Mark Simonsen looks like the lumberjack of his acre and a quarter of Durham woods. Square-shouldered with a slight belly, Simonsen hides part of his ruddy face behind a modest cinnamon beard, his hair casually swept down to his forehead. He wears a red-and-black flannel shirt, faded jeans, boots and a wedding band, and he boasts about the lay of this little plot of land: His ranch house sits close to the straight asphalt road out front because, out back, the woods drop quickly into forested valley. It's the sort of strangely shaped Piedmont terrain he hopes can never be developed.
Behind the house, overlooking the woods, Simonsen spends his time in a large workshop, one light shining the way to the front door. But this isn't the typical workroom of a woodsman. Inside, reels of magnetic audiotape and an old refrigerator covered with stickers from rock bands and stocked with dark beer flank a set of sliding glass doors. Wires spill out of various electrical boxes, and broken brass guitar strings sit camouflaged against a tawny carpet. The deep whirs and sighs of a Hammond M-3 organ bleed into the tiny anteroom, muffled by the glass and gray foam padding on the wall. A guitar and voice penetrate the barriers much better, though, surrounded by what sounds like a distorted violin and supported by a limber rhythm section. That sound is The Old Ceremony, the full-time, touring rock band in which Simonsen—a longtime Triangle musician who's now 42, married and with a home and land to call his own—plays organ and vibraphone.
Like Simonsen, The Old Ceremony, which celebrates its fifth year this summer, is aging. In spite of all five members now being over 30, though, the band concerns itself more with not growing stale musically—preventable—than with growing older physically—inevitable. Indeed, the quintet remains as adventurous as it was when frontman Django Haskins formed it in 2004 as a jazz-and-theater-influenced chamber-pop ensemble. And even if it means watching the rest of the world mature, they want to renew themselves by taking risks, to be evolved and still evolving. To wit, the quintet spent nearly three years completing its third album, Walk on Thin Air, filling its rock 'n' roll songs about love and, well, getting older with unexpected nuance and texture. As immediate as it is intricate, it's the band's best work to date, full of charisma that depends on a chemistry that's developed steadily over the last five years.
Tonight, The Old Ceremony forgoes much of Walk on Thin Air and works primarily through its back catalog, deciding which old tunes to revisit for an upcoming CD release party at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro. Bassist Matt Brandau thinks they've been softening the groove of one tune too much. Haskins and drummer Dan Hall discuss the swing of another. Notes and requests are made. Schedules are discussed. Rehearsal is dismissed.
The Beck's Dark in the next room is opened, and the band gathers around the mixing board in the practice space, which doubles as Simonsen's recording studio.
"I really like it when Django comes in with new stuff now," says Hall, who—like everyone else here—has been with The Old Ceremony from the start. "It's really exciting, more so now than ever."
Brandau agrees: "We've been settling into our roles, but it's still evolving. It's the best of both worlds, really.
"Before, it was more of a struggle to do the right thing or worrying whether this works or that works. Now there's less of that and [more of] 'This feels great. It's right,'" continues Hall. "If you're in a relationship with anybody, at the beginning of the relationship, you're lying to the other person. You're performing. You're not as comfortable. You can't be as real."
Sometimes, discovering that balance takes time.
When Django Haskins isn't touring with The Old Ceremony, he teaches guitar lessons to two dozen children at his house in Durham and a music studio in Carrboro. Most of the members of The Old Ceremony do something similar, supporting themselves through a mix of touring, session work with other bands, and teaching others what they've spent the past two or more decades learning.
For the most part, Haskins is thrilled to be in that position—playing music to pay his bills, whether or not fame ever comes calling. "The funny thing about being a rock musician is that there's a tendency to have this arrested development in your lifestyle. It's easy to live the rest of your life like you're 19," says Haskins, 35, single and boyish, his trimmed dark hair falling past the middle of his forehead. "People that I grew up with that I haven't seen for a long time ... I look at their lives, and they look like they're a different generation from me. I don't feel like I'm stuck in a college mindset, but I'm aware that the path the band has chosen as musicians isn't the normal timeline of an adult life."
About half of Walk on Thin Air examines those questions, but Haskins exclaims the answer on the opening track and the album's anthem, "Til My Voice is Gone": Upfront, Haskins stands at the brink of an abyss, swirls of violin and guitar notes circling him as he watches clouds and conflicts roll toward him. The anxious strings drop out, supplanted by a slowly opening organ melody, like the first rays of sunlight peaking through a dense storm: "I will stand up high on the sea wall/ where the wind is blowing strong/ And I will push this rock to the top of every hill that comes along," Haskins sings with an aplomb so casual he manages to throw in a "Yeah" mid-verse.
The strings return, exuberant now, their cheery notes lifting on the low-lying organ hum. "And I will take the stand/ and raise my hand," Haskins continues. "And offer up this song/ and I will sing my tune until my voice is gone." The drums drop. The guitars jangle. Haskins sounds reinvented.
"This is what I feel like I'm supposed to be doing with my life. I love it, and I don't really see that changing," says Haskins, who talks much like he sings, with lyrical rhythm and crisp enunciation. "That is the process of a lot of these songs, just coming to terms with that."
Walk on Thin Air is the eighth album of Haskins' career, solo or otherwise. A native of Gainesville, Fla., he grew up in a musical family, raised by two folk musicians who always had some classic record spinning beneath the turntable's needle. Haskins began fronting bands when he was 13 and continued writing songs at Yale University, where he studied English and Chinese. He moved to Hangzhou, a city of 4 million that sits at the edge of the East China Sea, and played solo shows to crowds that didn't understand his words.
"I gained a lot of insight into what makes a song work with an audience that can't understand a word," he said of that experience two years ago. "It takes away all opportunities for in-references, clever lyrics, etc., and boils it down to melody, rhythm, feel and sound."
Upon returning to America, Haskins moved to New York, recording a solo album before forming the band Django & The Regulars. After seven years in the city, he relocated to Chapel Hill and put the finishing touches on the second and final Regulars album with Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge. They formed International Orange, an explosive power-pop quartet helmed by three songwriters.
Not long after turning 30, Haskins formed The Old Ceremony, which he describes as a reaction against International Orange's rock predilection. He had a stockpile of songs that he imagined accompanied by a jazz band with cosmopolitan flair, so he formed a loose collective of strings, drums and horns. Though at times chaotic, the experience of handing his songs—these precious, slaved-over ideas—to a group of musicians that changed from week to week steeled his resolve and improved his material.
"The big thing about this band is being able to, once I bring a song into the rehearsal, to really let go and let us all work on it together and change it," says Haskins. "Before I moved here, I would write a song, and that was the end of the process. The arrangement was peripheral. Now I see the writing as the first stage in a much longer process of making a thing—with the band."
Haskins had to learn to take that risk with his band. In turn, the band's desire to take risks—or to try something different—has long been one of The Old Ceremony's greatest strengths. Last year, for instance, Brandau remixed the band's old records, turning some of the tracks into narcotic dub jams while amping others with heavy electronic backbeats. At Art on the Edge, a public arts festival in Raleigh, an aerial dancer suspended from the ceiling with sheer fabric and several tango dancers moved above and around the band during its hour-long performance.
Our One Mistake, The Old Ceremony's second album, included "Bao Qian," a beautiful ballad Haskins wrote and sang in Mandarin. The band's currently working on a companion to the song. Walk on Thin Air includes a gentle, bass-led instrumental that recalls the vibraphone-and-drums jazz of Tortoise called "Hearts in Four." "Murmur" offers at a canon for whistles, vibraphone and violin, while "Ready to Go"—a song that fittingly pits the exuberance of being young and romantic against the anxiety of being mature and employed—sashays until it derails into a noisy coda, a sleek train disturbing the dining car when the conductor pulls the breaks. These are the new ideas that energize The Old Ceremony, even as its youngest member, violinist Gabriele Pelli, turns 30.
"I feel in some ways, it seems people want you to write the same song over and over so they can, 'Well, it sounds like that. Put it there.' For us, that's always been so far from what we do," says Haskins. "We're not going to change that anytime soon."
When Dan Hall plays drums, he rarely looks down at his hands or his kit. Even on a complicated and fast new song the band's barely been playing for a few weeks, he stares straight ahead. He trusts his hands to fall where they should, like a wizened secretary in a typing pool knowing her fingers will find the home keys. Hall occasionally glances at his bandmates, nodding his way through a shift in the rhythm or watching Haskins ace a guitar solo that, after tonight's practice, Hall will compliment.
The five members of The Old Ceremony enjoy making music in the same room. They admire one another's playing out loud. When Simonsen notices that Pelli's violin sounds a little different during a solo tonight, he asks what's changed, walking over to look at Pelli's new effects pedal. They talk shop for a bit and get ready for the next tune.
"That, to me, was the crux of how this all stuck in the beginning," says Simonsen before detailing his relationships with the other band members that preceded The Old Ceremony's formation. "Once we had the unit together, everyone was very solid. There were very few weaknesses you wanted to distance yourself from. These were people I wanted to play music with, and getting together to rehearse on a weekly basis was a pleasure."
Indeed, the band's rehearsals are opinionated and rigorous, but they're more subdued and playful than anything. The members are prone to schoolyard banter to varying degrees, and Simonsen boasts that, on the road, they invent games and sports to occupy their time. Frennis—essentially, tennis for Frisbees that's playable anywhere lines can be drawn as on a tennis court—is a particular favorite. After explaining the rules, Simonsen begins packing his gear. He and several members of the band are headed into Carrboro to play a weekly pick-up gig with some friends at a bar called Southern Rail. Like Frennis, or taking risks on records, or singing a song as a woman dances overhead, it keeps the business of being a band, even as the world keeps spinning, from becoming a bore.
"I feel like we all have a real stake in the music that we're making now that, maybe when we started, we didn't," says Haskins. "It's just such an investment. It's your whole life, really. For as many years as you're in it, you're married to these five guys."
The Old Ceremony joins Roman Candle at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Feb. 14, at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.