Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus talks bagpipes, Bright Eyes and the Boss
Titus Andronicus is frightfully serious about punk rock. The group of well-read, New Jersey-bred twenty-somethings recently released The Monitor, a concept album about the Civil War that contains spoken-word, era-appropriate interludes, male-female call-and-response, and three track punk suites that can individually go on for as long as fourteen minutes. And that's before the bagpipes come in.
The potential was there for The Monitor to be a muddle of pretentious, sophomore-album speciousness, but instead, the album is tight, flawlessly structured, fun, strangely affecting and equally divided between drinkin' songs and thinkin' songs. The tracks barrel at you like a Springsteen-ian no-collar brawler, but Titus Andronicus are also in good form when they slow it down for a tortured, Pogues-styled melody.
The Civil War doesn't have to be central to your experience of the album; in fact The Monitor is steeped more in the band's home state of New Jersey. The Civil War is just a touchstone for high-stakes discord and blind, us-against-them howling. For Titus Andronicus, punk is war. Frontman Patrick Stickles talked to us recently about Springsteen, puppet making and the cesspit of New Jersey reality TV shows.
Westword (Jonathan Easley): How did the Civil War end up as the central theme of your new album?
Patrick Stickles: The idea for the record was that we wanted to talk about those things that lead humans to isolate ourselves and our tendency to arrange everything in opposition to something else -- to make these little teams and claim that our team is the best and every other team sucks. It's been plaguing us for so many thousands of years.
[cell phone reception lost here].
Ww: Hey man, I lost you. Hopefully you didn't prattle on for too long to yourself.
PS: No, no. I just found the question so offensive that I had to hang up to put you in your place. I'm kidding of course, what is the last thing you recall?
Ww: I think you were getting into how you used the divisiveness of war as a starting point for The Monitor.
PS: Yeah. I think as Americans, the Civil War was the all-time most enormous conflict. So it was this theme of disunion and division between groups that are supposed to be more harmonious.
At the time we were writing the record, I just came to be interested in that particular period of American history, and in learning about it, some things popped-up to me that I could see echoes of in our modern society.
The hope was that by using this archaic, old-fashioned conflict as our metaphor or symbol that hopefully that could...you know; those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. You know what I'm saying?
Ww: Absolutely. It definitely feels like we're at that point in history now. Obviously we're dealing with different issues, but it feels just as divided.
PS: That's it. It's just the same issues in different clothes as it was in the 19th century and all centuries previous to that. It's my opinion that by taking a greater understanding of that that we can improve on the actions of our ancestors and not repeat the mistakes that have cost our species so much over the years.
Ww: Is historical nonfiction something that you've always had an interest in, or is it something that you just delved into for the album?
PS: I had never really been interested in it before. It had always been fiction that was my meat and drink growing up; that's what I studied in school. But when I got out of college, I guess I was a little burned out on novels.
So I just found myself watching the Ken Burns Civil War film in ten minute segments on You Tube, and that's what got me into that period in history. And just reading nonfiction in general, which was something that I'd never been that interested in before. Now I can't get enough of it. It just goes in cycles, for everything there is a season.
Ww: Is that where the spoken word interludes came from on The Monitor?
PS: I recorded them myself for the most part, but yeah, most of them, I heard for the first time in the Ken Burns movie.
Ww: Bruce Springsteen references book-end The Monitor. There's reference to him in the opening track, and then you actually use his name in the final track. Other than the fact that he's from your home-state, what is it about Springsteen that you love?
PS: Why do I love him? I love him for a lot of reasons. Mostly because it was he that proved to me that rock and roll could survive and even prosper when blown up to epic and cinematic proportions. The ingredients that made up "Louie Louie" could also be used to make sweeping romantic epics about the highway and whatnot.
But for the purposes of the record, whenever he would sing about New Jersey, it was always with a desire to escape to supposedly greener pastures, where he thought he would have greater freedom to live the way he wanted to, or at least those characters in his songs, anyway.
That's something that the hero of our record tries to do, but he finds out that you can run as much as you want, but you can't ever escape yourself. So the more explicit references to Springsteen are there because he's the patron saint of escapism, which was something that we were striving to destroy with this album, even though his music is cool.
Besides, it was like every single review of our first record said that we were ripping him off, so we figured, you know...I guess it was kind of like Eminem at the end of 8 Mile, where he was like, "I know what you're going to say about me, so I'll say it first." But it didn't work because every single review of this record still mentions Springsteen. I don't know. It was a beat him or join him type of thing. Better that than Bright Eyes anyway.