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.
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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.
Ww: I wasn't going to mention Conor Oberst, I swear.
PS: I appreciate that, even though his music has some pretty cool moments too.
Ww: There are so many elements outside of traditional rock and roll on The Monitor. I mean, there are bagpipes. How are you finding these tracks in a live setting? Are you touring with a larger group of performers or is it stripped down to more of the punk elements?
PS: Before I answer your question I have to give credit where it's due and say that "It's A Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll" has some awesome bagpipes on it, so we can't claim to have been the first to explore that.
But you know, since we put out this record, the most up to date version of the group has had a much broader sonic palette. We've got keyboards now and some violin as well, so that helps.
But the record was a moment in time that's now in the past, so we try not to stay too beholden to it, as far as trying to recreate it note for note every night, because the concert is a different setting. We try to let the songs have their own life and be born again every night, with whatever tools we have at our disposal.
Ww: Was making The Monitor a collaborative experience? Can you name-drop some of the folks you worked with on the album, or tell me about how the recording process went?
PS: It was pretty collaborative. Most of what would be called songwriting was done much in advance of the recording process, and we have some of the most talented friends in the world. We pretty much just let them do what they want. It's just a matter of respecting your buddies, and all of them know what they do best as individuals.
So we don't give too much direction, we let them pursue their authentic voices. It was pretty collaborative, as far as the embellishments go, and we continue to do that now. The people in the band don't feel like they have to do exactly what's on the record. We're just all trying to speak with our truest voices. How much can you really do with B, C and D? It's just a jumping off point.
Ww: What can you tell me about your puppet-making hobby?
PS: I can tell you that it's immensely satisfying, but a project like that is harder to finish than begin.
Ww: Are you making those giant, horrifying, papier mache heads or actual hand puppets?
PS: I made two of those big, scary heads, like you said. One of them was of Abraham Lincoln and one of Robert E. Lee. The thinking was that if we're going to be promoting a record that has so much to do with the Civil War, that these heads might come in handy. But I haven't really found a practical application for them yet so they've just been sitting on top of my kitchen cabinets for the past six months or so.
When I made the Abraham Lincoln one, everyone who saw it asked me, "Is that supposed to be you?" I was like, "No, it's not supposed to be me!" So then I made a smaller little hand puppet, like a Crank Yankers thing that is supposed to be me. Hopefully when people come to the house they see that puppet and recognize that as me, and that will take the giant head puppet off the table, because the puppet and the head don't really look the same.
Ww: That makes sense.
PS: But I mean, the hand puppet became fun, too. He's developing his own little personality, so I just let him say all the things that I wish I could say. And when I'm on the road, he acts as my surrogate back home, so that my girlfriend doesn't miss me too much. He can do most everything that I can do, and I think sometimes she likes him a little bit more than me.
Ww: He's probably less high maintenance.
PS: It's fun. It's like a sitcom.
Ww: I've read your blog, and you seem to be on top of pop culture. Do you have an opinion on your home state as the current reality show capitol of the world?
PS: I have made a point not to watch any of these programs, but I can tell you that the New Jersey people you see on TV -- whether it's Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives or whatever the fuck it is, or even The Sopranos or any of that stuff -- that's definitely not the New Jersey that I grew up in.
I've met some people like the ones that are on those shows in my travels around the state. So that kind of character definitely does exist. But the percentage of media attention on the state of New Jersey that those kinds of people are perpetuating is giving the short end of the stick to all of the people of New Jersey who are smart, decent folks. And there are a great many of them in New Jersey.
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It just sucks that the media doesn't consider them interesting enough to warrant national attention. As if New Jersey didn't have a bad enough rap already. Everybody thought that New Jersey was shit, and now it's worse because everybody thinks that we're a state full of Snookies or whatever the fuck it is.
The thing of it is, those people on Jersey Shore aren't even from New Jersey. They're from Staten Island. So it pisses me off that these outside agitators have come to our state and given it a bad name in the eyes of the national media. I'd love to see all of these people with their faces in the dirt.
Hopefully people will make more of an effort to find out what New Jersey really has to offer before they jump to any conclusions about what the character of our state is. There's a lot more to New Jersey than what you find on TV, or even on a Springsteen record for that matter.