Ceres

Interview: Tom Lanyon of Ceres

Three years ago, when I reviewed Ceres’ sophomore album Drag It Down on You, I said “Tom Lanyon sounds pissed.” But that isn’t the case on We Are a Team. Lanyon sounds happy. Hell, the first line of the record is “I’m gonna get happy.”

That isn’t the case when talking to him, either. He’s quick to laugh, quick to joke, and seemingly eternally grateful to be able to make music that connects with people. I got the chance to talk to Tom about the band’s upcoming We Are a Team, out next week.

We Are a Team being your “love record,” was it easier or harder to write than Drag It Down on You?

You know, it’s so much easier to just default to a negative, and I feel like I was writing unrequited love songs for a long time, and those were still quite dark and mostly focused on the negative aspects of that. This was such a change – but I would say the idea of writing them was hard, but actually in practice they just fell out. I wrote “Viv in the Front Seat” in March last year, and the rest of the record came out really quickly, up until September last year when we recorded. I think in theory it was really hard, since I would always default to a negative really quickly, but in practice it was easier. I fell in love around that time so that made it easier, because it was this new budding feeling.

Aside from being much more positive lyrically, it’s also a whole lot less aggressive musically. Was that something you did on purpose to complement that shift?

Nah, but I think they go hand in hand. I still really like aggressive music, and I’m scared that we’ve done that thing – you know you listen to a band’s third record and it’s, “Oh no, they’ve gone all soft on us!” I’m frightened there might be some backlash like that, especially after Drag It Down on You, because that one was so aggressive, in relative terms to our band. I do think it goes hand in hand though; if you’re writing about something positive, it’s hard to be so aggressive about it [laughs]. There was no conscious thought about what the album should sound like or how it should be or, like, “I’m tired and old and need to write a relaxing record.” I think, like I said, the two go hand in hand, positivity and some more uplifting, less aggressive take. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it was just, “I’m gonna write songs about this person and see what they’re like.”

I know the song “Collarbone 2011” is a redone version of a song from one of your earlier EPs.

Yeah.

I was curious why you decided to throw that on here.

That one’s funny, because I’ve got a million voice memos in my phone from when I’m writing songs, and that – it’s kinda confusing – I had on my phone, it’s the song “Collarbone,” which is the one on the record. We just call it “Collarbone 2011.” That was actually a completely-written song I’d written even before the band. It was just this acoustic song, and actually the intro and outro of the song on the album is from that voice memo. I forgot about the song until we started the band and then I listened back to the voice memo and said, “Oh, that’s cool, but I don’t think we’ll use it.” So I took lyrics from that and made it “Collarbone” on the EP. And then, even more confusing, on our album I Don’t Want to Be Anywhere But Here, I used lyrics from that song on the song “Upwey, Tacoma, Belgrave.” There’s parts of that song all over our catalog, which is either frustrating or cool, I can’t tell. [laughs] I’m gonna wait and see what people think.

Long story short, when I was going through voice memos for this record, just looking for ideas, that song stood out to me. I thought it was amazing and we needed it on the record. The “2011” is because that’s the 2011 version of that song. It’s almost like the original version, re-recorded and given a new life. It’s probably very confusing, but I just like that song.

Are any of the other songs older, or were they all written for We Are a Team?

The song “Stay Awake,” I had that one for a long time too. That one’s funny because it probably feels like a different mindset from the rest of the record, which is sorta is. More of a Drag It Down on You thing, and I really love the song, especially the ending. It feels very big and it’s probably the most aggressive we get on this record. The rest are brand new. I just felt like thematically those two songs fit on the album. “Collarbone” is sort of a nod to our past and “Stay Awake,” I just put it on there because I love the song. It fit thematically to me because it’s about self-doubt, being in a relationship and wondering if you’re good enough. Even now, with my current partner, I feel that. You always feel that, “Am I being good to this person? Am I right for them?” That’s what that song deals with.

I wanted to go back, if I could. You mentioned “Collarbone” has lyrics all over your discography and I wanted to bring that up. The title of this record is a line from “Something Good,” obviously, but it’s also a line in “Us” from Drag It Down on You. I was wondering if you’d done that on purpose to kinda tie these together.

I like the idea that the first record was I Don’t Want to Be Anywhere But Here, the second was Drag It Down on You, and this one is We Are a Team. I like how it starts selfish on the first album, then the second is more about relationships falling apart, and the third has this We-ness, We Are a Team. I really liked that line, and it fits with the album, you know, my partner and I are a team. But I like how the pronouns go from I to You to We.

The line from “Us” had been in my head for so long. I’d written a million songs no one’s ever gonna hear – voice memos or demos – with that. I always knew I wanted to use that line. I guess I like awkward sentences. I Don’t Want to Be Anywhere But Here is an long asshole of a name. Way too long, takes forever. I don’t even know what it’s called half the time. Drag It Down on You sounds very dark, and yeah, it’s an awkward sentence to say. I think We Are a Team sorta does the same. Trips your tongue up a bit.

There’s definitely a lot of continuity between We Are a Team and Drag It Down on You. Both albums start with a song about proposing, with “Okay” and then, obviously, “Marriage.”

There’s definitely continuity, and I think there has to be, since you’re the same person, just growing up. The albums are a part of you and they should lead from one to the other. I knew, as soon as I wrote “Marriage,” I thought of it as a positive “Baby’s Breath,” so I really wanted it at the start of the record, so if you’re listening in succession, you come out of “Baby’s Breath” – probably the heaviest, gnarliest song we’ve ever written, or will ever write – and lead that into “Marriage,” which sorta feels the same, drives the same, but it’s a lot more positive, all about love, things like that. I like the contrast of those two butted up together in our discography, a very heavy, negative end of an album to a very positive, uplifting start to an album.

I realized that, you’re right, there’s a lot about marriage on this whole album. I don’t know why. My partner now doesn’t wanna get married, so that line in “Marriage” is true, the “I’d ask you to marry me, but you’d say no.” [laughs] And I love that, like she’s a strong and independent woman and she’s gonna call the shots on me. There’s that very male thing of “You’re marrying me, you take my name,” and she’s just like, “Nah, fuck that.” I love that. So there is a lot of that. And I think if you write a album the quick, a lot of the wording should be the same, because it’s all coming out in that same little timeframe. I’m not sitting there thinking up new words or situations, there’s no time for that. It’s just, “Here’s a bunch of songs, this is what I’m thinking.” It was only five months. I like how it’s lighter in that sense, and quicker, since it is just that little timeframe.

I wanted to ask about the song “Water the Garden,” which is probably the most different sounding song you’ve done. How’d that one come about, and is “Water the Garden” literal?

I’m really excited about that song. When my partner and I were first hanging out, trying to figure out what we thought about each other, my mom had gone away on holiday, and my chore was to go home and water her garden. I remember we’d be talking to each other and I’d have to leave to go water mom’s garden. I remember standing there, all pissed off because I was annoyed I had to this thing, like a grown man standing there watering mom’s garden [laughs]. But I remember the feeling of, like, “I wish my partner was here, can’t wait for her to be part of the family, and maybe this’ll be our garden one day.” It’s just this feeling of love and family in the garden.

I absolutely love that song, but it’s strange. It’s very catchy, but the production is strange, the bass line is strange, the whole thing is strange. But it is one of my favorites.

Are there any other songs you want to highlight?

Thematically, I like the idea of “Something Good” at the end, like the cliche – we actually talked about putting that song somewhere else, because it’s another rock album that ends with an acoustic guitar and strings. [laughs]

I don’t think it would’ve fit anywhere else but at the end.

Yeah, I think so. We did talk about having a ten-song record and having “Something Good” like a hidden track at the end of “I Feel Better Outside,” but thought we needed to highlight it as its own song. And, thematically, I like it at the end. After how much fucking stuff I’ve been talking about this record, and really for the whole duration of the band, I like the last line as “I shut my mouth.” And there’s actually more lyrics, I think he just turned the mic off when I was recording, but if you turn it up you can hear me say, “I’m in this with you,” but I like the idea of shutting my mouth as the last thing I say. I need to shut my mouth, after all the things we’ve been through, be quiet and just listen for once. It’s the end of the record and I’m just as lost as everyone else, and I like that – especially if this is the last record we do. It’s like, “I’m shutting up now, thanks for everything.”

I’m glad you brought that up, because I wanted to mention that three or four songs have some variation on the line, “I’ll listen to you” on the record. That’s a cool way of tying that together.

That could be one of the biggest things to take from the album, just shutting up and listening and not having answers and not trying to control situations, just letting it be and listening.

What is the album cover? I know it’s a string and some scissors and maybe a snake, but how did it come to be?

That’s a cool story. You know the “Viv in the Front Seat” story. It’s my partner’s dad, that’s all his artwork. It’s on the single as well, it tells a story. “Viv in the Front Seat” single is just the rope, then on “Kiss Me Crying” it starts wiggling, and on “Me & You” there’s scissors and then finally for the album, it’s cutting the rope. I love that thematically, I feel like the rope’s kinda like a leftover thing from Drag It Down on You, a noose. And then this album, a theme is cutting the rope, cutting it loose, like, “Not this time, motherfucker.” To me it’s a positive image of cutting the rope, cutting the chance of something bad happening, and then the rope slinks away all pathetic. Even better, it’s my partner’s dad’s artwork. I’d never met him, he’d died a long time ago. But she had a bunch of prints, and I was framing them for her, and that’s when I first realized, “Fuck, I think I love her” – and that’s what “Viv in the Front Seat”‘s about – and I decided I wanted to kickstart that single with that artwork, then we just followed it through the whole way. I really care about artwork, I really want it to be an extension of the album, it can’t just look cool, it’s got to mean something. It’s almost as important as the songs, because it’s the way we present our band. I really like this artwork, it’s more than just artwork, it’s special to us. And it’s really the catalyst of the whole record itself.

I wanted to ask you to ask you specifically about the bridge in “Kiss Me Crying” – the “you’re gonna die in a hospital, kiss me crying” section. It feels a little bit different from the rest of the song, since it reads as a lot less positive.

It’s not exactly literal, although a lot of this album is literal. But I was talking about this recently – a lot of these Ceres albums talk about death, and someone asked me why, and I think, although I’m not sure, I think death is all wrapped up in love. I can’t separate them. I think that when I’m singing about death it’s actually the reverse, I’m singing about love. The idea of someone dying in a hospital bed – which I think refers to my partner’s father, probably from her perspective – I remember my dad dying in a hospital bed, and I’ve got literal images, and more metaphorical ones, of the feeling of love you have in a hospital. It’s very macabre and kinda dark, but I can’t separate the two. It is a love song, and it’s got those poppy verses, but it’s dark too. To me the bridge fits because I’m singing about loving someone, but it’s still a Ceres song [laughs]. Someone, ages ago, said, “If you love pretty music and brutal lyrics, you’re gonna love this band.”

Have you got any plans to tour the US?

Oh, man, we want to. We’re just trying to figure out the best way to do it. And it doesn’t even need to be economical. We just really care about how we present ourselves and we need to figure out the best way to do that in the States. Even, like, just two shows on the East Coast and two shows on the west, because I can’t see us doing this long haul through the country. But for us, something exclusive and cool would be sweet. We’re 100% gonna try, but no promises.

What’s a rumor about Australia that isn’t true, but you wish was?

Not to get really political, but I think the easygoing, fun-loving, Crocodile Dundee, “shrimp on the barbie” thing is just an advertisement. We’re not like that at all, I wish we were. We’re just as bad as America – or worse – in a lot of ways. Lots of racism issues, colonialism, domestic violence, and we’re not just that fun time country down under. I wish the outward view we portray was true, but we’ve got our own shit to sort out. And we don’t ride kangaroos to primary school, but I wish we did.

Every Ceres record’s been followed up but a short EP, and this might be premature, but what’s the chances of that with this one?

Yeah, that’s funny, because that’s not, like, marketing genius. It’s just what’s happened. I think it would be sick. We don’t have any besides this time, like on Drag we had a bunch. This record is everything we had, so we’d have to go write new ones, which is fine because one of my favorite things is writing and recording, so my arm doesn’t have to be twisted. I think we should keep that up, because that was cool. But a part of me thinks this might be the last record we’ll ever do.

Alright, last one. What do you think Tom from Anywhere But Here era would think about We Are a Team if he could listen to it?

Good question. I reckon he’d be stoked. I think he’d be that’s where he’s trying to get to and the sound he’s trying to chase the whole time. I wouldn’t tell him he’d have to go through some bad shit and that Drag It Down on You would come out. [laughs] Like, “You’re gonna go through some shit, it’s gonna hurt, but it’ll be all good in the end.” I think if I showed Tom this record, I think he’d be proud. He’d be excited that this was what we always wanted to write, but life got in the way and I Don’t Want to Be Anywhere But Here was us trying to find our feet, and Drag It Down on You didn’t mean to be as heavy as it is, but I think this is where he’d wanna end up. And he did, so that’s sick.

Thanks so much for talking to me, Tom. If there’s anything else you wanna say, feel free.

Thank you, man. I was talking to a friend down here in a band called The Pretty Littles, which is a bad name but a great band, and I was talking to him before we wrote this album. Because after Drag I thought, “Fuck it, we’re not a band anymore, we’re gonna just stop.” And so the catalyst, almost, for this album was, obviously, falling in love, but also Jack told me that we as musicians have undeserved – or deserved – platform that we can affect people. I can affect someone’s mood in the US, which is crazy. And Jack said, like, “Do you really wanna spend you life peddling to a negative feeling and bumming people out? Or do you wanna make a positive change?” I was, like, “Yeah, you’re right. I wanna affect someone’s life in a positive way, maybe.” Yeah, I know Drag helps a lot of people, me included. But with this album I was so excited to spread some positive messages around. Even if just to change the focus a little and create something to positively affect someone’s life, I’m excited to be able to do that.

Zac Djamoos
Zac Djamoos Zac Djamoos is a contributor at chorus.fm. He can also be found at @greatwhitebison on Twitter.