When I told a musician friend and common acquaintance that I’d be interviewing Durham musician Django Haskins, leader of literate rockers the Old Ceremony, he immediately blurted out, “Oh, I love Django—his brain is on fire!” I knew what he was talking about only five minutes into a discussion with Haskins, which would go on to cover new LP Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide (which comes out 8/21), DNA mapping, the Titanic, Astor Piazzolla, the recent GOP debates, Benny Hill, Teddy Roosevelt, Randy Newman, and the biblical plagues of Beebe, Arkansas.
Haskins, the 38-year-old songwriting veteran, is known for the witty tunes he pens and sings for the Old Ceremony—songs that owe more to Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, and the band’s namesake, Leonard Cohen, than to any recent indie rock. Over the course of seven LPs, including the band’s latest and first for Haw River label Yep Roc, the Old Ceremony—which also includes Mark Simonsen, Daniel Hall, Gabriel Pelli, and Jeff Crawford—has the dexterity to fit in any era and, as Haskins says, produce classic-sounding songs that “survive evolving trends and sounds.”
Beyond the Old Ceremony, Haskins is working on two non-fiction books: Painting the Town, a touring memoir that explores the history of four great American cities at pivotal moments, and The First Class Passenger, a biography of his great-grandfather, who survived the Titanic, played international tennis tournaments, befriended Teddy Roosevelt, and dedicated himself to the Preparedness movement in the lead-up to the First World War.
Haskins also recently performed in the inaugural Professor Diablo’s True Revue, sponsored by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. The collaborative performance for writers, musicians, visual artists, and others focuses on the use of documentary research in the creation of art. Haskins’ songs have dealt with everything from plate tectonics to Robert Moses’ New York, so he fits the bill.
When The Thread spoke to Haskins, he was prepping to go to London for the British version of the Big Star Third show, where he’d be playing alongside the likes of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, the Posies’ Ken Stringfellow, and Big Star alum Jody Stephens.
The Thread: Tell me about the title of the new record, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide.
Django Haskins: It’s one of the song titles, but I think this record is a little bit more consistent in its themes than the last record, which has the usual themes that I’m always obsessing about kind of spread out all over the place. This one, the title really puts the listener on notice that it’s going to be going at some pretty thorny issues. There was definitely some discussion beforehand—just the word, “suicide”—it kind of raises your blood pressure just to say it. But hopefully people will understand that the idea and the title is really as much about kind of getting in your own way, things that are generally self-destructive. It’s not really meant to be literal—more like a struggle with ideal forms and ideas about life, and trying to reconcile that with what you actually get. That holding onto ideals and being unwilling to face what’s actually in front of you is really self-destructive behavior that a lot of us go through.
I guess these “fairytales,” then, are the adult variety.
More Grimm than Disney, yes.
You mentioned that this record more thematically cohesive than the last one. I was struck by the opening song, “Star by Star”, which sounds like it’s about DNA and the issues of free will and control…
It is. Control’s a major theme in the album. That first song was inspired by a friend of mine, [Misha Angrist,] who was involved with the Human Genome Project. He wrote a book about it called Here Is a Human Being about, essentially, questions of ethics and morals and even just preference, in terms of trying to map out “this is how you will die,” or “this is how your life is.” We’re getting so far into being able to classify things that for me, it really highlights how much that leaves out. So the idea of “Star by Star” is saying, “Look, I don’t want to know how it ends.” We can’t control everything. Even if we think we know how we’re going to die, we could walk in front of a bus.
There’s this Chinese saying about opening the door and seeing the mountain. It’s basically suggesting getting the mediating forms of life out of the way so that we can actually see what’s going on. You can see the grass, and feel air—really simple things that we miss because we get so focused on doctrinology and our power to understand and control things. We lose a lot of wisdom that’s probably been accumulated over the ages.
Does that tie into this stream of nostalgia in your music, both sonically and as a theme? How do you avoid becoming that person who’s always looking backwards?
I’ve always had this thread of nostalgia in my music, and I grew up with Cole Porter and things like that—I was really kind of outside of my own time. I grew up on this sort of post-hippie farm; my parents were professors but they decided they just wanted to create their own little scene out in the country outside Gainesville, right outside Tom Petty town. So I had this nostalgia built in before I had anything to be nostalgic about, because the things that I fell in love with were already gone, mostly. But I think what this album is really doing is facing that nostalgia a little bit more. It’s looking at that nostalgia and trying to reconcile it with what things were probably actually really like at those times; letting go of this perfect idea of something and realizing that, you know, Cole Porter was just as screwed up as everybody else.
So the dark side to “Let’s Misbehave”. . .
Yeah, right. I think in between those clever rhymes he was probably doing some messed up stuff. So the second track [on the new record], “Elsinore”—as in the castle where Hamlet lives—is a step, if there is a narrative arc, to this point of indecision. It’s where you’re struggling with these things and haven’t really decided whether you’re just going to brush them under the rug or try to deal with them.
What comes next?
It gets into the arc of a relationship, or an imaginary relationship. It starts at the disintegration point of a relationship, and you see it falling apart and the nostalgia already building. There are other things going on, too, it’s not literally just about one thing, or one kind of relationship. But there is a progression to kind of opening your eyes to a disintegrating [relationship], and another one that’s beginning to flower, until the last song, “Feet Touch the Ground,” is really this realization: “Oh, shit, I’m about to land right in the real world.” It wasn’t intended that way, it’s not like we sat down and planned out the themes or anything, but we tried to put it together in a way that makes a little bit of intuitive sense.
Would you say that until you get to that last song, each one before strips away different elements of our romanticizing tendencies?
Yeah, I think so. It’s funny because I’ve been working on this writing project the last couple of years, essentially urban history, this manuscript about the images of these four cities, and there’s a thread of touring them that kind of ties them together. But I realized recently after working on this for two years that it’s the same thing—it’s the same themes, like the image of Los Angeles and the reality of it, and how the image is created and how and why. I think it’s something I’ve been obsessed with for a while. Like anyone, whatever my current preoccupations are, they’re going to play out in whatever my creative pursuits happen to be. I think if I tried to do some choreography it’d be about that, too.
Is that next—Django Haskins as Alvin Ailey?
Oh, no. I was trying to pick something completely ridiculous since I’m a terrible dancer. Please, save the world from that.
How might the song “Sink or Swim” fit this model?
It’s one of those thorny, unreliable narrators, like a Randy Newman song—if you take it at face value, it’s like, “What the hell is this guy saying?” But I watched a bunch of those GOP debates, and in between throwing up I wanted to encapsulate it somehow in a song, and that one just came out. This really callous idea about the value of helping people who need help really struck me. I think “Sink or Swim” is actually less tied in with the [album’s] themes, but in a way, it’s the harsh reality of some people’s attitudes.
The line in the song “The Day That I Was Born”—“I could let go of the wheel tonight / surrender to the gears and motor”—that seems to go back to the issue of control . . .
Yeah, I think that’s actually a post-breakup song through this kind of nostalgia-Vaselined lens. “We tread waters in greens and blue / you clung to my neck as if you knew / that we’d watched this scene from a basement wall / as our faces would stutter, and rise and fall.” You know, even at this moment, knowing that this is going to create future nostalgia, and kind of sifting through the wreckage afterwards.
Is this based on some recent personal stuff?
It’s not that recent. I tend to write after the fact a lot of the time, but, yeah, I’m sure there are a couple of relationships that kind of fed into some of the songs. They were written over a period of a couple of years, I guess. At least the emotional experience, if not the actual details, are often drawn from real life.
What about the song “Beebe, Arkansas,” where the birds drop out of the sky. How does that fit?
It doesn’t, really. That one’s kind of out of left field—I haven’t figured out how that fits in with anything else. I just thought that was such a fantastic image, like a Grimm fairytale. And then it happened again. I wrote the song, then we recorded it, and as we were finishing the recording, it happened again. It was on New Year’s, two years in row. This past New Year’s and the previous one. I just love the idea of this town that, for some weird reason, these crazy biblical things are happening. It’s just a fun thing to think about.
Who sings with you on that song?
It’s Christy Smith from the Tender Fruit. She’s wonderful.
“Royal We” is almost an old fashioned pop song, like from the ‘30s or something.
It’s a very Nick Lowe conceit, and draws on our old Brill Building pals. I really like songs—I don’t always try to write them, because I think that’d get real tiresome to listen to—that have one central conceit that plays out. I was just thinking the other day about the song, “Miss Otis Regrets.” It’s a Cole Porter song—he’s not my only favorite old songwriter, but he does come up as a representative a lot—“Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today,” is the refrain. The story plays out that she found out her man was cheating on her and she shot him, and she was arrested, and a mob came and dragged her from the jail and lynched her. And the last thing she said before she dies is, “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.”
MONDAY: PART 2
Catch the Old Ceremony at Duke Performances’ Music in the Gardens series on June 13.