Turntable Interview: Ted Leo
[Welcome a new feature to Stereogum! You may recognize Turntable Interview from The Hairpin, where Melissa Locker published transcripts of her chats with people of note while trading songs in a Turntable.fm chat room. We liked the concept, and she wanted to focus primarily on musicians, so we're happy to create this space for her. Melissa is a music writer at Time.com and IFC. You can follow her @woolyknickers, or right here...]
Ted Leo has been working hard for his money cranking out rock music for more than two decades. Yet through the years of touring and studio time, he never lost his DIY attitude or his love of music. He’s been the frontman of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists since 1999 putting out raucous rock that gets your feet moving before you remember you’re way too cool to dance. Ted joined me in the magical world of the internet to spin tunes and talk about music, his love of WFMU, how he mashes up dancehall and black metal, and, of course, The Wire.
Melissa Locker started playing “Say It” by Calamity Jane
STEREOGUM: My what pretty hair your avatar has!
TED LEO: Yeah, I’m growin’ it out. Calamity Jane – trés 90s!
STEREOGUM: Yeah Portland in the 90s is the best. Did you ever play with Calamity Jane?
TED LEO: Never played with Calamity Jane. I didn’t get out to the West Coast nearly as much as I wanted to in the 90s.
STEREOGUM: Well DC was practically the Portland of the East Coast
Ted Leo started playing “Complications” by Killing Joke
STEREOGUM: I haven’t thought about Killing Joke in a long time
TED LEO: The Olympia/DC connection resulted in plenty of friends out there, but Chisel just couldn’t tour as much as we wanted to back then. That’s partly why I just went crazy and stayed on the road for almost all of the oughts.
STEREOGUM: Oh is that the cause? Are you glad to be touring less now?
TED LEO: The first Killing Joke record is one of my all-time favorites. You starting with something heavy and grungy made me want to move this up the queue. RE, touring, there wasn’t one “cause,” I just really wanted to do it more and finally had the chance. I’m definitely saddened that touring takes more out me now than it used to, but also, because it DOES take more out of me, I’m happy to try and be home a little more. I love touring, but I also like being home more
Melissa Locker started playing “Normal” by Screaming Females
STEREOGUM: Plus, when you’re home you get to listen to WFMU
TED LEO: Well, there’s an app for that now.
Ted Leo started playing “Starving Dog” by Screaming Females
STEREOGUM: Oh good! I am going to download that right now. Did your love of WFMU or your love of Tom Scharpling come first?
TED LEO: WFMU. I grew up listening to FMU. Pat Duncan’s hardcore & punk show was pretty much my main entree into the music (at least in a deep way). I became friends with Tom through Terre T., another DJ at the station, who does The Cherry Blossom Clinic on Saturday afternoons.
STEREOGUM: Cherry Terre!
TED LEO: Also, let me just say that since I, too, had a Screaming Females song queued up, I figured we should get that out of the way with a two-fer (“two-for?”)
STEREOGUM: It’s a two-fer Tuesday on a Wednesday
TED LEO: Ha.
Melissa Locker started playing “Female Guitar Players Are The New Black” by Marnie Stern
STEREOGUM: I am very excited for the new Marnie Stern album. Why do you think NYC has such a hard time supporting independent radio?
TED LEO: NYC & independent radio? I mean… I don’t think that’s necessarily a New York problem. It’s everywhere.
STEREOGUM: Yes, but it’s weird that NYC doesn’t have a college rock station
TED LEO: It’s just another cultural shudder that we’re going through because of the internet.
STEREOGUM: Er…”college rock”
TED LEO: That’s a good point…
STEREOGUM: Like DC has WMUC and Seattle has KEXP, which used to be with UW and New York sort of has NYU but they don’t play much music.
TED LEO: WNYU’s wattage is too low to be gotten outside of the immediate area, and the NPR system stations generally don’t do much music.
Ted Leo started playing “Tiny Gods (Singularity)” by Pujol
STEREOGUM: No, there’s Soundcheck, but they are just as likely to play Bavarian gospel music as say Pujol
TED LEO: You have to remember that NYC has always been an amazing place for Hip-Hop radio, naturally, though that’s all becoming consolidated, too.
STEREOGUM: True. Speaking of Hip Hop. Did you listen to much go-go in DC?
TED LEO: A little bit. I actually pay more attention to it now that I’m not there, as we dumb humans are sometimes wont to do. I just got in a big discussion about it with someone at Last Exit last night, because I played some Trouble Funk.
STEREOGUM: Oh nice! Chuck Brown has been in the hospital so I think people are thinking about it more. [Ed. Note: This interview took place before Chuck Brown died. Pour a little out for Chuck!]
TED LEO: That kind of deep local music that is appreciated widely but never really leaves its locality (like New Orleans brass band music) is a really interesting phenomenon. Yeah – I just read that about Chuck Brown! I think his “Money” was one of the only real go-go hits up here.
Melissa Locker started playing “Whirring” by The Joy Formidable
STEREOGUM: I love go-go both musically and also as a weird indigenous sui generis music genre
TED LEO: Exactly! Sui generis is a perfect description.
STEREOGUM: But it never really spread outside of the DC borders. I mean, I never heard go-go while I was growing up in Oregon.
TED LEO: I know – that’s what’s so fascinating about it. There was even a joke between Stringer Bell and some connection from DC he had about it in The Wire. Like, 40 minutes up the road in Baltimore, they don’t even get it.
STEREOGUM: And that’s why David Simon won the MacArthur Grant.
TED LEO: Ha!
STEREOGUM: Speaking of HA! How do you feel about Skrillex on the list of the best guitarists of all time that Spin just put out?
TED LEO: I’d appreciate the provocation more if I thought it was genuine, but it seemed pretty cynically provocative to me. I buy the inclusion of Jam Master Jay much more – it seemed sincere.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I think a lot of people were trying to figure out if Skrillex even plays guitar. I still don’t know! But they did include Marnie Stern and Mick Barr, which was nice.
TED LEO: Indeed – and Marissa Paternoster. I’m glad to finally hear The Joy Formidable, btw – I haven’t had a chance to check them out yet. I like this song.
STEREOGUM: I really like them.
TED LEO: I liked the long rising ending on that song.
Ted Leo started playing “The Pigworker” by Soft Boys
STEREOGUM: As a musician do you find yourself struggling to keep up with all the music that comes out?
TED LEO: I wouldn’t say I struggle with it – I tour enough, still, that I see a lot of new music, and I purposely keep my ear to the ground for new bands that I like – that’s why we wound up taking Screaming Females, Jeff The Brotherhood, Pujol, etc. out pretty early on in their careers. There are 600,000 bands, to quote the Felt Letters, and I don’t think ANYONE needs to hear them all, so… try to keep up? Yes. Struggle? Nah.
TED LEO: I mean, let me say this…New bands are important to me because they always remind me of what it’s like to be a new band, which is something I think no musician should ever forget. And at the risk of being cheesy…
STEREOGUM: Vegan cheesy, of course
TED LEO: It’s really important to remember that music is a living medium (of course – vegan cheesy!) and I never want to fall into complacency or nostalgia, you know?
STEREOGUM: So when something new comes along (like Skrillex) do you seek it out? Do you like to challenge your tastes?
Ted Leo started playing “Search” by The Minutemen
TED LEO: If I feel compelled too, yeah. So, for example, I did, in fact check out Skrillex when his name reached maximum awareness density, and it’s not necessarily my thing, but I at least understand what he’s about now – I get what he’s doing.
STEREOGUM: How much does what you’re listening to affect the songs you write? Whoa, world’s fastest song!
Melissa Locker started playing “Bustin’ Loose” by Chuck Brown
TED LEO: In all honesty, I don’t mean this to sound self-aggrandizing, but “challenging my tastes” is not really an issue because there’s really not a kind of music that I don’t like something about. There are artists that I don’t like, songs that I don’t like, etc., but not genres, so if something grabs me, it grabs me.
TED LEO: Chuck Brown!
STEREOGUM: That’s not self-aggrandizing! And yeah, chuck brown!
Ted Leo started playing “Embarrassment” by Madness
TED LEO: RE: what I’m listening to/writing, sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. I definitely get ideas from what I’m listening to – I think only people who didn’t listen to any music wouldn’t, right? For example, the working title for “Mourning in America” from our last record was “Black Metal Dancehall,” because I was consciously mashing up those two rhythms and guitar stuff because I was listening to a lot of both of them.
STEREOGUM: Black Metal and Dancehall is …really hard to imagine. But now I am very intrigued
TED LEO: Ha – I know, but if you listen to that song knowing that, I think you’ll see it!
STEREOGUM: I am going to do that!
TED LEO: You’re allowed to tell me you think I’m full of shit!
Melissa Locker started playing “Portland” by The Replacements
STEREOGUM: This is going to sound snotty, but do you actually like Black Metal? I sometimes feel like it’s a genre that people want to like more than they actually like
TED LEO: I do – again, not all of it, but remember – I’m a hardcore kid – I like the speed, I like the noise, I like insane nihilism – it’s cathartic.
STEREOGUM: Have you read Lords of Chaos? They don’t seem like a likable bunch of dudes
TED LEO: I have, and no they don’t, and I don’t condone much about that particular group of people, but there are other bands that have come and gone that I’ve liked a lot, and with what bands like Krallice are doing in launching from the pure form off into the stratosphere is pretty amazing.
STEREOGUM: If you were in a black metal band what would your name be?
TED LEO: I’ve had a blackened crust side project for a while – we’re called “Vivisuction.”
Ted Leo started playing “One Day” by Sharon Van Etten
STEREOGUM: WAIT that song is next in my queue. It is two fer Wednesday!
TED LEO: Ha! You inspired me with that Replacements song.
STEREOGUM: Why did the ‘Mats inspire Sharon Van Etten?
TED LEO: That song inspired this song – not band to band. Just that kind of mid-tempo, really pretty country rock thing.
STEREOGUM: That is one of my favorite Replacements songs. I love this song and Sharon
TED LEO: Likewise!
STEREOGUM: It seems too weird to go from Sharon Van Etten to black metal, so let’s talk about what you’re working on, besides Vivisuction. And by “weird” I meant bipolar.
TED LEO: Yeah… It’s a problem with my jukebox brain, and I think it’s a mistake to equate all music as the same, which is something the internet encourages, but still – it all has its value.
STEREOGUM: You don’t think all music is created equal?
Melissa Locker started playing “Last Waltz” by Horse Feathers
TED LEO: Well, I mean, what moves you moves you, but vis-a-vis Sharon and Black Metal, they’re obviously very different; and beyond that, top 40 frivolity is a completely different thing – it’s largely a commodity (a gross overstatement, I know, but…).
STEREOGUM: But it’s a valid point for sure. I mean Simon Cowell created One Direction and they just busted a million Billboard records
TED LEO: Exactly – it’s a world in which products are created – NOT EVERYONE IS THAT WAY – but that’s a big part of that world.
STEREOGUM: Would you ever go to a major label?
Ted Leo started playing “45 Revolutions” by Blitz
TED LEO: No, I still stand pretty firmly on this side of that line. The reasons are mostly blurred this far down the road for me, and to be honest, I’m not really on their radar anymore, so it’s less of an issue than it once was, but… we all have our lines, blurry though they may be, and I think that’s still one of mine. I’ve entertained it from time to time, but I always came away conflicted, but feeling like i was making the right choice.
STEREOGUM: I think a lot of people coming out of the hardcore and punk scenes end
Ted Leo started playing “Double Six” by U-Roy
STEREOGUM: I don’t feel like majors have done well with hardcore/punk bands anyway
TED LEO: I guess… Plenty of hardcore and punk bands have either been on majors or gone to them, as well, though.
TED LEO: True. In the beginning, maybe, but not since the late 80s. I mean, look – we all do so much business with so many shitty corporations all day every day, but I can’t put my music fully into that system. Yes, we play clubs, we drink beer, we drive vans, we make petroleum-based products – it’s terrible like all things are, but as long as an independent alternative exists, I want to work within it and support it, and… etc.
Melissa Locker started playing “Born To Run” by Bruce Springsteen
STEREOGUM: Right, why tie your art to what some guy in a suit looking at the bottom line thinks will sell and now I’m playing Bruce as a statement on the American Dream. You weren’t born in New Jersey, correct?
TED LEO: No, but that’s just because my parents were elsewhere for a couple of years. I was born in Indiana, but was back in Jersey by 2 years old. My family is all from the area – Irish side from Brooklyn and Italian side straight to NJ off the boat.
STEREOGUM: So you don’t know if NJ hospitals hand a copy of The River to babies when they are born?
TED LEO: Ha – you set me up! I’ll ask my brothers.
STEREOGUM: Please do. It’s a nagging question
STEREOGUM: Well, on the soaring heels of Born to Run, I think we’re done?
TED LEO: Cool – my next choice was a depressing indictment of parent culture and business anyway, so maybe it’s better we end here!
Ted Leo started playing “Old Man Going” by The Pretty Things
STEREOGUM: Oh wow, I’m reallllly sorry to have missed that
TED LEO: Oh, I can make you a playlist of that stuff that’ll last you into next decade.
STEREOGUM: Thank you?
TED LEO: Oh yeah – next album – no date! I’m not rushing it – I’ve got a ton of songs, but I’m still writing, so I’m not gonna force it. I’m going to record it myself, this time, so I’m on my own schedule with it. Matador is cool with that, and the world, while very kind and supportive, is not exactly beating down my door for it, so I’m pretty psyched to let things marinate a little more.
STEREOGUM: Well I can’t wait and if I knew where you lived I would knock down your door
TED LEO: You are welcome to knock at my door anytime, just please don’t knock it down!
STEREOGUM: I will refrain. Besides I have delicate hands it would be hard.