Anthony Anzaldo of Ceremony: "Zoo is the natural evolution of the band."

Ceremony (due tonight at the Marquis Theater) started out in Rohnert Park, California, as a straight-ahead hardcore outfit. The band's fast, hard-hitting songs put it in good company with like-minded bands influenced by that era of punk where a song could be less than a minute long, so long as you said what you had to say in that time and did so with ferocity and conviction, which Ceremony certainly did.

It's with that energy and raw passion that the band earned a reputation as a powerful live act. But unlike many hardcore bands, Ceremony evolved its sound as its members gained musical interests rather than wanting to adhere to a single strict aesthetic.

The group's latest record, Zoo, couldn't rightly be called a "post-punk" album, but its angular, rhythm-driven songwriting and layered dynamics is more interesting than any doctrinaire punk band could ever be. We had a chance to talk with one of the band's guitarists, Anthony Anzaldo, about the outfit's early days, Death in June and his major admiration for Prince.

Westword: Are you still based out of Rohnert Park, California?

Anthony Anzaldo: Some of us are. All of us are in the Bay Area still. But Andy [Nelson] lives in Philadelphia.

How did you become involved in the punk and hardcore scene?

In the place we're from, there were kids in our high school who were already kind of involved in that world. We had a pretty good understanding of punk already from befriending them, and we went to shows. It was pretty accessible where we're from. There was the Phoenix Theater, which is in Petaluma, just a few miles away, that had a lot of shows, and 924 Gilman Street in Berkeley was less than an hour away, so there were great venues and bands in the time and the area when we all got into punk and hardcore. So it was relatively accessible for young, angsty teenagers to find punk.

Who were some of those bands?

The Nerve Agents, American Nightmare, Resilience, For the Crown -- lots of good stuff, all the classics, obviously. We were all big into Minor Threat, Black Flag and Negative Approach.

When you were starting the band, did you have a specific musical style in mind?

Yeah, we wanted to be really fast. Short songs. Abrasive. In the vein of Negative Approach. They were a really big influence on the band in the early days.

Your first full-length Violence Violence is reminiscent of a JFA record because the songs were short and super fast. But, from there, you've shifted quite a bit up through your new album, Zoo.

Yeah, there were two albums and a few EPs in between. If you listen to the band chronologically, it makes sense. We've always been into all subgenres of punk and many genres of music for that matter. Once we did something, we don't like keeping doing the same thing over and over again. So we tried different things, and, gradually, it turned into what it is now. It wasn't really a contrived thing where we sat down and said, "Now we have to sound like this. Now it's time to do this." We're constantly evolving as people and as musicians, so Zoo is the natural evolution of the band.

A while back you did an EP of covers. And you did a cover of a Crisis song. How did you learn about that band, and why did you want to cover one of its songs?

Death in June is one of my favorite bands. So I found Crisis through Death in June -- Douglas P's first band. When we were thinking about songs to cover, I thought that worked well with the vibe of the band. I thought we could pull it off well. We tried to do stuff that was a little more obscure or not really as up in the forefront in the scene we were in. I thought that song worked well with what we do and what we're going for.

Is there a certain era of Death in June you tend to favor?

You know, I love the first record, [The Guilty Have No Pride], and I love Rose Clouds of Holocaust. Brown Book is great. In my opinion they're not a band where it's, "Oh, from this year to this year is their best thing." They have peppered in through their entire catalog golden gems. But there's nothing by Death in June that I don't like. I think most things that they've done is really, really good.

They have this similarity to that post-punk, Joy Division-esque U.K. vibe, but it was darker, and it was really minimal, and it has this really cool sound that you don't hear from a lot of bands. It was resonant with some of the post-punk stuff of the time, but, at the same time, sounded completely different and originally -- on a song like "The Calling," which is an uptempo, almost electronic, almost new-wave-y song -- and then "Rose Clouds of Holocaust" is an epic, acoustic landscape. At the same time, it's all really cohesive. It's just genius.

Did you ever get to see Death in June?

No, I never got to see them, unfortunately. I actually emailed Douglas P about us covering Crisis, and he said, "Yeah, send me the record." So that was kind of fun.

When listening to Zoo, it's just a bit reminiscent of Wire, who you also cover on that aforementioned EP. What was your first exposure to Wire?

My first exposure to Wire was Minor Threat, for sure.

Oh yeah, "12 X U."

Exactly. I was sixteen or so, and they're a big influence on the band. They capture this minimalistic yet complex depth that we're very drawn to and fond of. Minor Threat's cover was my first knowledge of Wire.

You mentioned Joy Division earlier as well, and cite it as an influence. How did you find out about that band?

Being into any subgenre of punk, it's not hard to find Joy Division. Also, the Batcave and early death rock stuff, I feel like that's my bread and butter. So, early high school, you move from one band to the next and you get a little deeper. First you hear "Love Will Tear Us Apart" and then you get into the early stuff and realize it's more punk. Then you find New Order, and it snowballs. In our high school teenage years there was a constant finding of bands and connecting the dots.

As a guitarist, did you learn playing to certain artists or did you maybe learn as you were playing?

I was a pretty established guitar player before the band. I got my start with guitar before I found punk, just by the standard rock stuff every guitar player learns when you're starting out. You know, the Metallicas, the Zeppelins, the Black Sabbaths. I'm a really big Prince fan. Prince is my all time number one. I learned a lot from him and a lot from learning Prince songs.

What Prince songs did you play and what did you learn from him?

He's all over the place, man. He can write just a straight pop song with a progression you've heard a million times. Then he'll write some stuff I can't wrap my head around as far as how it came about and certain chord dynamics and all that stuff. But "When You Were Mine," "Purple Rain," "Controversy," those were songs I learned really early on playing guitar, "1999," "Raspberry Beret" -- all the Prince hits I could handle playing when I was starting out.

Have you had a chance to catch Prince?

Oh yeah, I've seen him between ten and twenty times. The first time I saw was in San Jose in 1997. I was ten. The last time I saw him was this past May, so I've seen him pretty consistently for fifteen years.

There's that sort of statement or manifesto on your website on the recording of Zoo and maybe some of the ideas that went into it, like how our current civilization is kind of focused on keeping us in a gilded cage. Was there anything you did as a band in the music to break out of that that maybe you hadn't done before?

We worked with a producer for the first time with this record. That definitely helped. When you're playing with people for so long and making music with the same people all along, it's easy to fall into certain patterns. Having someone in there who has a completely different point of view really helps break those patterns and helps you see certain arrangements and whatnot in a different light. So that really helped.

It was the first record we did that was outside of California, outside of the Bay Area even, so we really just focused on making this record when we were recording as opposed to, you know, going in for a few hours and then going home back to our normal lives. It was really consuming. Those were major factors in the outcome of the album.

We recorded at London Bridge Studios in Seattle, Washington with John Goodmanson. He did a Bikini Kill record that we really liked. And Matador set up a conference call with him. He had a really good frame of reference for punk, and he was really excited about the project and really kind of got where we were coming from. It was just a really good fit.

Which Bikini Kill records did John record?

He did the one with Joan Jett.

Would you say Bikini Kill had an influence on what you've done?

Not directly, no. They're a great band, and we really dig them. I didn't really have them in mind for any of our stuff. It's a different vibe, but you don't know what subconsciously stuff gets in there. Sometimes you'll write something, and a few years later you'll be listening to some record and be, "Oh, that's where I got that from."

What kinds of guitars do you like to play?

I play a Gibson Les Paul Standard. That's kind of my go to. I also have an Ampeg Dan Armstrong that I really like; an '84 Japanese Stratocaster. I'm in the market for a hollow body right now. My dream guitar is a Gretsch White Falcon. Epiphone just made these really killer, relatively inexpensive, three single coil, P90 Bigsby semi-hollow bodies that are really nice. That'll probably be where I go. I use a Fender 4X10 Hot Rod DeVille. It's really loud and the reverb on it is pristine. The feedback is the best feedback I've ever gotten from any amp. It's four tens and you can play it without a cab or anything. You can just roll up with that and you're ready to go.

Ceremony, with White Lung, Negative Degree and Citizen, 8 p.m., Thursday, June 21, Marquis Theater, $10, 303-292-0805, All Ages

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.