Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus on how a lot of rock and roll is just about re-appropriating
Kyle Dean Reinford
Titus Andronicus, an outfit named after arguably the bloodiest of Shakespeare's plays, trades in an exuberant, unvarnished melodic brand of rock that's infused with plenty of the energy you'd expect from a punk band. At the same time, the act could never be confused for a conventional punk band, and that's partly because these guys aren't trying to adhere to a perceived punk de rigueur. -- even though there's a rebellious spirit and an unabashedly clever, yet irreverent, social critique at the center of the songs. We recently spoke with Titus frontman Patrick Stickles about Hunter S. Thompson, the origins of some of the band's most laughter-inducing song titles, his love of the band Pulp and how a lot of rock and roll is just re-approriating other stuff.
Westword: Was there a musical community where you were living when you started the band?
Patrick Stickles: There was not. In the part of New Jersey that we're from, there are certain scenes, like a hardcore scene or an emo scene, but not for the kind of music that we were playing. We were kind of lonely and alone in the wilderness back in those days, so we mostly just played for our friends and stuff. There weren't really a ton of other bands that we were close with or places that we could always play. It was a pretty solitary existence.
Where did you branch out to back then?
We mostly played in New York City when we were starting out, like in clubs on the Lower East Side, and then later in Brooklyn, on the DIY scene. When we got into the Brooklyn DIY scene, that was the first time that we felt that there was a community of like-minded people. But there wasn't such a place or a feeling in New Jersey where we spent our formative years.
Which DIY spaces did you start out playing?
We played a lot with this band the So So Glos, who are still our very good friends. We just played in basements and the like -- converted industrial spaces, warehouses, that kind of thing. Back rooms in restaurants, too.
You did an interview with Exclaim, and they asked about the Shakespeare play Titus Andronicus, and you mentioned you thought that Richard III and Hamlet were better plays. What is it about the play Richard III that you found particularly interesting that maybe had resonance for your song "Richard II"?
I just love the title character. He's just a great villain. The way that he explains himself is very compelling -- his monologues and stuff. He's just kind of a badass.
Literature, in general, seems to have had an impact on your music, as well. For instance, you reference the late Hunter S. Thompson in "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ." What do you feel about his work was important to you?
I just love his outrageous prose, his love of words. He had quite a bit of poetry in his writing, but he was also quite direct. No nonsense, but...I guess there was some nonsense. There was some floweriness to it. It's just exciting, action-packed writing. [He had] a very critical eye toward American culture, but [he] also a deep love of America, which is a very difficult balancing act, I've found. He was a true patriot, but at the same time, [he was] very critical.
You have a song called "Joset of Nazareth Blues." What inspired using that title?
I think it's quite interesting that Jesus had such a large family and that part of his story gets glossed over. It's kind of just this song about feeling inferior, and I can't help but imagine that anybody who was the brother of somebody like Jesus would have quite the inferiority complex.
On your new album you have a song called "Ecce Homo." What do you find interesting about the work of Nietzsche?
I just like that his message seems to be that we exist in a meaningless void and therefore we are empowered to create our own meaning. That jibes with me; I'm willing to do that myself.
You have a song called "Still Life With Hot Deuce and Silver Platter." Is that kind of a nod to Tom Robbins?
Oh, Still Life With Woodpecker? I hadn't really thought about that, actually. But I do like his books, and I think he's pretty cool. He has that kind of explosive language thing going on as well. But the song title is just kind of a nod to the art world, because a song is a piece of art much like a painting. So I thought it would be funny to name a song like you would name a painting. It's kind of a fancy way to describe a bowel movement. That's my idea of comedy. But also that song is kind of about making art and how it's kind of dressing up a regurgitation. So I thought it would be funny to make it fancy like that.
Oh yes, thus the silver platter.
Yes, of course. That's the fancy part.
There's kind of a series of live videos you have. One of them as the song "Food Fight," which is reminiscent of the New York Dolls. Were they at all an influence on what you've done with your own music?
Yeah, it influenced in that it's just that it's the song "Personality Crisis" with different words. It's the same, I don't deny it. It's not an accident.
Why did you want to do that?
So often in writing songs, you're kind of just actually remembering a song you've already heard. That's the way it is for me, anyway. I'm not a natural born crafter of original melodies. A lot of rock and roll is just re-appropriating other stuff. So I just remembered that song without really remembering it one day and decided that it was my own creation. Which is something that, as an artist, I'm empowered to do whenever I want. Then I remembered it was actually this other song, but I was like, "Fuck it, who cares? Do it anyway."
Presumably, following that song up, on the sequence of the album and in the video, with "Eating Disorder" was not an accident either?
The classic bait and switch: Do a song that's quite funny and goofy to lull the listener into a false sense of security, and then smack them upside the head with something quite heavy. It's a little trick.
Why did you have your record release at the DIY space Shea Stadium?
We practice there, for one thing. It's our favorite places. Compared to some other DIY spaces, it has a good sound system. In fact, our guitar player Adam [Reich] is the founder of the space, so it's just a special home to us more so than any other venue. We wanted to do a record release show that was a little more intimate and a little more special so it was a natural fit and it was great fun.
You recently wrote on your blog about the concept of local businesses and their importance. Was there something that really brought that home for you or otherwise concretized that idea?
I guess I first learned it was important watching the transformation of the central business district of my home town of Glen Rock, New Jersey. When I was young, it was all independently-owned, local businesses all along the main drag. Since then, they've mostly all closed down and been replaced by chain stores.
We used to have an independent coffee shop, but then Starbucks moved in, and of course, the independent place went out of business. We used to have a cool video store that's a Subway now. It was easy to see a lot of the charm get stripped away. People who were members of the community, able to live by their own means, became servants to a corporate ogre. It's quite a disturbing thing to see. That was, I guess, the beginning of my franchisement as far as the importance of local businesses go.
Why will Titus Andronicus settle for our utter disdain while craving our approval? At least according to part of your Blogspot page.
I wrote that many years ago. But I guess what I meant was that we're happy to get any reaction. Anything beyond complacency is good. Any good kind of art will make people react in a visceral way. If it's something that people can just ignore or just let go in one ear and out the other, then that's bad. That's not a good piece of art in my opinion.
You have said that you've drawn some inspiration from the band Pulp, specifically the album This is Hardcore. How did you get into that band and what do you feel they do especially well?
With that album I was really just into the grandiosity of the songs. They were very grand but also very personable. They had kind of epic songs, but Jarvis Cocker's personality always came through very strongly. I appreciated that dichotomy. They take you on a wild ride -- climaxes and crescendos and whatnot. "Like a Friend" was the first song I heard by them, and it has a really thrilling explosion after the first part of the song.
And that "Common People" song, too, is a favorite of mine. That was a sweet song because it was dynamically limitless. It achieved new levels of intensity throughout the song -- each part was more intense than the last. But, at the same time, it was a very smart critique of a certain part of the modern condition.
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