The last time you heard new songs from New Jersey rock/punk outfit Titus Andronicus, it was a cleverly disguised self-titled album (The Most Lamentable Tragedy, you see, is also the subtitle of Shakespeare’s play after which the band is named) which spanned two discs and crested over a 90-minute runtime. That gigantic fourth LP featured home-recorded seven-minute philosophical ruminations, Daniel Johnston and Pogues covers, and a handful of the best punk bangers recorded this side of 1980. We’re here today to introduce the idea of the fifth +@ LP, A Productive Cough, which features none of that last element, which some might argue is the band’s most valuable calling card. Titus Andronicus has pulled off a “Reverse Bob Dylan,” and the band’s fervent fans are no doubt going to be, at the very least, quite surprised by the results found within. As with almost all artistic decisions about the direction of Titus Andronicus, this move was concocted by frontman Patrick Stickles, and Patrick Stickles is an artist full of contradictions.
For instance, the main medium in which he’s worked thus far is “punk rock,” but he’s just as likely to quote Clash lyrics as he is to recount the plot of an episode of Caroline in the City, a mediocre TV show that aired as part of NBC’s “Must See TV” prime time programming in the early ’90s. Yes, he fronts a band named after a Shakespeare play, but inside other titles and lyrics, he cannot stop referencing American television shows. Titus Andronicus’s first album, of course, borrows its name from a Seinfeld episode. A song on their debut namechecks Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel just as sure as a song on their second, breakout album is titled “Theme from ‘Cheers.’”
I first met Patrick Stickles on both of our bands’ first tours. When Hallelujah the Hills shared a bill with Titus Andronicus in an abandoned church in Chicago in the summer of 2007, I settled in for another meh opening act as the band sloppily sound-checked their instruments. I literally rose to my feet in a church pew during their first song, instantly convinced that perhaps my developing cynicism of the medium was a grave mistake. These scrawny fellas from New Jersey were possessed with a sense of urgency that seemed increasingly scant in the American Post- Rock landscape. I had a theory about why this was happening: several bands of the ’90s had convinced a generation of would-be songwriters that it was uncool to try too hard in the genre of rock, and from my cursory examination of the present scene in the ’00s, plenty of folks had taken this dumb lesson to heart. The manic, firecracker energy on display during the +@ set that night indicated it was likely their last show; in reality, it was one of their first.
The order proceeded from there like so: first I was a fan, then we were peers, and by the time Stickles unexpectedly moved to Boston in 2008, we were calling each other friends. Because the events surrounding Patrick’s brief Massachusetts residency provided some of the inspiration for the diary-on-fire lyrics that dominated Titus’s second record, we were tapped to help make its ambitious vision a reality. That’s Hallelujah the Hills all over The Monitor playing trumpet, cello, and piano; I’m the backing vocalist on “A More Perfect Union”, in which Stickles instructed me to sing like I was “the voice of Boston” to counter his Jersey-transplant confessional. Later, helping touring that record, I stood on stage at the Pitchfork Festival where I watched Stickles grind the thrilling performance to a halt to stare at himself on a jumbotron screen and remark how it made him think of the illusions we often accept as total reality. Later that night, he had me descend a spiral staircase onto the stage, microphone in hand, to sing a duet with him. It was a showmanship move right out of a Vegas revue that he insisted occur in the middle of a punk-fueled setlist. Again, another perfect contradiction.
A Productive Cough opens with “Number One (In New York),” which Stickles has chosen as the LP’s debut “single,” a move we’re encouraged to chalk up as another contradiction — it seems to me — as it is an eight-minute “single” with zero semblance of a chorus. It begins like it might be a Springsteen-esque epic in the vein of “Thunder Road” but instead morphs into something more akin to Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.” As we get dragged deeper into “Number One,” we become enveloped by a key-changing, looping chord progression that provides a strange musical valley for Stickles’ most poetic rant in the +@ discography to unfurl. Here, the singer raves at villains whom we are provided some details about but who mostly remain shadowy and unknowable, and yet we know precisely the kind of person who is currently in Stickles’ crosshairs. “A guy who’s more boorish, a guy who’s more selfish, with elves as his helpers,” he sings. In 2017, I think we can all agree, we met plenty of people who might fit that description. Like that moment I witnessed with the jumbotron, Stickles takes time inside these songs to step outside the songs to offer meta-commentary on what’s happening right now, at this very moment: “Eleven years in and trying to stay relevant,” he hollers, like the musical equivalent of a self-aware footnote.
From there, the surprises are unwrapped like presents at a Festivus “Airing of Grievances” ritual: a gospel singalong, a New Orleans-style marching number, a gorgeous piano ballad about a punk tattoo, and a jolt of new life into one of the most well-worn songs of all time—where the titular accusation is turned back upon the singer himself. This is the kind of album that critics and fans, at one time, might have described and embraced as a “transition album”—a turning point LP where the rules of the game are drastically changed. These types of musical pivots were once treated with patience and fascination, but I can’t help wonder, if in the hyper- swift pace of album cycles in the streaming age, if anything besides star-studded surprise release records can still earn the attention they deserve when in competition with a playlist of “Fresh Finds” being just a click of the mouse away. All I know for sure is that this record, and Titus Andronicus’s proven track record thus far, has earned your patient ear.
“I can’t begin to think what I’d tell people back home,” Stickles sings, summating the spot he’s gotten himself into during the album’s opening track, “So I tell it to the microphone.” Over a conversation via Skype in December of 2017, I cajoled Stickles into explaining some other things into a microphone. What follows is an edited version of our discussion of the fifth Titus Andronicus album, A Productive Cough.
RW :: So, I watched the [“Number One (In New York)”] video this morning, and it’s part of a one-hour “making of the album” [documentary]? That’s footage from it?
PS :: Yes, well, throughout the whole making of the album, I was accompanied by this guy named Ray Concepcion, who is a very gifted filmmaker. He did the camera work and the editing for the music video we made for the rock opera [The Most Lamentable Tragedy, 2015], “The Magic Morning” – you might remember that, kind of a fifteen-minute “short film.” I was looking for a way to get him involved with the new album and I figured [I’d] just have him along through the recording of it. He was there every day, following the entire process. He ran the camera for almost every take on every instrument, all the basic tracks, everything. The music video is taken from that footage, as is the documentary – you can think of the music video as a sort of “trailer,” if you like.
RW :: How do you know him?
PS :: Well, back in the olden, golden days of the New York DIY scene, he could often be found taking videos of bands – this was in, like, 2007-2010. He shot hundreds of videos, hundreds of bands. It felt like he was at every show you would go to, and he would put [these videos] up on his Vimeo page – he had quite the esteemed reputation in those days. I had a chance encounter with him where we were able to reconnect, back in, like, 2014 and I asked him to work on that one video for the rock opera.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He’s a very singular artist – he has a very distinct voice, if you will, with the camera. You know how there are certain musicians who can pick up a guitar and play the same three chords as anybody else, but you know instantly that it’s them, like a Neil Young or somebody? I feel like he has that with the camera. It seems like a simple thing to the layperson, just pointing it at yr subject, but he has a real special way that a lot of his personality comes through.
He’s very admirable to me – he’s got a real DIY ethic about him. He owns and he travels with this whole “rig” – he’s got the camera, he’s got all the lights, he’s got the audio equipment, the lavaliere mics and everything. He mixes the audio, he does his color-grading, he does his editing – he does it all, so he’s a very singular, self-contained, self-sufficient artist. He’s got very strong artistic values as well – he has an extremely low tolerance for bullshit so it was very useful for me to have him around because, with him around, it’s almost impossible to compromise or think about pandering or bring up, “oh, what will the media think about any of this stuff we’re doing?” If you did any of that, he would slap you down right away, so I just skipped that whole part, knowing that I would be in deep trouble with him if I did.
Furthermore, I found through this process that I work a lot better when I have an audience of some kind, someone towards whom I can “do the thing,” because if I’m just doing it all by myself, alone in a vacuum, I’m likely to get distracted or say, “oh, you know, fuck this.” Making the record under his steadfast gaze compelled me to work as hard and take it as seriously as he did.
RW :: That’s why a lot of people like to believe in God, you know? They want an audience.
PS :: Right, right – “God is whoever yr performing for,” right? Was that Built to Spill?
RW :: Right! When and how will the documentary come out?
PS :: The documentary will come out February 26th. The people will be able to watch it online and it will give them, hopefully, some kind of insight into the making of the record and, because Ray Concepcion is in charge, it’s gonna look beautiful, very striking.
RW :: Is each album you write a reaction to the one that came before it?
PS :: To a certain extent, I suppose.
RW :: Talk about this reaction.
PS :: The previous album we made, the rock opera, was an attempt at quite a grand statement, trying to encompass a lot of different things, both musically and thematically. That record was 29 tracks, 93 minutes long, so I certainly couldn’t have decided afterwards that the logical thing would be to make a 56-track, 186-minute record – that would have just been absurd. I had to go in the other direction. This album has a much narrower focus, both in terms of the nature of the material and the sheer volume of it.
RW :: It’s a short track list, but they’re long songs. Is that just how it came out or did you have that in mind?
PS :: I knew that I wanted it to be a lot tidier and more concise in the runtime than the rock opera and seven [tracks] is certainly a lucky number but, you know, it’s like a bucket that you have to fill based on the physical limitations of the LP and the length of people’s attention spans. Basically, I threw the songs that I had in there which fit the theme I wanted to pursue and when it was full up, that’s the record right there. The track list makes it seem that it’s maybe a little shorter than it is, but there’s a lot of great records that we love like that – White Light / White Heat comes to mind, or maybe Neil Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It’s meant to be hearty but digestible.
RW :: Sure, and it is. I was surprised by the album in good ways. If you had asked me how you might follow up the opera, I would have had some guesses but I don’t think they’d be much like what you hear on this record. There’s waltzes, there’s marches – it’s gospel at times. Do you think yr fans are going to be surprised and / or shocked? Do you picture yr fans’ reactions before or after you finish a record?
PS :: I try not to. You can’t allow the expectations of others to fit into yr artistic process too much because then you get into danger of pandering to them, which is the enemy of artistry. I would say that even though this record is different, I don’t think it’s coming completely out of nowhere. I’ve followed this career quite closely, being the one doing it, and I think the songs that are on here could have fit pretty comfortably onto any previous Titus Andronicus album, for the most part. Every album that we’ve made has had ballads, waltzes, things like that – every record’s got at least one of those, and even the rockers have oftentimes employed sort of traditional American song forms.
RW :: It’s true but now there’s only those.
PS :: Right, well, that’s the thing that’s different about it — that it’s this particular idea spread across the length of an entire album.
RW :: No “punk bangers.”
PS :: There’s no “punk bangers” on this one, no. I’m reminded of an interview that I saw, which I just so happen to have here, with the author George Saunders. You ever read any of this guy’s books? I have not ready any of his books.
RW :: I have read short stories and interviews with him. Some authors who I’ve never really dug into, I still like to read their interviews. A good interview becomes its own entertaining/rewarding part of their output.
PS :: Sometimes the interview is all you need. I only read a couple interviews from this guy and I read one thing he did for the New Yorker, but none of his books. In this interview, he’s talking about this book Lincoln in the Bardo that he wrote and he talks about how, in the books that he’d been previously known for, he’s been praised for using quite a contemporary voice. People like him because they think he really writes how people talk today, but this Lincoln book is a piece of historical fiction so he couldn’t have the historical characters talking that way.
He says, “I’m going to give up my best gift, which is the contemporary verbal thing, and I’m going to hope and trust that some other benefit is going to be gleamed from that constraint.” He goes on to say, “I know I have a very tiny little box of talent that I’ve worked all these years. To deny yourself one of those gifts is kind of a nice way to see what else there is in the box.” I related to this very much because, as you noticed, there are no “punk bangers” on this album, which are, to a certain degree, what I have become known for in my career.
RW :: Yr quite good at it.
PS :: Well, thank you, but I don’t necessarily believe that the creation of “punk bangers” is the essential element of my artistry. To my mind, that punk rock stuff is just one tool out of the toolbox from which I might draw to achieve my concise purpose. I’m more concerned right now with what is being signified, rather than the signifiers, you know what I’m saying? Thing like extreme volume or fast tempos or a lot of screaming – these are just signifiers of intensity and, if I take those away, perhaps I can illuminate what it is I think my true purpose as an artist is.
I’ll just pull up another quote, from Trey Anastasio of the band Phish – not a band whose music I spend much time listening to, but I did watch a documentary they made to satisfy my, shall we say, anthropological interest, wherein he says, “Some of the grand ideas are mellowing in exchange for the grandest idea, which is communication.”
RW :: Well, that’s a beautiful thing, and I relate to that a bunch. Writing this book was definitely out of my comfort zone, but I felt I had landed somewhere new and interesting once it was done.
PS :: Ah yes, Astral Weeks : A Secret History of 1968, available March 6th 2018 from Penguin Press. I’ve read it – it’s an excellent book, extremely illuminating. I was very touched to be included in the acknowledgments – thank you for that.
RW :: Yeah, man. What’d you think?
PS :: I thought it was fantastic — every page had a new revelation. It casts a light on a rich part of rock history that is too often neglected. I’m wondering how you felt about making that transition, moving from music into book-writing because, obviously, so many musicians fantasize about this when they get to a certain age and now you’ve done it.
RW :: Well, it wasn’t like a transition, strictly – it was like an add-on, because I keep doing the music, too. It felt very different from songwriting, more like writing down how I might orally tell a story to someone. My lyrics are not like how I would tell a story to someone in person; they’re like fragments of a story run through a poetry washing machine. So while the writing itself came fairly easy to me, the time management of it all was one of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with. I knew I wanted to talk to all these people – there were over a hundred substantial interviews – and then I have a day job as well, plus I just felt indebted to all these people, sharing their stories and wanting to get it right, because I wasn’t there, obviously, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. It was the hardest thing but really rewarding in the end.
But back to you, this seems like a move, from what you’ve told me, supported by the current label yr on.
PS :: Oh yes.
RW :: What a gift! Right now, yr in a moment where certain people want to squeeze any of that punk stuff out of you right now – “this is the moment, we need more.” It’s the opposite at Merge – is that correct?
PS :: Yeah — I can remember a moment, a very definitive, formative moment, maybe around the end of 2016. I was texting with my record company boss Laura Ballance, who we remember from all those great Superchunk albums and who is a very exemplary American small-business owner, someone I admire very much. She said something like, “so are you gonna give us a new album anytime soon?” I said, “oh, you know, I got a couple ideas, you know, whatever” – which was mostly a lie – and she said to me, “well, when yr done with it, whatever it is, we want to put it out. Our love is unconditional. We support you no matter what. Whatever it is, we want to put it out.” So I said, “wow,” and I decided right then and there that I would really try to make her eat those words.
RW :: [laughs] And now… I consider this kind of a double-layer surprise cake, because the tour is also unusual. Tell me all about that.
PS :: The tour is going to be an “acoustic” tour, that is true, although not literally “acoustic” because obviously I would never let people see me playing an acoustic guitar.
RW :: I’ve seen you play an acoustic guitar.
PS :: Maybe around the house, maybe hanging out – not on stage. Twelve years into my career, I’ve not played an acoustic guitar on stage and I don’t plan to. On the tour that we’re going to do, I’m going to have the electric guitar and I’m going to have all my stacks. In fact, I’ll have an even bigger stack than the one that I [use to] play with the rock band, because there’s going to be plenty of fallow real estate on stage, so I don’t have to hold back in that regard.
It’s true, though – the tour is not going to be with a rock band. I’m going to be playing in a duo configuration with the pianist Alex Molini, an enormously talented guy who made an tremendous contribution to the record. He was pretty much my left-hand man through the whole thing.
RW :: That has to be, to a certain extent, fairly scary for you? Performing without a full band?
PS :: When we were doing the promotional exercises in the tour behind the rock opera, I was doing a lot more appearances like that, playing solo or just myself with a pianist. This would happen at record stores, radio stations, places like that, and I found it all very stimulating, artistically. In fact, I can remember a moment in the Autumn of 2015 when we did an appearance in a record store in Los Angeles, just me and the piano player we had at that time — after the show, I spoke to one guy as he was walking out and he said, “hey, that was really good – you should make an album like that.” I was, like, “you know, he just might be right – maybe I should make an album like that.” The album didn’t turn out to be quite that spartan, of course, but it did encourage my interest in performing in that capacity.
When yr performing in a smaller configuration, there can be opportunities for much greater freedom and spontaneity. When you get up there with the rock band, there’s a certain limited number of songs everybody in the band knows. People are expecting to hear a certain number of their favorite greatest hits. It can be a bit rigid.
Now, this is not to say I don’t love playing with the rock band, and the current rock band configuration of Titus Andronicus is fantastic, which includes Chris Wilson on drums, R.J. Gordon on bass, and Liam Betson on guitar. They feature on several songs on the new record and we continue to rehearse and work on new material.
For this particular tour, though, this particular “cycle,” I wanted to take a different approach and see if the essential element of Titus Andronicus would still be discernible after stripping away much of the ornamentation people might typically associate with that name. Without the raw power of a loud rock band to hide behind, I hope I can achieve a greater intimacy with the audience, more of a conversation than just eighty minutes of me yelling at them. You can take this looser, more conversational approach when you are working with a smaller ensemble, especially with such a nimble and sympathetic musician as Alex Molini.
RW :: Total spontaneity can happen.
PS :: Yeah, real freedom – that’s what I’m interested in now.
RW :: Well, here’s what’s interesting to me – you chose to cover a Dylan song on this album that’s kind of tied directly to the moment when he shocked his own fan base. I think that’s why you chose it.
PS :: Right – well, you know, I’m very much trying to do a reverse Bob Dylan routine with this album, in a way.
RW :: [laughs]
PS :: You’ll notice on the Bob Dylan cover, I switch all the pronouns, from the second person to the first person.
RW :: I was getting to it! Everyone knows that song – it’s ingrained in the culture, but we’ve always been able to sing it and love it and embrace all the lyrics’ charges about someone else not knowing what’s up. What I get from you changing [from the second person to the first person], is the finger [pointing] back at you, and as a result, the listener too. Was this a hard look at yrself? Did it get uncomfortable?
PS :: Well, it’s always a bit uncomfortable to look at yrself in an honest way. When I was a younger guy, I could listen to that Bob Dylan song and think about all the people that did me wrong and imagine I was pointing the finger at them. Bob was, like, twenty-four or twenty-five when he did that song – I’m thirty-two now, and I’ve come to believe that, ultimately, we are the architects of our own happiness or our own sorrow. You can cast about looking for someone else on whom to place the blame, but ultimately yr going to be stuck with yrself, so I’m trying to take greater responsibility. It’s backwards Bob Dylan, like I say, and just like I’m flipping it from accusing someone else to accusing myself, we’re going to flip it with the live show from a rock band to an acoustic act, just like Bob Dylan did, but backwards.
RW :: When you talk about defying an audience’s expectations…there’s something inherent in that the idea that confrontational art is kind of healthy for the artist and the audience – do you believe that?
PS :: Absolutely.
RW :: It is always fun, though?
PS :: Well, I hope that, at the end of the night, they’re going to say that they had fun – the audience, I mean. They might be a little bit uncomfortable at first, but if you just do the same thing over and over again, that gets to be potentially a little bit stagnant. Again, it’s not to say that I never want to play with the rock band again or that I’m never going to write another “punk banger,” because I still love all that stuff, but this different sort of music was the thing that was in my heart now and I have a certain responsibility to honor that. Like I said, I’m trying to illuminate what I think my concise, essential purpose as an artist is, and I don’t necessarily think that that’s for the creation of “punk bangers.” If I dedicate myself full-time to the creation of “punk bangers,” my career might not be that long.
RW :: And you might stagnate inside, too. You talk about the music that’s in yr heart – let’s talk about the most heartfelt song on the album, in my ears [“Crass Tattoo”]. I believe, [this is] the only album to deal with Dylan and Crass in nearly the same breath. I think you showed me that tattoo a week after you got it. We were in the parking lot of the studio in Medford [Massachusetts]. You showed me this tattoo and I instantly knew it meant a lot to you, even though I wasn’t familiar with the band. This song is really beautiful – you chose Megg [Farrell] to sing it and it talks about a tattoo as kind of a coming-of-age ritual.
PS :: Well, one of the big things about the punk ideology is that you need to be constantly assessing and re-assessing yr values. I got that tattoo on my twenty-fourth birthday, as I explain in the song, which is a true story. Earlier in that summer, I got my hands on a copy of The Story of Crass by George Berger, which is a great book. It was given to us after we did a concert in Manchester, England. In those days, we used to always try to solicit the audience to let us come and stay at their house because we didn’t have money for a hotel, and at that particular show, we met a man named Veg, who was so named because he was a hardcore vegan. He was from the first wave of punk. He must have been, like, fifty or sixty years old at that time but he was still at it, still going out to gigs and still happy to have the band come back and stay at his “flat” after the show, so he invited us, though he said, “the only thing I ask is that you don’t eat any meat on the premises,” which was fine by me – I’d been a vegetarian for a few years at that point.
We went back to his house and found that he had a very extensive collection of punk ephemera and memorabilia, including many rare 7”s by the band Crass. I didn’t know very much about the band at that time, but my buddy Liam Betson did and he was talking to Veg about them. Veg said, “take this book.” I read that book in about twenty-four or thirty-six hours and found it extremely stimulating and illuminating. It tied together for me a lot of the interests that I’d had up to that point, including punk rock but also existentialism and surrealism, situationism, all kinds of “ism’s,” all kinds of ideas about radicalism and social justice, not to mention connecting the punk movement of the 70’s with the kind of “peace and love” hippie movement of the 60’s. It tied it all together in a nice package with a nice little bow on it.
It was an intensely moving book, and I can remember thinking, “the way that I feel now about all these things is something that I never want to forget, so I better make some kind of big gesture so that I don’t just cast them aside when life gets to be too difficult.” So, about a month later, I went out on my twenty-fourth birthday and got a tattoo of the Crass logo on my right arm, which is my dominant arm – that’s the arm I use to do most things, and it was an attempt to make a sort of promise that I wouldn’t do anything with the arm of which Crass would not approve, which is a promise on which I’ve probably come up quite short a number of times.
RW :: [laughs] Why have Megg sing it?
PS :: For one thing, she’s got a much more gorgeous voice than I, and I want to be entitled, once in a while, to make a song that’s simply gorgeous, that doesn’t have to be compromised by my own limitations as a vocalist. Also, Crass has an album called Penis Envy, which is their big feminist statement. On that album, the regular lead vocalist, Steve Ignorant, does not appear on any of the tracks — Eve Libertine and Joy de Vivre take all the lead vocals. I thought that it would be in keeping with the mission and the message of Crass for the cis-male, myself, to step aside for a moment and not hog so much of the spotlight. It was an ideological consideration but it was also a practical consideration, because it made for a much more beautiful, effective track than if I was on there squawking as usual.
RW :: I have to admit that’s true. In the lyrics to that song, as you presented them to me, there’s one line that’s in quotes, but when I Googled it, it didn’t come up – “may I never know more than I know now.” I couldn’t find the source – is it Crass?
PS :: No, that’s just something that I said at that time — I mean, I projected those words onto my younger self.
RW :: Oh, I see.
PS :: That’s just a way of saying, “may I remain steadfast in these values and may the weight of the world never become so heavy that I weaken and decide to sell out in some way.”
RW :: Right.
PS :: “May I never forget this — may I never become so jaded or cynical that I cast these young person’s values aside in favor of a more ‘practical’ / ‘adult’ life, where I’ll have to make along the compromises that come along with it.”
RW :: Anybody who tries to stay mindful of [these] things tries to stay aware, to some extent, of ideologies or promises they make [as] their younger selves that they promise to check in with later, but I suspect many folk do that less and less as they get older. Survival often trumps ideals. I find the idea of the tattoo and now the song… it’s like you put one mile marker down with the tattoo at age 24 and now place another marker with the song at 32. It’s like stringing a fence around yrself, a positive fence. I like it.
PS :: Well, you know, as we get older, it becomes harder and harder to keep in touch with the younger part of ourselves that’s maybe more idealistic, heartier, with more strength to keep at these kinds of things, so that song was just an attempt to sort of check in with my younger self, like you say. When yr twenty-four, it’s very easy to say, “I’m going to go out on this great adventure and I’m never going to sell out, and I’m going to be strong forever,” but when yr thirty-two, it gets to be a little more difficult and I’m sure it’ll be harder still later on. It’s a song that’s less about a particular set of values and more about the process of trying to keep in touch with those values, to keep slugging it out, year after year.
RW :: I have seen you be critical of other [artists] who take money from a bank, for instance. I do it too, so don’t think this is going to be a “gotcha” moment.
PS :: That’s fine.
RW :: Do you feel [Titus Andronicus] stayed true to those ideals, or you personally? Do you [still] feel compelled to call other artists out when they disappoint you?
PS :: Well, I’m not as much in the “call-out” business as I used to be. I’m trying to mostly stay away from that. I’m not trying to ignite any new feuds. I guess I’ve done more than my fair share of that in the past. Maybe I had some good intentions, along with my youthful arrogance, but, nowadays, I think that it’s better to try to lead by example than to try and put somebody else down. You should really try to do yr best yrself, first. I like to think that we haven’t sold out just yet – obviously, every artist makes a certain amount of compromises and you could say that engaging with and working within the capitalist system at all is a kind of compromise. There’s certainly plenty of artists who are more hardcore [about that] than I [am.]
RW :: But you’ve had offers.
PS :: A few here and there – the last one was probably some years ago. They know enough not to bring those to me anymore. People care about [“selling out”] less and less, it seems, but I want to be able to look back on “the career” someday and see that it’s as free from compromise as it possibly could have been. Those sorts of compromises one could make are only moments in time and of course, money is a renewable resource.
RW :: All right, so, [the song] “Real Talk” – I love this song because it’s a protest song and it’s obviously written in reaction to right now, but it could have been [written] anytime between 1940 and now – yr reference of a “reel-to-reel” kind of places it [such that] the earliest it could be is 1940 but, besides that, anybody could have sang that in any modern decade. Was that on purpose or by accident?
PS :: It definitely was inspired by the current situation in which we find ourselves – actually, it was the first song that I wrote after the inauguration of our current president, but I didn’t want to write some song that was going to be tied to that moment and that moment only. Things are moving so fast nowadays that a lot of political material or material which addresses current events is in great danger of becoming quickly dated, you know? In fact, I wrote that song in, like, January of 2017, and I sing about how “we’re in for a real big war,” so, over the past ten or eleven months, in addition to worrying about whatever new catastrophe or cataclysm might befall our country or our world, I’m also thinking, “gosh, this song could easily become irrelevant,” should it end up being released at a time when we’re not in for a real big war but right in the thick of it, heaven forbid.
I wanted to talk about the current situation in such a way that would show that, even though most of us are pretty shocked and startled by the things that are going on now, it really is nothing new and versions of this have been happening since the beginning – that’s why I say, “shit isn’t new until it happens to you.” I wanted to make it so that it was accessible to whoever and try to write it in such a way that… not to make it, like, purposefully vague, but to talk about the things that are happening now in a way that will connect them to things that happened before and, perhaps, to things that are bound to happen in the future.
RW :: What I really liked about it… well, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase tossed around online, “President Trump’s gonna make punk rock great again?” Have you heard this, someone say some semblance [of this]?
PS :: I’ve heard it, here and there.
RW :: Well, when I picture what that phrase literally means, I imagine kind of a ham-fisted, slapped-together punk song with lyrics about Trump directly, like, quoting his shitty tweets, and other things that will be date the track nearly instantly. I’ve felt that there is some truth to the sentiment but also that it’s not going to happen in a way that anyone could predict a bad thing will make an art thing “great again.” Hearing “Real Talk” was just, like, “oh yeah – here’s a good way to actually do a protest song in 2017.” It’s not embarrassing, it’s not dated – it’s just, like, evergreen and full of, unfortunately, some things that will probably be true for a long time.
PS :: Most likely, yeah. Well, you know, we made that Civil War album [ The Monitor, 2010 ] about seven years ago, and that was kind of the same thing – you know, talking about a distant moment in history but which could just as easily be talking about modern day.
RW :: [laughs] It’s now time to talk about yr favorite song on the album, “Above The Bodega (Local Business),” which you think is the best song you’ve ever written, if I’m not mistaken.
PS :: Is that what I said in the questionnaire?
RW :: You absolutely did.
PS :: Yeah, I suppose I did.
RW :: When I was first listening to this album, on a bike ride in New York City on a temperate October night…I’m listening to the intro, I’m listening to yr opening lyrics, and when you finally reveal who you can’t keep a secret from, I took it as a punch line. I laughed out loud – do you think that song’s funny?
PS :: There’s a certain humorous intent to it. It’s slightly light-hearted but that sort of masks something a little bit darker, because the clerk at the bodega in my building, you know, he really does know the secrets that I would like to keep from my other loved ones. If I have to go and buy a beer from him at noon, that’s our little understanding and he doesn’t judge me, but that’s not something that I would necessarily tell my parents.
RW :: But aren’t you doing that in a way by putting out the song?
PS :: Well, sure! A song is a good place to make yr confessions.
RW :: Why?
PS :: It’s just easier. A lot of times, art can say the things that we can’t say. There’s a certain amount of distance that is created when yr telling it to the microphone instead of another person, but secrets are very toxic baggage and if you let go of that stuff you can unburden yrself to a certain degree. This was something that I had found was a real thing in my life, this particular relationship with these people that work in the deli, where they know a lot about the way that I live on any given day based on the things that I consume, and I couldn’t quite think of a song which had elucidated that.
When I stumble upon a concept like that, I like to try sometimes to write these sort of “essential songs,” such as “The Boys Are Back In Town,” which will always be the ultimate go-to song whenever yr crazy friends have returned to the old scene, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” – there will never be a more definitive song about how, when people from the old days get together, they just want to talk about high school. This was my attempt to write the definitive song about the fact that the people from whom you purchase yr consumer goods have sometimes a more truthful vision of you than the vision that you try to present to the other people in yr life, when you can be more selective with the pieces of yr life that you choose to share with them.
RW :: Isn’t it crazy, though – yr trying to think of these moments, these life moments, to write the definitive song take on – so much of it is left on the table. So much of songwriting is about a very narrow type of experience, mostly romance.
PS :: Yes, or general ennui.
RW :: Yeah, so when I hear a song like this [about] the inability to hide something from the person who sells you your vices, that just… I was very tickled. Truly “L-O-L”ing. In that song, you say, “he’s never seen me on the internet” – what would this guy see if he saw you on the internet? [Who] is the Patrick Stickles that’s on the internet?
PS :: Oh, gosh – I just mean that, to him, I’m just any other consumer, just another customer. He doesn’t have any concept that I am some kind of “rock star” or anything like that, nor has he seen the sort of carefully curated, flattering portrait that people will try to create for themselves on their social media platforms.
RW :: Would you play him this song when it comes out?
PS :: I probably will, yeah.
RW :: I can figure out kind of why you wrote or at least why you put every song on the album, except the last one [“Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco’)”] – I don’t think of you much as a commuter, in the sense that most people associate [with] the glumness of [a] daily commute. Yr commutes are different, giant drives across the country etc. Why end the album with that song? What is that song about for you?
PS :: That song is just about the struggle to keep going, day after day, to keep throwing yr body upon the gears. Sometimes we comfort ourselves with the idea that, at some point, the toil will be over and we can just relax, but the further I get into my life and my career, the more I see that that really is an illusion, a fantasy. It’s less about trying to achieve an end to yr toiling and yr labor and more about trying to live with the knowledge that that is going to be the substance of yr life, you know?
So many of the songs on this record are about that, about the struggle to keep going, knowing that there’s not necessarily some kind of great reward waiting for you – it’s more about just trying to honor the process and to accept that, to use the old cliché, that “it’s not the destination but the journey.” You have to take what you can out of that. Earlier in my career, I might have entertained the notion that, if I made a certain series of choices, that I would be on Easy Street and there would not be any more worrying or anxiety or any more of the stuff that I don’t want to do, but now I see that that’s just most likely never going to happen, and that’s okay. That’s just the way that life is and, even if you’ll never be fully comfortable in that, you need to acknowledge it and you need to be aware of it to carry on doing it.
RW :: I feel like maybe you started to be aware of that [on] the third album [Local Business]. What’s that song where you sing “some of my dreams are coming true”?
PS :: Oh, “In A Big City.”
RW :: Yeah – is that related?
PS :: I mean, they’re all related, you know? I keep hammering away at these same old themes.
RW :: They’re all a detailed explanation of what it’s like to have “Patrick Stickles Disease.”
PS :: That’s right, exactly. All of it is just to try to find the strength to carry on, to keep going. By making these songs, I’m trying to remind myself to keep looking for that strength and, hopefully, in doing so, I will also remind the audience and we can enter into a kind of mutual validation cycle amongst ourselves.
RW :: Well, it’s better than being an accountant?
PS :: Maybe!
RW :: Maybe, yeah, right.
PS :: I can’t deny that I often fantasize about what it would be like to have more of a “straight” life, where I could just punch in and punch out.
RW :: The grass is always greener.
PS :: Absolutely, always.
RW :: But it’s grass on both sides.
PS :: Well, you know – of course, as soon as I had gotten out of the arts and gotten into some workaday job, I would only be fantasizing about getting back on stage. This is the path that I’m on and I’m trying to just carry on along it. I’m just looking for the strength to keep at it and trying to share that strength with the people that maybe need it.
RW :: And yr doing it at a time, in a genre… I think we’ve talked about this or I’ve read you talking about this – rock and roll is in a fallow period, influence-wise, popularity-wise. Do you agree?
PS :: I think we can certainly agree on that. I think that everybody mostly agrees on that.
RW :: There’s positives and negatives in being in that knock-down position, as a lover and creator of the genre in question. What is it like for you to be working in a genre that a lot of people have written off, that has been sorta minimized?
PS :: The dangling carrot that may have been in front of rockers in the past is maybe not in front of me now. This is not the idiom in which you pursue global superstardom anymore, but that’s okay. I think that gives me a certain opportunity to nurture a relationship with my audience that is, potentially, I hope, more useful to them because they themselves are never going to probably be global superstars. They themselves are never going to be on Easy Street.
RW :: Maybe it’s unhealthy in general for anyone to be a global superstar.
PS :: I’m hoping that it’s not necessary to a happy life.
RW :: I don’t think it is, man.
PS :: The thing that I’m trying to embody right now, for the benefit of my audience and for their validation, is not necessarily some kind of god-like being that is beyond the worries and concerns and anxieties of the common person – those are my worries and anxieties also. Hopefully, when they see me sticking at it after all these years and trying not to give up, that will fortify them in such a way that maybe someone with a ninety-person crew and all these millions of dollars perhaps could not.
RW :: Right! The secret advantage in being in the gutter.
PS :: People are in the gutter and, if the artist is down there too with them in a way that they can believe and identify with, maybe, I hope, that could be more helpful to them. Either way, that’s where I’m at, so I might as well try to get something out of it.
Ryan H. Walsh is a musician and journalist. His culture writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Vice, and Boston Magazine. He was a finalist for the Missouri School of Journalism’s City and Regional Magazine Award for his feature on Van Morrison’s year in Boston, from which this book developed. His rock band Hallelujah the Hills has won praise from Spin magazine and Pitchfork; collaborated on a song with author Jonathan Lethem; and toured the U.S. extensively over their 10-year existence. The band won a Boston Music Award for Best Rock Artist, and Walsh has twice won the award for Best Video Direction. He lives in Boston with his wife, the acclaimed singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler.