Ted Leo: Interview
“Hey, we’re musicians! Let’s fuck around in the studio a little more!”
Ted Leo is a wary, contemplative, lose-yourself, raucous rocker. One shakes and slams and pivots and pumps so jubilantly and cathartically to his guitar-storming gores and off-the-rails drums, but if your ears are bent just so, you can also pick up on all the heavy-hearted laments and consoling, assurances of a still-flickering hope. Inevitably, this wiry, perennially buzz-cut-topped, RI-based (NJ-raised) singer/guitarist often gets politically-charged questions — not so surprising based on his unabashed scrawls on previous blog-ish band sites or his strong show of solidarity to those hundreds of protesters arrested by draconian boot-stomping SWAT methods during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN 2008, with a fundraising EP (Rapid Response).
But, as Leo opens up to Tiny Mix Tapes, he’s more than used to it. With Brutalist Bricks, the latest album from his band, The Pharmacists (Chris Wilson, Chris Kanty, Marty ‘Violence’ Key), and the first on new label home Matador (having their previous home, Touch and Go recently tailed off new releases), Leo and the boys come to new levels of appreciation for looking around at the world and appreciating the present. As Leo puts it, continuing to slog on… he “feel(s) the change comin’ on…”
How’s the first quarter of the year going for you?
It’s been good. It’s been busy. Everybody’s been healthy, having fun. We haven’t been, as a band, really, this busy in the lead up to a record, since like Hearts of Oak(03), or something. And, that’s okay. That’s good!
The last time we spoke, you were a bit down… not sure if it was just fatigue from hour-to-hour rounds of interviews or the more obvious, publicized, and disturbing events that led to the release of the fundraising EP Rapid Response (08)
Uh, yeah. Yeah, I was, in general, at that time… I mean, it wasn’t just interviews.
It was late September, 2008 – right after the massive arrests and SWAT-like breakup of protests at the St. Paul. RNC. You’d said that, at that point, you didn’t have a lot of the hope that you once had. What brought you back up, was it Brutalist Bricks, the process of making it? Or do these songs document a comeback of sorts for you?
Yeah, I think probably a little bit of all of the above – though, I would hesitate to say that I don’t still feel that way, though I think the difference is probably just that… that fact… is just not getting me down as much. I’ve always tried to stay conscious of the fact that you’re never changing the world immediately with anything that you do, unless you’re an assassin, you know? I’ve also always tried to be conscious of the fact that it’s doing a disservice to my own fan base to not appreciate their appreciation for what I and we have done and how it does have an effect in people’s lives, not least of all being my own. People ask me, being hopeful — where does it come from? I think about it anew every time I get asked that. I come up with the same answer: just, literally, from writing those songs. Like, talking yourself out of it, to a degree, or talking yourself up to it, maybe is a better way to put it.
“I was taught by the nuns who had taught my parents, who were 80 years old and were just trying to get through the day without hitting a kid with a ruler at that point.”
Self-rejuvenation through writing and playing.
Yeah, I think that it’s, to a certain degree, probably somewhat just a cyclical nature that we all go through of just getting bummed out and then making the decision to just keep slogging on.”
Can you talk about the writing and recording for Brutalist Bricks?
We worked with Phil Palazzolo, an old friend who, I guess, in May (2009) I randomly ran into him and hadn’t seen him in probably about five years. We wound up starting to talk again, about music and everything. I thought, man, we’ll have to get into the studio with Phil because his ideas and mine seem to bounce well off each other. And it just happened kinda randomly. I mentioned, hey, you know, we got a bunch of songs we probably wanna put out at some point. He had a week in July and August, so we just grabbed him and made this record. The way that it all just so lightly came together was I think beneficial to keeping that vibe going through the actual recording process.
How was the recording finally having James Canty in the studio for a full record on guitar with you?
Really fun; being able to write knowing that eventually I was gonna be continuing that process with James adding guitars. Thinking, not just what I want to put down, but, where do I wanna pull back? That creates a different dynamic for the writing because I’ve been living in Rhode Island for a couple of years, which is easy enough for me to go down and practice in New York, but also isolated enough, and making this record with another guitar player who is an integral part of the band at this point certainly informed the way I wrote, even in isolation. And going into these sessions without a plan for releasing a record (at that point) — I mean, we didn’t start working with Matador until the record was done. But not having any deadline or any idea what we were gonna do with it allowed us to use the studio a little more. We’ve never really had the chance to just say: ‘Hey, we’re musicians! Let’s fuck around in the studio a little more!’ That was good for everybody’s mood in making this record.
Could you talk about events in your past that lead to your becoming politicized? What were some formative experiences, what moved you, be it music, punk rock, or something else, an author, family, friend…
I can probably give you things from all of those categories. I can vividly remember my earliest memories are of Nixon getting on the helicopter, throwing up the peace signs, flying away, and according to my mom, I actually walked around going “I am not a crook” when I was like three years old. And, I remember news footage of the last troops being airlifted out of Vietnam, like, ’75 or something like that.
“I have zero-use for organized religion in any way and actually think it’s a net-force for evil in the world.”
A lot to take in as a kindergartner.
Yeah, exactly. Those were pretty turgid, crazy times, now that I think about it. And just a couple years after that, you have the gasoline crisis and with Carter and staying up to watch Saturday Night Live and seeing political skits, getting acclimated to the fact that this world… that, there’s a world beyond your basement, or your friend’s basement.
But, when I put my mind to it, I have to give credit to it, that is, that I grew up very Catholic and my parents were Irish and Italian and deeply from families all over the New York area, they’re Catholic in the real kind of old school/social-justice way. I was taught by the nuns who had taught my parents, who were 80-years-old and were just trying to get through the day without hitting a kid with a ruler at that point. But, in High School, I had a really good experience. I went to Notre Dame where, it’s the Holy Cross Fathers and we’re deeply into liberation theology; it’s a pretty horrible, conservative place. But there are these islands of interesting thought within the context of Catholocism, like Center for Social Justice. And the only reason I stop short of calling myself a completely hardcore atheist is because I’m not entirely arrogant to think that there might not be something beyond my immediate physical realm. But I have zero-use for organized religion in any way and actually think it’s a net-force for evil in the world. But, having said that – longwindedly, I apologize – I can’t deny that in some way, that kind of upbringing probably politicized me in a lot of ways. Probably got me thinking about, like, these ways and rituals that I was taught and indoctrinated into, what I got from it was, kind of the nice side of it, like, Jesus as a rebel-fighter for the poor and all humanity.
A community organizer?
Heh. I think that, on some level, I really have to credit that, with… to borrow their kind of metaphors, with fertilizing the soil of my brain so that when seeds of other realms were cast upon it, flowers would come forth. So then I started getting into hip-hop and punk pretty young, and right off the bat, it’s like, I get this! I get why these people are singing about oppression – where they want to go with it and what they want to do about it. It’s always resonated with me.
Can you talk about your musical development through the late 80s, those early punk bands – and your eventual lean into an undeniable pop-leaning songwriting? Flares of reggae and hardcore come up here and there, but pop prevails.
I take things on a case-by-case basis; I’ve never shut out Top 40 radio just because it’s Top 40; if there’s a clever song there, I will straight up admit to liking it. I didn’t really start singing in bands until my later teens. I didn’t even get a guitar until I graduated high school, so I didn’t start playing until I was 19-20. Even though so much of hardcore in the 80s was about starting your own band, doing your own thing, I was pretty content… I love music! I am a music fan! And I was really happy actually to be involved in these scenes, taking it all in, being in the crowd singing along with the people on stage. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I picked up the desire to start writing my own songs.
“Thinking, not just what I want to put down, but, where do I wanna pull back?”
Can we briefly talk movies – or, at least, other people out there who rally and rail against various wrongs, similar to you – Michael Moore, at the end of his latest movie, Capitalism: A Love Story, directly addresses the audience and says, essentially: that he’s tired of doing this, he doesn’t want to have to make movies anymore. And, you often get similar questions – like, Ted, how long can you keep it up; what was hearing Moore’s words like for you?
Not to steer too far away, but this question of, how often can you do this thing… What does it achieve, you know, and how long can you keep bashing your head against a wall. I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to do this long enough to have been able to discern some of the ways in which [songwriting] actually has an effect. Before we did Rapid Response, I would have said that the only way that it has an effect was personally in people’s lives, and that’s something I can honestly take to the grave and be really happy with. I’ve had this conversation with people – things as personal as, ‘this song helped me get through this day,’ to broader things – like: ‘Oh, I wanted to talk to you about something you were bringing up in this,’ and ‘It makes me think of this,’ and you get involved in this cause based on that, and that ongoing energy that flows between the people and into other people’s lives from making a piece of art.
But, Rapid Response was right around when I was feeling dejected; back to when you and I talked last time, I didn’t expect the Republican Convention to go off with all of the protests there not getting into some kind of conflict with the police, but, it was such a fuck-you-in-the-face kinda thing, a show of force from these people and we will do this with impunity, we will crush you and nothing will happen to us and even going so far as to packing mainstream media journalists. And in the midst of this, I was just like, holy shit… this is it, this is really… we are living in a police state, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Going back to being a bit rejuvenated, or not as down with Brutalist as a new stage, a lyric on “Ativan Eyes” made me sit up straight: “So sick of cynics…”
Of course there’s a healthy level of cynicism that probably we should retain. But, when I try to write a love song, how can you do that cynically? I guess that’s the reason why I always have to relate it back to these other issues because, I understand in the midst of all this stuff, like, why would you even open yourself up to accepting the kind of good and beautiful and hopeful and love and things that do flow your way, or can flow your way, on a daily basis, even if it’s just fleeting, and that’s the kind of cynicism that I feel is the kind of daily battle: to combat the shutting yourself off from the positive things that can flow your way at any given moment.
Beyond cynicism, your songs seem to have a realist preoccupation, an emphasis on time, on mortality. “You could die or this might end,” “Counting Down the Hours,” “Even Heroes Have to Die,” “Last Days”…
Let’s start with “Last Days,” which is meant to be somewhat humorous, like, people telling me, that it’s the last days, biblically or otherwise, and saying somewhat jokingly, somewhat seriously, like, alright! Alright, it’s last days huh? Let’s do it! And when we’ve kicked all these asses and the world doesn’t end, we can sit back and laugh about it. And “Even Heroes Have to Die” is more about what we were talking about, infusing Michael Moore stuff. It’s not about being realistic; it’s having a kind of realist or fatalist view of aging, mortality – it’s actually more about developing — actually, there’s a lot of stuff on the record like this — but developing an appreciation of the present for what it is and a bit more of a thin look at mortality and aging and, in that particular song, looking back at what your life has been so far, understanding that maybe you haven’t taken the time to really appreciate what is going on, presently for you, while you’re always looking to the future or too hard at the past. It’s an explicit vision of mortality: “Even heroes have to die.” But that doesn’t mean shut down. It means, look at the world around you. And appreciate it.