Last summer indie rock institution Matador Records turned more than a few heads when they announced that they had signed the adventurous Bay Area hardcore group Ceremony, known since 2005 for face-ripping shows and confrontational lyrics. A few weeks later they played a free, underwritten show at a Brooklyn skate park alongside No Age, Health and, strangely enough, Cults. Welcome to indie rock, as it were, and be careful where you crowd surf. “I remember I face-dove when No Age did a Black Flag cover,” says guitarist and main songwriter Anthony Anzaldo. “Every person working at the venue grabbed me and took me aside and gave me this fucking huge lecture,” he sighs. “Is this what we’re going to have to fucking deal with?’”
The rest of the transition has, so far, gone a bit smoother. Matador reassured credulous fans that they had no desire to change the group, and hooked them up with producer John Goodmanson, who had previously made nervy, loose albums with Sleater-Kinney and Los Campesinos! But the real test is yet to come. Zoo is a smart, tuneful and better-mixed refinement of Ceremony’s various interests, from old-style shuffle rhythms, complex arrangements and guitar tones that belie the Joy Division nod in their moniker. How fans old or potential will react is anybody’s guess, but Anzaldo told Hive he’s doing his best not to sweat it.
Have you guys been doing a lot of getting ready for the tour, press interviews sort of things?
Yeah, a lot of that stuff, the record comes out next week as you probably know so …
It was funny, in doing research for this I read a lot of your interviews, and they were all from places like AMP or like hardcore websites, and now it seems like you’re talking with different people.
Yeah, that’s definitely true, like yourself … we did an interview with Spin the other day and Rolling Stone’s reviewing our record and all this shit that’s pretty weird. [Laughs.]
How do you feel about that?
It’s cool. The more people that are exposed that to your band the better, because that means you’ll be able to sustain longer and easier. It was never really a goal of ours to get reviewed in Rolling Stone or interviewed by MTV or Spin or anything, but you know, we love music, we love making music, and if talking to some people a few times a week for a half hour can insure that we can keep doing that on our terms, than that’s not the worst thing in the world.
Thank you. It’s good to be called “not the worst thing in the world.”
It’s interesting when you guys announced that you’d signed to Matador, there was a lot of attention from both the indie rock press and the more punk type websites. Was it hard to not let that attention and pressure influence how the music came out?
No, no I mean … people are going to like what we do or not and we’ve never written a song or a part or had any of our creative direction lead by any sort of hype or press or what fans may think. It’s really not until after the record is done where we start thinking about stuff a little more. But during the creative process that could not be less of a factor.
So tell me about the writing sessions for this album. I know I’ve read that Zoo is kind of based on a theme of viewing humanity from the outside. Is that a theme you guys hit on early on? Do you guys write lyrics together?
Ross worked on the lyrics and every time we do a record up until the last minute he is asking our opinion and floating out ideas of what the records going to be called. I think there’s been a common denominator in all of his lyric writing that has some sort of social commentary. He didn’t come up with Zoo until really late in the game, we had a few other a few other names that we were tossing around. The letter that he wrote that’s on our website kind of really hits the nail of what was his concept behind naming the album Zoo. There was a minute where we were talking about calling the record Community Service, which is a song on the record. There was a while where we were going to call the record World Blue, which is the fourth track on the album, but I think Ross really nailed it with Zoo.
How long did recording take? Were you consciously trying to go for a certain type of sound?
We recorded longer than we ever have. We were in the studio for a month. And the most recording we ever did (before) was … ten days? It was also the first time we were working with a producer, which was really cool in terms of, you know, John [Goodmanson] threw out ideas that we wouldn’t have really thought of. We had been writing songs exclusively with each other for seven years now, and when you’re so comfortable with everybody and you know everybody’s style and that sort of thing, it’s really easy to want to recycle ideas that you’ve used in the past. So obviously the longer you’re a band the more challenging it becomes to find different creative outlets and having a producer, especially one as good as John, in the mix makes that a lot easier. So I would say that is the biggest difference. There are songs on there, on that record like “Video” and “Hysteria,” that musically would have sounded a lot different if he wasn’t a part of the process.
What was it about John that made you want to work with him?
Well, Matador sent us a bunch of people that they thought we would work well with, and he was one of the names. Just listening to the records that he had done and setting up a kind of a conference call with him really solidified that he was the guy for us. He was like, “This is your record, I’m working for you guys. I really want to be as much a part of the creative and writing process as you guys want me to be.” It was obvious from listening to the records he’s done, we found out he’s really good with sonic tones. So that was obviously great. But another thing, originally we wanted to get Joan Jett to produce the record.
Yeah, because we really liked the stuff she did early on with Bikini Kill, and she produced the Germs record (GI) that obviously we all love. So we thought that would be a great idea, turns out while talking with John that he produced the Bikini Kill records [Reject All American and Singles] with Joan Jett. So the main reason we wanted her was because of those records, and it turns out that he was the one who produced those. So that was like, “Well, that works out perfectly.” And he was just really excited about doing this as a project and everyone else was a little apprehensive about working with a band like us who had never worked with a producer before and was so embedded in this punk, hardcore realm.
He’s worked with people like Sleater-Kinney and the Blood Brothers who come from that world, but had a different approach.
Right, totally. After talking with him, he had a pretty firm foot in the punk realm. I remember talking to him when he came down to watch us rehearse about Zero Boys and all these different punk bands that we had in common.
Right out the gate, “Hysteria” feels like this opening statement of what the album is going to be and what you guys are all about now. Tell me how that song came about.
That was actually one of the most interesting songs, writing process wise, that we have ever done. Ross doesn’t play any instruments, but he hummed this riff he kind of had in his head, and we kind of built a riff around that. When John came to watch us rehearse, he came up with the first drum beat idea. Originally it was just the straight four drum beat that’s in the chorus and the ending the entire time. He came up with this really cool floor tom, kind of tribally offbeat thing that really gave the song a lot more dynamic. Writing that song was actually a lot different than any song we ever wrote. And it’s also probably the only song on the record where we’re using power cords the entire time and it’s only two riffs. It’s probably the closest to our older stuff. It was an easy choice for the first song on the record, kind of a gateway.
You guys have been on a couple of different labels, Deathwish Inc., Bridge 9, how do you guys kind of end up on Matador?
It was really simple, actually. A really good friend of ours had a friend that worked there and told us that they kind of knew of us, years ago. They got one of our records. We were always kind of aware that they were aware of us, and they had just signed Fucked Up. We were like “Huh. I wonder if they’re trying to kind of branch out into more punk/hardcore stuff” and then after Rohnert Park came out, they really dug it and got in contact with us and really showed us love on that record. They flew out to a show we were playing in Los Angeles. Um … and we just talked with them ‘til like 3 in the morning and I pretty much asked flat out “What is the likelihood of us being on Matador?” and they said “Well, we like you guys, it’s definitely something we want to do and are considering” and a few weeks later we demo’d a few songs in the practice space which I think were “World Blue” and “Everything Burns”, a few other songs on the record, the first four that we wrote, and they called and gave us a formal offer.
Were you looking for a label not necessarily known for hardcore music to break you out of the pack?
You know, not necessarily. We never really sought out record labels. It’s kind of one of those things where you’re at the mercy of all of them, you know, whoever wants to put you out is going to put you out. I don’t think we would ever send our record into a label. You want someone who wants you. But I mean, it wasn’t a goal necessarily, but we’re really happy to be on a label that has a really diverse lineup and are used to working with all sorts of music and all sorts of bands. That’s definitely working in our favor. Because we explore a lot of different styles of music and we are influenced by a lot of different styles of music. So it’s nice to have the people backing us also practice that.
Is this about as big of a label as you guys feel comfortable on? Or is there a scenario in which you guys could have been or could one day be on a major label?
I would say this is the biggest label that we would feel comfortable on. I think any major labels wouldn’t know what to do with us, and would try to package us a big rock band, and we would fail. You can’t really look at any punk, hardcore bands that have made that leap … it’s never really worked out and that’s because I don’t really think that majors have a use for bands like us. But we knew that Matador was still an independent label, and for us really big, but in the grand scheme of things, a pretty small label.
It’s interesting, like even six years ago, a website like maybe Pitchfork would still refer to a someone like Poison the Well as “just some sort of Warped Tour band.” But now between Fucked Up, Trash Talk and your signing, hardcore seems kind of hip. Is that a new thing for you guys?
Um, I don’t know about that. I guess that there are bands that kind of are in the uh, quote unquote “cool music realm” these days. I guess there’s always been an aspect of that, bands like Black Flag and the Bad Brains have always been acclaimed in those realms that are giving attention to bands like Ceremony and Fucked Up. It’s just there’s so many punk bands and so many hardcore bands out there, that you know for Spin magazine and Pitchfork or Rolling Stone to recognize two or three is really on a very minute scale. And also bands like us and Fucked Up, the reason I think why, we maybe get a little more attention from those outlets than a lot of other punk and hardcore bands is that we, especially Fucked Up, explore a lot more musical avenues, making it more accessible to the Spins and the Pitchforks and the Rolling Stones. And it’s a shame, but I don’t see a band like Have Heart in those outlets …
Or Bane or something,
Or Bane. In those outlets, because they’re a little more uh … one-dimensional … and that’s fine, but I think in order for those sites and magazines to pay attention to you, you kind of have to have elements that are a little bit out of the punk realm.
Have you noticed that you’re starting to get a new audience, or is that something you anticipate?
I have no idea what’s going to happen when the record comes out. We’re all very curious. I could see it going a number of routes. I could see us as staying on this steady plane that we’ve kind of been on, where every record we sell a little bit more than the last one, we gain a little bit more fans, but it’s nothing that crazy. I could see all the Matador, Pitchforky world, kind of embracing us. I could see that crowd not digging it. I could see our old crowd not digging it, and the band just kind of falling apart. This year is going to definitely be a new experience.
Is that a scary prospect for you guys? I know hardcore fans can be very protective and don’t really like people going into their realm.
I feel like we’ve explored a lot of different stuff on our last record. I feel like most of the fans we would have lost, we would have already lost. I could be wrong with that. But hardcore fans are one of those things where it’s really split in half. There’s people who if you evolve, are mad that they’re not hearing the old stuff and there are people that if you kind of stay on the same plane, they get mad that you sound the same. So you can’t really write for anybody else besides yourself.
I remember when Fucked Up signed to Matador, some hardcore fans treated it like they were signing to a major label and were working with Blink-182’s producers or something.
Right, and they were on Jade Tree which was a pretty diverse label. But you know, there will always be … naysayers, and unfortunately, they make the most noise.
There’s a saying that from politics, to television, to music, reasonable people don’t light up message boards and comment sections.
Right. [Laughs.] I mean … yeah. [Laughs.] The whole message board, Internet thing is such a fucking headache, we don’t even … you know … we don’t even deal with it.
I was reading some older interviews with you guys and some of them you talk about how over the years you guys balanced the band with jobs and school. Is that still the case or are you guys doing this full time now?
As time goes on, it’s becoming more fulltime. But some of us still have school, and have day jobs. We’ll see, again, it’s one of those things where after this record will definitely tell how much longer we’re going to need to be in school or if we need to keep our day jobs.
Is there a bit of a do or die situation going on?
No, no matter what we’re going to be making music and being a band, but we’ve always been on this cusp where we could do the band fulltime. It’s do-able, but we’d be super broke all the time. We’ve always been on this cusp of riding the line between being able to do it full time or not being able to do it full time. And I think this record will definitely push it over the edge in one way.
Ceremony’s Zoo is out now via Matador. Their US tour begins in April.