far more to the dreary swoons Echo & the Bunnymen than they do to, say, Minor Threat. With The L-Shaped Man, they're digging wholeheartedly into an element of their sound that only previously existed in the form of gloomy, off-kilter outliers.
A few days after their spa stay, Ceremony are sitting in a mostly empty Williamsburg bar—far more clothed, less frazzled, and "bangover" free. Casarotti sits quietly, fidgeting with the drawstrings of a navy blue hoodie; Davis leans back against the booth, popping into the conversation occasionally. Nelson remains thoughtful and authoritative between sips of tomato juice, Anzaldo cracks dirty jokes, and Farrar munches on Sour Punch Straws, bemused. They talk excitedly about The L-Shaped Man, and the conversation eventually returns to a question Anzaldo posed to the group a couple of days ago: "What does Ceremony sound like?"
Farrar believes their audience is divided on this topic: "There's people who think we sound like Violence, Violence and there's people who think we sound like Zoo." But if Ceremony has an intangible "thing," as Nelson claims, it's intensity and disruption—taking familiar structures and subverting them, juking right when another band would make a left. Their music is about the tensions between life's expectations and realities, something that The L-Shaped Man focuses on at a microscopic level. "Thematically, there's always disruption of status quo," Nelson explains Ceremony's musical approach. "Whether it's being a teenager, being in the suburbs, or being an American—those things plod on and on, and the notes do the same thing."
The idea of hanging on too long is central to Farrar's lyrical focus, too. When the band started working on The L-Shaped Man two years ago, the singer intended to write a concept album inspired by the works and life of visual artist Leslie Lerner—that is, before a relationship Farrar had been in for five years began to dissolve. "We both knew it was coming," Farrar explains, resignedly, about his breakup. "We weren't sure if we wanted to let go or not. It was the hardest thing I've ever gone through." But Anzaldo is quick to point out, "No relationship ends just when it's supposed to." As Farrar's breakup dragged on through the recording process, it ended up inextricably shaping the final product. The L-Shaped Man isn't a breakup record, exactly; rather, it's a peek into the internal crises that factored into his life-upending shift.
"It's just a totally human thing." Farrar explains of the anxieties reflected on the record. "How do I live in the world and how do I carry on? What's going to happen to me next?" The question hangs in the air for a moment, unsettled, before Anzaldo draws an important connection between Farrar's mindset and the state of the band at large. "After every record we've ever done, I'm like, 'How are we ever going to do that again?'" he sighs. "But you know what? I don't have to think about that right now." And he's right: before he can worry about what's next, the band's got shows to play, the first of which is the following night.
24 hours later, a line of dedicated Ceremony fans have lined up outside another bar just blocks away from our previous meeting to hear the band play tracks from The L-Shaped Man for the first time on the East Coast. There's a handful of hardcore kids, but the audience largely looks more grown-up. I find my way inside and spot Casarotti nursing a beer at a table in a corner. He admits to a case of pre-show nerves, but when the band hits the stage, the uncertainties the band's previously discussed with me are nowhere to be found.
Tearing through album highlight "Your Life in France," they're as self-assured as they ever were when they were just playing hardcore. Nelson pogos around in front of the nodding crowd, while Farrar thrashes wildly his head around; Anzaldo steps up to his own mic to join Farrar's intonations, while Davis and Casarotti lock into an increasingly propulsive rhythm.
The show seems to be over when a crowd member yells for Zoo's searing "Citizen" and the band happily obliges, opening a crushing mosh pit in the midst of the posh Brooklyn bar and segueing into versions of "The Doldrums" and "Sick" that, following the new record's downcast material, are all the more punishing. When it's over, Farrar's plain white t-shirt is soaked with sweat, and Nelson pauses to catch his breath. It's exhausting trying to be everything all at once, but if there's anything to be learned from the decade-plus of adventurousness that's preceded The L-Shaped Man, it's that Ceremony is certainly going to try—even if they have to deal with a few bangovers in the process.
Photos courtesy of Chrissy Piper