In the world of modern music there are few bands who’ve covered as much territory as New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus. Together since 2005, the four piece has seen many ups and downs while essentially rewriting history in the process. While few bands can receive the critical acclaim and even fewer can release such a broad range of music that the band has in a short time frame, Titus Andronicus has already achieved more than the typical punk band.
For anyone paying close enough attention, Titus Andronicus and their lead singer and songwriter Patrick Stickles has always done whatever they seemingly wanted to do. The band’s releases could really be the story of multiple projects, yet they’re all the albums of one mind-Stickles. With an opera, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a concept album about the end of the civil war, The Monitor and even a softer more ballad-like release A Productive Cough-it’s fair to say that most people would ask themselves if such changes in direction were good ideas. “Except for making a lot of money, we’ve definitely been given a long leash. XL (Recordings) let us put out a double LP and Merge has really let us do whatever. I don’t know about that. The bad ideas I’ve always had have to do with buying a lemon of a van. I don’t regret my artistic choices. I feel like that kind of stuff doesn’t set you up for the long term. If you pander, you only have success for a short time. It’d be like if Mike Watt went and made something like RATT when that was popular, we wouldn’t be talking about how cool he is now,” remarks Stickles.
The band got their start with XL Recordings releasing The Monitor, one of the best albums of its time and Local Business, a more stripped down release. While they’re essentially the same band since that time in many ways, moving forward we were curious if he ever went back and listened to the older material and how often the songs made it into the current live shows. “Yeah, we bring some out for the shows but I don’t go back and listen because the flaws are more apparent. I like playing those songs live now cause’ I feel like we’re better at playing them now,” he explains.
“Once they brand you, it’s hard to shake.”
The band’s more recent albums have proven that great artists will always be a bit more ambitious than most. The Most Lamentable Tragedy is two LP’s and a seven inch with twenty nine songs total. A Productive Cough throws out everything you ever knew about the band and comes in with primarily acoustic songs that ring softer than anything they’ve ever done before. For a band willing to try new things, is there a road map at all? “I think of my records as novels with a unified purpose. Ideally they’ll add up to a universal point I can one day tie a ribbon around. The decision of making a triple LP, or two and a half was a message I wanted to communicate. And for that it would take ninety three minutes to do so,” says the guitarist.
The band’s new album An Obelisk is possibly their strongest to date. Full of straightforward punk songs, the band tapped Bob Mould of Husker Du and Sugar to produce the album. The band and Mould went to Electrical Audio in Chicago to record the album. With Mould working on a steady solo career of his own, we were curious how they even crossed paths much less got to work together. Explains Stickles, “well, to make a long story short, Merge had released his album called Patch The Sky. When he was doing press for it, he mentioned us in an interview. I thought it was really cool and since I knew Michael Azzerad who wrote that book Our Band Could Be Your Life with Husker Du in it, I asked and he sent a message to Bob on our behalf about possibly working together. I thought it’d just be an email and that’s it. But he responded to me the same day with all of the details laid out. When we were going into it I remember thinking, ‘he’s made thirty or forty albums that all sound great in a certain way. Wouldn’t it be great if his high standard of excellence rubbed off on us.’
He didn’t try to change us at all. He was more like ‘let’s present this as this with class.’ We’d bash it out, go into the control room and he’d lay out how he was gonna’ do it and that was it. He was a warm an wonderful man with an infectious smile. He’s astonishing live, he has the endurance of a much younger man. He kept a firm hand on the wheel the whole time. What a blessing it was to work with him. Bob and his engineer Beau Sorenson knew how to do everything quick and easily because they’d recorded together there before.”
Where Local Business was meant to be a pretty straight up album, An Obelisk feels very organic. With a straight ahead approach that sounds like it was recorded live in the studio, it comes off more than just notes on a page. While many times music writers will dig into lyrics, the idea of getting the words wrong comes across in a satirical way in the video for “Just Like Ringing a Bell.” Because of it’s inclusion in the video, we were curious if Stickles had come across someone misreading his lyrics in the past. “Yeah, there’s some guitar overdubs, some twelve string and some solos. But most of the album was all of us on the floor doing about eighty percent of it live. I’m happy if people take the time to read the lyrics at all. When I pour my heart and soul into something and they they try to get me to fit a mold, that’s when it’s hard. The subject matter and content are misinterpreted it just looks like laziness to me. Once they brand you, it’s hard to shake,” replies the guitarist.
The band’s live shows are something else entirely. Almost like a big party, the band’s energy comes through in an extraordinary way, making one wonder what the band has planned for their massive tour. “Well, all the albums are represented. The new one gets more representation. We’re doing four off the new one, I try to arrange the set around the current album. We did the same when we made the acoustic album. It’s always trying to give that cohesive appearance,” he replies.
In a time where an artist’s words are on full display forever on the web, Stickles has said plenty of things over the years that resonated with us. Our favorite has him stating “if you’re trying to top the charts with a guitar, you’re an idiot.” But as someone who has gone from a hollow body to lighter Gibsons like the Les Paul Jr. and the SG, we were curious what drew him to the lighter gear. “Well I’ll tell you, the Jr. is heavier than the SG. I’m noticing there’s more meat on it. I recently put a P-90 with Jr. style electronics on the SG to get it closer to the Jr. in terms of sound. On the SG I have to turn up the amps. For the first five or six years I played a hollow body but it got more unwieldy over time. I’m not into single coils. The humbucker P-90 is more tremendous and powerful. I’m using a Fender Jazz Chorus amp now and it gives me the articulation I’m looking for. I’ve played regular Les Pauls, but on stage I’m just trying to get it done.”
An Obelisk is available on multiple formats directly from Merge Records. It can also be purchased digitally wherever you download music and their entire catalog is available to stream on all streaming sites. Titus Andronicus is on tour tonight in Providence, RI at AS220 until November 23 in New York, NY at Bowery Ballroom. The band’s complete run of tour dates can be accessed here.
Image Credits: Photo by Ray Concepcion.