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: I wanted to ask you about your tour to Europe last year. How does the Old Ceremony play in Europe, where history is bigger factor in everything?
Django Haskins: One thing, which I guess I knew but was reinforced for me on this tour we did last summer, is that different parts of Europe have extremely different tastes. When we played in the South of Germany, in Dresden, there were all these bands that do this slightly more aggressive Benny Hill theme thing—pratfalls and fart jokes, but somehow a little intimidating! And even within Germany, up in Berlin, there’s this very bohemian kind of vibe that was completely different. So it depended a little bit on where we were. But the band has always had a lot of influences that people are more generally aware of in Europe than your average radio listener here.
We all like Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, who’s Canadian, but from that tradition, Astor Piazzolla; these things that mix a lot of different musical traditions. And since we have the vibraphone and violin, it’s been something that we’ve explored over the years. So we always felt that Europe would be a good place for us to play, and last summer was our first chance to actually do a tour there. And it went over really well. I think our most memorable shows were probably in Berlin and Dijon, France. But we enjoyed all of it. It’s not that European audiences are so much more broad-minded than American audiences, just that the classifications are less strict, in terms of styles of music and what it means to like a certain style of music about yourself—are you an indie rocker, or are you a classic rock guy, or a jazz fan? I think it’s a little looser there, and you can draw more freely from different things without confusing listeners.
Sometimes they’re more passionate about our music history than we are, it seems.
Right, but not always as discerning, either. In France there was this guy we met, “Oh, I love American music.” I can’t remember the band, but it was something like Blink 182 or something. “Really, that’s the American music you love? Have you heard Wilco or anything?” So it’s funny to see our culture reflected there—it’s sometimes pretty bizarre. And then we really enjoyed coming home, too, where we share more traditions with people. We can pull out a country song and everybody understands what we’re doing.
How many dates?
I want to say 17, maybe 16 dates? We were there for three weeks. Five countries—we were lucky. And we did a Kickstarter to get the plane tickets. That was amazing.
Honestly, with the non-fiction writing stuff, I am just an enthusiastic novice. I wouldn’t presume to call myself a writer yet—hopefully someday. The project about my great-grandfather, I’ve written some of it, but at this point I’m really trying to finish up Painting the Town first so that I can actually have something in the bag. It’s interesting because it does kind of tie in, because his story was always kind of bandied about in my family history, with very few specifics and often very inaccurate versions of it, as this mythological life, and something to try and live up to.
He was on the Titanic and survived. He was a tennis pro and played at Wimbledon and Davis Cup, he became a self-styled protégé of Teddy Roosevelt in the former president’s waning and increasingly erratic years at the beginning of World War One. So it doesn’t get much larger than life than the Titanic, World War One, and Teddy Roosevelt—but how do you reconcile that with “This is just a guy who had a kid, who had a kid, who had a kid, that was me?” I’m not really interested in where I fit in and I’m not planning on including any kind of personal narrative. I want to be as objective as possible, and really just try to learn about and reconstruct a particular time and milieu in our history that happens to be one that my relative lived through in a kind of a memorable way.
But it’s really about this disappearing world in New York around the turn of the century, where essentially economics began to overshadow every other social and cultural factor. In fact a lot of the social and cultural structures were falling apart, and my great-grandfather was from a manufacturing family in Brooklyn—German immigrants who had done pretty well—and he was all set to plug into this world that was kind of falling apart beneath him, so the Titanic is obviously a great metaphor. He ended up working in Wall Street, too, in the ‘20s, and survived the Crash.
The other theme is how through just pure luck he keeps surviving all the worst catastrophes of his lifetime: World War I, he couldn’t get in despite trying to enlist the entire time, pulling strings to get in, and the best he could do because of his health was working as a quartermaster at a jeep parts depot in Baltimore. And even there, a huge influenza outbreak killed more soldiers than actual battle in World War I, because his camp was overrun with it. And he couldn’t even get sick! I mean, nothing stuck to him—yet he was completely unsatisfied with his lot because he had trouble finding his place.
This non-fiction writing—how new is that for you? You’ve been songwriting for 20 years, right?
Yeah. It’s very new. I’ve really only been working on non-fiction writing for three or four years. It really is just a labor of love. I’m a big history reader, and really admire certain writers—I’m knee-deep in Robert Caro’s latest LBJ book.
I’m just about to start The Power Broker.
Oh, what a great book. That was kind of my first great experience with history and, in fact, I ended up writing some songs about Robert Moses. I deal with Robert Moses a lot in Painting the Town when I talk about New York. Yeah, so the writing thing is something that I really hope to develop. I spent a little time at the Library of Congress, learning about doing research, and my fiancée is actually writing her dissertation on Shakespeare essentially at UNC—but her method is heavily historical, so I’ve learned a lot from her over the years about that. I realize I have a long way to go.
How do you find time to do all this? You have another job, too, right?
Yeah, I teach guitar and voice a few days a week. So it’s kind of half-and-half now, like everybody in the band.
Well, let’s wrap with the Yep Roc signing—how did that happen?
We’ve known those guys for a long time, and over the years we’ve discussed working together in some capacity. Yep Roc has really developed its own range in a way that I think is really impressive. The kind of value they place on classic songwriting and the way that they—for instance with the recent Nick Lowe records—give a platform for that kind of thing in an atmosphere like indie rock, where sometimes style gets a little more attention than original content—that’s important to us. So I feel like it’s a really good match. We admire a lot of the people that they work with, and it’s nice to have a local connection, where we feel really comfortable communicating with them. We can always just go down to the office and bang on the table if necessary. They’re very tied into the local scene, and I think this is the right time for both of us. The Old Ceremony’s been around for a while now, and we’ve had plenty of chances to experiment with our sound, and I think we’ve created an aesthetic that hopefully can survive evolving trends and sounds.
Catch the Old Ceremony at Duke Performances’ Music in the Gardens series on June 13.