Monday, November 19, 2012

Pitchfork: Titus Andronicus Interview


Titus Andronicus

Frontman Patrick Stickles on the rewards (and sacrifices) of DIY loyalism, why he's still living with his parents, and his band's new album, Local Business.

By Jenn Pelly November 12, 2012

Titus Andronicus
From left: Liam Betson, Eric Harm, Patrick Stickles, Adam Reich, Julian Veronesi. Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford.
In the fall of 2007 Patrick Stickles reached a crossroads. At the hidden South Williamsburg house-venue Dead Herring, where fans peer down at scrappy bands from a low-clearing loft or join the crowd in the kitchen, Stickles' nascent Titus Andronicus was billed with Baltimore's Double Dagger and local D.I.Y. heroes the So So Glos. The show was a thing of punk rock dreams. But Stickles had to leave early; the next day he sat for the GREs. "It was a real intersection of my two lives-- academic and rock'n'roll-- butting heads," Stickles, now 27, recalls. "We know which won out; I had a great academic career in front of me, but I threw it all away to be a rocker."
So here we are, five years later, at the East Williamsburg warehouse venue Shea Stadium, which the Glos have helped operate since 2009 with newly-added Titus guitarist Adam Reich. In daylight, its surrounding industrial neighborhood is barren of character save for an occasional patch of graffiti, barbed wire, or 18-wheelers roaring past at speeds too fast for comfort. The area has all signifiers of marginality, like a place actual artists are meant to live; Stickles took residence in Shea's "green room," a glorified closet, at the beginning of this year.
The So So Glos, a band of brothers from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, are Stickles' tie to Shea and also his close friends. "They live it to the bone," Stickles says of the band's commitment to the New York underground scene, a potent source of his inspiration over the years. "It makes me want to work harder and give more of myself." And he recognizes the pop-punk group's influence on his more earnest mode of lyricism on the new Titus record, Local Business, that we've met here to discuss. The whole scenario feels like a culmination of that decision made at 22.
Curled up on a ragged couch with cigarette and beer in hand, the wiry Stickles admits he's not completely abandoned the possibility of academia. "You can't keep rocking and rolling forever," he says, clad in a T-shirt repping fellow Brooklyn rockers the Men. "It's really a young person's game. I see these bands now and they all look like little kids. I feel like an old man." He does not act like one. When off tour, Stickles now lives in his hometown of Glen Rock, New Jersey, with his parents, having spent the past summer in record-cycle "purgatory," watching "Frasier" and reading Junkie and David Foster Wallace. He says it was the worst summer of his life.
"Right now I'm willing to do whatever to survive as a musician," Stickles says. "My life is tailored to being able to do my art the way I want to, rather than the other way around." These are the realities of Stickles' hyper-transparent devotion to the anti-corporate, pro-individualist tenets of punk ethics, which became a part of his personal fabric as a teenager, as he investigated the great independent rock groups of yesteryear. "I learned about the high standards they set that nobody seems all that concerned about anymore," Stickles says, gazing down, sounding disappointed and removed. "Nobody seems that concerned about being the next Fugazi."
Of the many artists from whom Stickles has modeled his artistic and economic moral compass, he's found a comrade and mentor in punk vet Ted Leo, who became enamored by Titus for its integrity and shared Garden State pride. "They felt an intense connection to 'home,' but were able to translate that into an empathic vision of the world at large," says Leo, who admits to holding impatient disdain for his home state's mixed reputation. Regarding Local Business, Leo highlights value in the specificity of Stickles' storytelling, and its understanding "that in the humble story of one's own surroundings, one can connect with the broad experience of humanity," he says. "Even the grandest gesture is at its most effective when it flows from the local."
The day before I met Stickles at Shea, the venue was given a thorough paint job. "I like to be involved," says Stickles, who swept and mopped, and held the ladder for a lot of people. "It feels good to be a part of something greater than yourself." Stickles often works nights at Shea, and the first time I saw him do the door at a show, I couldn't help but recall that storied bit of indie rock folklore, when Ian MacKaye took tickets at Calvin Johnson's 1991 International Pop Underground Convention. The blurring of roles was striking. "It helps me stay in touch with new bands that would fly under my radar," he says. Recent discoveries have been a punk band, Big Ups, and the experimental desert music of Gunn-Truscinski Duo. "But my favorite part is the stream of bands," he says. "The scene is my favorite."
"Everything is worthless, but because of that, we have the power to create our own morality and determine our own values."
Pitchfork: Why did you feel, right now, that the concept of "local business" was worth committing an entire record to?
Patrick Stickles: It's all about the power of the individual to resist society's urges to conform and consume, finding your own morality, determining your own values, and not being forced into some box or societal construct that isn't really you. The songs on the record are about that battle to be an individual, and the loneliness of it. Also, knowing that you are an individual, but then, at the same time, that you are a piece of something much greater-- whether that's the DIY scene, or society at large.
Pitchfork: In a Pitchfork interview from 2008, you spoke specifically about how local businesses are what makes American capitalism good.
PS: It's a lovely thing. If somebody has a good idea, and can find a service no one else is providing, they can do it and make a life for themselves.
Pitchfork: Last fall I attended an Occupy Wall Street benefit you organized here at Shea Stadium. Did OWS channel into your thinking for the new record?
PS: Oh definitely, yeah. It got a lot of people thinking about economic inequity for maybe the first time. It made people address how these issues impacted their own lives, what they were doing, how they were involved. It made me think a lot about my own complicity in capitalist systems. Anybody who has compassion for their fellow humans could identify with Occupy Wall Street. It was an outward-reaching thing.
We do talk about money on the new record. Obviously, it's a very tricky thing for a band to be critical of capitalism or consumerism, because we're complicit in it. We put pressure on people to consume certain things, so there's a bit of hypocrisy going on. But I think acknowledging it is the first step towards something.
Pitchfork: Often on Twitter you have posted the hashtag "#crushcapitalism." What exactly do you mean by that?
PS: Capitalism seems to have a centrifugal effect; it consolidates power and money to a smaller and smaller base. And that's no good. That's not going to fly. So we've got to do something about it. But I couldn't claim to know what that is.
Pitchfork: So you're just asking people to question the concept? Do you identify with a specific political ideology?
PS: It's more about encouraging, questioning, getting a dialogue open. Capitalism is probably the best system and the one that's the most about freedom, really. It's the way we've gone about facilitating it that's had some effects that aren't so nice; certain people have used their freedom unfairly, to the detriment of others. And that's not OK.
Pitchfork: Is there anything you've learned in recent years about what you personally value in music?
PS: I value in music much the same things I value in regular life. Particularly honesty. I can only speak about my perceptions. I'm no good at writing fiction. It seemed to me that the best thing to do was try opening myself up as much as possible.
Pitchfork: Was it your appreciation of honesty that pushed you to write a more direct record?
PS: Yeah. To be more direct in the lyrics and in what the band really sounds like, instead of trying to dress it up to be something crazy. Another thing I value is intensity. My love of rock has been continuously reaffirmed. I wanted to make this record more of a regular rock-band album, rather than a big collective orchestra type thing. I wanted to make it more like some of the classic albums that we've loved throughout the years, where bands were just bands.
Pitchfork: The production on this album sounds different, too. Did you want to convey the idea of something homegrown through the aesthetics of the LP?
PS: The form reflects the function in that we try to talk about real life, so the music should hopefully sound like real life. Whereas, with the last two records, the music sounded more fantastical. We wanted to go for something a little more earthy this time around, more representational of what we really do every night onstage.
Pitchfork: There are many moments on the album when you are talking about things you see right in front of you, like the song where someone gets hit by a car. Did that really happen?
PS: Yeah. All the songs that have stories are drawn from real life. We were on tour in Oregon and witnessed that car crash. I got inspired to put pen to paper, right then and there.
Pitchfork: Why is that car-crash track called "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape With the Flood of Detritus". 
PS: We had this song [on The Airing of Grievances] called "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape With the Fall of Icarus'", so I borrowed the syntax. It's kind of the sequel. In the painting from the original song, in the corner, you see this tiny guy falling into the ocean. It's been interpreted as: It's a big world, and people go about their business, and little tragedies are happening all the time, and what are you going to do?
That was my experience in seeing this car crash. It's horrible, but you can't do anything but get on with your life, however insignificant it may seem. In our case, we were going to play a concert. What can you do? Nothing. It is scary. It is brutal.
"It's hard to get as worked up about a band now
as I did when I was 16-- when a great rock'n'roll
band was the most important thing in the universe."
Pitchfork: On the album's first track, "Ecce Homo", you sing about how everything's worthless. And there are lyrics about growing older; the world going on without you. 
PS: Getting older is very depressing. As far as everything being worthless is concerned, I meant for that to be hopeful. Because in the absence of meaning we have the power to create meaning. Everything is worthless, yes. But because of that, it's our privilege to decide what is actually worthwhile for ourselves and our own standards. We have the power to create our own morality and determine our own values.
Pitchfork: So when you say "there's no real altruism" on "Still Life", that is supposed to be positive?
PS: Well, no. I guess that's not as uplifting. What I mean by that is, even when you're doing something nice for somebody, it can look unselfish, but really, you're doing it because it feels good for you. Everything is filtered through our own perceptions. Nobody acts purely unselfishly. People do things to get good feelings in their own hearts. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but it's a fact of life, and we shouldn't puff ourselves up too much, thinking we're super nice when really we're just being selfish, because everybody is.
Pitchfork: When you sing about getting older, there are moments when your phrasing suggests you're speaking to a kid, someone who's younger.
PS: When we started out, it seemed like our audience was mostly my own age. Now I notice that our audience tends to be a lot younger than myself. That's OK, because younger kids prove to be the best rock'n'roll fans. They're the ones that get the most out of it. That was the case for me as a kid. It's hard to get as worked up about a band now as I did when I was 16-- when a great rock'n'roll band was the most important thing in the universe.
Pitchfork: Do you feel a particularly strong responsibility to your fans?
PS: Yes. Everything good in my life comes from their support, so I have an obligation to deliver the goods. I owe them everything, even though they're just little guys and girls, little rascals.
Pitchfork: There is a line on the record where you say your "authentic self was aborted at age four." What does that mean?
PS: I say that because I started to go on drugs at age four. My parents gave me Ritalin. That made me wonder if I've ever been my authentic self, or if I've just been a series of chemical reactions influenced by substances I've consumed. And it's gone on from there, to taking antidepressants and drinking beers-- all these things.
Pitchfork: It appears that you spend a lot of time thinking about how money works in America. People are so fast to prescribe things like Ritalin and antidepressants. Do you think the big business of medicine filters into your overarching interest in small-is-big thinking?
PS: With the pharmaceutical business, it's a little iffy. Mental health really shouldn't be influenced by money. But at the end of the day, a psychiatrist is still a business person. They have their eye on the bottom line just like everybody else. That does make me wonder if people really get the stuff they need, or if they just become cogs in a machine to generate more revenue for big industries. Not that my psychiatrist would do anything like that-- she's great.
Pitchfork: Have you seen the same psychiatrist over the years?
PS: No. I've only been seeing this one for six months. She's a drug dealer like anybody else, but she's fun, she's cool. She's not a punk, but her head is shaved. She knows I'm in a band and everything. She sometimes tries to tell me that maybe my being depressed is just due to getting too old to be a punk, but I try not to believe that. You're never too old to be a punk. In fact, the oldest punks are the truest punks, because being a punk when you're a kid is easy.
"My parents gave me Ritalin at age four, and that made me wonder if I've ever been my authentic self, or if I've just been a series of chemical reactions influenced by substances I've consumed."
Pitchfork: There is another line on the record when you mention the idea of being a slave, and "kids who'd kill for this kind of cage." What is that about?
PS: The forces of invalidation are talking to our hero. They are are saying, "How can you complain so much, when there are millions and billions of people that wish they had the stuff you have?" But that's an unhealthy way to look at it. I think we should always validate our inner pain. Nothing feels worse than when you feel bad, and somebody tells you, "Well, you shouldn't feel bad, because you've got this and this." Then, you have your original bad feeling compounded with the guilt of feeling bad-- when, supposedly, you should be feeling good.
Pitchfork: I am sure you have gotten many questions about "My Eating Disorder". I remember watching you perform that song last fall here at Shea Stadium. It reminded me of the first time I heard "Me and Mia" by Ted Leo.
PS: That's the greatest punk-eating-disorder song. I mean, it's a small genre. That's really the only one that comes to mind, actually. I'm sure there are more out there. I've gotten a lot out of that song over the years, even though I didn't really get what it was about the first bunch of times I heard it. But then, after looking into the lyrics more closely and seeing his compassion, it was very inspiring.
Pitchfork: Did it take courage for you to write a song about something that specific and personal?
PS: It was definitely a scary thing to do. But if making a piece of art is scary to you, that's probably a good thing. But I don't know if it took courage, necessarily; I'm not gonna flatter myself too much. But it was definitely one of the harder songs to write, because it's not something that is comfortable to discuss all the time. It's something I had put off for a long time. It wasn't something I used to always broadcast as much.
Again, it's the value of honesty. It's something that's an important part of my life, for better or worse. I mean, for worse, usually. Even though it's a first-world problem, it's one of the major dramas of my life. I know that I am not alone in dealing with this sort of stuff, so maybe it would be a worthwhile thing to talk about in a public forum.
Pitchfork: It's a song about personal struggle, but it's not totally depressing.
PS: It's supposed to be uplifting or validating. It's really just about me taking responsibility, saying, "If I'm ever to make progress on this, it will be me that does it." It's not anybody else's responsibility to take care of it for me. It's supposed to be an empowering thing for me.
"If making a piece of art is scary, that's probably a good thing."
Pitchfork: Was there a particularly point in your life where the issue felt more pronounced?
PS: It's been the same. It was a year ago that I found out my particular disorder was more common than I thought. It's still rare; there's only like 1,400 people who have been diagnosed. But you gotta figure there's a lot more out there. I read this article in The Wall Street Journal, which was my introduction to it being a real thing. I got a lot of validation out of knowing that other people were dealing with it. I thought I could maybe be a part of spreading the word, hopefully reaching some people dealing with something similar.
Pitchfork: I read that you occasionally go to Ted Leo for fatherly punk advice.
PS: He is a very wise man. And he's a guy who's really rare because he's been doing it for 20 years. That's a really tough thing-- to stick at it for so long-- when there's so few guarantees. Even at my age I worry about what the next step will be, as far as keeping my head above water. He must have been going through that for years, but he keeps the faith and keeps going at it without compromising.
Pitchfork: What's the best piece of advice he has given you?
PS: He told me once that what we do-- punk rock-- is almost the most important thing in the world. Almost. Which I took to mean that it's really good, but you have to have a life beyond it. It's not always right to sacrifice everything for it. Even though that's what he's appeared to have done. Then again, he's a married man; he's got a life. I don't know how he does it.
Pitchfork: Has the role of "punk" in your daily life grown since Titus took off?
PS: Being a punk, or existentialist, goes into every decision that I make. It's informed things like becoming a vegetarian, for example. Or decisions about the things that I consume, or how I choose to spend my time and what's worthwhile.
Pitchfork: Would you like to make more of a living off music and live on your own here in Brooklyn instead of at your parents' house?
PS: It would be nice, yeah. Maybe it's an unrealistic expectation, but I'll probably get my own apartment someday. I lived in Brooklyn the past three years; my old apartment was with my ex-girlfriend. Musicians without significant others are often homeless.
Right now I'm willing to do whatever to survive as a musician. My life is tailored to being able to do my art the way I want to, rather than the other way around. I'm going to stick with it for a while. I'm going to try to do music as well as I can, in the way that I want to do it, and I'm going to get whatever reward or punishment. Hopefully someday that'll be a nice apartment where I can hang out by myself. Right now it's just not the way it is. But I've still got my art, so it's not so bad.

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