Halfway through a phone interview on a May evening before his band heads out on tour, Ceremony guitar player Anthony Anzaldo grows ponderous. I've asked him whether he still feels the same connection to hardcore that he did when the band first started 10 years ago, in Rohnert Park, California. He takes a moment before fleshing out his thoughts.
"That's an interesting question," he says. It's easy to understand his hesitation.
When Ceremony—which comprises Anzaldo, vocalist Ross Farrar, guitarist Andy Nelson, bassist Justin Davis and drummer Jake Cazarotti—released their debut album, 2006's Violence Violence, they were a hyper-aggressive punk band, cramming 20 one-minute-long explosions of angst and distortion into one album. But over time, that band has slowly evolved, and transformed into one that barely resembles that team of young, reckless brutes. On their 2012 album Zoo, which was their first for long-running indie outpost Matador, they toned down the heavier elements in favor of a more melodic, garage-rock approach. And three years later, they've pushed even farther into slower, subtler sounds with The L-Shaped Man, released last month via Matador.
Ceremony play June 13 at Legend Records
The L-Shaped Man is both the band's most accessible album, as well as the one that least resembles their earliest songs. It's an album that bears almost no trace of hardcore. And the process of making it—and by extension, letting go of old habits—presented one of the biggest challenges the group has encountered.
The L-Shaped Man is the "hardest, longest and most difficult thing the band has ever done," Anzaldo says. "Songs we'd written in the past were a lot simpler. There's not much to them. They're just kind of one-dimensional. When you venture into this kind of music, and the way Ross sings, there's a lot less room for error. So there's a lot more time spent writing and recording. There was just a long, long process."
Ceremony have embraced space and nuance in a big way. More heavily influenced by post-punk bands like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen, The L-Shaped Man is more about melody and atmosphere than uncompromising energy. It's also the band's most melancholy album, informed heavily by the end of a relationship Farrar was in. Suffice it to say, Ceremony eased off on the brawny power chords on this one. In fact, the first song on the album—the slow, sad lullaby piano "Hibernation"—doesn't even have any guitars. And once those guitars do enter the frame on tracks such as "Exit Frame" and "Bleeder," they're less distorted, and more heavily treated with other effects, such as reverb, chorus or delay.
When it came time to record the album, the band retreated to CityBeat's own backyard to work with producer John Reis, who the band met in 2013 when they played a show with Rocket from the Crypt in San Francisco. Farrar and Reis traded contact info to try and coordinate working on a project together, but it took a bit longer than expected for those plans to come together.
"Ross texted him, and John texted him back a year later," Anzaldo says. "He was like, I'm sorry I've been really busy, but I'd love to do it!' "Before we recorded it, we went down to San Diego— don't know if you've heard of it. Small town south of Los Angeles," he adds, with an implicit wink. "We practiced in his home studio for four days. He essentially joined the band when we were kind of woodshedding all these songs. He really pushed us to make these songs a lot better. Some of them changed, drastically into different songs. Some of them are subtle, but really important changes. So his approach is very much songwriting-oriented. And...this was our first time recording live—all of us in one room."
With as many stylistic changes Ceremony has gone through over the past decade, Anzaldo notes that the band itself hasn't changed much outside of their sound. They're staying in hotel rooms instead of on people's floors, and they're selling more records than they did when they began, but their operating procedures and creative partnership is essentially the same as it has been since the beginning.
When Anzaldo does finally get around to reflecting on his relationship with hardcore, he's quick to acknowledge its importance, both personally, and in terms of his band's history. But after a decade of playing music with Ceremony, he's also ready to admit that hardcore represents just one chapter of the band's history. Whatever expectations may follow them, they're going to keep making the music they want to make.
"We're not just a hardcore band, and the music that we make isn't hardcore anymore," he says. "I think that our sound has been changing since the band started. If no one likes it, and no one cares, then drag. Maybe we might not be able to do more, but oh well.
"But it's my favorite record we've ever done," he adds. "So what does that tell you?"