A funny thing happened to punk rock as it made its way towards history’s dustbin. Beginning in the early ’90s it seemed inevitable that punk would be reduced to some rote formula. All of the energy and creativity was bled out of the music. It was a sound and fashion used to appeal to prepubescent kids and Madison Avenue advertising agencies that needed yet another template for selling ass-cream to the masses. But then suddenly in the 2000s punk seemed to rediscover the anarchic energies that drew us all to it in the first place. A new batch of bands percolated up from the underground who seemed to grasp the long-forgotten promise of punk’s first wave. Bands as diverse as Fucked Up to This Moment in Black History reminded us that the music’s boundaries were self-imposed. The time was now to recreate and reinvent the genre.
Few bands better exemplify this latest phase in the punk movement than Titus Andronicus. Formed in 2005, these Jersey kids have embraced influences as divergent as Neutral Milk Hotel and Bruce Springsteen. And while they are happy to acknowledge those influences, their sound is rooted in classic, blazing punk rock. In March, Titus released their second album, The Monitor. A concept record about, of all things, the American Civil War, The Monitor has met with critical acclaim. That same month Rolling Stone named Titus Andronicus one of the seven best new bands of 2010. More importantly, The Monitor has proven to be one of those records that challenge our conceptions of what punk rock is all about. It is a big, bold, raging album that blurs boundaries between history, philosophy, and musical genres. In our age of diminished expectations, can we ask any more from our music but that it broaden our ever-narrowing horizons? I had the opportunity to speak with Titus’ front man Patrick Stickles and get a sense of the group’s artistic vision first-hand.
So since you’re coming off of the big Chicago show, tell me about the Pitchfork Festival experience.
Oh man, it was great. It was a lot of fun. The people who put on the festival really treat the entertainment very well. They gave us all sorts of amenities. It seemed like any needs we might have were handily met in a way that was really exceptional, especially for one of these big festivals.
Have you guys done a lot of those big festivals?
Not a lot. We’ve done a handful of them. We’ve done Pitchfork twice and both times it was a really positive experience. The kids were having fun and we got to see Pavement play, which is always a great treat.
Ah yes, what an amazing experience. I haven’t had a chance to see them since they’ve re-configured, but their shows were serious events back in the day.
They really are one of the best, which has been reaffirmed enormously by having been lucky enough to have seen them three times this summer. Back when I first started getting into them when I was a teenager they had just broken up, so I waited a long time to see Pavement. They definitely did not disappoint.
Did you get a chance to meet them?
I have. We played at a festival in Spain with them back in the spring and I got to meet Mark Ibold on that occasion, and I spent most of my time at that festival and at a festival in Denmark stalking Stephen Malkmus…(laughter)…and trying to get up the courage to talk to him, and I failed at it time and again. But on the last day of the Pitchfork Festival, the rapper Big Boi played right before Pavement did and we were watching him. I saw Stephen Malkmus and I figured it was now or never. I got up all my courage and went over and said hi and it was as awesome as I could have imagined. He actually was a really nice guy! (laughter)
It might be a little bit crass to say, but I always sort of assumed that he would be like a bit of smart-ass or something based on legend, and–
That’s kind of the way he comes off in interviews sometimes. A little harsh–
Maybe. But he was really nice. He was asking about what band I was in and where I lived and stuff. It was great, it was an enormous thrill. And now there’s a picture of me and him on Facebook. (laughter) My girlfriend took it at a reasonable distance so he wouldn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t something we’d planned beforehand, but she saw me talking to him and jumped on the opportunity.
Let’s talk about The Monitor. I’ve read a ton about you guys in preparation for this interview and it seems like everyone is fixated on influences. Listening to the record I can certainly understand why, on some simplistic level, people are interested. But in the context of today’s punk rock, nothing sounds quite like this. It really is quite an achievement.
Thank you very much. I really appreciate that.
It is the structure of this thing that is so striking. I mean, it is a concept album after all, and it’s a concept album about one of the most devastating moments in American history! But there have been other records of recent vintage — for instance, I’m thinking of Neutral Milk Hotel’s Aeroplane Over the Sea — that have the same sort of epic sweep and scope as The Monitor.
For sure, that record was a huge influence on me. It was a great record, and in general it influenced how I conceived of the record. Specifically, I started to think that it could be a singular, cohesive, artistic statement. That record in particular really informed a lot of those values that I tried to emulate.
I don’t want to oversimplify anything, so please, by all means, dissent if I overstep here. But I was really struck by the sound. I know you had a lot more resources to put into this record, more than you had for the Airing of Grievances.
Oh, substantially more.
The production is really rich and full. Your first record much more clearly straddled the lo-fi line. You were trying to do a lot with little. But the complexity of the new album compared to the first is extraordinary. As you started to think your way through the process — you talk about the record as a cohesive unit — how did you get there? How did you start to think about it that way.
Well I guess it is sort of like a house of mirrors maybe, you know? It didn’t really start out as this huge thing. The concept very much revealed itself through the process, you know what I mean?
I didn’t really start out with a specific set of goals beyond some very vague ones. I was thinking about the cohesive whole. I was also thinking about the other values that we strive for in our group. Rocking out and emotional resonance and all those things. In moving along, new elements presented themselves and I followed them wherever they happened to lead me. I’m still figuring it all out even now. (laughter) It is an ongoing thing like any piece of art. You create the piece and then there is the inevitable retrospective interpretation of the art. Meanings change even to me.
The meaning can’t be locked in stone. Music isn’t a museum piece.
Well, for sure. And everything changes. I’m not the same person I was when I made it. A good piece of art is one that can mean different but equally important things to a person in many stages of their life, like so many of my favorite records have continued to have meaning. As I’ve gotten older and my perception of the world has changed — the records that can hold up to that test really are the good ones. Will our record prove to be that? I can’t say, but hopefully.
There is something really interesting happening underneath that label “punk rock” right now. When I was a kid and the first wave of punk hit, you had bands like the Ramones who were doing this very elemental thing — two-minute songs and three chords — but you also had, say, the Talking Heads who were experimenting with all sorts of rhythms and synth sounds. Both bands could coexist easily under the label of “punk rock.”
Yeah man, that’s true. That is because punk in its purist form doesn’t sound like any one thing at all. I think about that all the time when I listen to older punk music, especially on old punk compilations where you can really hear a lot of different sounds. It is tough to imagine a scene or genre-umbrella that could be as inclusive of so many different things as it was back then, before punk and indie kind of went their separate ways. The original freedom got replaced by all these genres and sub-genres. Punk bands and indie rock bands were born out of that sense of freedom.
Absolutely. You’re reminding me of this experience I had way back in 1984. I was living in DC. I went out one night to the 9:30 Club to see the Minutemen. Back then, DC hardcore was starting to blow up and the hardcore kids were out in force. That whole scene has been romanticized to hell and back, but it was really violent. It was a pretty weird scene. That night, the Minutemen — you know, they would go from straight hardcore to free jazz. They knew no boundaries. They played anything and everything. And that night those kids just freaked out. They didn’t fit the parameters of what these hardcore kids demanded. And they start spitting on the band. I mean, dozens of these kids hocking up at the stage. There’s footage of this in the documentary We Jam Econo. Of course, the Minutemen just keep playing. Balls to the wall. They aren’t stopping for nothing, and maybe what’s most extraordinary, they didn’t even show any real malice towards the audience. There’s just this resignation, like, “What the hell.” To me, the whole scene was a metaphor for the compartmentalization of the music. It just got so stale after awhile.
But now something is really happening again. What you guys are doing is representative of that. There’s this whole folk-turn that a number of bands are taking that is just so interesting. There are bands like Fucked Up, and Times New Viking, and Pissed Jeans, and those bands that are doing really interesting things. I mean, who knew you could put an 11-minute punk song on an album and it could be compelling? (laughter) But you guys do it. Is there something out there in the culture right now that you think might be contributing to the ferment? It seems like punk is more interesting now than it has been in 20 years!
There definitely could be. And Fucked Up, like you say, are definitely leading the charge as far as recognizing that we need not surrender the immediacy and the visceral nature of punk music for musical sophistication and innovation. You know, maybe the Minutemen are a great example. That is a band I often think about. They were down with Black Flag and the Descendents and all these groups, and is tough to imagine now the leading hardcore bands playing with a band that was as out there as the Minutemen — much less being on the same label. But you know, everything moves in cycles. Maybe it is just time for it to come around. Perhaps it’s a reaction to how kind of neutered that so much of indie rock music has become. Not to point any fingers or anything, but of late so much of the so-called “state-of-the-art” indie rock has been more divorced from punk than at any point previous in the history of these two strands of music.
I think that’s really true. Bands seem to get on a trajectory. They work hard and then things start to break and bands move up the ladder of labels based on the sorts of resources employed to make the records. You guys, for instance, move up to XL — you have access to the sorts of resources that you needed to make a really superior production sound that you get. But then there are other bands for whom it seems they feel the next step is to make a record that has a real crossover sensibility. More often than not, it seems like it breaks the band rather than makes the band. Quite frankly, that path seems almost to be a commonplace. Maybe you have to know where you’re going from the very beginning or else you run the risk of falling into the trap.
You guys are critics’ darlings. That means there’s a ton of buzz and with it a ton of pressure. Now you’ve been named one of Rolling Stone’s “Best New Bands.” So what does it feel like now? How do you negotiate these treacherous shoals?
Well, you know like you were saying about looking for more success in the indie rock world — I mean, some of these bands have a much higher ceiling than they would have had 10 years ago. Arcade Fire is selling out Madison Square Garden! You have to keep these things in perspective. If you get to into chasing these carrots that you perceive dangling in front of you, that’s the best way of losing sight of actually doing what you want to do. You really don’t want to be seen as pandering. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t cool to be in Rolling Stone. It definitely was. But part of not tailoring my decision to not try and be in more issues of Rolling Stone is to not put too much weight on that stuff. (laughter) I have to remind myself that real validation has to come from within. That said, it is convenient for me because, like, my parents think its really cool for sure, so…
Well, frankly, it is really cool. (laughter)
I mean, it is cool, don’t get me wrong, but when my parents see us in Rolling Stone they don’t think its so crazy for us to be running around the country in a van. So it is definitely nice in that sense. But I have to treat it like any other stimulus. It could lead me to the “palace of wisdom” or some sort of horrible dungeon. (laughter)
Way back in the day, when I first started doing this stuff for Verbicide, I interviewed both Justin Sane of Anti-Flag and Tom Gabel of Against Me! just as both bands were signing to major labels.
Wow, and one of those guys has remained ethical and the other less-so. And not the one I would have guessed. (laughter)
Those interviews are really telling. Justin Sane was very straightforward, very matter-of-fact about why the band was taking the cash. I appreciated that. I have struggled enough in my life to hate all that rhetoric about “selling out.” I’m not even sure what that means. I can’t fault anybody who says a little extra money isn’t such a bad thing. But there was such rage coming up from the grassroots directed at Gabel and Against Me! Gabel was far more ambivalent about the process. He was less forthcoming and really hesitant about describing how the band’s decision was made. I was a little surprised. It is not like signing to Sire Records is the Seventh Sign.
Well the Ramones did it. (laughter) What is different about that, though, is it was one for Against Me! to have started out being completely opposite of — defining themselves in opposition to all that corporate, big record company stuff. They made such a big stink about putting their values out there and saying they would never compromise those values. To the point where they even had that movie about how they were never going to change. That stuff hurts. You know, when I was younger and just starting to properly understand what punk was all about, that was an enormously important group for me. They taught me a lot about punk’s communal power. For them to turn their back on a lot of that stuff did not put a smile on my face. But at the same time, I couldn’t begrudge them. I feel like I have an understanding of what their lives probably were like. I’ve gone through and go through now a lot of the same things.
I guess my point was that one band just owned it: “Yes, we know it flies in the face of a lot of the things we sing about, but we feel like we can do it and still be politically engaged.” To me, that defused a lot of the rancor directed at their decision. But Against Me! had the whole video mocking the process of signing to a major, but then within a year they turned around and did the deed. I thought maybe the interview would be an opportunity to just lay it out. But instead he got mad. (laughter)
That’s just it. That’s his business. Whatever they want to do, it is not up to me to hold them up to some ideological standard. But now they have that song “I Was a Teenage Anarchist.” To me they’re saying, “Oh, forget about all that stuff that we said before because we were just young and stupid just like you are now.” Now they seem to be telling us reject all that anarcho-punk stuff and get into something else — presumably capitalism it would appear. So that is like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. And that bothers me. Punk ethics are important. They can do whatever they want, but don’t try to belittle something that might be important to somebody else if it’s not in keeping with your priorities now. I think that is despicable.
I’m certainly not defending them. I have no dog in this fight. I could care less what they do. But I think a lot of Against Me!’s more strident reactions to all this is born of a certain amount of pain. The abuse they take is just incredible. I saw them a few years ago at a big outdoor festival and most people were just enjoying the music, but there was a crew right in front of the stage just heaping scorn and abuse on those guys. Really hammering Tom Gabel. It may be immature to lash out in song, but at the same time there is a lot of pain and bitter frustration fueling those songs as well.
I can definitely see that. But I also definitely identify with those people [in front of the stage] just because I can remember how important what they were talking about was to me.
Absolutely. I understand. Let’s get back to the context of this line of questioning. With so many good things happening right now, once you get all the touring behind you, what does the immediate future for Titus Andronicus look like? Do you guys have any idea what the next project will look like?
That is very uncertain. We kind of like to do things one day at a time. We try to be detail-oriented. We like to try to adhere to our own code-of-conduct. It is tough to say what is going to come up this fall or winter. I don’t know, I can’t really comment. The future is extremely uncertain, in indie rock as in life. (laughter)
That’s right. Can we talk for a second about some of your ideas? You mention the band’s code-of-conduct. I spent a lot of time preparing for this by reading older interviews. Of course one of things I’ve read is about your interest in existentialism. Does the entire band subscribe to this philosophy?
Well, we are all individuals. There is one other member of the group who identifies herself as an existentialist. We’ve got another dude who identifies as a “utilitarian,” and the other two are maybe just a little more pragmatic and day-to-day in their philosophies. We all have our own ideas. We’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing what it takes to be a good person. We make a point of respecting each other’s ideas and opinions and sharing and trying to learn from each other. There are definitely things we agree on and those points of agreement shape how we run and take care of our business.
One of the things that really interests me is how these ideas influence the art that you are creating. Central to existentialism is the idea that life is absurd and meaningless, but rather than being an end in itself, that meaninglessness is liberating. We can make of the world what we choose.
That is exactly it! And that is pretty much punk, isn’t it?
Our world is basically fucked, but once we can accept that we can have far greater freedom than we could if we were to insist that world is an orderly and fair place.
Many of the existentialists were politically engaged. They were on the front lines of the political battles of their times. What fascinates me about what you’re doing in The Monitor is that you take this apocalyptic event, the Civil War, and it becomes a vehicle for an introspective turn. This massive conflagration becomes a metaphor and vehicle for investigating and thinking about our personal relationships. So instead of turning outward into the world, it turns inward. In exploring this event, what influenced you to make it personal?
It is because I can only speak with any level of authority about my own experience. To try and talk about something that happened 150 years ago wouldn’t really work. But there are ideas and themes that are present that I thought were applicable to my own take on life. That’s the thing about the study of history. The past can help us understand the present. We have to use the past to make sense of things sometimes. I’m still trying to cultivate these ideas.
How do we craft for ourselves a “useable past?” I don’t think anyone would have thought your second record right out of the box would be a concept album about the Civil War! Maybe that is what I was poking around for when I was asking you about this moment in punk rock. Suddenly, it seems like everything is possible again.
Sure. When it comes to art, anything is possible. We hope that our record sends that message. You can make of your art, your music, your life anything you want.