Conquering the Goths – An Interview with Titus Andronicus
Almost everyone gets restless. The bug to pick and go eventually sets in and for some reason or another, we all tend to feel disconnected at some point with our hometown. It’s basically a right of passage . . . seeking a geographical cure. The Monitor, the latest offering of Titus Andronicus, successfully captures that nervous energy that comes from looking for that freeing flight.
And it’s not just the New Jersey roots, but the more I listened to the album the more I am reminded of early Bruce Springsteen because of the heart and energy put into the lyrics that maintain the working-class resonance of the everyman. But this isn’t classic rock throwback. Titus derives punk-inflected energy into their brand of indie rock that incorporates widely varied instrumentation and highly literate references throughout. History buffs are especially going to find a special place for this album with its numerous Civil War references and themes.
Synconation spoke with Patrick Stickles, vocals and guitar, and you can tell that he is meticulous in his approach to whatever he is doing and that he has the brains to back up the types of challenges that could come from something as grandiose as naming your band after a Shakespeare work.
Synco: What was it about the Civil War that inspired you?
PS: The idea behind the album was to discuss the relationship between the Self and the Other, the binary systems that people put themselves into, the way that communities, whether they be as large as a country, or as small as the components of a person’s brain, often find themselves divided when it is so clearly in their best interest to work together and unify – this classic, tragic story of the human condition, as it has been repeated ad infinitum throughout history. As an American, naturally writing with primarily an American audience in mind, the period of the Civil War provided me with an abundance of rich imagery and larger than life characters and a certain amount of cultural capital or gravitas, with which to discuss these themes, since they seemed to be writ larger during this time than anywhere else in our American history. Know what I’m saying?
Synco: Are you a Ken Burns fan because, I noted a lot of the Civil War Soundtrack on it (I am a huge fan of the Civil War soundtrack)? Have you ever thought about covering Ashakon Farewell?
PS: I also love that soundtrack, and I have a treasured cassette copy of it that I listen to often in the van. The whole soundtrack is very stirring and evocative. Something about hearing that major pentatonic scale (the preferred scale on The Monitor, as in most “civil war” music) just sets my heart a-racing. In fact, on the first tour we did promoting the album, we played a version of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ that was based on an arrangement from the “Civil War” soundtrack; the recording there is violin and piano, but we did it for electric guitars etc. instead. As for covering “Ashakon Farewell,” I have thought, from time to time, of using that song in some capacity; it is a great melody, and stands proudly among the much-more established songs that make up the rest of the soundtrack.
The first track on the album, “A More Perfect Union,” has several Bruce Springsteen references, do you feel there is a special connection being from New Jersey? Have you been compared to Bruce before? I get a Springsteen-esque vibe.
PS: In fact, you are the first person to notice a similarity between us and Bruce Springsteen. It wasn’t intentional though, because I have never listened to his music before.
Synco: Is there anything that would surprise people about the band that doesn’t come across on the album?
PS: Hopefully, the album demonstrates a diverse enough array of interests, musically and thematically, that people wouldn’t be surprised to hear of us doing just about anything.
Synco: Is this album more of a love song to Jersey or more of a break up letter?
PS: If anything, it is more of a break-up letter to New Jersey, even though our hero does return there at the end, and there is a romantic subplot in there somewhere as well. Rather, it is about letting go of, or “breaking up with,” our attachment to sources of self-worth maybe that are not so healthy, whether that be a sense of regional identity, a romantic relationship, being part of any kind of community – now, these can often be wonderful things, of course, but in pursuing them, people have a tendency to sometimes fall backwards into some kind of kooky binary system, something like, “I am from New Jersey, therefore I am the enemy of Place X,” or, “I am right in my relationship, therefore, my partner is wrong,” and all this silliness. Our hero learns, through our story, that it is okay to derive happiness from such aforementioned sources, but when you use them to pit yourself against other humans, or use them as an excuse for yr own unhappiness or lack of fulfillment (“I’d have it all, if it wasn’t for Community X”), then we start to run into problems – bad breakups, civil war, etc.
Synco: Where did you get the idea for the speeches at the beginning of the songs?
PS: That is a concept borrowed from the hip-hop world; particularly, I find the kung-fu movie dialogue samples on the Wu-Tang Clan’s album to be very evocative. It is all about setting the mood, and lending support to your arguments, whatever they may be.
Synco: Would you consider this a concept album?
PS: I think that thematic consistency and a clear unity of action across an album is always a good thing. The best albums, to my ears, are the ones that function as singular artistic statements across the length of the record, rather than simply a collection of songs that are appealing on their own all stuck together arbitrarily. Ideally, the act of listening to a single song will be a pleasant experience, but the act of listening to those component pieces together will be a distinct and rewarding experience on its own – the idea is to have the record be greater than the sum of its parts, you know? A “concept album,” to me, need not be bound together by a narrative, but rather a singular, concise statement, a piece of art that has a point, or a “concept,” as it were. A record that is no more than a “singles collection” can be a great thing, but ignoring the possibilities provided by the long-player format seems to be fighting with one hand tied behind your back, to this guy.
Synco: With your band name I have to ask, if you were a character from Shakespeare who would it be (I would be Lago)?
PS: Recently, I tried to explain to a friend why losing sure-footed, decisive bassist/band business manager Ian Graetzer was such a hard loss by using the allegory that he was the Laertes to my Hamlet, so I guess I will say Hamlet; I talk and talk, usually complaining about how I don’t get answers to my various existential quandaries, but don’t actually do shit about it.