Into the Art of Ceremony: Talking Album Cover Design With Ross Farrar

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Ceremony's album art has evolved directly alongside their music. (Photo: Shawn Brackbill)

Founded in the faceless North Bay suburb of Rohnert Park in the mid-aughts, Ceremony have traveled a fascinating evolution from early frenetic hardcore punk to the muted, gothic despair of their new album The L-Shaped Man (Matador), released this week. And it's not just the music that's changed -- album artwork, as well, has played a prominent role in the band's ongoing journey, at times dividing even their own fan base.

Below, Ceremony vocalist Ross Farrar gives us a tour through the last 10 years of Ceremony's cover art, from the bloodied rose of spastic debut Violence Violence to The L-Shaped Man’s soft pastels. A writer, photographer and artist himself, Farrar has designed all but one of his band's album covers; he walks us through each album's location and process, with nods to his father's influence, Saul Steinberg's line drawings, and the couple who got engaged in front of the Rohnert Park house along the way.

CeremonyViolence

'Violence Violence,' 2006

This one was by Linas Garsys — he had done the Ruined 7” previous to Violence Violence, and he'd done a lot of stuff for Malfunction Records, our label at the time. We'd been going with a rose design since the very beginning, so we asked him to incorporate the rose somehow. He eventually came up with this dark, Depeche Mode-looking rose, which is pretty close to Violator.

A lot of the stuff on the album was lingering from relationships, and we'd always talked about having artwork that was more on the side of love, rather than the side of darkness -- and definitely, the music on Violence Violence is very abrasive, so we did want to have a darkness mixed in with something beautiful. But also on that record, there's talk about societal things, things socially that we felt unrest about. It's not just love. I don't even remember how we came up with that title, Violence Violence [laughs]. I was 22. I think it was just memetic with the music we were making.

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CeremonyStill

'Still Nothing Moves You,' 2008

There's a wall that my dad painted for a client in San Francisco, an architect, who just wanted the wall painted black. My dad, who does interior and exterior house painting, decided to leave one of the bricks white, as a signature -- kind of like his artist's statement for the project. Which I thought was incredible. I photographed the wall many years ago, right after he did it. And that's the cover photo for Still Nothing Moves You.

Our entire lives, we've been going to this restaurant in North Beach, Henry's Hunan. It's a Chinese restaurant that's Hunan-style, so it's very spicy Chinese food, it's incredible. And the building right next to it is owned by this architect. So the wall is facing the parking lot of Henry's Hunan, right off Broadway on Sansome.

My dad was a photographer. He went to Brooks to study photography, he gave me my first camera, he taught me how to take pictures. I got my eyes from him. And that one white brick in that painting... I've always enjoyed minimalism, and for him to make something like that was reflective for me: “Oh, that must be why I think about things these ways, and feel things these ways, and why I've been taking pictures like this forever.” Because of him.

[See a Google Street View of the 'Still Nothing Moves You' wall here.]

CeremonyRohnertPark

'Rohnert Park,' 2010

We were hanging out at our guitarist Anthony Anzaldo's house one day, and our bass player J.D. was skating around. I just happened to have my camera when he went skating by, two different times, and I caught that one. And I was going to use something else for that record cover, something that totally wouldn't have been as good, so I'm really glad for this last-minute thing, it was like, “Oh my God, this is in Rohnert Park, it represents suburbia, it represents everything we're talking about on the record.” J.D.'s wearing a Minor Threat hoodie and skateboarding. It was just perfect. I had to use it.

The original idea was to use a picture of this other building in Rohnert Park — or actually in Cotati, this dilapidated building near the train tracks that said something on the back. I forget what it said, but it had been buffed, it was just shining through a little bit, it was barely legible. I took a bunch of black-and-whites of the building. Thank God I found that other picture at the last minute.

There are people who have sought out that house in Rohnert Park, and re-created the photo. There was actually a couple, these two kids, who got engaged in front of the house. This guy proposed to a girl in front of the house! I was at work one day, and someone tagged me in a photo, like “Look at this!” And it was this kid proposing to his girlfriend. Crazy.

[See a Google Street View of the 'Rohnert Park' house here.]

CeremonyZoo

'Zoo,' 2012

I was doing this series, of pictures of images quickly passing on the television. There were some really beautiful ones that were captured — they were close-ups, and they were just really interesting images. This was the one that stuck out, of a face. I can't exactly say who it is, because that's the secret of the record that's no one's supposed to know. It's a star — not an actual movie star, but a TV star, we could say. I don't know, if you look hard enough you might be able to tell who it is, but I've never encountered anyone who could guess who the person is. It's definitely a well-known name. And it would actually be funny if everyone knew the name, because I think it would take away the allure of the character; it's not a person you would tie to allure, or mysticism. It's more of a comedic person.

Some of the other art we were doing at the time involved taking pictures of pictures, or taking pictures of television, or things that were captured on video. We did some promo shots that were taken with a digital camera, and then we put the pictures onto the television at Jake's house, and then we took pictures of the television. A lot of the themes on Zoo are voyeuristic in a way, so we wanted that to come out; the last song, “Video,” that's a part of it, that's like the thesis of the record. So we were just toying with media, and that ended up being the strongest image.

CereMonyLShaped

'The L-Shaped Man,' 2015

Oh, everyone was weirded out by this cover. People were like, “What is this?” Which I actually liked, and wanted to happen. I wanted to freak out the squares a little bit.

There's a series of line drawings I've been doing, single-stroke line drawings where I put the pen on the paper and make a design, and then wherever the eyeballs go makes the face. They're kind of inspired by Saul Steinberg — or, you know, people have said Picasso — and those are definitely people that I've looked up to in my life, at different points, artistically. But yeah, it's unlike anything we've ever done. People that I've talked to either really, really like it, or they don't get it.

Picking the color was a huge thing too. I was actually at this place called the Big Four in San Francisco, it's a really beautiful bar in the Scarlet Huntington hotel at the top of California Street. They have these green emerald leather seats on all the chairs, and I was thinking I wanted to do an emerald green like that, with maybe a very soft off-pink. That was the original color scheme. And then I was like, “No, that's too extreme. How about softening the green and turning the pink to a more orange color?” We toyed with it on the computer, and checked it out on Photoshop, and ended up using this very soft sea foam and very soft orange. And it just hit. We were all like, “That's the one!”

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The face actually has an “L” shape to it, in certain areas. But the title, The L-Shaped Man, has to do with a painter I got into named Leslie Lerner. He died on my 21st birthday, and some of the things he had painted, thematically, had come to really inspire me. So I started writing a record about him, and then it changed into this thing that happened with my ex-girlfriend. A lot of it has to with loss, and love. I just kept seeing “L” all over the place during the time making this record.