Patrick Stickles does not take compliments well. That’s not to say he’s rude or anything. When fans approach the Titus Andronicus frontman outside the Charlottesville, Virginia bar where they’ll play tonight, he’s perfectly gracious. But when they walk away, he wonders about those compliments, about what they might mean.
Two kinda-drunk Southern-accented gentlemen wander up to Stickles and say nice things about The Monitor, the absurdly great 2010 album that beautifully equated a relationship’s end to the American Civil War. Civil War stuff is, you can imagine, an object of particular fascination in this neck of the woods, an hour’s drive from the onetime Confederate capital city of Richmond. “‘The Battle Of Hampton Roads,’ man! Take ‘em to school!,” says one, and Stickles affirms that he will. But when they amble off, Stickles turns dark and calls the conversation “an example of how they wanted to talk about that particular CD and not the other two.” He’s talking to me here, but he’s almost talking to himself, too. “But am I too greedy for that? Perhaps. But maybe history will give me that someday.”
I ask Stickles whether that’s so bad. He did, after all, make something that resonated for a whole fuckload of people, which is more than most of us can say. Titus Andronicus have released three albums. Two of them, 2008’s The Airing Of Grievances and 2012’s Local Business, are very good punk rock records. The other is arguably the best straight-up rock album that any band has released this decade. It’s a searching, scorching, swooping, diving, all-out motherfucker of a record. It’s a deeply ambitious piece of work that actually makes good on that ambition, and does it without trying its hand at a half-dozen different sounds. Its scope and approach are way different from what you’ll find on the two other Titus albums, and it really belongs in a category by itself. Stickles, I think, should be proud that he made it, proud of every last person he moved with that album. Stickles doesn’t see it that way.
“I got into [music] to get the love and acceptance that I didn’t get from any number of places as a child,” he explains. “So when people like the record, I don’t think of it like they like this thing that I did. I think they like me. Every artist does that to a certain degree. It’s a reflection of my own insecurities, and in certain phases of my life, I think of myself as an unlikable ogre. But I can point to the records that people like and say, ‘Look, I am likable and a wonderful guy that I wish I was… or I wish I thought I was.’ I want to believe, selfishly, that they like me, and that means the 28-year-old me who is in Charlottesville and not the 23-year-old me that they wish they had seen in Charlottesville when I was actually relevant.”
In the time I spend with Stickles, lazily orbiting the venue while his bandmates load in, that question, of relevance, comes up over and over. To hear Stickles tell it, his band was once a “buzz band,” and they aren’t anymore. “I’ve been washed up for years,” Stickles half-laughs. “This is indie rock 2013 — this stuff has got a shelf life. Where’s the hottest band of 2006 right now?” Stickles is, of course, conflicted about his own perceived irrelevance. He’s a product of punk rock, and what he really wants is a way to communicate with the kids who like his music without any extraneous bullshit — any middleman websites relaying his message, any drunk and violent assholes at his shows, anything that might obscure the purity of the band/fan interaction. But if you’re a Titus Andronicus fan, it’s likely that you read about them on a website, or that you’ve been drunk at one of their shows. Stickles wants it to be one way. But maybe it’s the other way.
This idea of buzz bands, of shifting matrixes of coolness and internet-critic approval and ineffable whims of fashion, is a big one for Stickles, and he returns to it over and over. There’s a reason for this. He is talking, after all, to me, and I work at Stereogum, a website that plays at least some role in the buzz-allotment machine that he’s talking about. But it’s honestly hard to tell if he’s trying to antagonize with these comments, or to engage me on some of the deeper ideas at work behind my own job, or if he’s just thinking out loud. Stickles doesn’t make things easy. He’s got one of those voices that seems to drip disdain even when he’s being completely innocuous, to imply a sarcasm that may or may not be there. Walking through Charlottesville’s downtown area (“some cheesy pedestrian mall,” per Stickles), we approach the big outdoor shed venue that sits at the end of it — a venue many times bigger than the bar where Titus will play tonight — and I mention that I’d seen the xx play there the previous week. Stickles: “The xx! They’re on XL Recordings!” And the way he says it, I honestly can’t tell if he’s sneering at his labelmates or if it’s just an honest hey, I know those guys reaction. Maybe Stickles can’t tell, either.
To be fair, it’s been a long day for Stickles. He’s been on the road for a few weeks, something his band does a lot. They’re nearing the end of their latest tour, and on the next night, they’ll play Delaware, thus ending the Titus project of playing at least once in every one of the continental United States. (Earlier on that tour, they’d played Wyoming, to a crowd that Stickles estimates in the low double-digits. He says that he loved that show.) The Titus van pulled up late to the club, since the band has had to deal with a tour-life calamity that I never would’ve even considered. (He’s asked me not to report it, but rest assured that it’s fucking disgusting.) He’ll be back home in New York in a couple of days, and he seems a bit worn-out.
He’s an intimidating figure, too, to the point where the fans on the downtown mall who recognize him don’t often approach him, or, if they do, don’t say much. He no longer has the titanic Rasputin beard that he had in the band’s early days, but his eyes are as intense as ever. He’s angular of face and great of eyebrow, and as he wanders with purpose through the pedestrian mall in cutoff jeans and a Mets T-shirt and a fannypack, he looks like someone who’s lost but who’s determined not to look lost. He looks around, in every direction, every few seconds. His favorite hand-gesture is the cigarette-jab.
One of his favorite points is this: He wishes there were a way for his band to reach listeners directly, to not have it be mediated by websites like the one you’re reading. Here’s how he puts it: “I would prefer if we could just establish a relationship with the people who actually care about what we’re doing and to whom we actually speak about their feelings or their aesthetics or whatever — who have a real relationship with the music and to whom it matters that it’s this band and not some other band.”
A few minutes after he makes that point, one fan actually does approach Stickles, and Stickles uses him to make a few points. The young man has driven down from Baltimore — about a three-hour drive — by himself for the show, and he’s happy to explain to Stickles, and to me, about how Titus Andronicus became his favorite band. A friend told him about the band, and he wasn’t sure, but then he saw them live and he got it. At every beat, Stickles looks to me, arches his eyebrows, and gives me what I may be paranoically interpreting as a you-are-not-necessary smirk: “Friends sharing music with their friends. I like this… He took a chance, he came to the concert.” As he’s doing this, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Is he actually connecting with this young man, or is he using the young man to put on a show for my benefit? And does it even matter? Not to the fan. He’s fucking elated.
During this exchange, the band’s soundman and tour manager grabs Stickles and tells him that it’s time for soundcheck. Stickles invites me and, on a whim, the young fan in. And during the interminable plug-in process, the fan stands rapt at the edge of the stage while Stickles gamely fields his gear-related questions. Later on, the band tries out a few covers — Asia’s “Heat Of The Moment,” Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” the Rolling Stones’ version of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” — as the kid holds up his phone and films every note. Later on, during the show, the kid is up at the very front, his arm around friends he’s met since the show started, a look of sweaty rapture all over his face. The connection between him and this band is real, and if that realness is what Stickles is after, he’s got a point.
Stickles is depending on that community, on that realness, because he needs it and because he’s using it to fund the band’s crazy-adventurous next venture: A rock opera and accompanying movie, which Stickles is writing, and which will star Stickles. Titus Andronicus are on the XL Recordings roster — they’re labelmates with Adele — but they’re still funding this undertaking with an online store, where they’ve sold things like a singing telegram from Stickles. (It’s unclear how much of this rock opera the band is paying for and how much of the funding is coming from XL.)
To hear Stickles tell it, they’re using that crowdfunding in part “to demystify the rollout process in an age where it’s out of control” and in part “to monetize people’s support and faith in the band and the band’s artistic vision, which is all that the artist ever really does — seeks to monetize the people’s belief in him or her or them.”
It’s quite a vision. The opera — which, as of yet, has no name — concerns Stickles’s lifelong dealings with manic depression. He claims that he was in a down, depressed period when they recorded Local Business, and that this depression had no specific trigger: “Civilians don’t understand mental health… It doesn’t have anything to do with logic or reason. A lot of people who try to come up with logical explanations do little more than invalidate the sufferer because the sufferer faces needless amorphous monsters. It alienates them from the rest of the world that thinks that everything is a logical series of causes and effects.”
He considered quitting music. Instead, he wrote a long and sweeping story-outline — one that turns his manic depression into a massive allegory, pulling references from X-Men and The Matrix, dealing with the idea that a pill might just turn a grey world colorful. Standing outside the venue, he tells me — and the drunk Southern-accented gentlemen, who have returned — the entire complex storyline, in all five specific movements.
A couple of hours later, Stickles and his band are onstage. He has a frantic, burning look in his eyes, and he’s slurring his speech a bit between songs. When he starts to talk, a kid in the front row asks him how high he is. His response: “You wanna know how high I am? A lot. What’re, you gonna call my dad? Call a cop? You fuckin’ squirrel.”
Then, in the same breath, he tells the crowd that he’s been describing this rock opera to me. And he addresses me directly: “So, Tom, this is the third act, the one I was telling you about.” The band lurches into it, and it starts out as excellent barreling-ahead deadeyed punk rock, slows into sloppy metal, speeds up again. It sprawls and surges and crawls and takes off in different directions. It seems to go on for a while. And it sounds spectacular — like a very good, very long, very ambitious punk song, not like the third part of a five-part story.
It’s impossible to know, from hearing a piece of music once, in a live-show setting, how the final product might turn out. But the song sounds, to me, like the beginning of something special — maybe even something special like The Monitor. Even so, Stickles is biting off a whole lot here. In taking on a huge, sweeping vision like this, does Stickles have to be in a good place, mentally?
“No. And I’m not in a good place to do it.”
But is he in a bad place?
“Definitely. But that’s life, you know? I’m still myself. There’s no wrong time to have a real dialogue with yourself about your feelings.”