The Uncertainty Of CERES

IT’s a lot harder to make work about love than it is to wallow in the darkness.

In making the new Ceres record We Are A Team, the band’s frontman and songwriter Tom Lanyon learned the same lesson Matthew McConaughey did when he made the shift from rom-coms to darker, more broody material.

That shift for Ceres happened in the inverse though. After six years mining the darkest corners of Tom’s psyche, the band is attempting to make cracks in the foundation to let light in.

•••

IT was the end of summer 2018 when Tom wrote a song called ‘Viv in the Front Seat’, which would go on to become the first single from Ceres’ third record We Are a Team.

“I realised, maybe I can write a positive record. It was so exciting and so fresh and such a departure from Drag.”

He’s referencing Drag it Down on You, the band’s sophisticated and harrowing second album. Overflowing with tortured material dredged up from the most troubling depths of Tom’s singular experience, Drag didn’t mince words when it came to exploring the bitterness of living, the hopelessness of love, and the speed with which death is coming for us all.

“I was in a really dark space, and out of that dark place came a lot of Drag songs,” Tom tells me now, resting his elbows on the table at the dimly lit Collingwood bar where we meet. He’s enthusiastic and open, and seems more than willing to dig into the unpleasant corners of both his band’s history and his own.

After the record’s release in 2016, he ended his relationship with his partner. He tells me he can see now, in hindsight, Drag was “a break-up record for the partner I was with before breaking up with her”.

•••

“I don’t know if there’s gonna be another [record]. What would the next record be?"

CERES formed six years ago when, after his internal protestation that he’d never be in a band, Tom found guitarist Sean Callanan, bassist Grant Young, and drummer Frank Morda.

His love of emo stalwarts Dashboard Confessional – “[All of their songs] sounded like the emo acoustic song at the end of every punk record, and those were my favourite” – first lead him to songwriting.

The band soon stumbled into a tight-knit and welcoming community around recently shuttered Melbourne venue The Reverence.

After the release of Ceres’ debut record, 2014’s I Don’t Want to Be Anywhere But Here, steady touring around the country uncovered fans who found something in the sensitive, emo-leaning rock that built around Tom’s deeply felt lyrics.

With sporadic 7-inch releases, curated collaborations from musical friends outside the punk scene, and surprising forays into video work, Ceres has earned a reputation as an unpredictable and idealistic project.

They’ve always offered a shift in tone or direction that seems uncharacteristic at first glance, but cumulatively comes to represent the instinctual “if it feels right we’ll do it” spirit of the group.

It’s surprising then to consider that a year ago Ceres very nearly ceased to exist. Enter ’Stretch Ur Skin’. The song was half-written before the break-up with his partner occurred, but Tom dug it out for a 7-inch project while the dust was still settling on the relationship. From the beginning, Tom had a bad feeling about it.

“There were elements of that song I couldn’t get out of my head. I felt uneasy [and] like it was too personal,” he says.

In an effort to dilute the message or negate any potential misinterpretations from his ex-partner, Tom called in Wil Wagner from The Smith Street Band. Lyrics were removed, Wil re-wrote others, the intention being to make its focus less specific, and to dull any edges that could possibly hit a nerve with Tom’s ex.

It was a thoughtful, if near-sighted idea, because luck and the universe soon conspired to make it messy.

’Stretch Ur Skin’ would go on to be the band’s biggest song to date. After trying – and failing – to make headway on radio during Drag, the song was added to triple j. As soon as it premiered, Tom says his ex-partner texted him a demand to stay out of her life. Her new boyfriend protectively did the same.

“There’s consequences. I hated – I hated – the thought that I could hurt someone’s feelings,” he stresses. “Like, who the fuck am I? This girl is here, not wanting any of this, and I’m this fucking arrogant prick who gets to write this song and get it on the radio?”

I point out this thought pattern of punishing and criticising himself for the way his actions affected someone else sounds like material for the platonic ideal of a Ceres song. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear him scream over a wailing guitar, down to describing himself as a prick – a recurring theme in his self-deprecating lyrics.

“I’m a bad communicator in some respects. I’ve actually never had a conversation with the whole band like we’re having now, saying why it was like this.”

His bandmates thought so too, he tells me. “Everyone was tip-toeing around me but thinking, ‘This is gonna be so great. Imagine the shit he’ll do’.” Fresh heartbreak makes great fodder for already sensitive songwriters, after all.

The great irony, Tom says, is he wrote about the idea of the break-up on ‘Stretch Ur Skin’ before it actually occurred, when it was foreshadowing a future event. “But after the fact, when it was actually real, I couldn’t. And I haven’t since. And I won’t.”

It’s a refreshing sentiment considering emo-punk fans like Tom and I were raised on a steady diet of songs by men about women that ran the gauntlet from fawning hopefulness to dank misogyny, with plenty of one-sided recollections of messy break-ups in between.

“The misogyny that went on in the shit we used to listen to back in the day … it’d make our stomachs churn now,” Tom says.

“There were elements of that song I couldn’t get out of my head. I felt uneasy [and] like it was too personal."

Throughout our interview, we discuss at length how the more offensive end of that spectrum was epitomised by the feud between two seminal emo-punk bands of which we were both fans. Brand New and Taking Back Sunday spent the early 2000s releasing call-and-response songs about a woman who’d allegedly cheated on a member of one band with a member of the other.

It was par for the course at the time for Brand New to write a song wishing the woman at the centre of the feud would crash her car and die in a drink-driving accident, for example. This is the music we were raised on, the sentiments sung by bands that inspired a generation of men like Tom to pick up guitars. Women’s feelings or reactions were collateral damage in the business of sensitive men writing music about their emotions.

The extent to which his ex-partner’s potential – and eventual – reaction to ‘Stretch Ur Skin’ concerned Tom surprised me. After all, he is no stranger to mining his life for content. Before meeting him, I thought I had a clear picture in my mind of his fears and insecurities and personal history based on listening to songs like ’91, Your House’, which was written about his childhood house, the death of his father, and the concept of home more broadly.

What are his thoughts then on songwriters who view every emotion and experience they have as fair game, or fodder for them to use in any way they want? “I think that’s bullshit. I don’t like that idea of, ‘Fuck everyone, this is art, you’ve gotta do it.’ No it’s not.”

When they made the song together, with his doubts about the song still niggling away at him, Tom asked Wil if it was “all too gnarly”, even with the revisions they’d made. “And Wil goes – and this is his prerogative – ‘Don’t talk to me about that, I write about everything’. Which is honest,” Tom concedes. “I choose what I write about, but I don’t think everything is fair game, because there’s people at the end of it all.”

I confess, as an ignorant teenager, to having been on the side of the duelling singers in the feud between Brand New and Taking Back Sunday. It’s shameful to admit now, but in my mind the subject of the song deserved what she got. And for all their fighting, the bands almost presented a united front against her.

“And I was the same! I bought into it so bad,” Tom empathises. “Why we were in agreement [is about] the power a man can have when he has a platform.”

It’s worth noting now that Jesse Lacey, Brand New’s lead singer, was accused in 2017 of using his power and platform to sexually exploit minors. Closer to home, the Smith Street Band’s 2019 Australian tour was cancelled last month following allegations of harassment and emotional abuse levelled at Wil.

Both singers issued statements admitting to regrettable behaviour towards women – Jesse towards fans and Wil towards ex-partners. The latter was like an elephant perched on the table between Tom and I during our conversation, considering Wil was recruited to this project to temper the potential reaction to the song that went on to cause such emotional distress.

“‘Stretch Ur Skin’ is a weird thing even more now,” Tom tells me. “The irony of me trying to not ‘do a Wil Wagner’ [and write about everything], and getting him on the song to dilute it, to try [not to] hurt someone … is that irony? Or is that just unfortunate?

“There wasn’t misogyny in ‘Stretch Ur Skin’,” he continues carefully, “but there was a thoughtlessness in it. And I needed to think about that.”

Following the song’s promotional cycle came what Tom describes as “a full meltdown”. The consequences for emotional honesty were too great now. “I was like, ‘Fuck writing songs’. If they’re going to be honest – and they have to be honest – I’m just not going to do it anymore.”

In his mind, Ceres was done. He describes them as “a healthy band” up until then, despite (or maybe because of) the brutal, wrenching sadness that permeated their music. But Tom never spoke with his bandmates about his intention to pull the pin.

“I’m a bad communicator in some respects. I’ve actually never had a conversation with the whole band like we’re having now, saying why it was like this.”

He jokes that maybe he can just send them this interview to fill in the blanks on what they assumed was just ‘Tom taking his time to write new material’ and behaving like a bratty teenager at rehearsals. “Nobody knows how dire it got,” he says. “I didn’t know how to fix it besides not doing it anymore.”

With time, though, a shift came. And it’s credited to something both simple and enormous all at once: “I met someone.”

•••

WHEN Tom picked up his guitar for the first time in close to six months, ‘Viv in the Front Seat’ came out.

It’s an ode to his new love, and both of their dads who passed away before they met one another. ‘Viv’ is named for Tom’s girlfriend’s father, an artist whose work Tom strapped protectively into the passenger seat of his car after taking it to be framed one day. This tiny gesture would spark a song that would signal his band’s new direction.

“It’s funny, those moments you realise you’ve fallen in love with someone. It was so innocuous, but so powerful for me. ‘Viv’ came out and I just loved it. It effected a change in my songwriting that I was excited about.”

A mention of their dead parents – in those blunt terms – introduces the song, which in turn introduced Tom to the idea of what his band could be if he approached it anew as a project about love and hope despite all the bullshit.

“My dad died when I was six and I’ve got some deep-seated issues. If I saw a therapist I’d just be like, ‘Here are my records!’” he jokes, touching on the extent to which his father’s death in 1991 still seeps into his work.

For Tom, the ideas of love and death are one and the same. The latter is meaningless if not for the former, and the weight of affection only increases because there is an enormous inevitability waiting at the end of it for all of us.

“Death is the strongest emotion in a song. And so the idea of Viv, because I never met him, turned into love, for [Tom’s partner] Dana. It’s all very illustrative in my subconscious; all those feelings and words tie together. So ‘Viv’ was a love song. If you attach death to it, it amplifies what I’m trying to say – I’m just realising that now.”

On ‘Kiss Me Crying’, Tom sings, “If I’m ever looking up, I hope it’s at you.” For any other songwriter this might summon images of a lover in bed, or laying on the beach squinting through the glare of the sun.

But after listening to Tom’s work for years – poring over sentiments the way he joked he’d ask a therapist to do in order to understand him – it conjures up the view from inside a grave or coffin, or of cursing the heavens for claiming someone too soon.

“It’s gonna go in slow-motion/You won’t even see the dark creeping/You’re gonna die in a hospital bed/Kiss me crying,” he sings.

After ‘Viv’, things felt easier, lighter. “All the songs flooded out, it wasn’t a struggle. It was cool to have that positive sense, or to know in my heart we were doing something that’s right. It’s not detrimental or hurtful.”

•••

CERES set out to make an album in two weeks across August and September 2018.

In a rambling house in Apollo Bay, Victoria, the band – including its newest member, multi-instrumentalist Stacey Cicivelli, recruited from the band Self Talk – decamped with engineer Andrei Eremin and producer and Los Campesinos! guitarist Tom Bromley, who also produced Drag it Down on You.

Records by Los Campesinos! (No Blues) and Death Cab for Cutie (Plans) helped Ceres map the outline of their new way forward.

“We had a conscious decision while recording We Are a Team that we’d go so turbo on it and not worry about recreating it live until we have to,” Tom says, crediting Stacey’s skill with any instrument she encounters as essential in helping them achieve it.

“We made a decision: we could either make a record that sounds exactly like we play live, or a hyper-produced Queen record. We went for Queen.”

‘Something Good’, the record’s closer, is filled with strings that stretch its sound wide, while its intent is so painfully intimate as Tom sings simply, “I think something good’s gonna happen. I know it is us til we’re dead in our graves … We are a team.”

Ceres completists will have heard the album’s eponymous rallying cry before, on the song ‘Us’ from Drag it Down on You: “You and me, we are a team. Remember what you said to me.” It’s the kind of easter egg or canonical link Tom also employs in ‘Collarbone, 2011’, one of only two songs on this record not written in the brief window before the Apollo Bay sessions.

“It’s a funny kind of ache,” he sings here, a lyric we first heard on ‘Upwey, Tecoma, Belgrave’ from 2014’s I Don’t Want to Be Anywhere But Here.

The sense of recognition doesn’t stop there. ‘Collarbone’ was first released as a demo-style acoustic number on Selfish Prick, a 2014 7-inch, which Tom described at the time as “a little companion piece … the weird, bipolar little sister of Anywhere But Here.”

“It’s like deja vu,” Tom nods enthusiastically when I mention these links. Ceres might be diverting from their well-trod path with the tone of this record, but it’s still circling back to familiar sentiments.

The other song written before ‘Viv’ came to life is ‘Stay Awake’, which sits at the heart of this record. With tender, secretive lyrics delivered over a roomy, light guitar, the song expands like a chest, building steam until it runs headlong into a raucous, heavy display of a band at their full power. I show Tom how I described this song in my notes: “Classic Ceres.”

“It literally is!” he agrees.“Those songs are pre-dating even the band.” In the context of this record, it feels right that Ceres sat on a song like this until they could really do it justice.

•••

 

"I don’t like that idea of, ‘Fuck everyone, this is art, you’ve gotta do it.’ No it’s not."

IN 2016, in anticipation of the release of Drag it Down on You, Tom told the AU Review, “The next record can be even darker now. I don’t think I’ve gotten to the bottom of my shitty head and heart.”

Three years later, after struggling to exist inside that “shitty head and heart” for so long, and contemplating the fact there might not be a future for the band let alone a “next record”, Tom is a different person, one who’s working with intent and a realignment of values.

To do justice to himself and his audience he needed to interrogate not only what his band was about but what he had left to say.

“I think everyone would be happy with another Drag it Down on You. Par for the course for Ceres, another dark record,” he tells me, a touch of resentment or resignation in his voice. “We’ve got form. We’ve got history.”

That record closed with ‘Baby’s Breath’, a haunting song that made Tom realise he’d have a hard time continuing in the same direction. “Other than re-hash it, what can I talk about after this? I remember listening to it and going, ‘I’m fucked after this’. Hang my hat.”

If ‘Baby’s Breath’ left listeners holding their breath, then We Are a Team’s opener, ‘Marriage’, is a chance to exhale finally.

With a gasp, Tom delivers the record’s motivating force: “I’m gonna get happy … I’m gonna show ‘em somewhere deep down in my heart there’s love, there’s us.”

Ending one record in despair and opening the next with such hope is like planting down two bookends facing away from one another, creating strict delineations in his work. “It’s dark and light. One’s going down, one’s going up.”

Over electric guitar tones and Cicivelli’s keyboard (“very Death Cab”), the guttural and frantic howling of Ceres-past feels a world away. It’s like a curtain being opened at golden hour. There’s still a touch of finality – there always will be with Tom, I think – with lyrics like, “I thought about dying,” but even his voice is calmer, more understanding.

“I love sad music. It makes me happy to feel melancholy,” Tom tells me. “I can’t help it; even if [I’m writing] love songs, they’re kind of sad. That tinge of melancholy.”

On ‘Marriage’ the tinge is there, but the self-defeating attitude that characterised his earlier writing is gone. In its place is an understanding that he has the potential to change and grow and make amends, to start from scratch.

“My time isn’t done here; there’s life in me, still,” he sings as the song swells, “You’ll love me forever, until we’re both dead.”

I ask Tom if this record signals the start of a new direction for his band, with a renewed perspective and determination to affect even the tiniest change. He’s less certain of their future than he was in that 2016 interview, but less fatalistic than he was following the ‘Stretch Ur Skin’ implosion.

“I don’t know if there’s gonna be another [record]. What would the next record be? I’m not sure. I need stuff to talk about, but it also needs to be worth it. Right now I’m not seeing past this one.”

He sounds content with that uncertainty.

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