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The unlikely and intersecting successes of The Old Ceremony and Haw River Ballroom

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Django Haskins and Heather LaGarde laugh when they talk about the geneses of the institutions they respectively created.

Nine years after launching The Old Ceremony, for instance, Haskins sounds genuinely surprised that the same core of musicians have stuck with him, in spite of the band's original plan to be so large that they'd likely never tour or make any money. But five albums deep into a catalog, The Old Ceremony stands now as one of the Triangle's most successful acts. "We should have known better," Haskins rejoinders.

LaGarde, on the other hand, led an effort to erect a high-end, 700-capacity music venue along the banks of the Haw River in Saxapahaw—that is, one of the area's biggest venues in one of its smallest hamlets. From embracing weddings to building a current issues conference, LaGarde has sometimes had to diversify to keep the space full for the last two years. But it's working.

In fact, on Friday night, The Old Ceremony will play the second anniversary of Haw River Ballroom, reconnecting two great ideas—a ballroom in the country and a rock band with a dozen members—that have become unlikely and unpredictable successes.

We charted the evolution of each.

To read the about The Old Ceremony first, start immediately below; to read about Haw River Ballroom first, start from the bottom.

2002: After seven years in New York City as a solo singer-songwriter and bandleader, Django Haskins is ready to head south. He headed to Carrboro. "I'd been trying to figure out where to go," he remembers, "and I just fell in love with the area." While living in New York, Haskins had mostly toured outside of the city solo, because bringing a full band on the road seemed cost-prohibitive. "In New York," he says, "there are challenges just to getting out of bed and washing your clothes." Financially and logistically, North Carolina seemed like a favorable band hub.

2003: At the invitation of songwriter Britt Uzzell, or Snzz, Haskins joins the rock quartet International Orange with former Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge. They record and tour. Haskins realizes he needs his own band with grander sonic possibilities because he struggles with the standard rock structure and sound: "That was a result of growing up with the White Album and thinking it was normal."

Aug. 18, 2004: "The idea was to have a band where we threw practicality out of the window," Haskins remembers, "and got every sound we could dream of." They play their first show at Local 506, opening for a French band from Brooklyn, Les Sans Culottes.

Late 2004: The Old Ceremony swells almost instantly to include two violins, cello, trumpet, saxophone, accordion, bass, drums, guitar, vibraphone, organ and female vocals. The band hits an 11-member ceiling and performs a sporadic residency at Chapel Hill's West End Wine Bar. The core of the current band—Mark Simonsen, Dan Hall, Gabriel Pelli—was in place as early as the second show. "That's amazing to me," Haskins says.

June 24, 2005: Haskins had been writing songs even before forming the band, so the collective moved quickly toward making its first album, a 12-song, self-titled set. They recorded it in a small room in then-bassist Matt Brandau's house, arranging the bulk of it in the studio. "We wanted to make something that sounded as live as possible," Haskins remembers. They released their debut at Local 506.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OLD CEREMONY
  • Photo courtesy of The Old Ceremony

Fall 2005: Film producer Gill Holland, who'd launched a record label called sonaBLAST!, visits Chapel Hill from New York. At the request of a friend from the West End Wine Bar, he attends one of The Old Ceremony's residency shows. He signs the band on the spot, and they start touring to New York.

Early 2006: Though the original goal of The Old Ceremony wasn't to tour, the band began making short East Coast runs. It helped that they'd shrunk to a seven-piece that ultimately toured for two more years. "Nobody was making any money, and at that size, it was likely no one ever would," Haskins says. "We liked playing this music. It was an innocent time."

October 2006: Our One Mistake, The Old Ceremony's second LP, crystallizes the band as a long-term project for everyone involved. Between the record deal and punchy, orchestrated songs including "Papers in Order," it no longer felt like a novelty. These songs took half-a-listen to remember, and people gravitated toward them. "At that point, I realized that this band would stick around longer than all my other projects," he says. They release it at the region's legendary rock club, Cat's Cradle; Paste lists Our One Mistake as one of the year's best albums.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OLD CEREMONY
  • Photo courtesy of The Old Ceremony

April 20, 2007: The Old Ceremony opens for Cake at Winona State University in Minnesota, playing to a few thousand kids in a sweaty gym. The audience mistook them for the droll singers of "The Distance," but they soon figured it out, and the students connected with these alien songs. "I realized at that point how accessible our music could be," Haskins recalls, "despite the uncommon aspects."

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February 2008: James Wallace had played piano with the band from the start, prompting Haskins to write much of Our One Mistake with him in mind. Wallace left to pursue drumming and production duties, but such changes in membership (there have been two) caused the band to reconsider its approach. "We started getting more of an appreciation for space," Haskins says, "and that's been our progression from album to album."

September 2008: Bassist Matt Brandau, who left the band three years later, creates a remix album of The Old Ceremony's first record, featuring big beats and a guest spot from area rapper Omotade.

2007–2009: The Old Ceremony had made two albums in three years, but their third and still most ambitious, Walk on Thin Air­, took a lot of work and time. People were invested in the band now, so there were more ideas to wade through. The focus shifted from simpler rock songs to grander textures, an approach that was simpatico with the start of the band. "It ended up being a thick, layered, dense record," Haskins says. "We knew it wouldn't have the instant appeal of the record before it." They self-release the album and sell out dual CD release shows in Carrboro and Raleigh in February 2009.

Sept. 17, 2010: "I feel like every record is kind of a reaction to the record before it," explains Haskins. After working for two years on Walk on Thin Air at member Mark Simonsen's house, The Old Ceremony headed to a Richmond, Va., studio to record the bulk of Tender Age in only a week. Originally planned as two dichotomous EPs, the full-length started electric and ended acoustic. The limited-time process focused The Old Ceremony's approach, too. They returned to Cat's Cradle to self-release it.

Feb. 4, 2011: Rather than use crowdfunding site Kickstarter to pay for an album, The Old Ceremony tried it to test a crazy idea—to tour Europe. They raised $10,336, more than twice their stated goal. They played 11 European dates in June and July, including one of Haskins' favorite-ever shows with the band in Berlin: "The PA was tiny. There was no stage. People were crowded and smoking, and there was a guy falling into the microphone, screaming into my face about Kurt Cobain. It was one of the greatest nights I've ever had playing music."

May 27, 2011: The Old Ceremony plays the opening night of Haw River Ballroom, a lavish and large venue in the rural town of Saxapahaw.

May 2012: Jeff Crawford—a longtime producer, sideman and songwriter in the Triangle—joins The Old Ceremony as the new bassist. For a year, the band had functioned as a sans-bass quartet, with Haskins playing baritone guitar.

Aug. 21, 2012: After self-releasing two albums, The Old Ceremony was ready for a change. They'd talked to regionally based Yep Roc before and decided that they could again benefit from a label's organizational support. They signed with Yep Roc in early 2012 and released Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide in August. "It made me appreciate what labels still do—they curate and they advocate," Haskins says. "Yep Roc clearly has an appreciation for the art of songs, and that's why I'm here."

PHOTO COURTESY OF DJANGO HASKINS
  • Photo courtesy of Django Haskins

Oct. 6, 2012: Django Haskins gets married at Haw River Ballroom.

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Haw River Ballroom - FILE PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON
  • File photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Haw River Ballroom

May 24, 2013: The Old Ceremony will play the second anniversary of Haw River Ballroom. They'll pull out some old favorites, but they'll also play several of the new tunes that will shape their sixth album, which they plan to record later this year. "I think Fairytales was a really stripped-down record," he says, "so we might go into this one thinking about how to use the studio in different ways."


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April 19, 2013: LaGarde has a long history of charity and humanitarian work, so she's long wanted to use Haw River for more than music. The second SwitchPoint Conference brought members of The Rockefeller Foundation and The World Bank—plus the visionary DJ Spooky—to Saxapahaw. "I love that I can merge my worlds here," LaGarde says.

Nov. 25, 2012: Sufjan Stevens brings his Christmas spectacular to Haw River Ballroom. The show sold out well in advance. LaGarde describes it as an "under-play," meaning it was one of the smaller rooms on the tour. "We set off the fire alarms three times that night," she says, "but it was crazily fun."

Aug. 27, 2011: With Hurricane Irene threatening the North Carolina coastline, the inaugural Winoca Festival in Wilmington canceled its activities. That sent headliner Gillian Welch scrambling for a local date, which she found in Saxapahaw. LaGarde confirmed the show an hour after the initial inquiry arrived. Less than a day later, the show was sold out; in another day, Welch arrived. "She did a group sing-along of 'I'll Fly Away,'" LaGarde says, "and I just sat there and cried. I felt like we could be a real place."

May 6, 2011: Haw River Ballroom hosts a Hard Hat Gala, a soft opening for citizens of Saxapahaw. Three weeks later, The Love Language and The Old Ceremony co-headline the room's first show, a sell-out. With the launch complete, Heather LaGarde closes the space to sort out the kinks—how to establish the best sight lines, how to greet big crowds and, most important, how to sell beer.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Plate tectonics."

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