Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe: An Interview with Patrick Stickles
"After their critically acclaimed The Monitor helped break them into the mainstream, Titus Andronicus are back with a new disc that slightly alters course, and in his interview with PopMatters, Patrick Stickles talks about what he expects the reaction to the disc to be, whether punk is "anti-intellectual" music, and what he really thinks about Jersey Shore ..."
Local BusinessBand: Titus Andronicus
Label: XL Recordings
US Release Date: 2012-10-23
I was formally introduced to Titus Andronicus in 2009 when the clerk at a record store in Syracuse, New York pulled me to the side and unironically asked, “Do you like badass rock and roll bands?” Before he could finish his query, I already had a copy of the then-re-released The Airing of Grievances from XL Recordings in my hands and was moving toward the cash register.
I didn’t go straight home that day. I popped the album into my crappy car’s CD player and didn’t even think of going home until I was through my third front-to-back listen of the band’s first record. Like most folks who have discovered Titus Andronicus, I understand now why their records become mainstays in CD decks and on turntables, begging for repeat listens. For guys in their early to mid-20s when The Airing of Grievances was released, Titus Andronicus were rocking hard and provoking thought among their listeners.
Here we are a few years later, in a time when it seems that everyone who knows anything about indie rock is talking about Titus Andronicus. If I were in the business of assigning rock musicians superlatives in the year 2012, I would cast my vote for Patrick Stickles to receive the “Most Humble Frontman of a DIY Punk Band on a major label” award. That might be a tad bit wordy, but there’s definitely some truth in there. And come to think of it, that describes Stickles almost to a tee: wordy and espousing truth. The truths that Stickles tells (about himself, about contemporary life) may not be comfortable and cozy statements, but they are powerful musings nonetheless.
On Local Business, the New Jersey band’s third full--length release, the epic-ness found on 2010’s The Monitor (an album including a litany of references to the American Civil War) are abandoned in favor of a straight-to-your gut approach. This isn’t to say that Stickles has chosen to write about topics fit for bubblegum pop enthusiasts. To the contrary, Stickles continues his fascination with the anxiety of living in an absurd universe without any inherent meaning while managing to maintain a sense of wit in tact. Moreover, Stickles digs deep into his own personal demons on “My Eating Disorder” (a song whose title says it all). Although the album strips away much of the overt references to literary icons like Albert Camus, Local Business loses none of the band’s edge or power.
PopMatters recently caught up with the Titus Andronicus frontman to talk about keeping overheads low on tour while being on a major label, the relationship between punk rock and masculinity, and what he’d be up to if Titus Andronicus were to cease to exist.
Aside from some pretty long songs, you’ve stripped away much of the grandiosity that accompanied The Monitor. What do you expect the reaction to be with a straight-up-the-gut record without a unified concept?
What do I expect it to be? I mean, I’ve already seen it a little bit. I think a lot of people would’ve wanted more grandiosity, perhaps, or more unified themes. But we weren’t in a position to provide them. It just wasn’t the thing to do, ya know? The last record was so over the top with that stuff. To try to go over the top with that stuff again would’ve been insane. Some people think it would have been a good idea to do that, but it’s not really practical.
You’ve always managed tip your hat to Camus, Lincoln’s speeches, and other literary figures on your records without being pretentious. Every article written about Titus Andronicus after The Monitor was released seems to focus on your fascination with the Civil War on that record. It’s a fantastic record, but I’ve wondered why there’s such a fixation on how smart of a record it is. Is it because punk rock inherently anti-intellectual and your records appear to the public as some kind of anomaly?
I don’t know. Is punk rock an anti--intellectual kind of music? I guess it can be a little bone--headed sometimes, but it’s about freedom of thought. A lot of punk bands that I’ve loved are quite smart and really informed me intellectually and ideologically. The band Crass, for example -- super smart guys. But, to get to your question: I wasn’t surprised that people latched onto that because it’s easy to talk about. It’s easier to talk about than, say, what it sounds like. Writing about music is sometimes hard, but writing about something that’s a little more literary is maybe a little easier.
Titus Andronicus used to be a band with a laundry list of members rotating in and out of the band depending on whether or not you were in the studio or on the road. Is it relieving to know that the live and studio incarnations of this band have finally merged and solidified?
Yeah, I like that element of it a lot. The stuff that we play on stage now, it’s much like it is on the record. That really hasn’t been the case before. Everyone really knows what they’re doing. It’s a great time for us, musically speaking. We are standing on some pretty solid ground right now, in my opinion.
Speaking of touring, before the release of Local Business, you mentioned that you’ll be sleeping on the floors of your fans during this tour despite being on a huge label like XL. Do you think there will be a point when the romance of roughing it on the road will wear off?
A lot of the romance is gone already, but it still remains practical. Keeping low overheads and stuff is just good business. But, it’s still fun to go over to friends’ houses or to make new friends with the Internet. We haven’t done it as much on this tour as we have on some previous tours. We’re getting to be more discriminating in our tastes as far as accommodations go, but we’ve stayed at some good places with some good people.
I ask this especially because you’re label mates with Adele and other huge artists who are likely living in the lap of luxury when they tour. Is it hard to look at these artists who are selling millions of records and getting the rock star treatment on tours?
You know, I think that’s fine for them. I don’t begrudge them any for their success. Artists like Adele and Vampire Weekend, while maybe we don’t have a lot in common with them musically or in the that way we conduct business, their success still keeps the lights on at XL. So, it’s nice having them around because XL remains solvent and they are in a position where they can spend some of that money on us even though we might not bring in some of the level of returns of someone like Adele. Maybe we won’t do any James Bond themes, but it’s all good. I’m not too jealous.
In “No Future” on The Airing of Grievances, you sing, “I am slowly dying from Patrick Stickles disease.” What were the symptoms and does Local Business finally provide a cure (or at least a treatment) for that condition?
Um, well, what I was talking about was just a human condition. It was meant to be a catch-all for whatever happened to be ailing you. In my case, it could be like depression or something like that. I don’t know if Local Business offers a cure, but there are some positive suggestions on there. I mean, well -- the struggle remains.
Speaking of the struggle remaining: There are references to your eating disorder throughout Local Business and it’s especially clear on the songs simply titled “Food Fight!” and “My Eating Disorder”. I’m interested in why you would be so forthcoming about an issue like your eating disorder on a record that potentially millions of people might hear.
Well, I don’t know if millions of people are going to hear it.
I just think that honesty is the best policy. It’s an important thing in my life, so therefore it should be an important thing in my art. I speak from personal experiences, so I draw on stuff that’s going on in my life. That’s just another example. The fact that it’s quite personal and hard to talk about -- if anything -- that just indicates that it’s a juicier thing to draw upon for inspiration.
Your answer leads me to what I think is an important question about the relationship between masculinity and punk rock. Is there any anxiety about being emasculated by talking so openly about your eating disorder?
Um, yeah, I guess so. It is usually something that’s usually for the ladies. But that’s okay. I’m down to smash up these gender binaries any day. I’m a fluid being. I exist on a spectrum. Fuck it.
Is gender something that mainstream rock musicians aren’t comfortable dealing with? Can gender be a topic for discussion in rock music?
Well, I think it gets discussed sometimes. But it’s certainly true that more ladies want to talk about it more than fellas do. I guess that just comes from living in a patriarchal society and, maleness kind of being looked upon as being the norm. Maybe it’s true that a lot of male rock musicians are guilty of thinking that way and, as a result, not being all that concerned with gender issues. Perhaps even I’m guilty of that.
How might you be guilty of that?
I don’t know. Do we talk about gender a lot? I don’t think so.
I mean, the stuff on your eating disorder seems to be progressive in that way, doesn’t it?
Well, I’m glad that you think so. That’s reassuring.
Thanks. I want to ask a little about the theme of Local Business. You’re from Glen Rock, New Jersey and you make quite a few references to that in your lyrics and also in your live show. I’ve seen you a few times and you always seem to make a point of it. What is it about Jersey that makes you want to make statements about where you’re from?
I just think that region identity and civic pride are just an important informant for where you’re coming from literally and figuratively. It was essential and synonymous with my upbringing, so to me it’s only natural. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly special about New Jersey as opposed to any other place. I’m sure that if I was from Tennessee, for example, I would want to sing about that just as much.
I’m originally from West Virginia, and a lot of bands take a lot of pride in being from here. These bands embrace where they’re from because there’s such a negative association with our state and the Appalachian region. Everyone from outside of here thinks we’re just a bunch of dumb hillbillies, so bands from around here try really hard to buck that stereotype. I’m curious: Is there anything you’re resisting with your New Jersey pride?
I mean, I guess you could say that. There are definitely plenty of stereotypes about Jersey and they’ve been propagated through the media in the past few years. I think of Jersey Shore, for instance. I guess you could look at it sort of as a reaction to that -- trying to get more of a positive vibe about Jersey going on instead of the stuff that usually gets fed to us. But, I don’t know, that’s a big job. We might not be up to it all by ourselves.
You’ve mentioned that you support capitalism on the level of Local Business. You’re hitting major cities on the album release tour. Would you ever consider touring in cities that are much smaller that are dominated by Local Business?
Well, we’re going to some pretty out of the way places on this tour. Or, so that’s how it feels, anyway. But, I think it’s good to go to all sorts of different spots -- anywhere where there are people who are hungry for rock and roll -- whether that be a big city or a relatively smaller community. But, I don’t know if we’re ever going to do a tour that is purely small towns. We’re capitalists at the end of the day. We gotta eat. We gotta make money.
There’s a great profile that Grantland recently did on you all. In that piece, you mentioned that you don’t have many skills outside of playing music. Are you surprised by the success you’ve had thus far? And if all of this fell apart, what would be your next move?
Firstly, I guess you could say I was surprised with the success we have enjoyed. We didn’t start out with any intentions to have success or to have a career. The band started just for fun Maybe there were aspirations to have a seven-inch, or something like that -- but, nothing all that grand or ambitious. Everything that we’ve enjoyed has really just been gravy. Were it all to go away, I’m not sure what I would do. Probably go back to graduate school as I was planning to do when I embarked on this rock and roll career instead.
What was it that you were planning to study in graduate school?
I was going to study how to be a teacher -- a high school teacher. Ya know, I love to work with the kids.
What subject in particular? Was there one that interested you more than others?
Probably English. That was my favorite subject in school. So, I would’ve loved to continue some of that tradition -- spread some of that love to some of the next generation. But, I like to think that I’m doing a little of that now, anyway. Sharing a love of learning and books.