Singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Django Haskins has been making music steadily with his band, North Carolina’s The Old Ceremony for over fourteen years; he’s been one of the key performers during the run of Big Star’s 3rd live shows since their inception; he’s also introduced us to a brilliant project, the two-man Au Pair, with Jayhawk Gary Louris. Now, he’s stepping out to present his latest work — a brilliant, shimmering, ethereal and at times, haunting solo album, Shadowlawn. Popdose had the good fortune to be able to take time from Mr. Haskins’ busy schedule to have a chat and catch up with him (and this writer would like to thank Mr. Haskins for his kindness and participation).
Let’s begin with the new album, Shadowlawn. It’s your first solo album in 17 years — why now? What is the genesis of this album; what inspired this collection of songs? Give us an assessment of the songs and a guided trip/map of the journey.
I’ve been putting all my songs into Old Ceremony records for the past fourteen years (and now Au Pair, as well), so there was never any need for a solo record. What changed was that, with the advent of parenthood, my touring slowed down and I was able to spend more time experimenting at my studio. I was approaching things with the idea of an almost creepy sonic emptiness, which meant no drums and very few instruments on each track. Hence the solo record.
There was a lot of debate — both internal and external — about the track order, because I wanted it to have a narrative arc. “Blink” introduces a lot of the main themes (and also the main sounds, with the baritone and banjo) and then my friend (and Au Pair producer) Brian Haran plays a wild electronic intro to “The Quarry” that signals that we’re entering a darker place. From there, “The Quarry,” “Above the Timber Line,” and to a certain extent “Crybaby” lead through this noir section where things seem pretty ominous and dark. The rest of the album works to dig out of that hole into somewhere more resolved. “Grey Though the Day” is the first of the domestic songs (written for my son) where some of the darkness of the noir section get translated into an interior world (also “World Inside”). “Three Things” was written for my wife and tries to get at some of the complexity of grown up love; again, not avoiding the darker side. I was never a big fan of pop love songs that only describe one simple kind of teenage love. I much prefer Randy Newman or Paul Simon, who aren’t afraid to include failings with the sublime. “So It Is Ever” brings it back to the spare banjo/vocal of “Blink,” but with a somewhat wiser outlook. The synth loop in the background kind of refers to some of the earlier further-out stuff, but the main thing is the last line, “wherever you wake up, that’s where you are.”
How does this fit in with your work in The Old Ceremony? What is on the agenda for them?
I see it as complimentary to what we are doing. Everyone in the band participates in other projects; it makes us appreciate what we have as a band and gives us fresh ideas. We have some new songs that we plan to record soon, and the band is still growing musically, fourteen years on. We’ve developed a kind of telepathy as a band that makes playing together exciting and different each time. We are about to do some dates with The Jayhawks, which should be a lot of fun. Then, a new record hopefully sometime next year.
Speaking of inspiration — what set you on the path to making music?
I was raised by reformed folk singers, so I grew up with all kinds of music in the house. We’d sing jazz standards at the piano as my dad played, and I’d listen to 1950’s music, Beatles records, contemporary pop like The Cars or Michael Jackson, etc. I started on classical violin at age five, and switched to guitar at thirteen, when it became clear that violin was not going to win me any friends. Actually, I found my dad’s 1950s sunburst Gibson ES-125 in a dusty case in the basement and there followed a week or so of a very slow and very loud “Secret Agent Man” blasting from my room. I fell in love with the instrument. A life of napping on old couches surrounded by penis graffiti was inevitable…
Popdose loved and reviewed One Armed Candy Bear, the first offering from Au Pair, the duo driven by you and Gary Louris. How did that collaboration come about and will we see/hear more?
Thanks a lot! Gary and I met doing the Big Star’s Third shows and hit it off personally. He visited North Carolina a month or so later, and we wrote a song about traumatic head injuries (there was a Vikings game on mute in his hotel room at the time) called “King of the Valley.” We shared so many of the same proclivities, from the psych- weirdness of Forever Changes to Neu! to Skip Spence; co-writing was very natural. We’ve actually got a new record’s worth of songs that we plan to record soon, so there will indeed be a follow-up Au Pair album.
There is quite a community of incredible musicians in the North Carolina circuit, of which you are one. What is it about this particular scene that produces such rich, melodic and thoughtful work from some of the players we’ve had a chance to experience?
It is an incredible community, and I feel very lucky to be a part of it. I love seeing my friends make beautiful records and be recognized for it. The aforementioned Skylar Gudasz, Ryan Gustafson of Dead Tongues, Mandolin Orange, Phil Cook — the list goes on and on. Chris Stamey is at the center of one of these super complex webs, drawing in like-minded musicians and connecting them with others in North Carolina and well beyond. His work organizing the Big Star’s 3rd shows deserves a Nobel. And there are many other connectors in North Carolina who do similar community building in the music scene. The landscape of North Carolina has always produced great music, from Monk to Coltrane to Elizabeth Cotton to the criminally underappreciated Mitch Easter. But it’s also a bit self-selecting, as many of us chose the Triangle as our home, drawn by the richness of its musical legacy and, of course, vinegar-based barbecue.
After all this, what next? Is there a possibility of seeing you and the rest of the magnificent ensemble performing any more Big Star’s 3rd shows?
Really, nobody knows about more Big Star’s 3rd shows until they appear. But we have become such a family that I’m sure if a new opportunity presented itself, we’d figure out how to make it happen. If nothing else, it’s the easiest way for us all to get together and hang out, which is a major draw.
Shadowland will be released on Thursday, August 2nd, 2018