Tuesday, June 12, 2007

An interview with Django Haskins

photo by Trevor Oswalt

OK, I know this is bad, but I've never seen The Old Ceremony (Myspace), despite having many opportunities to do so. That's going to change this Sunday when the band plays an afternoon (4 p.m.) show at Forest Theater on the campus of UNC. In advance of the show, I took the opportunity to interview band leader Django Haskins (Myspace) via e-mail. In addition to getting his answers back to me in record time (just over two hours), he graciously allowed me to upload one of the band's .mp3s to the site. It turns out using the little Flash player is incredibly easy, so I'm planning to put a lot more songs with my posts.

Q. I have not seen Old Ceremony live, and I'm really looking forward to the show on Sunday, mainly because I keep hearing that you guys are "theatrical." What the heck does that mean? Are you guys "theatrical"? Do you have anything special planned for Sunday's show? Forest Theater seems like a pretty enchanted place -- how did you come to book a show there? Finally, you know it's going to be about 90 degrees at 4 p.m. on Sunday. How are you guys going to stand up there in suits without roasting?

A. I've been told we're "theatrical" too, but i'm not sure exactly what that means. I suppose it means that we don't dress in t-shirts and we try to work with lighting when we can. And maybe that some of the songs are stories, rather than all being first person confessionals. The forest theater is a really cool place; we played there for a similar show last year because we were looking for a place to do an afternoon show where families could come see us play. We'd heard so many people saying "When are you going to play at a reasonable hour? When are you playing so that I can bring my kids?" so we found the forest theater. As long as it doesn't rain, I'm okay with the heat. Though I generally roast in my suit even in a normal club show, so I may have to be wrung out and line-dried after the show.

Q. Are you recording right now? Thinking of recording? If so, where and with whom?

A. We are recording now, at our studio in Durham, Studio M, where we did our last record. Thom Canova is doing most of the engineering again. So far, it's been a really interesting process; we're taking a lot more chances on this record and taking more time to find the right sounds and feels, rather than making a more or less live record, which is what "Our One Mistake" was essentially.

Q. Lyrically, the songs on Our One Mistake seem romantically confrontational. They seem to be the thoughts of someone who has been holding in a lot of frustrations about his relationship, and the songs are the first salvo in what could be a major romantic battle. Am I off the mark here? Can you clue us in as to what you were thinking when you wrote them? Are you in a differnt place emotionally now?

A. Romantically confrontational? I like that one. I was definitely going through a lot of frustrations at the time I wrote some of those songs. But also, I think I'm more interested in writing about the friction points rather than the long stretches of pleasantness. In retrospect, it seems that the last record was a lot about communication or lack thereof. "Talk Straight," "Reservations," "Prove Me Wrong," "Baby, What is Going On," etc. all seem to hit on that.

Q. What's the most embarrassing record in your collection?

A. I've got lots of records that I wouldn't necessarily bring to a party of people I didn't know. Maybe Billy Joel or something - I heard his stuff so much from my older sister growing up that I have a soft spot for some of his early records. I realize that he's not Pitchfork-approved, but the man could write a melody.

Q. When you're on the road, what do you miss most about Chapel Hill, and when you're in Chapel Hill, what do you miss most about the road?

A. When I'm on the road, I miss Weaver Street Market because it's such a struggle to find healthy food. The best we can do on the highway is Subway, but that gets old pretty fast. When I'm home, I miss the novelty of waking up in a different city every day and of meeting lots of new people all the time. But honestly, we haven't been home for long enough stretches of time lately to really miss much about being on the road before we leave again.

Q. Language is obviously very important to you. Can you explain what draws you to various languages? Which languages do you know, and what do you appreciate most about each of them? Do you write in English for convenience, or do you truly find it to be the most evocative, descriptive language?

A. The thing I love about foreign languages (I've studied Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish, but I'm only really comfortable in Chinese and Spanish at this point) is that they are a perfect microcosm of a culture and worldview. They show how people relate to each other, for instance. In Japanese, the various levels of politeness convey an incredibly subtle awareness of one's place in relation to whomever they're talking to. Chinese (Mandarin) is an amazing language - difficult and obtuse, but also incredibly rich and rewarding. And the characters themselves are so beautiful to write and read. I also like how everything is determined by context in Chinese; there are very few connector words and no conjugation of verbs, so you have to infer a lot. I write in English because it's hard enough for me to write lyrics in English - if I wrote in any other language it'd come across like a depressed first-grader.

Q. Off-topic here: I'm currently learning German, and I love how logical it is. I truly don't know how anyone manages to learn English.

A. Yeah, English really is full of crazy exceptions. I'm glad I learned it as a kid rather than starting now.

Q. Have you ever written a lyric that you couldn't find a melody for, or vice versa? Can you explain a bit about your songwriting process?

A. I've got scraps of lyrics and music all over the place that haven't found (and probably won't ever find) a home. But I think the more you make the effort to just write, the more chance that they'll find a place in a song. It's rare for me to have a song appear fully-formed. There are a few of those on the last record - "Papers in Order" and "Reservations" come to mind, but in generally there's a lot more gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair involved.

Q. You grew up in Florida. Do you have an innate appreciation for Lynyrd Skynyrd or do the opening bars of Gimme Three Steps just make you want to vomit?

A. It makes me sick. I do, however, often point out that Tom Petty is from my hometown, Gainesville.

Q. Hit shuffle on your ipod and tell me the first five songs that come up. If you don't have an ipod, what's in your CD player right now?

A. I don't have an ipod, but looking at the stack of cds by my cd player, I've got Etta James, The Band, Thelonious Monk, Eels, and Josquin Deprez. I'm not very modern.

Q. I understand you were named for Django Reinhardt. Has his music inspired you in anyway? Obviously you come from a music-loving family. Tell us a bit about them, and about your experiences with music while growing up.

A. I've always been aware of Django's Reinhardt's music, but only in the past few years have I really spent a lot of time with it. He's definitely inspiring. My parents were a folk duo in the 60's and did some travelling around and performing. I had a really musically rich childhood - we used to spend evenings around the piano all the time, and I was introduced to a lot of music - old jazz, folk, rock n roll, you name it. It definitely started me on my road to pig-headed eclecticism. I'm just not capable of making a bunch of music that has the same sound over and over. It's a weakness in some ways, but it's also what keeps me interested in what I'm doing.

Q. What have I missed? Is there anything you really want to say?

A. Not really. I like your questions - they were much more insightful than our usual "how long have you been playing" and "how do you describe your music." thanks a lot.

1 comment:

Abby said...

Django is a delight. I've seen The Old Ceremony twice now, and they are wonderful. Django's lyrics are inspirational. I personally have met a few people at shows who see "Papers In Order" as their goal and "Talk Straight" as an anthem for how relationships should be. And I couldn't agree more.

I also love that Django recognized me and made a point to say hello when I went and saw them the second time. He's bright and connected.

I wish I could go this Sunday, but I've promised some other friends I'd go see them at 3pm at Slim's. If only I could clone myself!