Titus Andronicus interview
Almost 150 years after Abraham Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address, Titus Andronicus are invoking Lincoln's ghost and tapping into some of his humanity, tempered by the realities of the 21st century. Loud, bold and unapologetically honest, these Jersey boys lay it on the line and tell it as it is, rocking your socks off along the way. Front man Patrick Stickles takes a few minutes out to talk about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Are you all Shakespeare fans? Out of all his plays, Titus Andronicus is the most maligned and the goriest. Does it say something about the band?
I was quite a big fan of Shakespeare's work during my teenage years, late in which we started the band. Teenagers with musical ambitions seem to be constantly walking around looking for good band names, a trend maybe best exemplified by the character Trent on the 1990s TV show Daria, and Titus Andronicus was the best one that I came across. One could say that the play's unique place in the literary canon – being a work of the widely deified Shakespeare, but also a relatively unsophisticated Elizabethan equivalent to modern horror films like Saw or Texas Chainsaw Massacre – represents the line that our band would also like to toe. By that I mean, the ongoing struggle between the mind and the body, between cerebral and carnal or visceral urges. In our case, that might mean striving for the intensity of punk without being trapped by its well-established aesthetic parameters, or, conversely, the musical adventurism of indie rock without its modern inclination towards politeness. Mostly though, it is just a greatly pleasing arrangement of sounds. The words “Titus Andronicus” really roll off the tongue. I have also recently found it is easy to pronounce as though it were one word – something like “tight-uh-sand-ronicus,” which really saves a lot of time.
You say on your MySpace page that you “never sing about love, only hate” and that you “have no hope for the future.” Are things really that bleak?
Yes and no. I am reminded of a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre's essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” wherein he writes (translated by Bernard Frechtman), “We have been charged with dwelling on human degradation, with pointing up everywhere the sordid, shady, and slimy, and neglecting the gracious and beautiful side of human nature; for example... the smile of a child.” Perhaps we are guilty of this, but saying that everything sucks is only half the story, just as it was for Sartre and his cronies.
While we acknowledge the meaninglessness of many of our human institutions, and acknowledge the emptiness that can following a lifetime of obedience to them, we don't mean to say that there can be no happiness. Rather, we seek to challenge societal preconceptions of what is important or sacred, so that, once liberated from them, we can pursue our own ideal of happiness on our own terms. When we moan and complain in our songs about the futility of everything, we are really looking to show respect for the weight of trying to find one's authentic self. In order to do this, though, we must first accept the arbitrary nature of so many of society's rules, written and unwritten. I guess our point is that you have to be able to believe in nothing before you can properly believe in anything. There are probably a lot of books at your local library that say that better than I just did though.
How would you say this album differs from your previous one, "The Airing of Grievances"?
The biggest difference is probably the resources with which it was made. Our first record was made on a shoestring budget for New Jersey's Troubleman Unlimited label, where we had to try desperately to fit all that we wanted to do into a few days in the studio and a long stretch of catch-as-catch-can off-hour sessions. This is the first record that we have done for Extra Large Recordings, and as such, we were able to give the proper attention to details like fidelity and arrangements, which were luxuries we couldn't afford last time around.
XL gave us the budget needed to spend a much greater amount of time (about four weeks) in the studio, and as such, we hope it comes across a more carefully considered piece of work. Any “lo-fi” leanings we may have been accused of having have always been due to necessity rather than any aesthetic inclinations. Also, the songs, on the whole, are considerably longer, for one reason or another.
On The Monitor you use the American Civil War as a sort of analogy for modern day America. What inspired that idea?
I became interested in the American Civil War about a year and a half ago, when I had just graduated from college and was adrift and in search of new ideas. In particular, the documentary film The Civil War by Ken Burns captured my imagination, and I would stay up late many a night watching it. It is an easy thing to get interested in – there are all manner of larger-than-life characters, epic battles, colossal questions of right and wrong, etc. I find that studying history has a way of putting modern events in perspective, and there is a lot from the Civil War era that can help with the understanding of the conflicts that continue to divide us today. In America, the Civil War is thought of as something of a dividing line in our history, a watershed moment that changed everything, but it seems the forces that brought on that catastrophe are still at work today, albeit in a subtler, more insidious fashion.
Many of the songs are pre-fixed with quotes from the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln. Is he a hero of yours?
I would guess that he is a big hero for a lot of Americans. He is on Mount Rushmore, after all. He is a character of such stature within our culture that he can hardly be compared to anyone short of Jesus Christ. Indeed, he did some highly amazing things, and had a beautiful way with words, and continues to represent the best qualities of our American identity. I find him all the more fascinating considering his lifelong struggles with “the blue devils,” which psychologists nowadays would call clinical depression. Even though he grappled with these terrible internal conflicts, he was able to see our country through it's greatest internal conflict. A true testament to the power of the human spirit.
Another famous personage who features prominently on the album is fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen. Having listened to the album a number of times I can’t quite decide if it’s a celebration or a parody of Springsteen as poet laureate and working-class hero. Are you admirers?
To deny the influence of Springsteen would be pointless. He was largely responsible for creating the songwriting idiom that we work in, and he is certainly the patron saint of American songwriters who aim to infuse feelings of hopelessness and defeat with a sense of grandeur and urgency.
Besides that, having grown up in New Jersey, his music is a big part of our cultural DNA. That being said, the constant comparisons between us and Springsteen in the press seems to be a case of lazy journalism – most everything I ever read about our band makes mention of him, and it is not unusual for the whole of a piece to discuss those perceived similarities.
A lot of people seem to see us simply as some sort of punk Springsteen cover band, which I think is a little unfair, especially since they would appear to be just hopping on a sturdy journalistic bandwagon. So, you would be correct in saying it is an homage, as his music has informed ours a great deal and I am personally a big admirer of his, but it is also somewhat tongue-in-cheek, or an attempt to give our music a degree of self-awareness. We are cognizant of the boxes that we are put into by the record-buying public, and perhaps by acknowledging them, we can begin to rob them of some of their power.
Some of the songs on the album seem to point to deficiencies in society as the cause for much of the world’s unhappiness while others, such as ‘No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future’ and ‘The Battle Of Hampton Roads’ revolve around someone who is at a personal crisis in their life, who can’t express themselves, can’t even face themselves in the mirror. Do you think we are the authors of our own personal happiness or unhappiness?
You guessed it – if our record has a thesis, it is that we, as human beings, must be accountable for our own miseries.
This is why at the beginning of the record, we have Abe Lincoln saying, “If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be its author and finisher.” The record is supposed to be a story of our hero adopting a militant stance on the issues of the day and drawing a big line in the sand, trying to make his grab for whatever moral high ground can be found in modern America, only to discovering that fostering that sort of division, that “us against them” attitude, is just an equally bankrupt mirror image of the gameplan used by “the enemy.” That is to say, our hero defines himself by absence, not by who he is or what he stands for, but by who he is not and what he is opposed to. That is why we sing, at the end of the record, that our hero “knows what little [he's] known of peace,” by doing, “to [the “enemy”] what [they] have done to [him].” Throughout the record, our hero speaks frankly about his unhappiness, particularly in 'No Future Part Three,' like you mention, but in the end, he finds the moral to be that he himself is, as you put it, the author of his unhappiness, that his cherished hatred for “the enemy” is just another case of passing the buck.
Who are your musical heroes?
That question could be taken two ways. If you mean, “who are your influences,” then I might mention The Replacements, Neutral Milk Hotel, Big Country, Galaxie 500, Television Personalities, or any number of other artists. If you mean to ask what musicians we most admire, we could mention a lot of different acts who we might sound nothing like, but have informed how we do business and conduct ourselves as musicians and human beings. Bands like Crass, Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Minutemen or 7 Seconds might all have shown us the path to the moral high ground in the world of guitar music, without necessarily making us want to sound that much like them.
What makes you happy?
The first cup of coffee in the morning. Watching the squirrels in the backyard dig up nuts in the snow and then bury them in some other snow. Spending quality time with friends and loved ones. Playing video games and watching my favorite TV shows on the internet. Doing arts and crafts. Reading a good book. The last cup of tea before bed.
What does the future hold for Titus Andronicus?
I will not be so arrogant as to try and predict the future. Maybe this new record will be a smash hit, but maybe it will be a dismal failure. Maybe everyone will love it, but maybe no one will. Maybe it will prove to be the beginning of a long and celebrated music career, or maybe it will be the end of a short and quickly forgotten one. All that we can be certain of is, that in the immediate future, we must work hard and put forth our best effort in sharing our music with those who are willing to listen. We will get out there and pound the pavement, treat every concert like it is the most important one we will ever play, and just try to get by as best we know how. Whether or not we will be rewarded for these efforts is for history to decide.
Titus Andronicus' new album The Monitor is released on the 8th of March.
Main photos by Bao Nguyen