When Rohnert Park native Ross Farrar enrolled at New York’s Syracuse University to finish his English degree, he hoped it would enhance his other prime pursuit, as catacomb-creepy vocalist and lyricist for post-punk outfit Ceremony.
But, three years ago, as he began to compose “In the Spirit World Now,” the band’s bracing new sixth album — which they’ll play at August Hall in The City this week — he found that academia and artistry proved mutually exclusive.
“It all turned out to be separate, very separate things,” says Farrar, who taught three courses in Syracuse (a research class, introductory English, and the Living Writers Program covering contemporary fiction) and now resides in Marin City, seeking a teaching job.
“First, Syracuse was like living on this island with winters of 20 below. I felt very alienated, with no friends around to help you figure things out. But I managed to write this record there, where I was studying poetry, but in this dark little basement where the computer was. And it was difficult, going from one mode to the other.”
English and songwriting were worlds apart, he quickly learned, particularly since he was penning words to fit his bandmates’ visceral, Buzzcocks-thumping instrumentals.
“It was hard, actually,” he says, still slightly taken aback by it all.
He began to view trips to the cellar as painful acts of self-flagellation, and he never found any parallel patterns that he could use. “So I just pushed through and gritted my teeth the whole time,” he adds. “I was practically down there on my knees each time.”
But eventually, Farrar fashioned bass-heavy anthems (“I Want More,” “Presaging the End” and “Turn Away the Bad Thing”) into a linear, quasi-concept album.
And through his Living Writers work, he had met, and parsed technique, with Sigrid Nunez, Terrance Hayes and George Saunders.
He finally mapped out “Spirit World” in a poetic manifesto. In between songs are snippets of spoken word; “California Jungle — Dream States End” is inspired by the verse of Brooks Haxton, one of of Farrar’s professors. “My theme is this person in California, going toward the beach, but they’re walking through hard times,” says Farrar.
Farrar isn’t lyrically tilting at windmills, but he loves capturing fleeting impressions, of, for example, the smell of fresh rainwater on concrete. “Did you know that there’s an actual term for that?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s called petrichor, and one of my classmates actually used it to title his poem. Everybody made fun of him at first, but once I looked it up, I was quite impressed.”
IF YOU GO
Where: August Hall, 420 Mission St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Contact: (4!5) 872-5745, www.augusthallsf.com