Titus Andronicus has been in the music press a lot in the last few years. Critics and fans hail the band's albums, on which they play sweaty-basement-show ranters with as much confidence as emotionally revealing, Springsteen-tinged indie rock. It's a disarmingly sincere blend, unafraid to build a whole song around one line ("The enemy is everywhere") or write a 14-minute epic statement against frat-boy culture as the closing note to a concept album about the Civil War.
That last one is where you probably heard of the band. Their breakthrough concept album, The Monitor, on giant indie label XL Recordings, had a pretty big moment when it came out in 2010. Constant touring on that record and 2012 followup Local Business cemented their reputation as an uninhibited live band.
Patrick Stickles, the band's frontman, has a growing reputation for being as uninhibited offstage as on. He ruffled some famous feathers when he alerted the world that Titus tourmates the Pogues were rude dudes, and since then his voluminous Twitter salvos have often generated instant headlines on music blogs.
I've known Patrick since my former band Double Dagger played with Titus at a small warehouse show in Brooklyn in 2007. Full disclosure, I've also designed all of the band's records since then and consider Patrick a good friend. He's never one to hold back in a discussion, and he can go on at length about any topic you hand him. We recently had a wide-ranging conversation via Skype about the state of independent music and his band's place within it as they start yet another long tour and prepare their most audacious record yet.
City Paper: Titus Andronicus came of age in the Professional Era of Indie Rock, where it's not unheard of that a punk band could live off of being a punk band. But this also burdens new bands with problems of perception-
Patrick Stickles: Like we're just hipsters, right? It's a curse to be brought up in this era.
CP: While this ability to live off of your music is great in some regards, it also seems like, now, all bands are seen as a product-or even set themselves up that way.
PS: Most bands that play at Shea Stadium [the Brooklyn, N.Y. warehouse venue where Titus practices and Stickles volunteers], God bless 'em, they think it's comedy night, or who can care the least or be the most awkward. There's this insincere attitude. Like at the end of their sets, they say things like, "Oh, we'll get out of here now," like self-loathing hipsters. It drives me up a fucking wall.
I went to Acheron [a neighboring Brooklyn venue] recently and saw this band Disengage, a hardcore punk band from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It wasn't the signifiers I go to first thing in the morning, but they were going for it. We all dig Black Flag-derived stuff, so I liked it. But what really knocked me out and what really made it a great night was listening to the guy talk between the songs. This guy is talking about what the songs are actually about. And I was like "Yeah! You tell 'em!" because I never see that.
CP: Another trait of this era in indie rock is a polite toothlessness, and you've carved out a reputation for yourself as very outspoken, especially in regards to your contemporaries.
PS: I don't know how many bands that I've seen come up in this indie-rock community that've got this minor-league mentality, like, "I'm in a lesser-than bracket. I don't have the status of the Next-Level Indie Band," and they don't care who gets stepped on. It could be the dude who recorded their first album who grew up with them and now they're like [in a cavalier businessman voice], "I gotta go work with this big-name producer if I wanna get to the Next Level. We're really hoping for a Top 40 debut this time. It's just business, right?"
It's not fucking business. It's art. It's the one fucking thing in this world that's supposed to tell truth, and it's just used to sell fucking crap now.
There's this girl with this video now [Sky Ferreira's "I Blame Myself"] and she's wearing this $3,000 leather jacket. And at the bottom [of the video] it says, "Brought to you by such-and-such"-a fucking monstrous corporation-and "Click Here to buy the jacket!" And it's three stacks, dude! It's insane. It's all just building an altar to dysfunction.
And all that these indie-rock bands ever have to say is [mockingly fey singing], "It's all right, it's OK . . . All we have is just tonight!"-That's such an outrageous statement! At best they're saying something like, "Take comfort in the simple things." Like some pat on the head right before you wet the bed. It sucks and just teaches people to be complacent. Like, "All you have is all you're ever gonna get, so just take it. Take it in the ass."
These chillwave bands with their "I don't think about it, dude, I'm just here to chill and smoke weed, 'cause I signed with a major label, dude, and they give me 17 cents on the dollar and it's chill, dude. I'm just gonna get my advance and spend my whole summer smoking waves!" Fuck that! Who's paying for this? Who needs this? This is like Soma, this is like 1984, and they're feeding it to us 12 inches at a time, one MP3 at a time, and it sucks.
CP: Are the people who are paying for it the people who are coming to see your current tour? You told me a couple of weeks ago that you're touring with a "stoner band that represents the distance we are trying to put between us and the 'punk scene.'"
PS: Well . . . we're trying to burn every bridge out of town.
CP: While your lyrics cover the type of punk-scene politics like you're describing here, you also trade in larger universal themes, existential crises, mental illness, etc. Those seem like grand ambitions for a punk band, tackling societal problems, and not just in a "fuck the cops" kind of way. With your occasionally bleak outlook, why do you grapple with such large topics in what some would say is the frivolous world of pop music?
PS: Well, I guess it all really goes back to the great man we lost last year: Lou Reed. And what did he say, what did he discover at Syracuse University under the tutorship of Delmore Schwartz? He became informed of great artistic deeds with words, OK? He respected people like James Joyce. Think of a book like Ulysses. It tries to create a microcosm of the world, an almost biblical text, a skeleton key to life through the perspective of one person's problems. So Reed discovers him and Dostoevsky and the body of work they produced and the influence on culture they had.
Lou Reed said, "I wanna be like that, OK?" But then Lou Reed says, "I'm a modern man. I'm not in prison so I don't have time to sit there and write a book that's 700 fucking pages long." He's a guy from Long Island who lives in New York City in the '60s, he's hanging out with Andy Warhol. Rock 'n' roll is what was going on! He was into Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed and doo-wop, but then he liked Ornette Coleman too. Those were the signifiers at his moment of transfiguration from a boy to a man. And from a man to an artist.
CP: So you see yourself following in the Joyce/Reed tradition of trying to explain the world through your pain in the medium relevant to your era?
PS: Sort of, except that Lou Reed rarely addressed his own pain by name, at least not often in his early work. He preferred to present characters and vignettes in which the stuff of life would do its awful work without moral judgements. This is how he respects his audience, giving them the freedom and the responsibility to determine what all the information "means."
The second pillar of my songwriting stands with the self-valorizing songwriters who cast themselves as the heroes of their own epics or tragedies. This could be a Bruce Springsteen or it could be an absurdly confident rapper in the East Coast battle tradition such as the late, great Big L-anyone saying, "I am the shit and you don't know but you're going to."
The third pillar is that of the self-lacerating confessor. We call this "emo," and it is just as narcissistic as the most braggadocio rap, because in both cases the artist says, "What is going on in my brain is the end-all-be-all of this universe and more important than any other event up to this point in human history and will likely remain as such forever." This theory also demonstrates why the best English MC is Morrissey.
So, this is my aim with this whole rock opera that Titus is working on-to present a character who is equally self-valorizing and self-lacerating, who shall be based on myself and played by the same. Who plays the hero and the villain in his own life with equal aplomb, and then appl[ies] enough distance between this subject and the perspective of the "narrator" that this subject, me, may be judged based on the totality of his action and on the self-evident truth of his words, and not by the labels which have been placed on him by society.
CP: I've caught hints of this burgeoning rock opera here and there over the past few months. Where do things stand with the project right now?
PS: We're on sort of an island now. We don't have the most . . . infrastructural support right now. So what are we gonna do? We're gonna double-down one way or another if we're gonna survive right now. We're trying to do our most ambitious thing yet, and we've never had less support-or less industry support, I should say . . .
CP: But you have a rabid fan base.
PS: You are correct. They're crazy right now. They'll do anything right now. They'd rather get a tattoo than a T-shirt right now. They'll do anything for us, and I've proven this by opening the Titus Andronicus web store, which is the world's sloppiest business. Except it succeeds because people love the band, and let's admit it [in a huckster voice], they love the brand.
And it's a whole package, the way that we operate, what we're trying to say, what we offer to the people, what we expect in exchange. To borrow a term from Wagner, it's a Gesamtkunstwerk. It's total art. And the whole of it, this interview, Twitter, Instagram, LP, double LP, triple LP, feature film, let's say . . . its all one thing. I'm doing a disservice to my ambitions and my dreams if I approach it with one ounce less seriousness and sincerity. I just know I have the support to do whatever I want. And people proved that when they said they would pay a preorder for a record that's not even close to being WRITTEN.
CP: That's a ballsy move!
PS: It was a test of my base. And people stepped up. And I was like "Fuck! We can do whatever we want." I'm trying to build a family with this, y'know?
CP: That unbridled sincerity, I think, is what draws your fan base to you. Backing up a step to the other side of that, you also mentioned having very little industry support.
PS: When I was a 22-year-old nincompoop I had just heard [my]self on vinyl for the first time. Then, the biggest indie label you ever heard of comes along and says, "We're gonna take care of everything and we're gonna find the audience for you. We're gonna put you on the right sites, and all the kids are gonna go nuts for you."
And what they don't tell you is, nine out of 10 kids make purchases just [to] make sure they have the right MP3 showing on their screen on the subway. "Oh, is that Parquet Courts? Wow. You wanna come home and fuck me?" It's just a lifestyle accessory. It's a phase, y'know?
I'll just put it this way. A record company such as . . . why even name any names? Let's say Record Company X, we'll call them. No, I don't like that, that's too obvious. Let's call them Record Company L, for "Left Behind." Let's say that there's 50,000 kids out there who are going to buy every album that a particular website says is essential. A herd of 50,000 sheep with a digital shepherd. Let's call it Shepherd's Choice dot com for conversational sake. Record Label L says, "Let's get on that website, we'll get 50,000 sales right there! Let's spend all this money to do it." And as a consequence, they say the artist still gets 17 cents on the dollar. But only when they say it's time. Which will be never.
You know our second record sold almost 50,000 copies? Where are the last 30,000 of 'em, where did they go? Maybe they forgot. Maybe it never meant anything. It was a lifestyle accessory. I'm an ex-lifestyle accessory.
But now we are in the position to control it. We don't need you to be our middle man, we don't need you to explain this to the world, and guess what? [The fans] are the best fucking agents in the universe. Nothing compares to your best friend saying, "This record just blew my mind and changed my life! You gotta hear it!"
CP: Sounds like an intimidating place to be: no industry support but major fan support, looking down the barrel of an unwritten rock opera . . .
PS: I'm doing this for my fan base. It's the process of weeding out time. To borrow a phrase from my buddy Owen Pallett, "half-assed fans need not apply." From now on, if you're not in it to win it on the whole thing-and I don't mean you have to understand every word I say is gold, but we have an understanding between each other and you get that I'm making choices and not just trying to hurt the world by world by sucking, which is what most people's opinion of the band is when they're exposed to it for the first time.
Bands, they get caught up, they get stars in their eyes. "We could be the biggest thing ever!" Who is this year's the biggest thing ever? Lorde? Imagine Dragons? You have an infinitesimally small chance of reaching that level. You end up a carcass on the side of the road that Imagine Dragons is now at the end of, dipping in the pot of gold. That road is littered with corpses with bad haircuts. That could've been us. We're an ex-buzz band, we're a recovering buzz band.