My first published piece as a music critic was titled “Please History, Repeat Yourself”, and was written in maybe 20 minutes for my high school newspaper sometime in my sophomore year (2002.03) . Like an emo-Andy Rooney, I lambasted the radio rock we were stuck with, begging for some punk/grunge revival that I dreamt about. And this was before Green Day went off the deep end.
Now, in just the last two+ years, we’ve seen the release of some of the best high-profile punk albums of the last 15. The relative success and warm reception of records like The Monitor and David Comes To Life are bringing new audiences into punk, seemingly noting a rise in mainstream acceptance of quality punk. At SXSW this year, we enjoyed fantastic, enraging and frightening punk performances from new-classic bands like Ceremony, Titus Andronicus, The Men and Cloud Nothings, each willing to bend punk guidelines to best fit their message and approach. After all this time, it feels like my sophomoric wish is on the verge of being granted. Not everyone agrees, however.
In a nearly hour-long conversation behind Milwaukee’s DIY venue The Borg Ward in the derelict Menomonee Valley, Ceremony discussed their newfound exposure, why a band changes and wonder if it’s better to burn out or to fade away. Less than 30 minutes later, they would turn The Borg Ward into a den of scum and villainy, with multiple instances of sweat drenched head trauma.
“Just because you see more punk band names around in the press, that doesn’t necessarily mean there are any more punk bands, or that punk is becoming more successful,” says Ceremony bassist, Andy Nelson. “The shows aren’t any bigger really, maybe smaller. I’d say it’s more that the press has finally come around. And that doesn’t do too much for us, it’s easy to stay out of it.”
They’re not entirely skeptical of their newfound success. “The Matador deal is huge, and real,” he continues. “While it doesn’t mean much that all these publications who didn’t cover us in the past are finding us now, the Matador deal is progress we’re all celebrating.”
For being one of the most intense bands in the game today, the guys of Ceremony are as grounded as you’d wish them to be, and aren’t swayed by their new wide exposure, but proud of their progress. With the recent release of Zoo, their Matador debut, Ceremony have garnered recognition from the mainstream media, a national tour and a slot to open for Refused in NYC as part of their hugely successful (and profitable) reunion show.
“Do you think they still have a bone to pick with capitalism?” Nelson asks me. Stupidly, I say, “Yeah, I’d like to think so.” Sigh. He explains that I’m at fault for expecting the members of Refused to be the same people as they were when they quit. He’s not faulting the band for making a choice like this; he just stresses the difference between the band that imploded and the current iteration, and he’s right. “But the bros in attendance who bought $50 tickets don’t care anyway.”
This opens into a larger conversation about the difference between currently active bands and their competition with reunited groups. Obviously, with the massive upswing in reunion tours in recent years, concertgoers are forced to make a choice. Ceremony argues that it’s because the crowds want what isn’t available to them.
“What if Cro-Mags broke up after The Age of Quarrel?” asks guitarist, Anthony Anzaldo. “Or Agnostic Front after Victim In Pain? We would be going through the same stuff. But because those bands still exist, and they have changed and grown over time, people tend to dismiss large portions of careers. It just doesn’t seem fair that current bands have to compete with these defunct groups.”
This isn’t surprising talk from a band that has endured significant stylistic changes over the years, to mixed reception. As to be expected, they are proud of their change, and rightfully so.
“We’re different people now, and we feel the new record shows that,” says vocalist, Ross Farrar. “We don’t want to make the same music over and over, and it feels great to grow with the work. There’s always people who will talk shit, and say they wished us to still sound like Violence, Violence. But if we stayed the same, people would say ‘oh great, another one of these bands.’ You can’t please everyone, so we don’t bother trying. This album felt natural, that’s it.”
We continued to talk punk shop for a long time, with topics including: the real reason why Fugazi broke up (“you can’t keep having your shows for $6 if 6,000 kids show up, there’s no where left to play”), the commercialism of SXSW (“there was a fucking Doritos stage, I thought I was dreaming”) and their skill at picking the best Wisconsin beers to drink in an alley (Spotted Cow and Hamm’s).
Minutes later, the lights drop inside the venue, and the space roars to life as Farrar starts screaming the first few bars of “Sick”, the opening track on 2010s masterful Rohnert Park: “Sick of drying up in the sun. Sick of this island. Sick of fun. Sick of going sober. Sick of starting over. Sick of Black Flag. Sick of Cro-Mags.” Think “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the skinhead population. I watch several grown men beat each other for fun or worse. Everyone cheers.
It’s not that Ceremony doesn’t think there’s a healthy punk community, but rather that they reject the notion that there’s a shift towards punk in the mainstream mentality. “There are so many great punk acts out there, for just a few of us to get press is a shame. We help promote these other bands by playing with them, and having a great time,” says Nelson.
Punk movement or not, it’s great to see a band like Ceremony get widespread recognition. And when the hype settles, Ceremony will still be old friends playing the music they want to play, and we’ll still listen. What’s more punk rock than that?
Peter Lillis is Assistant Editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He’s been writing about punk a lot lately, probably time for a hip hop review, soon.