Patrick Stickles is two months shy of his thirtieth birthday, but the way he talks falls somewhere between a crotchety grandpa, a Vietnam vet, and Henry Rollins. His world weary attitude and Marlboro Man voice makes him sound like he’s Seen Some Shit; the only vocal concession he makes to being in his twenties is the occasional “suresies” when he agrees with you, or frequent “y’know” when a pause for thought won’t do. In conversation and on record he’s self-aware, self-lacerating, and generally funny as hell – Stickles claims the photoshoot which accompanies this interview was a deliberate re-enactment of the last photo session the band did, before deadpanning: “that’s called branding, Alex.”
Yet he doesn’t laugh once during our conversation, and it’s kinda disarming. There are also moments when I can’t tell how intentionally funny he’s being. His old soul gives him a tendency to refer to his fans as “the kids,” and himself as “the artist.” At one point, he asks me wryly to make him “look really cool in the article” so he can “keep doing it for that much longer.” That is the unspoken journalist/musician contract – but an uncomfortable point to make directly, mid-interview.
Stickles is also two months off the release of Titus Andronicus’s fourth album, released (not unintentionally) on his birthday. ‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’ is a ninety-three minute rock opera, split into five acts à la Shakespeare, and isn’t a work to be taken lightly. Our conversation, his first step back on the promotional treadmill, runs for almost as long as the album.
“This is gonna be pretty crucial, y’know,” he warns me by way of introduction. “The questions that you ask me now, the bearings that they might have on future questions. So let’s be very careful…”
‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’ isn’t Titus Andronicus’s first endeavour towards full-blown concept album territory. 2010’s ‘The Monitor’ – to my ear, still the best rock and roll record of this young century – charted Stickles’ post-college escape from New Jersey, through the filter of the American Civil War. But an undertaking like ‘…Tragedy’, along with a coinciding video for each track, was allegedly a little too much for the band’s old label. XL, or “Extra Large Recordings,” as Stickles puts it with an inscrutable mix of irreverence and respect, didn’t even release their last LP in the UK.
Stickles professes “a lot of love” for his former paymasters. “I hope we can keep a good relationship together for the kids – and by that, I mean the three records we put out with them, which I have got, like, weekend visitation rights at best. I’m like the fuckin’ deadbeat dad, the record company is the beleaguered mom. Dad didn’t fuckin’ deliver, he was supposed to put bread on the table, it didn’t happen somehow, he was sleeping or fucked up somewhere.”
When I ask where Merge, the indie rock institution financing this grand act of folly, fits into this analogy, he ponders for a moment. “Merge is probably more of like a parole officer or social worker or something like that. The old record company was more like my dad – all business, no fuckin’ bullshit. My mom was more permissive, new age leaning, kinda let me do what I want sort of vibe. That’s more like Merge, I guess.
“I come to them with these plans,” he goes on, “and rather than say all the reasons why you shouldn’t do it, or can’t do it, we’re working together to make it all real. I’m learning to love again, to love a new record company. At first it’s a little bit scary, but they’re very understanding, wonderful people.”
I put this to Merge co-founder Laura Ballance, who is slightly taken aback by the comparison. “I hate to think we feel like parole officers to him!” she writes. “Patrick is very ambitious and has a lot of great ideas. I think he has eventually talked himself out of executing all of them more than we have. We seem to have a very similar sense of… budgetary propriety. Even when he has really grand marketing ideas. He is not thinking we are just going to jump in and fork over half a million dollars to make a video for the entire album. He wants to do stuff on the cheap. This band is DIY and punk rock to their core.”
But so are Merge, whose ethos Stickles has great admiration for. “They were built from the first day on principles about the autonomy of the artist. It might not set the whole world on fire, it might not create a great consensus, but hopefully, if you have reasonable expectations and you try to live within your means just a little bit, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to reach enough of the right people to make it a worthwhile adventure and investment for everybody.”
Although it has a beginning, middle and end, it’s hard to explain what the real “plot” of ‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’ is. Ballance tells me that Patrick’s initial attempt to explain the record involved “diagrams on a whiteboard,” and “may have taken as long as the album is for him to explain it.”
As far as I can make out, it begins on a morning – the key refrain of its first vocal track, ‘No Future Part IV: No Future Triumphant’, is “I hate to be awake” – and follows its hero through a cycle of his depression, on a journey from being a ‘Lonely Boy’ (“OUR HERO!”, as the lyric sheet would have it) to being a ‘Stable Boy’. The manic side of his depression eventually manifests itself as a real-life doppelganger to the main character (“WHO IS THIS I SEE TRYING ON MY FACE?” Stickles screams on ‘Lookalike’) before overturning his life and disappearing, leaving the hero to try and pick up the pieces.
If this makes the album seem mired in pretention, you’d only be half-right. Song for song, ‘TMLT’ is probably Titus Andronicus’s strongest set of material, and certainly its most varied. There are instrumental and ambient interludes, thirty-second hardcore blasts, two tracks cracking the nine-minute mark, and some of the band’s most straightforward hooks to date. There is a sense of maturity and assurance to ‘…Tragedy’ which is missing from the band’s earlier records, whilst still being as far-reaching as an album of its size and scale has to be.
Late in the conversation, Stickles references a manifesto by the comic illustrator James Kochalka, entitled Craft Is the Enemy. On reading it, one sentence stands out in relation to Stickles’ plans for his band’s new record – “When you’re shooting for immortality, anything less than stunning achievement is a failure.”
There’s even a silent, seventy-seven-second intermission. “Sometimes, when you’re experiencing a piece of art, you should take a minute and think about what just happened,” he explains. “You can’t just voraciously consume this stuff – it’s not junk food. You should be thinking about it while you’re doing it. If I, as the artist, think you should just sit and think about it for 77 seconds, then you should trust me.”
Even the length of this silence is mired in significance. “The number seven is a very powerful number in Titus Andronicus numerology. It’s one of those things that I’ve hidden for people who are interested. None of that stuff probably means anything to most of your readers, and maybe it shouldn’t. But if the Rolling Stones had a mystical numerological system, I would wanna know everything about it. Not that it means anything…it means a lot if I say it does, in my little universe, and that’s why I’m inviting you and all the other people that might be inclined to study these kinds of things.
“I’ve got a lot of interest in a lot of different kinds of rock and roll songs, y’know, not just hardcore punk,” Stickles disclaims. “I tried to let the concept guide my decision making process as I went about doing my usual routine of trying to write the perfect…,” Stickles pauses to imply air quotes, “…‘rock anthem’. So in my case, writing a rock opera – rather than saying, “what in the entire world can I say on top of this stupid little riff?” I’m saying, y’know, I have a rock opera that I wanna write, and I know that there needs to be these moments in it – I don’t know what they would sound like, but the action needs to move along, and I need to explore all these different angles of this situation.”
He goes on to list an assortment of unexpected influences on the record: Billy Joel (whose work I plead ignorance to, which Stickles urges me to rectify immediately) inspired him to revise his lyrics for the first time, whilst the Celtic-leaning likes of Big Country, The Waterboys and The Proclaimers loom large over a clutch of tracks which take place as part of a dream sequence, set in Ireland a hundred years ago. “I probably could have done a better job of pointing [that] out somewhere along the line,” he explains, “but you can help me with it now.”
The biggest outlier on the record, and which in any other time may even have become something of a breakout hit, is ‘Come On, Siobhán’, a deliriously romantic three minutes which takes more than a few cues from Dexys Midnight Runners. “I definitely spent a little time with their greatest hits,” Stickles admits.
The track then segues into a searing punk rendition of The Pogues’ ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ – a surprising choice, given the contentious history between the two bands. Titus Andronicus supported the Pogues on an American tour in 2011, and Stickles berated the band in the press for “never [taking] the time to introduce themselves or watch any of our performances.” It’s a tirade he now regrets.
“Not to discredit my younger self,” he tells me apologetically, “but I’ve learned certain things about the industry since then that have given me a different perspective. A lot of the stuff that I said was true, but that idealistic young guy went away a long time ago. I can’t answer for all the things that I’ve said in my whole life, because it feels like lifetimes ago. But I’ll say this – they are one of the greatest bands ever, and one of the formative influences on this band, and I would prefer, if the narrative of our two bands needs to overlap in the future, that that be the thing that people remember.”
The trickiest part of trying to parse the album’s narrative is how closely interwoven it is with Stickles’ own experiences, no matter how many times he refers to the album as a work of fiction. “Every album that we ever did,” he explains, “the lyrics and stuff was about just whatever the big thing in my life at that time was in the previous year or two years from the time when we made it.”
This time around, The Big Thing was a debilitating bout of depression, which hit around the release of Titus Andronicus’s 2012 album ‘Local Business’, and subsequently “coming to this understanding of myself, flawed as it is.” Depression is a subject on which Stickles is remarkably candid in conversation. “You sorta live two lives certain times out of the year. This one side of myself is the person that got me everything. And that’s given me the only life that I imagine I could fuckin’ stand, where I basically get to do what I want – I’m an artist, and I just have to make art. What a lucky fuckin’ life that is. And there have been times where I’ve been more than optimistic – where I’ve been arrogant, if not completely megalomaniacal. So that is one side of the person that I am. That would really make it seem that this person is really good, if you compare it to the other side of myself, which doesn’t have anything to say, which doesn’t want to do anything, wishes the whole world would just go away for a good chunk.
“This is the central conflict of my life, because the sick thing about it is the thing that ruins everything is that the person who is able to come up with all these ideas, and puts on a good show for the kids, is also the person who did every fuckin’ asshole thing that I ever did. When that person gets put to bed, you put the artist to bed too. It’s just a fact of life. So I came to realise that about myself, probably about three years ago, and what am I going to do? Write some little trite thirty-minute thing about it like it doesn’t mean anything? Nuts to that. So I said I’ll write a rock opera about this, if I ever get the will to write another song. And that’s what I did, because life lets you off!”
Stickles talks about this with a deep sense of regret, but he’s clearly worked out how to come to terms with his conflicting selves. Both sides of him are all over the album, with almost every manic track having a depressive counterpart. Even the Irish-set dream sequence tracks serve the theme of mental illness – “beyond being dream sequences, they’re actually past life transgressions…uh, regressions. There’s plenty of transgressions back there in past lives.”
Stickles describes these dream sequences as “a way to discuss how most people that suffer from those sorts of things can point to a bunch of people somewhere in their family history, or in the history of their race – the Irish race in my case. If you had some sort of crazy relative, you would never ever find out about that, because that person would have died, or gone on to live in some kind of awful institute or something. And once they were gone, probably nobody would talk about them. That stuff, even up to this very day, is all just swept under the rug, and it’s not part of life, because people can’t deal with it. They’re ashamed, and they think it’s a real besmirchment on their family and stuff.”
Back in the present, there is the small matter of the album’s lead single. One of the fastest tracks on ‘…Tragedy’, and certainly its wordiest, ‘Dimed Out’ has Stickles spitting out what seems like every thought in his head, charting the dangerous peak of the character’s manic upswing. The frontman tells me that that song “says that you can’t have everything in the whole world all the time,” before presenting the duality as Stickles’ Third Law of Emotion: “It would be inappropriate to present those sorts of sentiments without equal or opposite sentiments about the other part of life – like, you have to pay for all that stuff. If you have both of those two things, that’s real life, right?
“It’s like ‘The River’ by Bruce Springsteen – do you have him in England?” he questions, cautious after my earlier obliviousness to the work of W. Joel. “I never liked it that much – now I can sort of see why it’s good. And the reason that it’s good to me,” a reason which he credits the 33 1/3 book on ‘Born in the USA’ for pointing out, “is because ‘Born to Run’ is just hopeless romanticism, and ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is nothing but bleak despair – no hope at all. Neither of those is a realistic facsimile of life, because in life you have good times and bad. On ‘The River’, The Boss created a large enough universe that it could encompass all those multitudes, and put up really goofy, fun party songs next to the same kind of bleak despairing stuff he was doing before, and each one is more powerful because of the contrast.
“That’s where the power comes from, because if you’ve just got one fuckin’ bleak, horrible thing after another, what do you have to compare it to? But when you have a song that is really devastating, and it comes right after the beautiful uplifting feeling of the thing that came right before, it’s that much more devastating. We all live with knowing that the world isn’t like that, but what hurts is when we forget for a second and we think that the world is a nice place. Then that hope gets snatched away from us one way or another, and the world reminds you that you’re still not in charge, and you’re still just a fuckin’ plaything of the benign indifference of the universe, like my man Albert Camus said. That’s it – trying to pull the listener along – classic bait and switch. It would be corny if it didn’t all happen to me. I’m trying to fool the listener the way I fooled my own self.”
If you can bring yourself to sit through ‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’ in one go, it’s exhausting, but ultimately revelatory. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Such a dense, monolithic work made me think of The Wire creator David Simon’s response to his critics when he was accused of making his show wilfully impenetrable: “Fuck the casual viewer,” he complained to The Culture Show in 2008. “If you’re a writer, do you want a casual reader? I don’t want those people. I’m throwing them back, like little fish on a hook.”
I put this remark to Stickles, who jumps at the chance to agree, and at some length. “I do wanna put people off. I wanna put off people who think that the band is some kind of hyper-masculine-frat-boy-bro-geezer-gang. What’s the incentive to try and attract these looky-loos, and these people who’ve got the fuckin’ wrong idea, or the people who just wanna get hammered? They’re tangential to the art, at best. And their support is fleeting, and not substantial. Better to get rid of them. ‘The Process of Weeding Out’, Black Flag calls it.
“It’s also a way to get out in front of commonly accepted ideas about what music’s supposed to be in 2015, y’know? People that would pick apart a piece of art for a fuckin’ arbitrary reason such as ‘Oh, it’s too long, I got bored halfway through it,’ I would love for those people to not apply. So here’s 93 minutes and if you want to say it’s too long, well no shit it is! I’m trying to create a very specific sort of thing that communicates very clearly that the artist is in charge, and the artist isn’t trying to kiss anybody’s ass. That the artist isn’t trying to fit anybody’s mould of the perfect, well-behaved little content-machine that bands are forced to be, if they want to survive.”
And whilst Stickles doesn’t regard the band’s earlier work as mere juvenilia, he does give the sense that there is some sort of line in the sand between his work to date and this new album. “You kinda have to start all over again when you get depressed for a long time – finally one wonderful day, you just have a little tiny bit more strength, and you have to learn how to love life again. It makes me very alienated from my younger self.”
Despite this alienation, Stickles insists that his relationship to his older material hasn’t changed. “At the concert, our songs are just the material for a celebration that is ultimately, and inherently, joyous. Onstage, even the most personal song to me, most of the time, is not that much more personal than ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ – because I’ve sung it a million times, for one thing, it’s just syllables. The fact that the content is somewhat despairing makes the rejoicing all the more powerful, because of that dichotomy. It becomes more like a mantra, inner peace kind of thing – more like reading from The Bible.”
That divide has always been there in Titus Andronicus’s songs, and it’s particularly pronounced in the most euphoric parts of their music – those rousing singalongs of lines like “You will always be a loser,” “Your life is over,” and, of course, “The enemy is everywhere.” Stickles sees this as akin to lighting a candle over cursing the darkness. “That’s how you ultimately defeat those sorts of feelings, even for just a tiny little moment. Just like we said about the stigmatisation and whitewashing of mental illness throughout history, these are feelings that don’t get discussed. People think that if other people knew about them, they would laugh, if not beat the shit out of them. So those sorts of things become very poisonous when you keep them inside for too long. But when you can let them out, you’re turning poison into medicine.”
Stickles credits his one-off collaboration with Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo – who also, coincidentally, tried his hand at writing a rock opera as his thirtieth birthday loomed – as a particularly eye-opening stage in his artistic development. “He stops every day at 4pm, because he goes to the gym. Then he goes home and spends time with his family. That’s how you do it when you’re a grown up rock star and you wanna have it all – be an artist and have a stable life at home. It seems like a crazy idea to me.
“The flattering thing about it all is that they recorded like 200 songs for that album, so when I went more than three years without hearing anything about the song, I thought it was just a dream! I beat out 189 other songs, so that feels good. It’s just a reminder that if you really want to be an artist, you’ve got to do it all the time – until it’s time to go to the gym. And I’ll admit with some shame that, for way too much of my life, I slacked in my discipline at being an artist, and forgot what a great gift it was to get to be an artist.
“Lil Wayne is another example. He doesn’t step up to the mic and say, ‘Oh, but I don’t wanna, I don’t have anything to say.’ You’ve got to find something to say every time. If you want to really be the greatest, if you wanna run the game, you’d better be ready to do this. Like me with this interview. On any old Wednesday at noon, do I want to go off on an eighty-minute spiel about all the themes and stuff? It doesn’t matter. I have to do it. If you want to do it at three in the morning, I have to be ready to go. I am the artist. Just watch me, y’know?”
Patrick Stickles sees his work with Titus Andronicus as part of a long lineage, and doesn’t take his artistic responsibilities lightly. There’s no part of him that sees ‘The Most Lamentable Tragedy’ as ‘only rock’n’roll’. “It’s just working to pay the debt to all the people that did that for me. I used to think I was totally all alone in the world, and now the kids do a lot to show me that my feelings are not weird or shameful. They’re totally fuckin’ normal, and I wanna do the same thing for them. I mean, what the fuck else are you going to do to find any comfort in this confusing and scary universe, right? Art, Alex. It’s art.”