Something from nothing: The return of Ceres

Image by Michael Thomas.

To embrace spirituality for a moment, you could say We Are A Team, the third record from Ceres was meant to be. A long awaited follow up to 2016’s Drag It Down On You and seemingly aeons away (both sonically and lyrically) from 2014 debut I Don’t Want To Be Anywhere But Here.

“I think it’s a very special record in the fact that it wouldn’t have been anything.”

These days, it’s safe to say Ceres are alt-punk mainstays on the national stage. Having risen through the ranks of Melbourne’s underground rock scene, there’s been a community behind them since day dot. That community – while still as devoted and attentive, spans across the nation now.

The significance of We Are A Team won’t go understated. Throughout 2017, Ceres were a broken band. Spurred by a song and irreconcilable regret, frontman Tom Lanyon was ready to call it quits.

“After ‘Stretch Ur Skin’, I was just like ‘I’m done with the band. I’m not going to do it anymore.’”

On the outside, ‘Stretch Ur Skin’ was a breakout moment for the band. It was their first track added to full radio rotation and helped bump their live show to the biggest venues yet. Internally, it was a terribly timed emotional conflict.

A song that had been “kicking around for ages” but never formally fleshed out was pulled into the limelight after a breakup between Tom and his former partner.

It had been some time since the last Ceres release and their label called:

“Have you got any new songs?”

The answer was no, not really. There were two b-sides from Drag It Down On You ready to go – ‘Money’ and ‘Sook’ but the only new song was a very early demo of ‘Stretch Ur Skin’.

Everyone was iffy on it from the start.

We got in the studio and recorded a whole different version of it. We’d finished it, mixed it and I got it back and listened to it. Even though it was made up, there’s some things that you could read into it. It just felt shit. I wanted the breakup to be really smooth and as least hurtful as possible – and I fucking had this song now.

I remember going to the band at practice one time and saying “I don’t want to release this, I don’t want to do it.” They were like, hang on a minute. Let’s just pump the brakes and see what happens.

‘Stretch Ur Skin’ came out really quickly – 3 months after [my partner and I] broke up. I thought, “Who the fuck am I – how lucky am I that I’ve got this band, this label and I can do this really quickly?” I was scared that she would think it’s this retaliation song. It wasn’t like that at all – it was more pressure on me to put something out. Rather than I write this song about her as soon as we broke up.

I just hated all of that. No matter how much people say ‘it’s art’ and you should never censor yourself, I don’t really subscribe to that. I think it’s bullshit. You gotta be careful. This song didn’t need to exist. I was racked with guilt about it and worried about how it would be perceived.

‘Stretch Ur Skin’ premiered on triple j in May 2017. It was a bittersweet milestone for the band, who hadn’t had much traction with the national broadcaster previously. The band and their team were tuned in, pinging messages back and forth on the group chat.

The one song I didn’t want anyone to hear got fucking added to triple j.

Everyone was so stoked and I was just like “I can’t fucking believe this.” Then my ex girlfriend messaged me.

“Stay the fuck out of my life. Leave me alone.” That was the only contact I had with her.

I was just like, “why did I do this?” I really resented a lot of shit and almost a lot of people. The band, the label. But, I was just pissed off at myself. I knew from the start I shouldn’t have done it.

I went into a full tailspin. For music, for creating things. Fuck the band – I wasn’t doing it. I knew it could really hurt people – and that’s not why we started this. That’s not why we should do this shit. It’s not a throwaway band, but it doesn’t need to exist. I felt fucking terrible about the whole thing. Didn’t touch a guitar for a year.

There’s a certain hypocrisy to the situation. Writing a song and hurting another while hurting yourself. That’s something Tom is incredibly aware of. However, what’s also important for him is acknowledging how the past has directly affected his present choices – and of course musical output. There’s no value in hiding missteps.

I just didn’t touch anything for a year until, I think, maybe wounds started to heal a little bit for me. Which is bullshit because I feel like I inflicted them. I decided to do this, I wrote this stupid song that wasn’t even about anything.

It’s difficult. If there was no album to talk about now, I wouldn’t be talking about the past. It’s hard to talk about ‘Stretch Ur Skin’ without talking about my ex girlfriend. I worry about that a little bit because it’s just like, am I rehashing shit? But I’m not doing it in a negative way, which the song almost did.

The future and We Are A Team is easy to talk about. You have to talk about the past because… I just want people to know. I guess it’s important to this chapter of the band and why We Are A Team started – you can’t have one without the other. It’s important to talk about it, but it does suck. Because it’s personal shit that’s fucking hard. It has been important to tell the story. It’s authenticity – I’d feel like I’m leaving out a huge chunk which is actually the reason why this is happening now.

It’s done what it’s done. I’m thankful for that. Maybe Viv wouldn’t have happened if that song didn’t happen. I’d like to think it still would have.

For almost a full year, Ceres were quiet. Tom found writing music impossible. Regret led to a lack of inspiration, want or will and nothing ever came to mind. It wasn’t until ‘Viv In The Front Seat’ broke through the writers block, bringing with it a renewed sense of emotions – this time, love.

The narrative behind Viv is the perfect introduction to the meaning of the album – a record about love and just giving a shit. Tom was picking up a set of frames that featured the artwork of his partner’s father who had sadly passed away. These frames sat in the front of his car, seatbelt firmly fastening them into place and the opening lyric of that chorus came to mind.

“I got Viv in the front seat…”

I showed it to the band. It was the first thing after 6 months of not really seeing each other. We didn’t tour, we didn’t do anything… except for that Christmas show. And that was while I was like, “I want out, I just don’t want to do this. So this is probably the last one guys.”

We demoed it, then recorded in March last year. Then from March to the start of September, I just wrote songs. It all just fell out – nothing was hard. I went into practice spaces by myself, wrote stuff at home – it all sort of snapped back. So it felt amazing. I was so lucky… I think that falling in love again maybe gave me… In my mind I didn’t have permission to write anything anymore. “Who the fuck am I? Why do people want to listen to me? What the fuck am I saying?” Because if I’m not writing about a bad relationship with someone – and I knew I couldn’t do that anymore. I had no voice, I had nothing to talk about.

I think I always knew this, but the content of songs always comes before the music. The music is the conduit – it’s the vehicle for me to get this shit out. People ask me, what comes first – music or lyrics? Before I’ve been like “I think they both kind of happen at the same time?” Now I think, nah, that’s bullshit. I actually need to get something out.

While music is an important vehicle for Tom’s innermost feelings, he also realises it’s an essential platform to connect with others. A song can absolutely be used to affect positive change. Shortly after he started writing music again, Tom found himself at a pub in Northcote. Press Club were playing, as were The Pretty Littles. It was there that he connected with an old friend Jack, frontman of that very band.

I had this epic conversation with Jack, as you normally do. The guy is almost like a bogan philosopher. We were talking about it for ages, he ended up just asking me:

“Do you think deservedly or undeservedly we have a platform where people listen to us? Small or big, but people listen to us. Do you think we’ve got a responsibility to spread a positive message at all?”

I’d just written ‘Viv’, I think. But not even showed anyone. It was the perfect timing – thank fuck it happened. I’d never really thought about it before, but I was like, “yeah, I think we do.”

I’m really tired of that woe is me, fucking, male “she doesn’t love me I’m going to slit my wrists” mentality. That kind of emo scene that people grew up on. You go back to 2006 on Absolute Punk and that shit is deplorable yet everyone was lapping it up – blindly lapping it up. I’m old enough now to realise I don’t want to be spreading that message. If the only thing I can sing about is falling in love then I’ll do that.

It’s fair to say a lot of things have changed with this record. One thing stayed the same though and that was working with Tom “bloody” Bromley. The producer of Ceres’ last record Drag It Down On You and key member of UK indie/emo rock band Los Campesinos! He returned somewhat unexpectedly for another stint.

I don’t know if we ever spoke after Drag, like “See ya in two years, we’ll be back with another one.” I guess he’s in the UK and it’s impossible to get over. That was another impetus for recording ‘Viv’ when we did in March. We’ve never done that before, we recorded two songs – ‘Viv’ and another song called ‘Settle’ which no one has ever heard. I don’t think we’re ever going to release it. It’s too linked to Drag it Down On You for me… Well, it’s too linked to ‘Stretch Ur Skin’ which makes my stomach turn a little bit.

So ‘Viv’ was in March – you can thank the universe, I guess. You can call it serendipitous. Whatever, it’s a fluke. He was coming over here – he plays bass in Perfume Genius. Cool band, we went and saw him at the Recital Centre. It was amazing – I hadn’t really listened to them much before, it was so weird seeing Bromley up there playing the bass – the skinny little dickhead. Anyway, he’s like “I’m coming back guys, let’s get a beer?” And G-Y, ever the business minded man was like “Let’s just do a song while you’re here? We’ll book you a hotel, change your flight. Stay for a few more days and we’ll do a song.”

There’s your song, there’s your producer. I’d always wanted to work with Andrei Eremin, so we got him involved and went just down the street in Abbotsford to a studio called The Aviary. Tom stayed and we did one day pre-pro, then two or three days at the studio. And you know, ‘Viv’ happened.

It was a really natural way of starting the process again. It almost didn’t even feel like a decision, G-Y kind of just said it, Tom was like “Fuck yeah” then we were happening. It had a nice wholesome feeling to it.

I didn’t even think it was going to be a record. Even after ‘Viv’, I still didn’t think there was going to be We Are A Team. Or that we were going to do an album in September.

Making another record wasn’t on Tom’s radar. For the moment, it was just a few singles but no further set plans. In between tracking and outside Kelso’s Sandwich Shop just next door, Bromley posed the question – when was the record? Tom didn’t have any songs, but that didn’t stop plans from being set.

Classic G-Y, he opens up his diary and looks through the dates. Bromley’s like “I can pretty much only come back in September.” Everyone was on board and I had no songs, nothing was happening. It didn’t really persuade me at all, but it was a nice little catalyst. The songs then all subconsciously started bubbling out. Then we did it. We went down to Apollo Bay. If you’d asked me in January last year, “how’s the band going?” I’d be like, it’s not. It’s so funny how much difference a year and a little bit makes. Jan, no band. September? Down the coast for two weeks making a record.

I knew ‘Viv’ was a special song, just because of the story around it. You want to be a storyteller. The reason I connect to music is because of the story. The whole impetus of writing that song was literally a stack of frames. They were there, that night. They’re hanging up in the house now. I’ve never really had it like that before, a lightning bolt hit me. Especially after a year of… Maybe it was happening I was just swatting it away? I was definitely, almost actively trying not to write a song – and that one just pushed through. That must mean something. Then everything just fell into place. It was the path of least resistance. G-Y and the team around just sort of shot me down to Apollo Bay. Those pricks got me to make another record. I’m so glad they did.

In the digital music age it’s often hard to tell the full story of a record. There’s one tiny cover and a couple of credits. When it’s a record with personal, significant background that’s often not enough. A photo book documenting the recording process in Apollo Bay was created and packaged with select vinyl bundles. It was designed by Tom himself, with photography by revered music photographer Kane Hibberd.

I wanted to explain what we actually did.

We wanted to display the album in the best way possible. We really cared – I mean the artwork on the album is Viv’s artwork. That’s one of the frames in the car seat, that started the song. It’s a whole thing.

The visual components of a Ceres release are arguably as important as the music itself. It’s a subtle compliment to often astute lyricism. Calculated and cohesive, each single artwork in the lead up to We Are A Team progressed a narrative.

The artwork was by Dana’s dad. I love the final cover of We Are A Team. The last chapter of that artwork is the album artwork. To me, the rope is a foreboding kind of… It’s a rope you could tie a noose with or something. But by the end of the journey, the scissors come along and cut the noose. It’s sliding away like a snake – kind of like, “Not today, mother fucker.” It looks a little dark, but it’s hopeful. I didn’t do anything – I just put it on a cover, put a dot on it and wrote ‘We Are A Team’. I’m so lucky. What a pain in the ass the next record is going to be, if there will be one. I’m actually going to have to do some stuff.

We Are A Team is a record coloured by love and family. Over a period of 16 days it was recorded in Apollo Bay. A makeshift studio set up in the kitchen of a house belonging to the grandparents of Tom’s partner.

There’s a lot of that house on the record. You can hear creaking and birds, wind through the house. I love that it’s on the album, because it pays homage to the whole family. I really went all in on keeping it in the family.

Ony, Sean and I went down first. Set up this whole studio in Nan’s kitchen. The house has this big living room where we tracked. It has this really amazing sounding pitched roof. Ony was walking around going “This sounds so good.” That was a fluke too, we had no idea. I went down there for the first time a few months before that. I had no idea if it was going to sound any good of not, I was like “Fuck it, let’s just do it.” There’s a whole wing of the house with the kitchen, then another one which was Nan’s room. We lovingly called it Nan’s control room. There’s pictures of Nan and Gramps on the fridge. Her side of the house was the control room stuff, a big drum kit setup in the middle. We moved the pool table out. The pool table light – one of those green cigar smoking lights was right over the drum kit and Frankie’s head. There’s a creek running through – an actual river called Barham River. We recorded some of it and put it on the record. It’s a magical place.

Recording We Are A Team went right down to the wire. The final song on the album was finished with literally minutes to spare.

By the end of it, we were getting very stressed for time. Recording is stressful. Tom had to go, he had his flight. He couldn’t stay any longer. The very last thing we did was ‘Something Good’ – that acoustic song. I did it live and it was probably like the fourth or fifth take. I was so stressed. Bromley had his bags packed and in the car – the car pretty much running – and I was trying to get this fucking take. I was just like “Fuck this record, fuck everything, I hate this house.” I sung the song, we finished and that’s one of the songs where if you turn it up at the end you can hear the birds chirping. I just remember Bromley being like, “Yep, we got it” and I piffed the guitar. It was a weight off my shoulders. I remember feeling so amazing. We popped champagne, had a champers – Bromley pretty much drinking it in the car with G-Y driving him home. It just felt amazing. I remember calling Dana, telling her we finished and getting really emotional about it. It was bad weather the whole time, but that day was this beautiful, blue sunny, warm day and birds were chirping. I remember talking to Danes for ten minutes being like “I love this place, I love it, this is where I should be.” I was just elated. It was a very special time.

It started off as a name that Tom simply liked, but the title We Are A Team has taken on a life and concept of its own. It reaches further than how Tom views his relationship with his partner, applying itself to a whole community.

I think that’s another great example of if you set out to do something that is inclusive. Whether it’s super micro, like two people in a relationship, or mega macro, like a band to however many fans we have – that is the positive outcome, or the powerful outcome of something being inclusive. Drag It Down On You – if you have negative connotations, it’s a bit of voyeurism. You’re sitting back, looking through a window.

Because it’s very specific and you don’t really know what’s going on, but you know that I’m pissed off, or sad, or whatever. I know they’re universal feelings. But love, that thing is all encompassing, everyone’s felt it. You don’t have to look through a window anymore to understand what I’m saying. I’m only finding out about this now, from writing that kind of record.

We Are A Team – you’ve heard it, it’s not like The Monkees. It’s not super bright. I still talk about death and shit like that, because I can’t seperate those things. One begets the other for some random reason in my brain – something tied those two things together a long time. It’s not exactly a bright, super lovey record. But the benefits of writing a positive record are so sick. That I’m only realising now, how it’s affecting people is really cool.

Whatever tone or topic Tom writes about, it manages to connect fiercely with the community that surrounds Ceres. Their last record, Drag It Down On You held a similar impact. The darkness of the album providing comfort in shared experiences.

I like that an album like that can help people – because that’s defintely happened to me in the past. Writing that album helped me. I do love that. But you get to a point where it’s like, “Am I going to write that again?” I can’t, because I did it. I can’t write another ‘Baby’s Breath’, I never will be able to. That’s an all encompassing, bare my soul kind of song. That was a whole other part of it as well, I guess that ‘writer’s block’ – I mean I wasn’t trying. I didn’t want to write. It was that thinking of “Why am I going to give this out again? I’m just regurgitating the same shit. You have to go through something… For me, if it’s autobiographical as soon as I’ve said it, you can’t write another song about it. You just feel phoney. I question if Drag It Down On You needs to exist, what definitely doesn’t need to exist is another version 2.0, just so I can put a record out. Some people might like it or take some comfort out of it maybe. But artistically and why it’s in the world? It doesn’t need to be.

That was part of my thinking as well. Just going, “I’ve said a lot of this” and I feel like I’m not allowed to talk about this anymore. I shouldn’t, in my guts I feel like I shouldn’t. Something massive has to happen, like falling in love – that’s the catalyst. The impetus. Something in the world that we haven’t done before and I feel good about sharing. That’s new to me. There was a lot of shit in there I was unpacking, didn’t understand. It wasn’t just like, “Fuck I want to quit the band.” It felt like I shouldn’t be in a band.

The power of love, my friend. Thank fuck that happened.

Tom remains authentic in the way he speaks and writes songs. It’s not just habit or artistic choice, it’s his responsibility. For that reason, the next step for Ceres is shaded in uncertainty.

If we do another record. What is it going to be about? If we have kids, will it be about that? It has to be a powerful feeling that I’m writing about. What will it be? My life’s not tumultuous. It’s really good. It wasn’t, and that’s what Drag It Down On You was. If it’s smooth sailing, there shouldn’t be another Ceres record, because it’s not talking about something honestly. Just going to be wheeling out… I don’t know what I would sing about. It has to be about something.

I think I need big life moments to unpack, and that’s the songs. So if everything is going to be fine, I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Ultimately, I feel responsible for people listening. I don’t want them to be listening to me not being truthful. There’s no point to that art, that’s just money. It’s so insincere; so conceited and contrived. That’s not why I write music. It’s to help stuff. I have that responsibility to our listeners.

Now that we’re a few months down the line, We Are A Team has had time to settle and connect with a new wave of audiences. The band have played shows across the country, making the conscious choice to platform up and coming songwriters. Two powerhouse women, Ro and Eaglemont, joined the album tour.

There’s a festival slot coming up and the afterglow of the album remains. From there though, it’s uncharted territory. But whatever comes next for Ceres, there’s one thing for certain: it’s going to be real.

Ceres play Yours & Owls Festival this October.
Listen to We Are A Team now.