Joy Subtraction: Titus Andronicus Interview
Lewis G. Parker
, December 14th, 2010 09:25
Our man Lewis Parker grills Titus Andronicus in a basement, then pushes the gun to his temple at their live show. All pictures courtesy of Richard Johnson
The singer of Titus Andronicus, Patrick Stickles, has the red-eyed mist of a man who had been up all night snorting lines of crushed-up Modafinil tablets when he walks into the narrow bar. To the untrained ear Stickled sounds pure California — like a nasally congested Anton Newcombe — instead of his New Jersey home. The others are relatively sprightly college kids with hoodies and backpacks. Everyone is led downstairs to a basement with no lights or chairs to do the interview because it is quieter down there. We all sit on the floor Kumbaya-style apart from the bass player David Robbins, who kotches on a stool from upstairs.
The five kids sitting in the basement — who tour by driving themselves everywhere and sleeping on fans' floors — are in the middle of their second European trip to promote their second album, The Monitor, a record which will be carved into stone as one of the best albums of the decade. It's a record which uses the American Civil War as a metaphor for the struggle for sanity and happiness in contemporary America, taking speeches from Abraham Lincoln and verses of abolitionist folk songs and twisting them into invectives for an alienated population. While most of the angst is personal, the quest for a personal — if not explicitly political — freedom is distinctly linked to the social ills of 21st Century America still blighted by social division and alienation which has only got deeper and more ingrained, if anything, since Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
"Sure, we have vast inequality," says multi-instrumentalist Amy Klein.
"We have some curious ideas about how to distribute our wealth," says Patrick Stickles. "I mean, I can't claim to be handing out too many pamphlets or anything. But try to treat people decently, that's the most practical form of justice, I think."
"Like they say, the personal is the political, and the political is the personal," says Klein. "And a lot of the divisiveness in the country at the upper level between Democrats and Republicans trickles down to divisiveness of youth."
"It's all rooted in the day-to-day," adds guitarist Ian Graetzer.
"We need to have a revolution of the heart!" says Stickles, laughing to acknowledge that perhaps all of his sentences sound like a guy pretending to do TV voice-overs.
A revolution, or a Civil War of the heart and mind is what The Monitor's concept is getting at. There may not be two sides at war any more, but corporate America is hardly a bed of roses for the mentally or emotionally fragile like Stickles, who have to win a battle with themselves before contemplating the other, bigger injustices in the world. As the Bible says: "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." Or as one refrain on The Monitor goes: "It's still us against them... and they're winning." The songs of Titus Andronicus are the battle cries of a general leading from the front in a war against "anger, depression, general ennui and existential angst," says Stickles. "The thing about being depressed is that our feelings don't always coincide with our cognitions, you know. So a person could have everything they ever wanted and still be miserable, because these feelings are often quite amorphous and nebulous, you know. That's just part of our general human condition. 'Existence is suffering', teaches the Buddha. He was right. But since the band formed and the debut album begun, Stickles has resorted to medicine to brighten his internal weather. "I'm on a drug called Lexapro," he says. "It keeps me quite stable. It's a pretty awesome drug — I can't say enough good things about it. It's a selective serotonin releaser. I've been on it for like two or three years now. It makes things a lot easier. It makes these things a little more manageable, you know."
"For the record, though, I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to kill myself," says Stickles, prompting laughter from the others. One song even refers to depression as the Stickles Disease. His songs are sung as though existence for him is comparable to being waterboarded; that we could expect to see a report about his suicide any day. "I know we have a few songs that pretty much implied that, but not any more," he says. The witty-but-evasive singer of Titus Andronicus could have been - as many depressives have been known to do — implying his pain in a code camouflaged by humour. The lack of eye contact suggests he isn't telling the whole truth, and so does his shifting posture.
The band are pretty aware that they don't make party music. Theirs are the songs of pain which get people through tough times and give a poetic understanding to people's heartbreaks and frustrations — putting them in a historical tradition of folk and blues music. Take the first song on The Monitor, for example, 'A More Perfect Union'. The refrain of abolitionist folk ballad, 'John Brown' is turned into a personal cry for freedom; freedom from the chains of life, where living is a form of slavery, at least for the depressed.
"I listen to the lot of angry and sad stuff I'm depressed," says Klein. "I like to wallow in it — I think it's cathartic."
"See how dark and deep you can get," says Ian Graetzer.
"Yeah," says Amy. "That's what makes me feel better, ironically." "Listen to it until it's just gross."
"I think it makes you feel like you're not alone with whatever feeling you have. Like, you're feeling angry or depressed but here's this musician or song with somebody else feeling the way that you do. At least you can feel better about that—you know, that somebody else has those feelings."
"A little emotional solidarity, which is a great thing," says Stickles with his eyes smiling bright and wide. Titus Andronicus should have 'Emotional Solidarity' as tag-line on the posters for their shows, above a picture of two hands gripping one another.
"Life is tough, there's no getting around it," says Amy. "Like what Kurt Vonnegut says: 'We're all here to help one another get through this thing, whatever it is'."
"Life is very scary, in this weird world," says Patrick again as though advertising a sci-fi programme on TV. "Happily, we've got good friends. Hopefully it will all work out for the best. But until it does, we'll just sing about it."
Patrick Stickles' vocal technique — which he dislikes being compared to that of a certain Omaha, Nebraska singer-songwriter — is even more impassioned onstage than it is on record. When he screams, "Now there's nothing left for me to do except die," it is as though he is being existentially waterboarded by CIA operatives and having his balls chewed by Alsatians. He says he does enjoy being up there on the stage with 700 people's fists pumping. And like he says in the basement — quoting the Buddha — existence is suffering, but a person's emotions aren't just a reflexion of their present surroundings. So sure, he says, playing shows to people who are affected by his music does feel good. He recounts a touching story of the first ever fan — a kid from Texas called Eric — to go up to the band and say how much Titus Andronicus meant to him, and how their music had got him through a really tough time. But the physical realm can only throw a sheet over something as deep-rooted as the Stickles Disease.
Few people can confirm it, but a person who shoots themselves in the head with a high-calibre pistol will probably enjoy the squeezing of the trigger, the deafening bang and a few nanoseconds of kickback of the gun in their hand before the bullet enters the temple and kills them instantly. It's exhilarating: feeling the coming-and-going of the spirit, the flashing of life before the eyes, and visions of pearly gates and whatnot. When Titus Andronicus play, they give you the white flash and the feeling of that kickback from the gun just before the bathroom tiles get painted with brains.
So it's a sick thrill to witness Patrick Stickles reliving his hours of torture for show up there onstage, seeing his life flash before him on a cinema screen and narrating it. And at a Titus show, you can be sure that he's not the only one for whom those songs are a remnant of agony. Some choose to pump their fists, others jump up and down and scream every refrain to acknowledge their brotherhood in the therapy group / moshpit. I feel your pain, man! The band are pirouetting and standing taller than their microphones so they can scream down onto their fans like a rain of bullets entering skulls. Then everybody in the room is feeling that ecstasy of the gun's kickback before what may as well be their final moments on earth. And with final moments this good, even the most catatonically depressed person would die happy.