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It’s hard not to root for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. They’ve got a frontman who has been tenaciously chipping away at the punk rock in virtual obscurity for more than 10 years, and the rest of the band is composed of musician friends of various ages and genders. They tour at a pace that would wreck lesser bands, and have earned a reputation as one of the finest live acts on the indie circuit. On top of all of that, they’ve put out one of the most intellectually challenging and sonically joyous rock albums so far this year in Hearts of Oak. Late in April, Pharmacist bassist David Lerner talked to me from Brooklyn, just a few days before the band took off on yet another nationwide tour.



PopMatters:

So you’re at work right now. Does everyone in the band have jobs back home?



David Lerner:

Two of us don’t and three of us do. Those of us who do have pretty flexible situations. Obviously we’re testing the limits of that flexibility (laughs).



PM:

How long has the current lineup been together?



DL:

Me and Chris, the drummer, have been playing with Ted for two years now. We added a keyboard player, Dorien, about this time last year. In December we added a second guitar player named Drew. And we had Ida Pearl, who plays violin, come with us on our last tour. So it’s a semi-rotating membership kind of thing.



PM:

Is there a feeling that this is going to be more permanent that past Pharmacist lineups?



DL:

Yeah, I’d say you could already say that, considering we’ve already been together for two years.



PM:

I kind of got the feeling that on Hearts of Oak there was more of a band feeling than on previous Pharmacists albums. Was the fleshing out of the album a more collaborative process this time around?



DL:

I’d have to say a qualified yes, in that the songs were arranged and put together with the band. But the general flow of the creative process is still controlled by Ted. He’s still the single songwriter.



PM:

Let’s talk influences. You guys have been compared to the Jam, Crass, Curtis Mayfield, Big Star, and Elvis Costello, which are obviously some very disparate names. Is there a conscious effort on the part of the band to emulate any of them?



DL:

There’s no premeditated plan to sound like anything. We never actually sat down and discussed wanting to sound like certain bands. I almost say that regretfully, because I think it’s a really good thing to do, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your results are going to end up more derivative. But we haven’t actually had those discussions. Those influences are probably taking place on another level, because those are bands that everyone who plays with Ted likes.



PM:

You’re on Lookout Records, which in the past has been known for playing host to more straightforward punk bands. How did you guys end up on Lookout?



DL:

The people who run Lookout have always been Ted’s close friends. Basically it was an open offer, in that whenever Ted wanted to do something with them, they would be happy to do it. It’s very open-ended.



PM:

You guys definitely seem to stand out on their roster.



DL:

Yeah. I’d have to say we do enjoy a certain removed status, and that might partly be due to geography since most of the other bands on the label are from the west coast. So there is a distance between us and other bands on the label, but that gap is closing as we meet more and more of those bands on tours and find that we share a lot of things in common with them.



PM:

Who are some of those bands?



DL:

On our last tour we did a couple of shows with a band called Communiqué and a couple of shows after that with a band called the Oranges Band.



PM:

Have any of the bands you’ve toured with recently made a big impression on you personally?



DL:

Early on when I first starting playing with the band, Quasi invited us to go on tour with them. They pretty much won us over as far as being a great band, and being very professional, and just really being considerate of what it’s like to get up there every night and not necessarily have the full support of the entire venue behind you. And on our last tour we did a week with a band called Saturday Looks Good to Me, who are just great. Their album is fantastic, and their live show is also really, really good.



PM:

Who are you touring with on the upcoming tour?



DL:

The upcoming tour is going to be with El Guapo from D.C., and I think we’re doing some shows on the west coast with Tiffany Anders.



PM:

Since you tour so much, is there a concern that band chemistry could suffer because of the time you spend together?



DL:

Yeah there’s a huge concern about that, because when you spend 24 hours together for eight straight weeks, you get home and you want to be in a non-touring situation, which means seeing the people that you don’t get to see while you’re on tour. If you tour a lot, when you get home, the last thing you want to do is go through all of the logistical maneuvering it would require to get five people who live in different cities together to work out a song or something.



PM:

Where does everyone live, anyway?



DL:

I live in Brooklyn, Ted lives in Jersey—the most significant geographical distance problems is that our guitar player, Drew, lives in Boston, and our drummer, Chris lives in Philly, which doesn’t seem tremendous, but it’s not the same as if everyone lived in the same city and shared a practice space within walking distance of everyone’s house. It’s not a negative thing though; it is what it is. Whatever we’re missing out on because of the distance, we make up for when we go on tour, because it’s a very focused effort, and we’ve all gotten more practice than we need from the amount of shows we’ve played.



PM:

With Hearts of Oak, you guys have gotten a lot of media attention. You’ve been in some of the major music magazines, and you were on the Conan O’Brien show. Is there a sense that you guys are on the cusp of achieving something resembling fame, or maybe a major label deal?



DL:

Just going through the day-to-day life of being home, it doesn’t seem that way. But then you take a step back, and anything could happen. You know, of course, in the back of my mind, in order to figure out how I’m going to exist for the next couple of years, you have to come up with some sort of planning. I don’t feel like—I put myself in Ted’s shoes, and he’s been playing music for a really long time and I think we all—everyone who is in a band can look out and see all the cautionary tales there are. I think we’re all down-to-earth people. Our goals are always going to be pretty self-motivated, like making a record that is hopefully better than the last one, and maybe involve more people. That’s all I can say my goal is, whether it happens through Lookout or through some other means.



PM:

I think you’ve achieved your goal of making a better record than the last one this time around. Tyranny of Distance was a good record, but to be honest, I didn’t become a big fan until I got into Hearts of Oak. What’s your opinion on the differences between the two?



DL:

For me they’re so different—other than the voice, it’s hard to believe it’s the same band. I like them both a lot, but the Tyranny record is a really focused labor of love, a little more personal. I think it’s the kind of record that you listen to from the beginning to end and it’s really consistent. It captures something. On the other hand, Hearts of Oak is a little bit more unpredictable, and its highs are a little more surprising, and maybe more exciting, and its low points are a maybe a little easier to criticize.



PM:

Could you elaborate?



DL:

When you have a process of compromise, which inevitably happens when more and more people get involved in the writing process, there’s going to be some tracks that inevitably don’t fly as well as some other tracks. I guess I’m saying that there are a couple of songs that I wish we had a little more time to work through. The whole record, from beginning to end was done in two weeks.



PM:

Wow.



DL:

Yeah, it’s hard to get too self-critical considering the constraints. It would be nice to relax and take a year to do a record.



PM:

One of the songs I recall reading some negative criticism of, and which I personally actually like, is “First to Finish and Last to Start”. It does seem to stand out on the record though. It almost sounds like a solo song.



DL:

It is a solo-sounding song. It’s interesting, I read something by a reviewer who preferred the Tyranny record, and he thought that song was the only good spot on the newer record. That’s gonna be someone who prefers Ted’s other work.



PM:

Do you think there’s an awareness among new fans of Ted’s past work?



DL:

I would say that there’s a definitely an awareness of it, but only a minority of the fans have any intimacy with the records that were done in the past, like the Chisel records, or maybe the first solo record. And how many people remember what Ted was doing 12 or 13 years ago? It’s weird for the rest of us, because there is this history, but the history only applies to Ted. As new people have gotten involved it’s almost like, “Oh, here’s this new band.” And it’s like a new band, yet there’s definitely a core of followers who are big fans of Ted’s past work.



PM:

Do you think that ultimately works to the band’s advantage?



DL:

It’s just different. I think it gives us more freedom in the long run. We don’t have to keep up with anything. We’re always going to be in this place, which is kind of ours. But at the same time, it’s a little bit harder to really feel a sense of connection to whatever’s going on at the moment, because we’re not approaching music from the same place. We’re not four guys who are all the same age getting together and doing the band thing.



PM:

Are there big age gaps among the members?



DL:

They’re not gigantic, but they’re somewhat significant.



PM:

This is my “I read somewhere . . .” question. I read somewhere where Ted said that he had received the Joy Division box set as a gift not long before recording Hearts of Oak, and that it was a big influence on the album. I was wondering if you were aware of that, if the band was aware of that. It’s not an easy influence to hear by listening to the record.



DL:

Yeah, it’s an unlikely influence. I think you have to listen really closely, but there are some production cues that have been taken from both Joy Division and New Order records. Of course, something can be inspirational, but it’s not necessarily going to reflect in an obvious way.



PM:

Do you anticipate the next album being more democratic as far as the contributions go?



DL:

I’d like to say we’d do it somehow differently than the last record. It’s never going to be a situation where someone else comes in with a song. That was something I had to reconcile with when I joined. It’s a solo project, essentially, but it functions as a band. So it’s this weird sacrifice-slash-compromise. As long as the end result doesn’t suffer, I’m comfortable with whatever it takes as far as how we approach new material.



PM:

Do you anticipate doing any work on the side while in the band, something where you could contribute personally a little more?



DL:

I would like to do that, but it’s hard to get any sort of flow together when you’re only home for a certain amount of time.



PM:

It seems like it would be pretty much impossible.



DL:

It’s not a huge priority for me right now. I’m just enjoying what’s going on with this band, and whatever comes next comes next.

Matt Gonzales is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Ind.


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