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Titus Andronicus forever: Patrick Stickles on karaoke, uncertainty and defying destiny

titus andronicusTitus Andronicus, performed at St. Stephen's Church in April. Frontman Patrick Stickles and friends appear at Rock & Roll Hotel tonight. (Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

By David Malitz

There’s a lot to say about Titus Andronicus in no small part because Titus Andronicus says a lot itself. The New Jersey band’s recent album “The Monitor” is a Civil-War-as-metaphor-for-current-state-of-the-union grand statement that is wary of actually making any huge proclamations. It’s also a stampeding collection of seven-minute punk rock scorchers and easily one of 2010’s best albums. Frontman Patrick Stickles is the man behind the big sounds and big ideas, delivering every line in a near-hoarse scream with a life-or-death urgency.

Talking to him isn’t much different. Our conversation started out basic enough - talking about the end of a long tour, the New Jersey indie rock revival (“If I would chalk it up to anything it would probably be good public schools. We got a lot of encouragement and a lot of opportunities to express ourselves at an important time in our lives”) and set list construction tricks (“often we’ll play our song “No Future Part Three” before we play our song “The Theme From Cheers,” hence “Three Cheers.” Get it? See what’s going on here?”).

Once we started talking about a mutual favorite band (North Carolina awesomely ragged Spider Bags) things got, well, a little more Titus-y. Dramatic statements were made with aplomb. It was actually a bit like a Titus show - somewhat exhausting but lots of fun. The band's show Friday night at Rock & Roll Hotel is sold out but you should probably try to find a way in somehow, some way.

You really put yourself out there a lot - in terms of the music, the lyrics, even what you write on your blog. It seems that the trend these days is to obscure yourself a bit more. But I don’t think anyone would say that about you or your band.

Well, hopefully not. We do strive for transparency, you know? I guess all that we’re trying to do is highlight the human element of all of our activities. Sometimes people in the entertainment industry, you have a tendency to think of them as less-than or more-than human. To me, the most any sort of all the art that’s the most satisfying to me is obviously the work of human hands, you know? So when we go and do a concert we try to make it pretty plain. Try to make it easily distinguishable from the TV, you know?

The last time you played here was at a church. It was really one of the most fun shows I’ve been to all year. It felt like that usual barrier that exists between band and audience was broken down. It was very communal.

It was very positive. Fitting for an event organized by Positive Force.

Was that a particularly memorable show?

Definitely. It was definitely a huge highlight of that tour we did back in the spring. A lot of good vibes, which warm my heart, even now.

We have a mutual favorite band -- Spider Bags.

Oh my God, Spider Bags, the best band.

They’re still a secret in a time when it’s very hard to be a secret. Is that part of what makes them so appealing, that they don't command attention and aren't forced upon us?

I like to believe that if the Spider Bags got to be the most popular band in the world, that would make me really happy. There’s always that kind of, that element of exclusivity in indie rock that helps us indie rockers feel like we’re pretty special people. But I think I’d gladly trade that for a greater modicum of success for Spider Bags. But I think the fact that it continues to elude them is more than ample proof that we live in an absurd universe. Can there be any sort of great benevolent design in the universe that allows the Spider Bags to toil in obscurity? Probably not.

They seem like a band that was just born to play rock-and-roll.

They do seem to be naturals at it.

Is that you?

Oh, no. I had to fight tooth and nail to develop what meager musical ability I have now. When I was a teenager, maybe when I was 14, I decided I wanted to learn how to sing. And I went to this lady in town that gave lessons about singing. But she told me I could never be a singer. It just wasn’t going to happen. That I suffered from tone deafness. And I showed her, didn’t I?!

Well it’s not all that shocking that a voice coach wouldn’t think you had much of a future as a singer.

There are a lot of people in this group with a lot of natural ability. But I have gotten here by defying my destiny.

What was that destiny?

Oh, I don’t know. They’ve got a lot of hoops set up for a guy like me jump through. Being so white, being a man, being of somewhat affluent parentage. My fate was laid out before me decades in advance.

You were supposed to work in an office, have a 401k and then retire?

Yeah. There might be time enough for that yet. Just like in that song “Common People,” I’ll probably always have a means for escaping.

You know, I’ve never done karaoke but that’s always the one song I have ready if I ever find myself in a position to do karaoke.

Karaoke is great fun.

Do you have a go-to song?

Not so much anymore because I generally go to the same place when I’m home with my girlfriend. We always go to the same karaoke night. So I can’t really pull up the same song. But when I go to a new karaoke bar, usually “Kiss” by Prince is the one I do.

That’s a good one. Do you have the falsetto? Do you try to get there?

Try? I get there, I settle in. I get comfy.

Have you gotten tired of talking about the Civil War over the past year?

Oh, you know. The petty, selfish part of me might be tempted to say that it’s annoying. But only because I’d be inclined to think it would be annoying to talk about any one thing. But I do applaud myself, for if something had to be repeated a million times, it’s a pretty important subject and one with an enormous amount of depth to plumb as far as the discussion of it goes ... There’s never an end to things that can be said. Because half the [expletive] I’ve said is gonna end up being wrong, right? I’ll find out later that I had the wrong idea about a lot of things I’ve said.

But that’s just the basic process of how things go.

Well, that’s the idea, right? I’m actually quite fortunate in that I decided on something that was important to me and now I get to discuss it all the time and hopefully just by doing it so much, I’m getting closer to a better personal understanding of what these things really mean to me. So no, it’s not that annoying. It’s awesome.

Well it’s a very humanizing part of history, I guess.

I suppose. But sometimes the humans end up getting lost in the shuffle of enormous statistics.

But there are also lots of little stories.

There are millions of them. Everyone who lived through that time had one. Just like everybody that is living through our current culture wars will probably have something to say about it ... It’s a wide and wondrous world out there and my understanding of it is close to zero at this point.

Still close to zero?

Frighteningly close. I’ll continue to search for what precious little understanding will be afforded to me during the course of my meager life.

But you get to, like, see the entire world and experience all of that. Doesn’t that help you find understanding?

Sometimes. I mean, it does if I decide that it can, right? It’s like anything in life. You only get out of it what you put into it, right? But unfortunately I might not be of sound enough mind to put into it everything it deserves.

You sound a little unsure of yourself.

Dude, who wouldn’t be in this crazy world? I exist in a universe over which I exert almost no control. I’m surrounded by billions of people and I’ve got no idea what they’re thinking.

At least you seem to be at ease with your uneasiness.

What else are you going to do, right? It’s pretty much the totality of my earthly experience. Fighting it is only going to get me farther away from my authentic self. I’ve been given uncertainty in massive heaps so I may as well try to use it productively, right? Isn’t that kind of what punk rock is all about?

By David Malitz  | September 24, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Interview  | Tags:  Titus Andronicus  
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