Over everyone else in music today, Titus Andronicus clearly does things their own way.
Over everyone else in music today, Titus Andronicus clearly does things their own way. Who else would follow-up a well-received punk rock debut record with a concept album about the Civil War as they did on 2010’s The Monitor? Lucky for them, bold risks like that have clearly paid, but they have also even hindered any semblance of a normal career for the band so much that a straight forward record from the New Jersey group, like 2012’s Local Business, is taken as a timid step back from fans and critics alike.
On the band’s latest record, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the band again set their sights high with a manic depressive rock opera with close to thirty tracks spread out across five distinct acts that clocks in at a staggering ninety-two minutes. Without a doubt, it is 2015’s most ambitious record and one that is definitely not something to casually listen to on a daily commute. While fans and critics have been extolling its virtues for the past two months, they’ve also been quick to say that the album is surely “not for everybody,” so quick in fact that it almost comes off as a disclaimer. It’s a formidable collection of work that only a band like Titus Andronicus could pull off and really begs the question of where a plucky New Jersey punk band goes from here.
We asked Titus Andronicus’ mastermind Patrick Stickles that very question, especially considering the recent comments he’s made about the uncertainty of the band’s future. Actually, we only asked Stickles two real questions in our thirty-four minute conversation. What we got in return was Stickles’ unabashed take on the music world in 2015 from the nature of a “buzz” band to ability to survive as a working class band. He casually shifts from rambling diatribes to brilliant observations all with a level of honesty you just don’t get from musicians today.
While other publications have chopped up Stickles’ words to make sense of it all (and to fit their own narrative), we’re going to present the full conversation for you below. Like The Most Lamentable Tragedy, his thoughts are highly recommended for any music fan, but they’re also far from easy to process in one sitting.
I know you labored over your new record for a long time so are you satisfied with how The Most Lamentable Tragedy turned out?
Sort of. It’s a weird thing just because I lived it with in a very intimate way for a very long time. The record that is. To the point that by the time it came to do the computer stuff and get in there and start moving around the hundred files or whatever that make up a track, every element of it from conceiving it to writing the words for it to practicing it with the rest of the band to doing endless takes of each song to editing and mixing it – all of this stuff and then even having to write out the lyrics again for the liner notes. At no point in this process did I stop and look at the work that was getting ready to come out and say “Gee whiz, this sucks,” but I hardly had much time to stop and say “Gee whiz, this is great!” You kind of have to let Jesus take the wheel a little bit. Not literally but for me, but when you’re the artist, you have to sometimes say “I know what I’m doing even if I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing.” Just keep going and worry about whether or not it’s good later. I know what I have to do to make this piece what it’s supposed to be. Good or bad, I guess history will decide that.
It’s a tricky thing because you’re chasing a type of personal satisfaction. As an artist, you’re pursuing some kind of dream of the perfect aesthetic experience for the listener or whatever and when the artist starts out particularly with a big project like this, maybe the artist is very attached to some kind of vague notion of what the product might be. The artist has this vision and is trying to translate it into this tactile world. A lot of times, and it definitely happened to me in the making of this album, you have a vague fantasy of how a piece of art should turn out. It’s kind of like when you’re a parent and you think you’re going to have a son that’s a football player like yourself and the son wants to grow up to be a chess master for example like our drummer Eric [Harm] is. Maybe the grumpy father might have wanted his son to be a meathead and instead he plays chess. It’s one of those times where your expectation about what something should be gets in the way of you appreciating the reality of it even if the reality of it turns out lovely.
All this time making the record, I had some vague notions in my mind that I wouldn’t even hardly know if I did see it, but it’s easy to say “Oh, I’m not sure if this jives with my super vague vision.” If you say you want to do a guitar solo and then you lay it down, maybe it’s awesome, but the artist can sometimes say “But that didn’t flip the switch in my brain that my vague vision is now perfect reality. It’s actually as it was in my head and nothing got lost in translation between my brain and the real world.” Of course that is an illusion. You can never take the pure thing in your brain and put it out in the real world. It doesn’t work that way and a lot of times throughout the album making process, there were times where I should have been able to look at the project for what it was. Say we put all these instruments on here and these vocals here–maybe it doesn’t flip the switch to let me know that my fantasy from two or three years ago has become reality because fantasies are always going to stay fantasies. At a certain point you have to say that the work of art has become its own self-aware, autonomous being sort of. At a certain point, you have to say “I don’t even know what my vague fantasy was, but pursuing my vague fantasy has led me to a certain point and this is where I really am.” Maybe it’s not such a bad place to be, you know what I’m saying?
There were a lot of stops along the road to personal satisfaction where we had to remind ourselves to stop thinking about the million different things the record might be and start focusing on the thing the record itself wants to be–the thing the record is becoming whether you like it or not. When you’re into it, don’t fight it. Records, especially when they’re long and have a lot of stuff going on, have to be given a life of their own. If I could travel back in the time with The Most Lamentable Tragedy CD and visit my younger self who’s staying at home with an acoustic guitar trying to work out a riff–well, the young guy has got some idea in his head about this very fleeting glimpse of the perfect rock song, he’s chasing it. If the older version comes around with the CD and says “here it is” and plays my younger self the final version of the song that he’s working on, the younger version could very possibly say “What the fuck? That’s not what I was going for at all. You totally missed it and you ruined it.” That’s coming from the young artist who’s deeply invested in it, but if you played the exact same track to someone who’s not invested in it or maybe to the artist years after he forgot what his vague fantasy was, then you could just listen to it and hear it for what it is and judge it based on its own merits instead of comparing it to something that’s not even real. At the end of the day, real shit always trumps fake shit.
Is this struggle to translate a thought in your mind into the real world is why you’ve said that you weren’t sure Titus Andronicus would go on after this?
I know, I did say that. I created all that symmetry within our catalogue not because making the record was too much of a drag and I don’t want to make another record because I’m grumpy. It was drag a lot of the time because too much pressure was being put on from within. Too much of a negative attitude. “Goddamn it, my thirties are coming. This sucks, we’re not going to do it. I planned it out thinking that we maybe wouldn’t move forward with another album, but it’s less out of saying “this game is fucked up” or “I quit and I’m going on strike from the rock game.” It’s not that even though that’s an appealing thought because this game is fucked up and I should be getting paid more. But when I made all of those comments about not going forward and said all those things in place to not go forward with a clear consciousness that was more out of practical saying because the record campaign is going really good right now.
We’re pretty much famouser than ever, but who knew that was how that would be when we started out even though I’m super arrogant. I’m not blind to the world around me. I know it would have been perfectly easy for a lot of this shit to not fly and according to a lot of critics and journalists, it doesn’t fly, particularly in England. They don’t like the record in the English newspapers. They liked one of two of the old ones, but this one they don’t like it except Uncut Magazine. This record is very polarizing so I know it’s actually really good. It’s the only thing these critics can give me. So what if this record gets all these great reviews and it’s this perfect thing and I read them and I’m like “Gee that seems to feel good.” I like to think of myself as this perfect ten artist just for flattery’s sake, but better to be polarizing. If everyone falls over to like it, it’s almost too safe. You know that it’s just a nice, soft blanket. If everyone can agree on it, how good could it possibly good? Could it really be subversive in any type of way? Could it pose a real substantive threat to the established order? Not that a rock album necessarily poses a huge threat to the established order, you know what I mean?
Consensus is something we’re not going to have in the future on works of art or if we do as we see now, any consensus we build will be around a work of art that’s as blank as possible. Some fluffy, pop confection that we can just project our needs and insecurities onto. It’d have to be pretty blank and Titus Andronicus is not blank and we’re not trying to build a consensus because you don’t need to in 2015. People think if I don’t get to be Arcade Fire or Kendrick Lamar or The War On Drugs, whoever is building the consensus–people think if you don’t get to be one of those people, you don’t get to survive. They’re trying to get rid of the artisanal middle class. They’ve been working on it for a long time. In music, carpentry, baking, whatever field–they’re trying to take any type of person with any kind of artistic temperament out of it and replace them with a drone. That’s just bad.
Polarizing–people think about what the bad part of that means. People think about the half of the people in the sample population that don’t like the artist. Let’s say I polarize half of them to hate the band. Please don’t forget that an action like that requires an equal, but opposite reaction so if I’ve alienated 50% of the sample group a lot, it’s just science to say that the other 50% who didn’t hate it, loved it a lot. In today’s internet based marketplace, the people that don’t like something don’t have very much power. The people who hate the Titus Andronicus album and think it really sucks, they can write a bad review and turn their whole readership against it as well, but even then, they’re playing right into my hands. Like that Pitchfork review was a great review that said it was awesome, but for political reasons, they had to make a gesture and award us a few decimal points less than one of the well-behaved, consensus bands or that’s how some people thought it went down. Do I care that much? Perhaps not about snatching up good scores or having a nice report card to show mom and dad. I cared a lot about that in my early 20s. Now that I’m 30, I see that that’s a very superficial game for one and for two, it doesn’t necessarily have to affect me that much because the people that hate the album or the band are going to have a bunch of fun right now while the band is a hot topic of discussion amongst the internet. They’re going to have an opportunity to practice their wit and sharpen their snark and test it out on Titus Andronicus and that’s fine for them right now and then they’re going to go off and take a dump on somebody else. Those haters are going to come out of the wood work to say the new album by The Weeknd is wack and everybody knows it’s not wack. It’s going to be fine.
Not so long ago, a guy like The Weeknd or Titus Andronicus or anyone like Arcade Fire or The War On Drugs–say I need to get to the top of my field because every job in my field that’s not on top is a drag. It’s cool to be the world’s top 1% rock band and it’s pretty fucking rough to be the bottom 99% rock bands. That’s how it’s always been anyway because of scarcity. Because the fact physical artifacts like records and CDs are not infinite. They’re only so malleable. They’ve got physical properties so therefore there are limitations in place because of course there are. You’re dealing with something made of atoms, but now we’re dealing with the internet. Before there were only so many magazines. Like a young kid from suburban New Jersey like me could find out about alternative music in one of a couple of places in the late 90s, not to date myself. There was Spin and Rolling Stone at the pharmacy downtown and MTV and that was pretty much it. So I found out about Pavement and Sonic Youth when I was a young teenager. It took me many, many more years after that to find out Pavement and Sonic Youth weren’t occurring in a vacuum, that there was this whole history of forgotten, lower class artist. Not in terms of their artistry, but in terms of their quantifiable impact on the culture. They all died in obscurity even if there were great and that sucks, but that’s the way it had to be. There were only so many magazines and there was only one MTV or VH1 and only so many record companies and radio stations and on and on.
Not every artist gets an audience. Some get a national or international audience and others are banished to their obscure, provincial towns of origin. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore and Titus Andronicus is a perfect example just because the music that we’re doing, even though its redundant and derivate of all the rock tropes that came before us, our music is too weird. Even Arcade Fire have got genuine hits so I had to accept a long time ago that we were never going to play Madison Square Garden or anything like that. That’s fine and for a long time, because we’re not going to play at Madison Square Garden, that was me signing myself up for a basically somewhat monastic life. But it’s not necessarily how it has to be even more because Titus Andronicus has assembled an audience around us that is able to support us enough. People think we’re a buzz band again today and we were a buzz band back in 2009 and 2010 as well and it felt real good to get good reviews. At a certain point, the band ceased to be sufficiently buzz-y anymore. A lot of people think we changed our whole purpose or approach and that’s why we stopped being a buzz band. It’s not so. We didn’t. Maybe that was painful to not get any good reviews anymore because I was so attached to reading good reviews and getting validated that way when I was a younger man. Nowadays, I see that getting a good review maybe feels good, but if you allow a good review to feel good, you’re also allowing a bad review to feel bad.
That’s why we can’t look outside ourselves for our validation. We need to validate from within. I’ll take validation from the fans and the real people who continued to support us after we were no longer a buzz band. These people who listened to our third record and have seen us these last couple of years and didn’t just write off the band because it ceased to be advantageous as a hipster status symbol. Without the internet, there were never going to be enough people to demand Titus Andronicus be included on Spin or 120 Minutes even though that’s not around anymore. That doesn’t matter anymore. On the internet, even the most esoteric, inaccessible artist can build an audience because however weird somebody is or however alienating they are or however much they may think themselves to be total freaks that no one could ever understand–it’s not so. Art has proven it to us time and time again. I’m another example too. Someone came from the sky like angels to tell me that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. The world is so big. We’re never really as alone as we think we are in our Earthly experiences.
Basically, now that the internet exists, audiences such as the one that now supports Titus Andronicus, it’s possible to assemble these audiences in a way that we could never hardly even imagined before. These people that would be in to this weird music and have these secret feelings that nobody in their community can articulate. When I was growing up, people like that and people like me alienated and disenfranchised people. I wouldn’t have found out about a band like Titus Andronicus if they didn’t happen to be in the issue of Spin at the CVS Pharmacy near me so there’s a lot of intermediary. For the younger version of myself today, the young trouble kid is not going to the pharmacy to get Spin and find out what alternative music is. They go on the internet and everybody can find their perfect little band.
The other thing about dealing with these smaller audiences necessarily, they’re smaller and more dispersed across their own provincial populations and so it’s a problem if you think you’ll just sell this same dollar ticket to these people that Arcade Fire sells to their legion of fans and you’ll be fine. Well, the numbers aren’t going to add up. I like to think of it as if Arcade Fire has a million fans and they get every fan of theirs to give them a dollar, then Arcade Fire’s got a million dollars right there. That’s a pretty good deal and you might say Titus Andronicus could never do that and while it’s true that there’s not a million people I could go ask for a dollar right now, it’s not necessarily inconceivable that we could build an audience of say ten thousand people that each are willing to give us a hundred dollars. That’s how artists are going to get over in the future. Direct access to audience, controlling the means of production and distribution because anyone can do it. Distribution is nothing but a click of a button now. There’s no more fifty semi-trucks that need to make Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion II happen in some city. It’s all just clicking a button now. We’re all free from the prison of physical artifacts which is why it’s funny to me when people bellyache so much about the record stores closing. Obviously, I want the record stores to be open, but what the hell are you going to do? It’s tough letting go of these physical artifacts, but that’s how the artists are going to get free. It’s not necessarily going to be that easy to get these ten thousand people to each give me a hundred dollars, but on the internet, when you access these people and interface these people, you just have to find different ways to monetize people’s support in you and basically just try and make it happen, you know?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a lot, but I get the big picture about what you’re talking about.
Wonderful. Well, usually this is about the part of the interview where the journalist says, “Okay, I let you do your half-hour spiel – now answer my questions!”
Good call. You pretty much answered all of mine so I guess I should just ask the typical “are you excited to come back to Richmond” question.
We always have a good time in Richmond. It’s one of those dependable punk communities and it’s fun to visit. They’re so man restaurants and stuff you can go to where it’s an all punk staff. Like there are places you can go in Richmond and imagine it’s an alternate communion-type city that’s run by sleeved tattoo people. It’s fun that way. I always have a good time down there, but we’re playing somewhere weird. The Camel, is that what it’s called?
Yeah, The Camel. I’m surprised you haven’t played before.
We always used to play Strange Matter, but it’s good to branch out. I don’t like how insular the punk scene is some times. I think the punk scene could be a lot more inclusive. There’s just a lot of codes, dress codes, certain ways you have to speak and conduct yourself. Punk to me is about freedom, it’s not rigid orthodoxy. I do like Richmond very much though. Is that Steady Sounds store still open?
Yep. Doing great too.
Great to hear. I know the owner of the store, Marty Violence. In the past and maybe he still is, but he was sometimes the bass player for Ted Leo And The Pharmacists. Titus Andronicus did a tour with them some years ago for a few weeks. Just got to know all of the guys. He’s a hell of a guy and hell of a musician and the record store is really good because it has the balcony up top. It’s a good vibe there. It’s another great thing about Richmond. I got two hours before I need to get back onstage or do my sound check. What am I going to do? I could go to Steady Sounds or just discover this new restaurant. I love Richmond.
Titus Andronicus plays The Camel this Sunday night with Spider Bags and Baked opening the night. For more information on the show and where to buy tickets, click here.