Titus Andronicus will be hitting the Duke Coffeehouse Tuesday Sept. 21, (doors at 8:30 p.m., show at 9:00 p.m., tickets $10 and free with Duke I.D.), touring behind the best album of 2010—their epic The Monitor. I got to speak to frontman Patrick Stickles about pretty much every topic under the sun, including why he's so stoked to come to Duke, his unique lyrical style and some things the human race could work on, if they were so inclined.
So, I would love it if you would tell your readers how excited I am to be playing at Duke University. Because, they are leading the biggest study ever of the rare disease called Selective Eating Disorder, of which I am one of 1,400 known sufferers.
What is the disease? I don’t know anything about it.
Most people don’t know anything about it. Very little is known about it, but Duke is leading the way in research on it. Basically, Selective Eating Disorder is exactly what it sounds like: people who suffer from it are extremely selective about the foods they eat. Me, for example, I’m only able to eat about 20 different foods. It’s a compulsion of some kind, it’s kind of like, one of the theories is that it could be related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. And I’ve only just found out that it existed recently, I’ve lived with it for my whole life—me and my family have lived with it for my whole life—and I just thought that I was the weirdest dude in the world, but it turns out that there are at least 1,400 of us that exist. And I’m really pumped that Duke is leading the way trying to get more knowledge about it, maybe we can, hopefully someday soon there’ll be some sort of effective treatment. Because, it is crazy, it’s one of the craziest diseases. It’s quite the mystery, and I feel good knowing that such a fine university as Duke has got their team working on unraveling it, I can’t wait to see what they come up with it.
First thing I wanted to ask you: how did you end up in this Ted Leo video that just came out, the “Bottled in Cork” video?
Well, Ted and I, we know each other a little bit, having gone on tour together and stuff, so we’d been texting, trying to schedule some kind of, like, hanging-out time, because he’s usually sometimes the guy I go to for fatherly advice about punk stuff. We ended up not ever having this meeting but, in the course of our texting, he revealed that he was going to be in New York and was going to do this music video in Brooklyn where I happen to live. So you know, he just said, come by at four o clock, we’re doing this video, and pretty much the rest is history.
It was really funny, it came out really well.
Yeah, that video’s pretty awesome.
Yeah, so I’ll ask you some more substantial questions now, but I was curious about that. So, first off. The Monitor is distinguished, basically, to me by the fact that there are almost no repeated lyrics on the album. You guys don’t really do choruses, you don’t really do traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. There are the chants, like “The enemy is everywhere,” “You’ll always be a loser,” that sort of stuff, but the feel is very literary, very poetic. I was curious how you got into that sort of writing style, why you decided to write in that sort of longer, sequential way, instead of doing the verse-chorus-verse thing.
Well, I guess it all began with the band Neutral Milk Hotel. You know, their work, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, one of my very favorites, probably the greatest album ever. And that record didn’t have any repeated refrains on it, I observed one day. I hadn’t been too interested in that sort of stuff before, anyway, but upon noticing that they didn’t do it at all, I felt pretty firm in my resolve that choruses are probably pretty unnecessary for the most part, you know? If you say something once, why say it again. I just don’t find it the most effective means to communicate my ideas. Furthermore, if you don’t do it all the time, hopefully the result will be that when you do do it, the device will be a little more potent, if you don’t overdo it. If you don’t repeat too much stuff, hopefully when you do repeat something, people will get the idea that maybe this is kind of a takeaway point. So, if we’re gonna repeat something, it’s gotta be a point that we really gotta hammer home, rather than just having something that’s easy to remember and sing along to, although that is important. There’s a lot to say, there’s a lot that we’re trying to communicate, and we can’t really afford to give up that much lyrical real-estate.
It’s funny, because I got to interview Dan McGee—
Oh my God, the greatest living genius of American song!
(Laughs) Dude is good, I remember when I saw you guys play at Local 506 with Spider Bags, I remember you opened up with, We’re happy to be here with Spider Bags, the greatest band in the world. But I asked him about coming up and doing the verse on “Theme from Cheers,” and he said, Yeah, Patrick’s got a lot to say (laughs).
It’s a wide and wondrous world of ideas, you know? But little do I have to say than Spider Bags being the greatest band in the world. Which I say again now, and I’m being as unfacetious as I was then. Again, I remain steadfast.
You knew Dan when he was in DC Snipers, right, well before Spider Bags?
Yes sir, although I didn’t know him as well as I do now. I met him a few times when he was playing the DC Snipers, that’s true, that was my introduction to him. Me and my friend Sarem, who plays in a band called Liquor Store, happened to go see the DC Snipers open for the Black Lips at this little place in New York called Siberia, and it was pretty much love at first sight, especially since they were all from New Jersey, and we were young New Jersey punk rockers at the time in need of some role models—probably couldn’t have picked five worse ones than the DC Snipers but that’s ok.
What do you think it is about New Jersey that has this presence in so much music, and so much—it goes beyond music too, because you’ve got Philip Roth with the Newark trope and it’s, Jersey’s everywhere. What is it about that state that is so resonant with artists?
Well, New Jersey does have a really strong literary tradition. Don’t forget Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, too, though I guess those guys are long dead. It’s the underdog, the longshot, the dude that everybody’s already counted out, you know?. People in New Jersey, we get s*** on all the time from all sides, everybody thinks we’re the armpit of America, that we stink. They drive on the New Jersey Turnpike and they smell the Meadowlands and they think that New Jersey is just the s***hole. Or they see us on TV, in our wifebeaters with our gold chains and our pink tans and our blowouts and they think they know everything about us, and New Jersey’s just a big f****** cesspool, and it’s just where America dumps off its garbage. So everybody pretty much thinks they’ve got New Jersey figured out. And nobody likes that, nobody wants to get put in a box, nobody wants to have somebody’s opinion of them decided before they know anything about them. So that’s kind of the thing, everybody from New Jersey wants something better for themselves, because we’ve got a little bit of an inferiority complex too, everybody from New Jersey’s always singing about, oh, we’ve got to escape, we’ve got to be born to run, we’ve got to live on a prayer and all this, we’ve got to cast off the chains, the shackles of our regional identity, cause you know we all dream of bigger and better things than New Jersey can afford us. But I mean, it’s all nonsense, right? It’s like anything else, you get out of it what you put into it, right?
It’s lines on a map.
Yeah. But I will certainly say that, the New Jersey that’s being force-fed to America right now through our popular culture is most certainly not the New Jersey that I grew up in and not really the New Jersey that we sing about in our more hopeful moments.
That’s good to hear. It definitely seems to haunt slash hover over your music. I mean, “A More Perfect Union” has both “Looking for a new New Jersey” and “I never should have left New Jersey.” So it’s almost like this conflictedness about it.
They’re equally true, right? They’re equally valid and equally invalid. At that point in the story, our hero hasn’t really learned the value of internal validation, you know? Our hero casts about for sources of peace and fulfillment from the outside world. What a f****** mistake.
Does our hero learn the value of internal validation by the end of the album, do you think?
Well, sort of, it’s implicit. The road that lays ahead of our hero remains long and arduous, but our hero has learned a little something about personal responsibility.
Speaking of the environment that our hero is passing through on this album, the war imagery is there from the title, it’s there in the song titles, it’s all over the place. What is it about battle and the idea of war that resonates so much with you, why is it so symbolic? The metaphor seems to extend to mental health, to relationships, it’s all over the place.
To be a human, to live amongst other humans is to be constantly in conflict, we never are able to f****** get along. Sometimes it ends up with us killing each other in enormous numbers, other times we just turn up our noses at each other. It’s a story that’s as old as human interaction. Even though we have the same wants and needs more or less, we always find some way to pit ourselves against another. The classic self-other relationship, that kind of way that we view the world, the way that we put ourselves in opposition to some kind of real or imagined oppressor, you know? The human inability to define oneself positively, right? To look inward for our validation and our values and our definitions of success, right? Every human has the power, the right and the responsibility to determine those things for ourselves, but for a lot of us that is too heavy a responsibility and it’s easier to look outward and say, if not for so and so, if not for this guy or that guy I’d be happy as a clam. But as it is, I’m stranded here amongst all the little people and I’m f****** miserable. It follows that the answer to eliminating that misery is eliminating the other human, or if not eliminating him, taking away his or her freedoms so we can have more freedoms to ourselves, which is of course all a lot of hogwash. It consistently does more harm than good, as evidence by the untold thousands of Americans that fill the battlefields of our horrific civil war, 150 years ago.
It’s that idea that life’s a zero-sum game, where if one guy’s got something then you can’t have that something because he’s already got it and it all has to balance out.
Yeah, it’s crazy. Freedoms are renewable resources, and it’s kind of a self-generating thing, the more of it that gets spread around— I don’t know man, us humans are f***** up.
It’s a complicated issue, that’s for sure.
Yeah, definitely. Probably the most complicated issue that yet has existed: how to get we humans to get along. The person who figures out is going to be a wealthy man. Or woman. Or transgender.
Leave all the options open.
Could be anybody.
Absolutely. So, you guys, in your music, your lyrics especially, there’s artistic references all over the place, and it’s both high art and quote-unqoute low art, which doesn’t really exist. But, you know, Fortress of Solitude, Brueghel, Camus, Whitman. What are you like as a consumer of art: do you read a lot, what are you interested in?
Oh, you know, pretty much everything, right? This world is so full of ideas. A really bad way to get smarter is to draw arbitrary lines across our culture, to say that one piece of information is more valuable than another. The people that are going to define where our culture goes are going to be the ones that are best able to straddle that completely made-up line between high and low culture. Because from either side of that line there’s countless wondrous things to learn, and things that can enhance our earthly experience. To cut yourself off from any of them is doing yourself a great disservice. We’re the most blessed generation of humans that’s every lived, as far as our access to information and stuff. We should be the smartest humans of all time. And we probably can be if we decide that we want to. Wouldn’t you say, Kev?
I couldn’t agree more. You do a little bit of that involvement with all of these spoken-word passages on the album and the quoting, it informs the album really well I think. It’s cool that you had those guests read those parts. What made you want to get guys like Craig Finn involved, other than the fact that Craig Finn is just a really great dude—what made you want to pull in all these other guys to read these parts and not just read them yourself, or have someone else in the band read them?
Well, it’s kind of a more the merrier thing. I’m very blessed to have accumulated, as my friends, probably the most talented people in the world, and I would be remiss if I didn’t make the best possible use of their multitudes of talents for my own selfish purposes. It’s like I said, the more the merrier. Friendly, neighborly thing, trying to foster that inclusive environment, the communal element that’s so vital to punk. Even though there’s only five people in the band right now, we’re not trying to have some kind of inclusive club.
Yeah, there’s a great community aspect to Titus Andronicus, you guys are really inclusive it seems like.
That’s what it’s all about, you know? Too much of our f****** modern world is so exclusive. Everybody gets a hard-on when they can have something that they can keep hidden away from somebody else. What a f****** dumbass thing to do. Community, inclusiveness is the opposite of that, and that’s pretty much what we’re interested in.
You seem like a very genuine guy. You don’t seem to spend a lot of time saying things that you don’t truly believe.
No, what the f*** would be the point of that, that would be the dumbest thing I could do. I only have so much time on this Earth, I don’t have any time to speak falsities, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I appreciate that. How important—because it took me a really long to figure out a good idea of how The Monitor’s concept went from beginning to end—how important do you think it is for listeners to know that story, to know that there is a hero and these things are happening to him?
Well, I mean, that’s not really for me to say. We put it out into the world—our part of the interpretation process is pretty much over. I can talk to you now and say what I meant and hopefully you can tell the kids about it, but for the most part, when you put something out into the world you kind of have to let go of your control over it, people are going to take it and do with it what they will, you know? Sometimes people seem to really get the idea and sometimes people communicate to me by their words and actions that they have no idea what we’re talking about, or completely don’t give a s*** about it. I don’t know man, look at Fugazi, Fugazi couldn’t possibly have been more to the point, and for their whole career they had to fight against people having totally the hundred-percent wrong idea about what they were doing. So like, f***, if Fugazi couldn’t pull it off, what chance do we have? Probably close to zero. I hate to be misunderstood, but that’s kind of, if you want to be a human and interact with another human that’s pretty much inevitable, right?
I know exactly what you’re talking about, because I’ve read a lot about the album that gets really hung up on the idea of it being this depressing, dark, kind of relentless piece. I personally have always thought the album was really beautiful and quite uplifting, especially by the end: there’s some definite optimism there. I think people hear a certain tone and they don’t look past it.
There have been huge misconstruings. Like our song, “Theme from Cheers,” for example, the seventh song on that record, that was supposed to be our hero’s most pitiful moment, but now it seems like, people have got the idea that it’s about how getting wasted’s awesome, and that wasn’t the idea at all. But that’s kind of like, what the f*** are you gonna do, right? You can’t hold peoples’ hands every time that they want to listen to your record. They’re gonna get out of it what they’re gonna get out of it, I suppose.
That’s really surprising, because that song, it’s a fantastic song, but that’s where the album is definitely a little darker and depressing, because you get really into the specifics of how down in the bender this guy is.
Pretty serious debasement happening.
Yeah, the whole cigarette butts lining his throat, that’s not exactly a beautiful image, I mean it’s a great image but it’s not…
That was funny, my sister was telling me the other day that she and my mother were listening to that song and that line came up and my mom was like, Do you think he really does that?
(Laughs) I imagine they’ve had pretty opinionated reactions to the line where you’re like, Sorry Dad, no, I’m not making this up.
Yeah. Got to keep it real, whatever the cost. But, you know, I guess the flip-side of that is that, as with any sort of art, my intentions are, if they are followed to the letter, that is not necessarily the most productive interpretation for an individual listener. So I hope that on the flip-side of people getting the wrong idea, that they get something out of it that’s positive even if that’s not what I had in mind. Like, I got this really sweet Facebook message from this kid, some stranger, but he said that the album really encapsulated what it meant to be 18, and I was like s***, I thought I was trying to encapsulate what it meant to be 23. But you know, that guy was a slightly happier person for having this album that he thought was all about being 18 years old and that’s fine too, you know? At the end of the day, the purpose is just generating greater positivity, and whatever way that I can do that, so be it. I don’t think that getting wasted is the thing, but hopefully more positivity will come out of the record’s existence on this earth, rather than negativity. That’s always the idea, right, this record’s got to be utilitarian.
One part of the album that I kind of caught onto and that I’ve read you talking about a little bit is how you’re talking about antidepressants in that part that’s like, Robot inside of my head, that almost controlling force of this pill. You say at one point that you can’t do anything without its permission; do you really think that that sort of medication is kind of leading people to becoming sort of extra-human, like it’s something beyond natural life?
Ooh, interesting. Well, my opinion about my medicine has kind of changed since I wrote that song. I was really confused about the idea of the authenticity of emotions. But since then, I’ve kind of decided that, all that I know of the universe is my perceptions. Nothing’s good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as Hamlet says. So you know, I’m a 21st century man, and once more I exist at the center of my personal universe, I’m the master of my domain, as an existentialist I’m in control of my destiny. So I might as well tailor my emotions to being the most productive possible. But I guess it’s an ongoing something, because I do believe that we have to be unafraid to embrace the extremes of our human experience, whether that be the most exalted joys or the most horrific despairs. But it’s tough, sometimes it’s too scary. I don’t know man, it’s tough. Like Nietzsche says, humanity is something to be overcome, and I do believe that my medicine has made me a more productive person, a better person. Who’s to say that one way of pursuing that is better than another. For some people it’s taking SSRIs, for other people it’s booze, for other people it’s sexual conquest. Everything that we pursue in life is a means to a greater level of happiness for us, whatever that is. It’s all equally valid, they’re all inherently without any value, so might as well pick the one that works for me, I guess. But I guess there is still a little bit of shame instilled in me from not being able to do it all on my own. But I know that that’s just me, my programming, my having been brainwashed by a society that wants to keep people that suffer from any sort of mental illness at the bottom of the ladder, just like we try to do with anybody that’s different in any kind of noticeable way. I’m looking to deprogram myself about that.
You definitely seem to place a lot of emphasis on the process, whatever the process may be, of how people are trying to reach happiness or satisfaction.
Well, you know, the authenticity of emotion—as an existentialist I believe that we, as individuals, decide what our authentic self is. Practically speaking, it’s probably ok, I’m probably going to keep taking them (laughs). Dude, it is a f****** awesome drug, it really did pretty much exactly what it said it was gonna do. How many products can you say that about these days?
You seem to identify pretty strongly as an existentialist then?
Yeah, I’ve mentioned that a few times, haven’t I? I guess it is pretty much my religion. I am striving to create my authentic self in the context of this crazy, absurd universe.
Sounds like a rational instinct to me.
It’s the best, because out of the hopelessness of our absurd universe comes absolute freedom, right? Because I exist in a universe that is enormous, that will squish me like the bug I am at some point sooner rather than later. But the other side of that coin is that I exist at the center of my own universe over which I exude total control as far as determining what my values are, what my definition of success is, and what it means for me to be a good person. And what greater currency can there be than that, in this crazy modern world? Or so it would appear to me, who f****** knows.