Just past the halfway point of its unhinged and impressive 2008 debut album, The Airing of Grievances (Troubleman Unlimited/XL), Titus Andronicus singer Patrick Stickles brutally unfurls his emotions.
Over the reckless stampede of the song "Titus Andronicus," Stickles unleashes his petulance: "Nobody cares what I've got to say anymore," "I'm repeating myself again," and "Now there's nothing left for me to do except die." Finally, over handclaps and surging drums, Stickles leads his cohorts to a chant of: "Your life is over." It is both raw with primal angst and celebratory with gallows humor.
Speaking recently with Stickles by phone, the witty, thoughtful Titus Andronicus frontman discussed everything from the demanding nature of the band's rigorous touring schedule to Tucson pillow fights.
In 2009, when Titus Andronicus played at anarchist collective Dry River, the group found itself in the midst of a massive pillow fight between concertgoers. "Even though it was fun, it got to be more like being a baby sitter than a rock 'n' roller," Stickles said. "I don't think we're too good to be the soundtrack to a pillow fight and nothing more, but that's not necessarily the experience I'm hoping for this time—though I'm happy to have had it once."
Titus Andronicus started as "a diversion for teenagers," and is named after one of Shakespeare's most peculiar, vicious plays.
"I didn't know anything about the play when it was decided that it would be the name of the band," Stickles admitted, before stating that its paradoxical readings as both "high art" and "visceral, carnal" were apt for his band. "I guess that's a nexus that we would hope to occupy, between the cerebral and carnal urges that are forever at war with each other in the mind of every human. ... Sometimes in life, you have to trust your instinct and come up with the rationale afterward."
After Stickles left New Jersey for the first time, moving to Boston (briefly), he found his feelings of homesickness coupled nicely with his "pet interest" in the Civil War. The resulting album, last year's phenomenal, sprawling The Monitor (XL), was a coming-of-age tale wrapped in the tragic narrative of America's bloodiest battle. "Those were just things that were all in my mind at the time," Stickles said. "It wasn't like I was going out looking for some grand theme."
Instead, Stickles admitted interests in "regional identity" and "civic engagement" led to an ambitious album that wears its fiery punk-guitar assaults as comfortably as its droning atmospherics. Outpacing more wizened acts, Titus Andronicus show remarkable versatility and mastery throughout the album, executing the ragged piano ballad "To Old Friends and New" as seamlessly as the monstrous 14-minute Celtic-prog-shoegaze closing opus "The Battle of Hampton Roads." One of the richest, most exciting punk-rock epics in recent memory, The Monitor is an arresting work.
The Monitor was also a runaway critical success. The album received high marks from the music press and led to the group touring relentlessly. "There was a while where the standard was just to try to push it as hard as we possibly could, a sleep-when-you're-dead kind of attitude," Stickles said. At one point, this attitude led to 48 shows in 53 days.
Although Stickles admits there is a communal aspect that inspires them to tour, there are baser realities to the life of an indie musician. "It's the only way for us to make any money," Stickles said. "Not to be crass, but those are the facts. We gotta eat, dude."
Nevertheless, Stickles is determined to avoid the easiest cash-in of the current musician: commercials. "We've been approached a few times, but, no, never," Stickles said. "We're involved in capitalism enough as is, if not too much. A punk band trying to make money is a funny thing to begin with."
The headaches and hassles of the road—from having to chase Okkervil River's tour bus with their van, to being dispirited by their callous treatment by the Pogues—have all been fallout of the unplanned successes of Titus Andronicus. "We fell ass-backwards into all these things, anyway," Stickles said. "Even though we recognize that by taking these opportunities, we are consciously trying to widen our tent a little bit and climb the ladder, so to speak, we don't necessarily seek those things out."
Also unsolicited has been the heavy turnover of the group. A Titus Andronicus record often features an extensive cast—Stickles called recording "the opportunity that you have to assemble a dream band"—but the core of the group was supposed to be different. "It was never supposed to be a come-and-go-as-you-please sort of thing," Stickles said. "Every lineup of the band, I thought, was going to be the last one, but it's just never really worked out like that."
Stickles stated that bad blood never led to a departure, yet the reasons have been diverse. "Usually, a lineup is good for about nine months, until we burn somebody out or somebody decides they'd rather play country-and-Western music rather than punk."
After wrapping up this tour, Titus Andronicus hopes to start working on The Monitor's follow-up—though motivation may be lacking. "We'll have three weeks off between tours of America, and we don't want to be at the practice space every day, playing the goddamn guitars again," Stickles said of the usual pattern that has prevented future recordings. "We want to be at home, watching cartoons or doing other shit."