Titus Andronicus: Interview
“Why would we break bread with snakes like that?”
Following a free show by New Jersey’s favorite sons (and daughter) at Reckless Records in Chicago’s Wicker Park, I had two revelations:
• Reckless Records is a great place to buy music, but a terrible place to see a show. The store is shaped like a giant rectangle with a huge-ass record bin running all the way lengthwise down the center. It was almost like going to a concert in a grocery store.
• This didn’t matter at all because Titus Andronicus are fucking awesome.
They were gracious enough to grant me an impromptu meeting following their set, and between the thunderous clatter of passing El trains, we managed to have a conversation about the myth of the New Jersey Turnpike, thoughts on stalking J. Mascis, and punk-rock business ethics. Oh yeah, and apparently these guys released a new album recently, too…
Obviously, The Civil War plays a huge part in The Monitor. What was your inspiration to go with that theme?
Patrick Stickles: I’ve answered this question before, but it never gets any easier. [To David and Eric] Do one of you two dare to answer?
Eric Harm: I kind of know how it worked out.
Patrick: Tell him the story of how I made that decision. You’ve overheard me tell it enough.
Eric: I’ll probably make a few mistakes…
Patrick: I’ll chime in.
Eric: It’s my understanding that Patrick, during the late touring season for our previous album, was living up in Massachusetts …
Patrick: Got it! So far so good …
Eric: … Having pretty mixed feelings about it, I suppose.
Eric: Maybe not feeling so great; I don’t know.
Patrick: It didn’t help that my bandmates would always bust my balls whenever I told them I was rooting for all the Boston sports teams. This was right after The Celtics won the finals, so I was pumping the Boston teams pretty hard, and my bandmates were not supportive.
Eric: We thought it was pretty silly that he was calling Boston his home after living there for a couple of months, and really spending most of those months on tour. But I’m sorry if it bugged you.
Patrick: That’s OK; I’m just kidding, Eric. It was right of you guys to bust my balls a little bit.
Eric: So Patrick decided, since he was going to be up all crazy hours anyway, he might as well make use of his time and watch some stuff on YouTube. And ended up watching a lot of The Civil War by Ken Burns.
Patrick: One hundred percent, you got it!
Eric: And then it all just came together from there.
Patrick: Exactly, Eric. Bravo!
You guys took a different approach between this album and the last. Most of the songs on this album tended to be in a longer form, whereas An Airing of Grievances, except for the ending three-song suite …
Patrick: They were a little longer. A conservative seven or six minutes.
What influenced your decision to move towards longer form …
[At that moment, a Blue Line train passed by, obscuring any other sound. Patrick carried on, jokingly in answer to my question]
Patrick: … And, you know, that’s pretty much it. [laughter] Alright, next. I’m just kidding … No rhyme or reason. It just kind of came about naturally. Just kind of follow the muse wherever it might lead. And I personally really like songs that really take you on a wild ride. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for example, or “Bat out of Hell,” or “Jungleland.” It felt right. It felt like the thing to do. And we try not to deny ourselves any of life’s pleasures. Especially not the self-indulgent ones. Let me take that question and flip it into another question for Dave. Dave, you’re in a very unique position because you didn’t play on either of our records, and yet you are in the band, so you know a lot about our music. How do you think that the two records are different?
David Robins: I think similarly to what you said. Obviously, on the surface, at least superficially, there’s just longer songs, but I think that there’s more of a clear focus. The songs were written in a much shorter period of time. I think that it has a much clearer view of what it wants to be and where it was going as opposed to — not that I feel the first record was just a collection of singles, but they were written over a longer period of time. They maybe were here and there a little bit. So I liked that about it. And I like the fact that the songs aren’t long just for the sake of being long. The songs had something to be said, and that’s how long it took to say it.
Patrick: Nice, Dave.
Eric: Good answer.
Patrick: Dave, killing it. And let the record show, neither of albums have very much in the way of long jamming on it. No, I guess the first album had the tiniest bit of jamming …
Eric: Just a little jamming.
Patrick: …At the end of “No Future Part One.” That was sort of a jam. More of a Coda.
Eric: Still very well-composed.
Patrick: Yeah. Always pre-arranged, highly considered pieces. It’s not just wanking. Though there is quite a bit of that, depending on who you ask, I guess.
Patrick, I notice in your lyrics you allude to pop culture, literature, and other bands. In the first track on your new album, you cram a Billy Bragg reference right next to a Springsteen reference …
Patrick: And Simon and Garfunkel.
“As Double Dagger says … “There’s something called context. Context, context, context!” And without it, you’re just making a mess. This band doesn’t exist in a vacuum or a bubble or anything.”
Aw, see, I missed that.
Eric: So did I.
Patrick: You know how I say at the beginning, “There’ll be no more counting the cars on the Garden State Parkway?” Remember in Simon and Garfunkel’s song “America,” when he says he’s counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike?
Eric: I guess I’ll have to listen to that song again.
Patrick: People love to sing about the New Jersey Turnpike, but that to me just shows that they don’t know the first thing about New Jersey, because the Turnpike is only really useful for avoiding New Jersey. The Garden State Plaza really is the main artery of our state. The GSP, right Ian?
Ian Gratzer: Absolutely.
Patrick: More important to New Jersey than the Turnpike, wouldn’t you say? The Turnpike is a little tourist-y.
Ian: The Turnpike is good if you’re a trucker and you need to ship things. Or going to Newark Airport, but besides that, it’s the Parkway.
Patrick: Holland tunnel, trying to go to Philly. But whatever, Garden State Parkway is the real Jersey highway. And that’s an exclusive for you.
Eric: The Parkway brings you to the beach.
Ian: So does the Turnpike.
Patrick: In New Jersey, often when people meet each other, when they’re getting acquainted, they will ask what exit the other is from.
David: Also, it’s the Turnpike that gives Jersey its bad name, because the Turnpike cuts through everything shitty-like: Industrial parks, oil refineries, all the stinky shit. Newark, Newark Airport.
Patrick: Jersey is famous for smelling bad, but only the Turnpike smells bad. The rest of the state smells great.
Mahwah is actually beautiful country. I happened to be out there.
Patrick: Right! Beautiful town. The Ramapo Reservation … so … What was the question?
So was that a conscious choice on your part to incorporate these things into your lyrics? Is there a particular rhetorical effect you’re going for, or does it just kind of come in naturally?
Patrick: You know, it’s context. As Double Dagger says — and this is not an exclusive — “There’s something called context. Context, context, context!” And without it, you’re just making a mess. This band doesn’t exist in a vacuum or a bubble or anything. You know, we’re trying for the highest possible levels of transparency and self-awareness. And all this stuff that we sing about, maybe it’s not fancy, but it really informs our lives in a lot of ways, be it Seinfeld, Springsteen, or whatever else we talk about.
Eric: I’d like to add to that. I’ve recently seen people talking about how our band lacks subtlety, and I don’t know if it’s meant as a criticism — it doesn’t seem like it is usually, it’s just the case. There’s enough bands that hide behind metaphors, and stuff, so we purposely say exactly what we feel.
Patrick: We do have a few metaphors.
Eric: A few, but we’re not that cryptic, you know?
Patrick: They’re usually extended within an inch of their lives. Let’s talk about real shit, you know? This is real talk. You know that R. Kelly song, “Real Talk?”
I don’t, actually.
Patrick: (singing) “You know when I gave you some money last week to get your hair toes and nails done/Your ass was smiling then…” [Another train came by and once again drowned him out]
Patrick: Maybe we should go back inside. That’s off an album called Double Up. Awesome album. Ah, there’s Amy. She’s probably got some pretty interesting things to say. Amy’s pretty sharp.
Amy Klein: Is this an interview?
Patrick: Amy knows her stuff. She’s going to say something cool, I bet.
Obviously, big news, you guys are going to be playing Pitchfork this summer. Thoughts on that?
Patrick: It’s going to be awesome. Pavement is going to be there. We are going to open for Pavement. Essentially. We’re not going to play on the same day. But we’re only like … We couldn’t be more than 30 or 40 bands away from Pavement. And that’s something we never could have imagined.
Eric: Sort of the same honor the first time we played there, opening up for Dinasaur Jr.
Patrick: There you go. We are knocking off all the indie godheads, as they call them on the internet. It’s going to be sweet. What do you think Amy? You excited about that?
Amy: Yeah, when I was in middle school and listening to Pavement, in my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined that someday I would be playing at the same event as they were.
Patrick: In fact, we’re playing two festivals with Pavement this summer.
Amy: What’s the other one?
Patrick: The Primavera festival …
Amy: That’s a very exciting festival, too.
Where’s that at?
Patrick: Barcelona, Spain.
David: Got to shout out my girl Hera. Back in the day she gave me Wowee Zowee, and then it was game over.
Patrick: Wowee Zowee is awesome. They were playing it over the stereo earlier.
David: That was the first I ever heard Pavement. I was pretty late to the party; that was, like 10th grade, but I loved it.
Eric: I didn’t hear Pavement until I was a freshman in college.
Patrick: Well, Jefferson’s not really a big indie-rock town.
Eric: I was in the sticks, man. We didn’t even know what Pavement was. That was wild.
Amy: My sister gave me Pavement when I was in middle school, and at first listen I was like, “What is this? This doesn’t sound much like what I hear on Z100 radio.” I was really confused and didn’t listen to it. Then a few years later, I put it on again and it was all, “Whoa! Holy shit!”
Patrick: Best Pavement album, definitely Crooked Rain Crooked Rain.
Are you guys sticking around for the whole week-end, or will you be packing up after your set?
Patrick: I think that we’re going to stay. We played there a couple years ago, and we had the funnest weekend ever. A weekend that included me spending a few hours stalking J. Mascis, trying to meet him.
Did you get to?
Patrick: I followed him around for, like, a half hour while he was on his phone. And then as soon as he hung up …Well, he didn’t know that I was doing it at the time. I was ducking behind trees and stuff. But as soon as he was off the phone, I was all up in his grill.
Eric: We had so much fun at Pitchfork in 2008, that I remember reading on a blog somewhere that we were the band that was most often seen watching the other bands.
Patrick: That’s like the “Spirit Award.”
Amy: I’d like to make a statement about The Monitor.
Patrick: Oh, man! Here it comes.
Amy: I would just like to say that I think The Monitor may be the most democratic album of the year. Granted, it’s only March, but I think that the way that it was recorded — a big rotating cast of characters, everyone doing their own thing, traveling all around different parts of the U.S. to find the best little bagpipe, or … what was the name of that kind of pipe?
Patrick: It was a bagpipe.
Amy: … Bagpipe player, and the best guitar solo, and another guitar solo … It’s a very equal-opportunity album. I’d also like to say that the rousing chorus of young men — and young women sometimes — singing battle anthems makes me feel patriotic inside. I’d also like to say …[Laughter from rest of band members]
Eric: We started this train.
Amy: Well, I have to come up with something smart, because Patrick said I would say something sharp.
Patrick: I did say that. Read to us from your thesis.
Amy: I don’t have a thesis. Well, I guess I just want to say that this album’s themes: being an individual and individualism in a world that sometimes presses one to be a conformist, having a regional identity, having an identity as part of a group, yet maintaining your individuality… those are all very important themes as one grows up, and they’re also very important themes in the history of American society. Ta-daaaa!
Patrick: She nailed it. Hit the nail on the head.
Actually, if I could come back to the recording …
Patrick: Now you got him started again.
Amy: Well, I gave you some themes, because you didn’t seem to know what questions to ask, so I decided to give you something to work with.
“And we try not to deny ourselves any of life’s pleasures …”
I appreciate that, actually. So tell me more about the recording. I did notice there were a lot of guest stars in this album. Could you talk more about the recording? What you did, how you went about it.
Patrick: Set up microphones in front of amplifiers or mouths, took the noises and put them on computers … I’m just being a little dick there, just for fun.
David: We just stood there and let Kevin McMahon let us sound awesome.
Patrick: We did it in New Pauls, New York, in the month of August, 2009. And like Amy said, we took a couple trips down to Baltimore and up to Boston. It was basically just a big friend-fest. Just friends hanging out, working together, having fun. Having a blast, laughing and joking, playing instruments, singing.
Did your other collaborators contribute much to the songwriting, or did you come with the compositions more or less made up and they just kind of riffed on it?
Patrick: I did most of what would traditionally be called songwriting.
Eric: There were certain cases, specifically with parts that were arranged for guitar … that was all figured out beforehand, worked out by Patrick and the team, I guess. But when it came to the dudes who came in to play horns and bowed string instruments, they more or less just listened to the song, played along a few times, tried some things out, laid a few things down, and we just put our faith in them because they know how to play those instruments much better than us, and they could play in their own style much more than if they were forced to assimilate to something that we forced on them.
Patrick: This band is not The Borg.
Amy: America is not a land of forced assimilation.
Eric: Allowing them to do it their way, I feel, is the best way to get everything coming out sounding very natural. And I think they just did the best job that way.
Patrick: It was like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unscripted, but with a story. Ian, don’t you have something you want to say to this guy?
Ian: Well, there needs to be a question, first.
Patrick: Why don’t you ask Ian about some of our business practices, which he oversees?
Would you like to talk about your business model, for lack of a better word?
Patrick: Give some tips to people in bands that know that they’ve got to be serious, but maybe they don’t want to get some skeezy manager. How could they do it themselves and be great business men and a great indy rock band.
Ian: Cool, well, the first thing you need to do is make your band into a company. Whether that be an LLC or an S-corp. Then I would suggest getting a bank account.
Patrick: And the big checks. You need a check that shows that you mean business. If you can’t get one of the novelty Publisher’s Clearinghouse checks…Our checks are probably, like, 9 or 10 inches long.
Amy: Also, it’s important to have a couple bars of gold.
Yeah, I learned that from Glenn Beck.
Ian: I guess more seriously, you’ve got to start thinking about the bottom line. Think about “Whoa, things are great!” You can do all these great things, but how are you going to pay for it, and who’s going to back you up. Because when you try to do it yourself, there is no other person backing you up. You’re like, the last and first line of defense. You’ve got to prepare for the future. Like, maybe mentally prepare that, if you happen to play a big show and get a large sum of money, maybe save some of that away because 8 months later, your van’s engine will blow up, and you’ll have to pay for that, and you won’t be fucked …
Patrick: You can’t trust nobody!
Amy: The enemy is everywhere.
Ian: Get an accountant, don’t try to do your taxes yourself. You need an accountant.
What would you say are some of the pitfalls that fledgling bands fall into?
Ian: For example, there are some young bands that I know of, and they get a tour manager. And the tour manager doesn’t want to be in a van they rent, and they end up getting a tour bus, and the tour bus is, like, $700 a day, with fuel and everything… Well, maybe between $400 and $700, depending on how plush it is. So, like, they didn’t really make that decision, but that $400 is coming out of their pocket. So at the end of the tour, they’re like, “Where’s the money?” And there’s the expense sheet.
Patrick: And all these expenses are usually fucking stupid.
Ian: Yeah, there’s a lot of things that certain tour managers will buy that they think is necessary, but that’s not really necessary. Not paying attention to what you’re doing, and then you end up getting a bill for it.
Patrick: Sometimes you do pay attention, and you still get stuck with a bill.
Ian: Not having a manager front you the money ever. It’s not like a record label, which is all recoupable, but when your manger fronts it to you, he can actually take you to court and be like, “Give me my money back.” It’s almost like taking a loan from the bank.
Patrick: Why would we break bread with snakes like that? It makes me sick. Thank God we’ve got a smart guy like Ian around.
Ian: Instead I just use the savings I have accumulated since I was a small child to front things like that. And then embezzle from these guys when they’re not paying attention.
Patrick: Isn’t it wild, though, that Ian, while he speaks like a shrewd business man, but also he is saying what is at the root of punk business going all the way back to Dischord and SST and stuff. Low overhead, eliminate excess and greediness and unnecessary expenditure.
Eric: It’s the same as balancing your own personal checking account. Know how much money you have and don’t spend what you can’t afford.
Ian: But a little more, since you’re now responsible for four people’s income.
Patrick: Being shrewd is punk.
So just to conclude, any parting thoughts? Plans for the future? Next steps?
Patrick: Do it one day at a time. Right now the priority is going to tonight’s Ted Leo concert and having a blast. And then meeting up with our friends Joe and Meredith after the show to hang out and have a few beers. Then it will be back to the hotel. Let the record show, also, we usually don’t stay in hotels, but because we’re not pocketing any money from this tour of record shops that we’re doing, the record label gave us some money.
Ian: And they won’t be asking for it back, either.