Interview: Punk rocker, English major, man of mystery Ross Farrar

John Lawson/Courtesy

Ross Farrar walked into the first day of my creative nonfiction class wearing a white t-shirt, black jeans,  black converse, and a young face betrayed by grey in a black beard. His arms were covered in tattoos: ‘Young Til I Die’ split between his forearms, ‘Sarah’ on his upper right bicep, the icon of the  Black Flag punk band behind his ear, an angry looking bro ken hammer reading ‘Fix Me’. Ross is an older student, a transfer student, and an English major.

He is always sweet and eager to eat whatever snacks people bring, however his punk tattoos date him to the 90s when most of the other classmates and I were watching Disney Channel. As I’ve gotten to know him, I’ve learned that his first tattoo was his chest tattoo, he writes in all caps on his peer’s essays, and nods his head enthusiastically and claps when someone makes a good point in class. It has also been humbly divulged that he is the frontman for the celebrated punk-band Ceremony, who just released a new album in May, one found to be very different from their earlier heavy punk. I sat down with Ross to talk  about being a punk-rocker, an older student, and an almost graduate —  and a bit about our upcoming essay.

DC:Your life story. You were born… September…

RF: September 10, 1984. In San Francisco, California, top of Geary street, Kaiser Permanente. Lived there as a child, moved to Novato at five years old into this house. The house was flooded in a rain storm. Moved out of Novato to Rohnert Park into a condominium, lived there for two years, then moved into another house in Rohnert Park, lived there for fifteen years, went to high school, [and] moved out of that house at eighteen. Moved back to San Francisco, lived there for five years. Moved to Oakland, lived there for six months, then moved back to Santa Rosa for another five years. Fell in love with a girl named Sarah Bingham, broke up with her —

DC:  — got her name tattooed on you —

RF: Broke up with her. And then moved to Oakland to go to school at Cal Berkeley.

DC: And then when did the band begin?

RF: The band began two years out of high school, and I was living in San Francisco at the time. We put out a demo — a five song demo — we put it on a tape, and somehow, yeah, it caught wind and a record company called Malfunction Records put it on a LP, 12 inch version. So we recorded those tracks from the demo, and I think we also recorded another five tracks, and we combined those tracks, put that LP out. That LP caught wind and a company called Bridge 9 Records wanted to put out our next record. So we put out a 7-inch with them called Scared People and right after Scared People we out an LP called Still Nothing Moves You, and that was our first release on Bridge 9. Then we put out one more on Bridge 9 called Rohnert Park, which was the town where I spent a lot of time in as a kid (I went to high school there). It’s kind of about living in the doldrums, so to speak, which is one of the tracks on the record. It kind of sums up about what the record is about, it’s about living in the suburbs and how mundane that could be. And then after Rohnert Park Rohnert Park was a big hit, so Matador Records [in] New York City asked us to put out a record, which is titled Zoo and that was in 2012. And we just finished our second LP with Matador records called the L-Shaped Man, which was put out in March of this year.

DC: And when did you decide to come to Berkeley?

RF: I was going to school in Santa Rosa- this is when I was living with Sarah. I was going to the Santa Rosa Community College. I was kind of going to school there nonchalantly for about ten years taking classes and I started getting serious in that probably 2008. I started taking my grades seriously and I got all good scores and in 2013 I applied to Cal and got in, so I believe January of 2014 I started coming to Cal. I think that’s when my time here started, yeah. Yeah, I moved to Oakland, moved in with some friends, this house, they’d been living there about ten years, and a room opened up, and I’m living with them and going to Cal right now. It’s a beautiful thing.

DC: Are  your bandmates fine with you going to school and accommodating to your schedule?

RF: Eh. One of them would like to rock forever and is kind of like, ‘When is this school stuff going to end?’ But it’s something I have to do.

DC: So you feel like you have to do it?

RF: Oh yeah, big time. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do forever. And going to Cal is a blessing. It’s one of these things that, there’s so many people in the world that would love to go to Cal – I just have to do it. There’s no way- I mean I got accepted I have to see it out. I mean I would love to be in the band and tour but this is more important right now for me.

DC: What makes it more important, even though you started as your band was getting really successful?

RF:  I mean this is about, I think this is about, as successful as our band is going to get. People are doing other things in the band. JD is doing his PhD at UC Riverside. And people are getting married. You know, we’re getting older now. I’m 31. And I have a future approaching quickly, so I can’t just be playing rock’n’roll music my whole life. That’s not the kind of person I want to be.

DC: A lot of people when they hear, ‘Oh, where do you see yourself in 10 years?’ would say they want to be where you are. You know, with a successful band.

RF: Yeah it is kind of weird, I got all my life experience out basically right after high school and I decided not to go to college and decided not to do kind of the, what would you call it…

DC.. traditional?

RF: Sort of…a lot of people get out of high school, go to college, find a husband, get married, have a kid, whatever it is. I just decided to play music and travel the world, and basically party for ten years. That’s what I’ve been doing, you know what you’re doing on a tour essentially is working everyday but you’re only working forty-five minutes each day, the rest of the time is spent in transit or waiting. Waiting is a big part of it, you wait for the show to start, you wait to get to the next venue.  And a lot of that is spent suffering — there’s a lot, it’s a really hard thing to do. Spend a lot of time in a van, to be around five people essentially for long periods of time, I mean you kind of go crazy, but you also meet a lot of people and you have a lot of amazing experiences and see beautiful things. So it was definitely worth it, but now I’m slowing down, my lifestyle, and I’m still trying to come to terms with that, and it’s been really hard.

DC: Yeah I noticed the cover art of your album just looked so dramatically different from your other stuff, and you think that reflects…

RF: Yeah even the music reflects that. The music is slow, its somber, whereas…

DC: And you write it all?

RF: Yeah I write it all. Well I write all the lyrics and everything. Well I write some of the music, we all kind of combine forces when writing the music. But all the lyrical content is mine. I mean the music describes the change in the last two years, you can see if you listen chronologically.

DC: Do you feel like writing lyrics made you realize you wanted to become a writer, or do you feel like you’re a writer who happened to write lyrics?

RF: I definitely started writing lyrics and sort of found a poetic element to what I was writing and really that’s what got me into poetry. That’s sort of what segued me into fiction, non-fiction. Poetry was kind of first inclination to work with words.

DC: What made you feel like you needed to school for your craft?

RF: I feel like one of my experiences in being in school throughout my life is that being in school opens up doors, physically and mentally. [You] meet people and you get contacts through there, you meet poets, you meet professors that are really, really good tools in understanding your craft. But also you get to read all this amazing stuff and get to open your eyes  to these sort of things that are important for your life. There are certain things that I’ve read that have totally illuminated things for me and I think that’s the biggest influence. Going to school — I’m not really in school for a job — I’m in academia to learn because I’m doing fine as it is. This is more for my understanding for my learning.

DC: Do you think that makes you approach school differently than your younger classmates?

RF: I think so, yeah. Much more of a sense of anxiety for the future for my peers. Especially English majors because job placement. They’re worrying about making money, their parents are worrying about making money. You wrote the essay that kind of took that on for a moment. That’s a totally normal fear that many people have. And I have that fear too in a sense.  I don’t think I have that as much as other people do. I don’t really trip about the future as much because I’m in the future. That’s what’s going on.

DC: That’s probably the biggest difference between you and your classmates. It’s just so different between you and me.

RF: But you’ll be fine. You guys are going to be fine. We’re all going to be fine. We’re all alive. It’s a beautiful world.

DC: We’re going to be young til we die?

RF: Yeah, maybe, if you’re not a square.