In The Spirit World Now is the sixth studio album from the Rohnert Park, California-based band Ceremony. To celebrate its release (it’s out today via Relapse Records) frontman Ross Farrar and lead guitarist Anthony Anzaldo broke the album down for us track-by-track.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor
“Turn Away the Bad Thing”
Anthony Anzaldo: This was the first song that we wrote for In The Spirit World Now. What’s interesting about that is, up until Zoo, the first song we wrote for each release ended up being the opening track. It didn’t work out that way for the last two albums but when we wrote this song it was apparent that this would open the album. Did you feel the same way?
Ross Farrar: Yeah, definitely.
Anthony: I can’t imagine where else it could have fit on the album. It always felt like an introduction.
Ross: There was a very driving force behind it, which is great for opening an album.
Anthony: We had a tentative bridge for this song that was similar to the verses and chorus but we didn’t write what became the final bridge until a few days before we recorded.
Ross: Didn’t the bridge come when we were with Will [Yip]?
Anthony: Well, I came up with the instrumental section at the Echo Park rehearsal space remember? I wanted the song to take a stark turn. But we left for the East Coast to record without having an idea of what the vocals would do, or if there would be vocals at all.
Ross: Oh, that’s right.
Anthony: Then after it was recorded Will lead the way in what became the melody and then you took it over once you had the lyrics written. It was stressful for us going into the studio not knowing exactly how the middle section of our first song in four years was going to go. [Laughs.]
Ross: [Laughs.] I suppose that’s the magic of the studio. That’s the magic…
Anthony: When we first heard the finished song I said, “Oh, this has to be a single.” It seemed to check every box. For me it was obvious. Were you thinking of these songs in those terms yet?
Ross: It was my favorite song we wrote. I really loved the phase you wrote [“Turn away the bad thing”] that is present throughout the song. I wish it was louder actually. [Laughs.]
Anthony: It’s funny you bring that up because more than half of these songs were written with the synthesizer as the lead instrument. Given how much instrumentation there is on this album, most of the songs ended up sounding much different from how they did in rehearsal and how they sounded on those initial demos. But this song specifically has so much instrumentation that it ended up being the most challenging song to mix. There were seven mixes of this song. The first song always takes the longest to mix, but this one was especially tricky given how much there is going on.
Ross: One of my main inspirations for this song was Tarkovsky — a great filmmaker. The line “I don’t want to be bitter anymore/I wanna be something innocent/Soft as any palm” comes from him. There is a scene in The Stranger where he talks about not wanting to be hard because hardness is death. Bill Callahan and his band Smog were also an inspiration. There’s a line in their song “Hit The Ground Running” where he says, “bitterness is a lowest sin,” and I say, “bitterness is the sin.”
Anthony: I remember you had the lyrics for this song written for a long time and then you had to write lyrics for the bridge in the studio.
Ross: Right, after we wrote the melody I went to the bar that was attached to the studio to work on the bridge. I remember sitting there with my newspapers and my notebook and when the lyrics started to come to me I teared up. I cried while writing that part.
Anthony: That whole section is really moving.
Ross: It’s the big, emotive part of the song.
Anthony: That song goes on quite the journey…
Ross: Yeah, Jesus Christ.
“In The Spirit World Now”
Anthony: This was probably the easiest song to write. And funnily enough, it’s the second song on the album and the second song we wrote.
Ross: It’s a pretty simple song, and the synth really carries it.
Anthony: The writing process for every song is unique. Some songs are really fluid with how they come and don’t change much throughout the album’s writing process. Other songs take on another life between when they’re conceived to when they’re finished, and sound nothing like they did at the beginning of the process. But this one didn’t change much at all. The drum beat, the bass line and the synth parts were there immediately. This song is a good representation of what the album sounds like. It’s very synth driven.
Ross: It’s dark, but also hooky.
Anthony: And of course Chelsea Wolfe appears on this song, who is the only guest on the record who didn’t track with us at Will’s studio in Pennsylvania.
Ross: Oh, really?
Anthony: Yeah. She recorded vocals herself at her home studio. We gave her almost no direction. All she requested was to have the entire lyric sheet so could get an understanding of what the song was about. She sent back the final product. The whole bridge section was improvised. I was blown away.
Ross: Damn, that’s awesome.
Anthony: Did you always know this was going to be the title track?
Ross: No, towards the end of writing I was sitting in my office trying to figure it all out. I’ve had that line “in the spirit world now” for a while. I thought of those words in terms of this song and found they fit the chorus perfectly. I felt like it would probably be a single and I knew it was going to be the second song on the album, so then I had the idea to name the record In The Spirit World Now.
Anthony: Interesting. So the album is actually named after the song rather than it being a proper title track.
“Further I Was”
Anthony: This is probably the most synth-based song on the album. For the title track, the synth line is the standout musical hook, if you will. Everything works around and plays off that synth pulse. It was this song where I was able to contextualize the album and was able to to gain a clearer idea of what the album would sound like.
Ross: This song went through a lot of changes. I remember really liking the second version, but we ended up going back to the first idea largely in part to Will feeling very confident that the first version was superior.
Anthony: This one was his initial favorite and thought it would likely be the first single.
Ross: And the vocals in the original version were more constant and followed the phrasing of the main synth line. The working title was, in fact, “Constant Vocal.”
Anthony: The majority of the album was born out of the first of three writing sessions. A few months after the first session we got together for a second time, and we revisited this song and changed the chorus. On top of the new chorus was a synth line that complimented the new chord progression. Then, like you mentioned, we went back to the first version but we were still able to apply that synth line we wrote for the second chorus. Looking back, the only work that came out of that second writing session that made it to the final album was that little synth line in the chorus of this song. [Laughs.]
Ross: Ha, that’s really funny.
Anthony: It really is. That first session we wrote the blueprint for eight of the 11 songs on the record. And the second session all we ended up using was one, underlining synth riff in the chorus.
Ross: And it’s not even that prominent.
Anthony: Sometimes the inspiration is there, and sometimes it is definitely not. [Laughs.]
“Presaging the End”
Anthony: We wrote this song during our third and final writing session. You were in Syracuse during, so it was just myself, Jake and JD present. Which was scary — it’s always a risk taking the time to write without you there. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but in order for you to be inspired and write something great you have to have a connection to the song. And without you there to give your feedback it’s hard for us to know if we’re wasting our time. It’s a risk we take sometimes, but we had written so much of the album already that I felt we knew where it was going. Obviously we couldn’t start writing a record without you present, but I digress. This song ended up being a standout on the album and a band favorite. It’s something new and special for us.
Ross: I’d say so, yeah.
Anthony: Not necessarily in the way that it sounds, but this song reminds me of “The Doldrums” from Rohnert Park in the sense that this is completely new territory for us. This kind of song, or this kind of music, is another thing that we can now do. We’ve never done anything like this one. It’s almost a dance song.
Ross: It’s on another level, for sure.
Anthony: Given that it is such new territory for us, was it intimidating for you to write to?
Ross: No, it came out naturally. My initial ideas for the verse sections is what ended up making it to tape.
Anthony: People tell me this song reminds them of INXS and Talking Heads. Someone even told me it reminded them of Prince. But the end has a bit of a techno vibe, with a funky-disco guitar line. On paper, this song does not seem like a Ceremony song. [Laughs.] Hearing this song for the first time was very exciting.
Ross: Will helped a lot with this song too. The chorus especially, that melody was his.
Anthony: Your vocals really shine on this song. I’d say it’s where you show the most range.
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
“Say Goodbye To Them”
Anthony: Another song from the third and final session. I wasn’t in love with the song at first, musically. I knew the vocals were going to have to make this song. It ended up being one of my favorites. Your melodies and your bridge performance really shine on this song.
Ross: This was one of my favorite songs to sing in the studio. I really like the verses — they’re kinda funky, I’ve never really sung like that before.
Anthony: The verses have a lot of attitude. You get quite soulful as the bridge moves.
Ross: Yeah, it’s like I’m actually singing on this song [Laughs.]
“We Can Be Free”
Anthony: Apart from “Hysteria,” this is the first song since Rohnert Park where I only play power chords. I heard those ascending and descending synth stabs in the chorus in my mind, but I wasn’t sure how to create that sound. Those ended up taking a fair amount of time to record because I had an idea about the exact sound and tone that those should have.
Ross: One of my students at Syracuse inspired a line for this song. He told me it’s hard to be free, and I looked at him and said, “Yes… but we can be.” [Laughs.] Then I wrote it down. I can’t remember his last name, but his first name was Milton. Strong name.
“Years Of Love”
Anthony: The third and final song that came from our third and final writing session. I left that session thinking this was the strongest of the three we had written. But the other two, “Presaging The End” and “Say Goodbye To Them,” really grew and got a lot stronger over time, whereas “Years Of Love” didn’t change hardly at all.
Ross: The chorus for this one is really strong. For me, it’s the best part of the song.
Anthony: Your vocals in the chorus is the clear hook, where the guitar in verses are the most melodic and you’re accompanying them in the verse rather than being the lead instrument. We’re trading off, sort of. I feel like that’s a trick we used a lot of this album.
Ross: I really like the synth solo on this song, too.
Anthony: It almost sounds like the theme song to a television show from the ‘90s [Laughs.]
“Never Gonna Die Now”
Ross: A quickie, but a goodie.
Anthony: This is an interesting one. It’s really short and chaotic and not in any particular key. Even though it’s a really short song it doesn’t feel like a throwback for us. I don’t think it would have fit on any of our previous albums. But I also can’t imagine this song any longer, it feels like it should only be a minute long.
Ross: And the sentiment in this song, “I’m never going to die,” is ridiculous and absurd.
Anthony: The music matches the absurdity of the lyrical theme. We will, in fact, all die.
Ross: Any day now, probably.
Anthony: If we’re lucky.
“I Want More”
Anthony: I had the verse section for this song written as a pre-chorus to a Gary Numan-esque, electro-pop song I had written a few years ago. I never intended for it to be a Ceremony song. But once we started writing and I had an idea of where the album was going, I thought the song I had just mentioned could fit in with what we were coming up with. The rest of the band only thought this small, pre-chorus section would work and we built the song around that. Then JD came with the chorus riff. Both the verse and chorus to this song are distinct and melodic. The song goes back and forth between this quirky verse and almost sexy chorus. A lot of dichotomy there.
Ross: “The heart is an ugly pump” is perhaps my favorite line on this album. That’s all I’m going to say about this song.
“From Another Age”
Anthony: This song, without a doubt, underwent the biggest transformation. The first demo of “From Another Age” sounded very wide-open, with big bar chords and a lot of reverb. It was a completely different genre, or sub-genre rather, of song. The tempo, key and bass line were the same but the music was far more atmospheric and ethereal. The instrumentation and the vocals kept changing and evolving over the course of the album’s writing process.
Ross: This is a really punchy song. Probably the most driving song on the record.
Anthony: I agree. Also, this was a song that we didn’t have a firm grasp on when we went into the studio, to the point where I thought it might not end up on the record.
Ross: Yeah, for sure.
Anthony: Which is funny because a lot of the people who have listened to this album so far have said to me that this is one of their favorites. It became a “fan favorite,” as they say. [Laughs.] Once we decided to omit the spacey, big chords from this song I had the idea to have the guitars be more single-note driven. Then to fill out the verses I added this Oingo Boingo-inspired synth riff for the verses.
Ross: Fully ripped it off. [Laughs.]
Anthony: The structure of this song is unlike any song we’ve previously written. It goes back-and-forth between the verse and chorus three times before the bridge.
Ross: If I remember correctly, this song was the easiest for me track.
Anthony: This was the last song we wrote from our first session. We ended up demoing eleven tracks, eight of which made the album. If my memory serves me right, we came up with this one in Madison [Woodward]’s studio while we were recording the demos.
Ross: Yeah, definitely.
Anthony: This song came from you saying, “Why don’t we have a song that goes like this…” and then you started making up a riff with your mouth. [Laughs.]
Ross: It was a mouth riff!
Anthony: Classic mouth riff. The working title for this song was “Desert Drive.” I think that will make sense to anyone who hears this song because, well, it sounds like you’re driving through the desert.
Ross: It sounds like you’re driving to the beach from the desert.
Anthony: This was a favorite for every member of the band except me. [Laughs.] It was my least favorite from that first batch of demos and I remember thinking to myself, “Is there something wrong with me? What am I not hearing that everyone else is hearing?” I’m really happy I didn’t try to cut the song because it did turned out to be a song I truly love, but I remember it not clicking with me at all initially.
Ross: I remember that as well.
Anthony: I had this idea in my head of what the album was, or what it should be. This song didn’t fit into that idea. It’s a “rock,” unlike any of the other songs on the album. And unlike any closing track from any of our previous albums.
Anthony: Historically we’ve ended our albums with a more down-tempo song, or a “ballad,” if you will.
Ross: It has a really abrupt ending, which is different for us. The end comes out of nowhere, and any surprise like that is usually something good. It’s like, you don’t know if your turntable stopped working, or something. And it has my favorite bridge on the record. I love your solo.
Anthony: Ha! Thanks, man. So much of my energy was focused towards the synths and keyboards on this record. You know, I’m not a keyboard player per se, so I had to practice a lot and do a lot of research to be able to pull it off. But being that this is the more guitar driven songs on the record it ended up being a breath of fresh air and I was able to showcase my specific style of guitar playing, as silly as that sounds. [Laughs.]
“California Jungle Dream States End”
Ross: I wrote this poem specifically for In The Spirit World Now. The album started to remind me a lot of California, hence the name of the poem. It’s about leaving the beach and feeling out of control, not knowing what to do and having a lack of willpower. The end of the album makes you feel like you’re in an unknown place, a place of ambiguity. That’s what the poem is supposed to do as well. They’re meant to go hand in hand.
Anthony: Who is Brooks Haxton and why did you choose him to read the poem?
Ross: I worked closely with him when I was teaching at Syracuse. He was my Thesis Advisor. The overlord of my Thesis. He helped my through the whole process and I thought it would be nice to have him narrate the poem.
Anthony: You know that I was not into the idea of the poem appearing on the album. I couldn’t picture how any interludes would fit into the sequence. I wanted this album to not let up: no breaks, non-stop. Which is a flow we’ve never had the opportunity to execute given that there are usually a fair amount of down-tempo songs on our records. I wasn’t in favor of the idea of breaking that up. I went into listening to the final sequence sure that I was going to want the poem(s) removed. I am happy to say now that I was wrong — I really like how the poem is dispersed throughout the album. The words are so bold and each of the three segments move a lot quicker than I had previously imagined.
Ross: That’s awesome, I’m really glad you like because this whole time I thought you hated it. [Laughs.]
(Photo Credit: left, Rick Rodney)