Music

"I Am the Electric Man, After All:" An Interview with Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus

Juan Edgardo Rodríguez
Photo: Ray Concepcion (Merge Records)

"I don't like being told what to do," Stickles says. "I don't like to delegate too many of the duties related to this rock business of mine."

A Productive Cough
Titus Andronicus

Merge

2018-03-02

Patrick Stickles goes contrary to the common rock artist. And yet, the passionate Titus Andronicus frontman holds a genuine reverence for the rock 'n' roll institution. Over the course of five records, the New Jersey native has taken a number of creative left turns for the purpose of having a substantial and respectable discography to his name. From brawny, Irish folk to passionate heartland rock, he emulates the spirit of the working class rocker as he carries the spirit of a punk idealist.

But Stickles doesn't exactly benefit from all the perks afforded to the rock icons he admires. "I gotta get my house in order, so to speak," Stickles affirms as he drives his van on his way to his apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. "I'm doing all these administrative, logical things than creative things. But it's part of it when you're an autonomous rock businessman like I am."

Stickles keeps to his word like a true businessman. He never apologizes or makes excuses for why he's driving during our scheduled telephone chat. Instead, he simply picks up the phone and talks. "I'm driving. But don't worry about it. I got both hands on the wheel. And I'm paying enough attention," he clarifies with a plain decisiveness. Instead, he goes somewhat off tangent and justifies the benefits of driving: "Although, sometimes it's easier to think behind the wheel. Because a certain part of the mind is occupied. Some people call that the shower principle. I call that the car principle."

When talking to Stickles, it's best to let him round out his complete thoughts. He continues as he makes it to his place: "They say that you get your best thinking done in the shower since your mind is occupied with a task that doesn't require too much of your mental energy. But just enough that it sort of frees up the other part of the mind to work a little more fluidly."

"Does this influence your work ethic?" PopMatters asks.

"I've had a lot of experiences like that behind the wheel of the car," he says. "I've written a lot of my lyrics from this seat. Well, not this literal seat. I got a pretty new van that is actually quite old. It's from the year 2000, but it's new to me."

Every new album cycle feels like a new endeavor for Stickles. Though Titus Andronicus has always been a collaborative project, A Productive Cough firmly establishes him as the main vehicle of the band after his 2015 release The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a sprawling rock opera in which he explored his manic depression. That self-determination can be freeing for him, even if it still comes with many responsibilities: "I don't like being told what to do," he says. "I don't like to delegate too many of the duties related to this rock business of mine."

He continues: "I don't have a manager or anything. I have a small number of people that help me out, you know? I have a booking agent that sets up the concerts, and I got a lawyer who imbibes with me on a lot of issues. But for the most part, I'm like I'm in the car. I'm keeping two hands on the wheel, you know, trying to keep control. It's really just an illusion. I don't have very much control in this crazy, chaotic universe in which we live, so all we can do is cast the illusion of control."

Stickles has thought long and hard about his permanence within the rock 'n' roll business. Instead of being fretful about where his career may lead, he believes that it's really not up to him to make that decision: "It's a tough business. The playing of it is fun, but it comes with a lot of demands. I'm not going out again for another job if I can avoid it. That's another thing that probably won't end up being 100% my choice, as long as my audience continues to support me. They're the people who vote me into this office. They vote with their dollars when they buy the record and the concert ticket or the t-shirt, you know? That's their way of telling me, 'You should be an artist. You should lead the artists' life.' That's how your time and energy is best spent. As long as that's what they're deciding, then that's what I'm going to be doing and with as much energy and devotion as I can possibly muster."

Stickles finally arrives in his neighborhood. He asks me if he can call me back in a minute as he settles in into his apartment, as I'm left wondering about what other car analogies would've come out of him if he kept driving. He calls me back about ten minutes later, as he jokingly answers "long time" with a dry tone in his voice."

As I ready myself to ask the question I had asked before we got interrupted, he beats me to the punch.

"You were saying something about putting on an album every two or three years, right?" Stickles asks. "I agree that's the timetable that we are on, yeah."

"Yes. Well, you have to come up with these new ideas again, and then kind of think to yourself, 'this is the body of work I want to release at this given moment.' I'm thinking you don't want to rush yourself into it, either," I pose.

"No, certainly not. There are certain incentives within the industry to continue to churn out product, to keep yourself in the public eye and, particularly, stay on the road. That's how you're going to make the money. You don't make much money off of record sales, nowadays. It's not that we ever made a ton of money that way, but that pile of money is getting smaller and smaller across the entire industry. So it's an incentive to keep the material coming out and keep touring since there's only so long to tour off one record before people start to lose interest. But that's just playing a short game."

Stickles speaks to me like an experienced mentor. He's certainly lived through many trials, given how it's a challenge to maintain that relevance in this age of instant gratification. A solid ten years in the rock sphere speaks to how his music retains a classic, yet new aesthetic. "You have to be considerate of the business, you know?" he states. "You gotta make money and you gotta eat, but keeping up with a schedule is not the healthiest thing for the artist. That's not what's going to be best for the overall quality of the catalog. That could do greater damage in the long term. So I try to look at the big picture, even if I may deny myself a certain short-term reward."

A Productive Cough is Stickles's first full-on foray into classic American roots rock. There are traces of Darkness on the Edge of Town-era Bruce Springsteen, the Band, and the Rolling Stones during their Let It Bleed/Exile on Main Street run, among others. It may sound like a radical departure for him, except that it still features his usual wordy and occasionally scattershot songwriting. Stickles is confident that his fans will follow along, even if he does raise some concern.

"It's not exactly designed like a 180-degree turn away from the things that we've done, even going as far as [their 2008 debut] The Airing of Grievances," he says. "Every album since, there have always been certain musical moments that are in keeping with the stuff of this new record, whether that be ballads or using American traditional folk song forms. Some of the other ideas that we've used in the past are being put to the side, but it is my hope that the essential element of the artistry will be present and still be discernible to the careful listener."

One noticeable curveball Stickles took was covering Bob Dylan's immortal anthem, "Like a Rolling Stone". He professes a great admiration for other covers, of which he acknowledges "there are hundreds", especially the live version he did with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a version he recorded with The Band. But his has a different spin, as he makes it about his ego with jocular intent.

"Our cover is pretty faithful to the original arrangement," he thinks. "I wanted to distill what I thought would be the perfect version of that arrangement, but as you probably noticed, the big difference is to switch around some of the lyrics. The narrator of the song is speaking about himself rather than speaking about somebody else, causing his own self rather than accusing another, which is something that we all have to do once in a while. It's very easy to say that I'm not happy or satisfied in my life, but there's this and that external factor, or this something that this person did that this person failed to do, that is the reason why I'm not happy or satisfied. But ultimately, at the beginning and the end of the day, we have to be the architects of our own happiness. Were responsible for the way that we feel and we can't control what other people do, but we can control the amount of energy and emotional capital that we invest in these things, right?"

Stickles sure admires and follows the immediacy of punk rock, but he approaches his choices like a well-seasoned rock historian. Even if a song like "Real Talk" features a brass band, or "Above the Bodega (Local Business)" takes on a gospel choir, they're still accompanied by his commanding grit. He thinks it will resonate well with the studied Titus Andronicus fan:

"I think that my most dedicated listeners, who have been paying close attention and have followed the whole career and are familiar with all the songs in all the albums, not like top five most played on Spotify, will recognize the through line that runs through the whole catalog. With the punk rock element taken away, it's my hope that that's going to illuminate what the essential element has been all this time. That will enable listeners to look back through the whole catalog and find whatever particular musical tool or aesthetic we might've been using at any given moment to communicate that. If we added loud punk and party songs in the past, well, that was a choice that was made at the time. It was the most effective way to communicate any particular idea, and that was never the purpose of it. The purpose has always been to communicate, and you can do that any number of different ways."

A Productive Cough involved somewhere around twenty-two to twenty-three musicians, but Stickles credits pianist Alex Molini as the other major contributor to his overall sound. They were introduced by Titus Andronicus bassist R.J. Gordon, and their musical kinship does enrich his loose, yet assured raspy harmonies. "Alex Molini is almost on all of the track. He was there for a significant portion of the recording, so he's going to represent that part of it very faithfully on tour. "

Molini is joining Stickles for his "acoustic" tour, which is another way of saying that he's stripping songs off of the entire band catalog into their bare essence: "It's about taking stuff away, yet still have it be the same song. Still be recognizable, still achieve the same purpose. You won't have 20 musicians on stage like on the record, but I'm hoping that the real essential element of the record and my whole artistic purpose will be present. Without all that other stuff around, it'll be even easier for the audience to recognize. But like I said, when you put it out into the world you surrender a lot of your control. So I'm just hoping for the best. I gotta follow my own inner compass and do what's right for me at any given moment as an artist. I'm just going to try to be more explicit than ever and achieve more of a certain conversational intimacy with the audience."

Still, even if the sound is larger in scope, and even if it has a different setup, those crude, impetuous emotions are going to be there. Stickles quickly clarifies that they still "have a lot of amplifiers," which adds to the unique makeup of this tour. "It's not exactly acoustic. It's described as such so that people will understand that it's not exactly a rock band. I wouldn't play an acoustic guitar; it's still going to be quite electric. I am the electric man, after all."

Though Stickles continues to harbor sadness as an everyday part of life, he does inject A Productive Cough with moments of sheer celebration. On a song like "Real Talk", he talks about the current political climate with a freewheeling sense of urgency. He externalizes those feelings by also looking within himself. "When you take a difficult feeling and externalize it, it validates itself," he says. "And hopefully it also validates the interior feelings of the listener. That is something of a celebratory, joyous action, even if the thing that you're discussing is not necessarily so joyous. That's something that makes me happy, and it's also about the unburdening of myself and the letting go of those feelings. That is the thing that I'm celebrating, and hopefully, it feels good to the listener, too. Not because they're happy about the truths that are being revealed in the song, but that they are feeling validated and knowing that someone feels the same way they do and feel a little bit less alone that way. That's a positive thing to my mind."

Another track where Stickles bares it all with great uncertainty is "Mass Transit Madness (Goin' Loco)", a stark moment of reflection where he thinks about what it means to carry on. "That's where we restate the central thesis of the record, which is that when things get hard, and when you're tired of being down, you still gotta really try to look inside and find the strength to keep going," he says proudly. "Not even because there's some big reward waiting for you, and that's never necessarily going to change you. It's about looking for the strength to carry on and to persevere. That's a noble act in it of itself. That's something that I try to remind my listeners because I need to also remind myself that there are plenty of days when I would love to give up and throw in the towel. But those sort of feelings are temporary feelings, and you got to accept those feelings and validate and live with them. It's okay to feel that way, but you also gotta stick it out, anyway."

Stickles wants to remain truthful to himself and to his listeners. He constantly refers to them with the highest, unbiased regard, and you can tell that he doesn't take a single one for granted. Before he ends his interview to go and rehearse for the forthcoming tour, he reflects on the relationship he has with his audience: "You have to tell it like it is. Gather around the people that maybe feel in a similar way, and we can all say it's okay to feel that way. I think it's just the loneliness and the isolation when you're by yourself with these feelings that can really be painful, so I'm trying to put them out in the open. Those who feel the same hopefully are going to receive it and get something positive out of it. As I validate their feelings they are validating my feelings in return. It's a very positive and healthy exchange to give myself to the audience."

"It sounds like you want to receive and give that feedback, too. You want to hear what they think about what you put out," I ask.

"Sure. I just hope they like it and that it helps them out. That it'd be better to put gas in their tanks, so to speak," he ends.

And just like that, there's the car analogy I was waiting for.

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