When I told a friend I was going to interview Django Reinhardt, she was understandably confused, especially considering that the Belgian jazz guitar legend died half a century ago. "Shut up," she said, mouth agape. It took me a moment to recognize my error. It was an understandable one. I mean, how many Djangos do you know?
I meant to say Django Haskins, frontman of The Old Ceremony, whose sophomore album, Our One Mistake, is due Oct. 24 on New York-based label sonaBLAST! Haskins, who was indeed named after Reinhardt, has had almost 29 years to consider his namesake.
"If my parents had named me Tupac, I'd probably be a rapper," he quips. "I think [names] do have a lot of power, in terms of the way you see your destiny.
"I started on classical violin at about age 4, so I thought I'd slipped the trap, but then I started on guitar when I was about 12 and realized that's what I wanted to be playing. I love old jazz, but I don't play jazz, so I don't feel bad about it."
The scion of two folk musicians, Haskins grew up in Gainesville, Fla. Playing music was as common as dinnertime. He characterizes those family times as a Victorian parlor by way of '60s counterculture: "We would sit around the piano and my dad would play, and we'd sing folk songs, jazz standards, the Beatles, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan." Haskins began to perform publicly in the seventh grade, doing '60s Motown covers. By high school, he was writing his own songs.
So many children use those teenage years to reject the values and traditions of their parents. It would have been an ideal time for Haskins' punk-rock phase. That it never happened speaks to the dedication to craft manifest in The Old Ceremony's confident, polished pop.
"I got into the Stooges for a while," he recalls, "and I was really into the Replacements. But they were kind of half and half--they had a punk rock side but were definitely writing with a nod to the Beatles. I never got to that scorched earth point where I wanted to throw away all harmony and start from scratch."
After high school, Haskins studied English literature and Chinese at Yale. It was his studies in Chinese--and the subsequent year he spent living and playing in Hangzhou--that had the greater impact on his songwriting. One track on Our One Mistake, "Bao Qian," is even sung in Mandarin. "That's when I really started learning about melody," Haskins says of performing for an audience with whom he couldn't communicate with language, "and learned about selling a song when you perform it, really getting behind it."
Having been a musician in comfortably traditional and thoroughly alien settings, Haskins split the difference by spending seven years in New York City, from whence he toured Europe and the United States as a solo artist and recorded three albums. But he had trouble maintaining a touring band. "The thing with The Old Ceremony," he explains, "is that it's a band in the sense that we're all really in it together. That's what I couldn't find in New York. It's a financial thing. If someone's trying to make a living playing bass in New York, they've got to spread themselves really thin just to make ends meet."
But affordability and availability weren't the only reasons Haskins chose to make North Carolina his home in 2002. "I had toured down here and really liked it," he says. "I wanted to get further south again, and I liked all the colleges being around, which make it more liberal and international and culturally varied."
Never one to lay low ("Django," after all, means "I awake" in Romany), Haskins formed International Orange with Robert Sledge, Britt "Snüzz" Uzzell and Jason Fagg shortly after arriving. While the project is on indefinite hiatus after releasing a single EP, the soon-to-be Old Ceremony frontman achieved a valuable insight from the experience. "I've never had a band that was made up of three songwriters," he explains. "Since I was 12, I was always the primary songwriter in my projects, so I learned a lot about arrangements. The vocal arranging was a blast, these three-part harmonies the whole time."
Haskins brought the collaborative spirit he'd cultivated in International Orange to The Old Ceremony. "I had a bunch of songs that didn't have a home and wouldn't fit in a regular rock band setting," he says. "At first I just had a concept of the band I wanted to put together, and I knew a couple of the people I wanted to be in it. But it's evolved into this amazing, organic thing, where everyone brings a lot to the process."
Our One Mistake is more understated than the Old Ceremony's self-titled debut, with an emphasis on restraint and subtlety. "There's a lot of mixed emotion," Haskins says of the album. "The first record was a lot more theatrical, and there were more layers between me and what was being sung. There are some great aspects of doing it that way, but I tried, without being a 'singer/songwriter,' to be as earnest as possible on this record. The songs I can connect with emotionally tend to be the best live."
It's fair to regard the album as an intersection of Randy Newman's gruff flamboyance, Nick Cave's gothic élan and Leonard Cohen's pithy wisdom. At the mention of Cohen, Haskins--who named the band for Cohen's New Skin for the Old Ceremony--shakes his fist in the air triumphantly. "That's wonderful," he exclaims. "I love Dylan, but lyrically, Cohen's the best songwriter. Dylan takes a lot of wild swings and lands some great ones, but Cohen just stands there and takes one perfect shot."
The idea of the deliberate, tradition-honed shot, as opposed to the wild flailing that breeds the instant gratification of blog hype, is writ large in Haskins's career choices. He's not just hoping things stick.
"The musicians I respect most are the ones who had long, semi-obscure slogs. They'll never be on TRL," he says, noting he probably won't, either. "I'm fine with it, as long as it feels like it's moving forward, artistically and on a career trajectory. There's no point in trying to chase some trend that's already passed by the time you identify it. We're not moving to Canada or anything."
The Old Ceremony plays their CD release party for Our One Mistake at the Cat's Cradle on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 and Roman Candle opens. They play the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival in Silk Hope on Sunday, Oct. 8 at 6 p.m. Visit www.theoldceremony.com or www.myspace.com/theoldceremony.