Polyglot perhaps best describes Django Haskins, songwriter and bandleader for The Old Ceremony, Chapel Hill's eight-piece, carefully debauched chamber pop band. At 28, he's recorded under several guises, fronting the lustrous Django & The Regulars in New York until 2002, then moving to Chapel Hill to pursue his solo songcraft before joining International Orange, the harmony-high, tightly wound rock quartet that split earlier this year. Django recently took time to rave about some of the influences that shine through in The Old Ceremony's eclectic eponymous debut, which will be released Friday at Local 506 in Chapel Hill.
On Tom Waits: "Hold on, I've got something caught in my throat. [Coughs] Oh, there it is. Whew, I had to cough up a lung. [Laughs] Seriously, the best live show I've ever seen. I saw him at the Beacon Theater in New York on the Mule Variations tour. I loved the way that he took very simple, really inexpensive stage ideas and made them work in this huge venue. He had this little platform that he would sing and dance on that he had covered with dust. When he stomped, the dust would come flying up. It was a great effect and devastatingly simple."
On Randy Newman: "Oh, I've been really into him lately. I think he's seriously, seriously underrated. I'm actually learning to write on piano, and one of the ways I'm teaching myself is by learning Randy Newman songs. They're not as easy as they sound, which totally makes me respect him more. The thing about Randy Newman is he uses a lot of humor, and that gets misinterpreted a lot as meaning he's not serious. His humor is dry. If he were serious, it would be the most depressing stuff in the world, like 'In Germany Before the War.' It's beautiful and I love it, but it's just so dark because there is no humor in it at all. It's a dangerous toy in music to use humor like that, and it takes a whole lot of finesse to carry it off and still make meaningful stuff. That's something I try to be meaningful about, too."
On Frank Sinatra: "He is possibly the greatest pop singer of all time. My parents were musicians, and I grew up being exposed to a whole lot of music and a lot of older music. But they don't like Sinatra because they see the later, almost cartoonish version of him in the '60s and '70s. For me, he's The Beatles and Elvis rolled into one, and maybe I had to see him in that context. His phrasing is amazing, and his ability to get inside of songs that he didn't even write."
On Miles Davis: "I went through a really heavy Miles period and read his autobiography and everything. A friend of mine said that if you took out the word 'motherfucker,' it would be a pamphlet. I think it was in his autobiography, but he would tell people he learned about phrasing from Frank. For someone who didn't like white people, that's quite a compliment. I got much more heavily into Frank after that."
Brass band or big band? "Brass band. The sound is so much more immediate, and it has a real time and place to it, too. That gives it a lot more personality than big band."
On accordions: "What a great instrument. We're lucky because we have an excellent accordion player, Jil Cristensen, in TOC. I love its sound because it has these aspects of piano or organ, but it also has an air aspect of horn or voice. That's so expressive, and I love the music of Astor Piazzola, an Argentinean composer who plays an instrument very similar to the accordion called the bandoneon. I got into that when I was in New York in Django & The Regulars with a sax player who was a heavy jazz cat and he forced me to listen."
On Thelonius Monk: "That's my favorite guy. He's my favorite guitar player. [Laughs] He's on my all-time favorite jazz composers list. I keep him in mind a lot, especially for my guitar playing. He plays with humor and off-kilter timing and this slightly twisted choice of notes and tons of space, and he was all about placement and attitude. For years, I wanted to name my first son Thelonius Rex so he could be T. Rex. The possibilities are endless, except finding the woman who will go for it."
On Love: "Well, I like Love the band, and I certainly like love the concept. They were both relatively short lived [laughs]. I really like Forever Changes, but sometimes I hear the lyrics in it and I think, "Ya know, this is the dumbest shit I've ever heard. I mean, what drugs do you have to be on to think this is good?" [Sings] But the vibe is so creepy in this sunny way. As for love the concept, the less said about it the better.
"There are fewer love songs with The Old Ceremony than on other stuff. That's partly from just trying to expand as a writer and realizing you can only talk about your disappointment and pain for long enough without it getting boring to you and everybody else. I learned some of that from Leonard Cohen."
On Leonard Cohen: "Well, that's where the band name comes from--'New Skin for the Old Ceremony.' I'm a big fan of his lyrics. I mean, he's possibly the best ever. Cohen is so much more careful with his words, where Dylan is always sort of divinely inspired. They have different ways of doing it, but I appreciate them for different reasons. When I was playing in New York last week, I was sick with a 101-degree fever only, and I could only sing in the lowest part of my voice. Everything was an octave lower, and it sounded like Leonard Cohen. That was good. He's so poetic in the way that I hate when people say Jim Morrison is poetic. Leonard Cohen truly is."
Django fronts The Old Ceremony at Local 506 on Friday, June 24. The Physics of Meaning open at 10 p.m. Cover is $6.