NAME: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
PROGRESS REPORT: Recording their followup to 2007’s Living With The Living at Seaside Lounge Recording Studios in Brooklyn, NY.
In some ways, Ted Leo’s next record will be like starting over. After a couple years and one album on Touch and Go, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are, once again, an unsigned band. But being signed had its own problems. Leo said he felt pressured to finish a new record, and he wasn’t happy with the songs he was writing last summer. Now, without the label pressure, and without the same hangups that plagued him a year ago, Leo is happily writing again–happily enough, in fact, that this time his problem is picking an arbitrary date or goal to stop recording, since he keeps writing new stuff.
In addition to a thoughtful Q&A, Ted provided us with a slew of camera pics from the studio (the captions are his!) and a (“very rough”) demo MP3 of a new song titled “Last Days.” For now.
Despite his new-found excitement, he mostly seemed concerned with how others were doing when I talked to him last week. It was a couple weeks after his free, rain-soaked Pier 54 show in New York. The concert was delayed by a couple hours, but the Pharmacists played an extended set to make up for the other bands who had canceled. But Leo was worried that the audience didn’t have a good time. “Wow, not my favorite night ever, but at least it happened. I think a lot of people were also very frustrated. I’m all about making it happen, no matter the circumstances, but in a situation like that, people were waiting in the rain for over two hours themselves, and I just hope they didn’t feel like that was unfair,” he said. “I hope people weren’t bummed, is all I’m saying!” John Vanderslice, someone’s coming for your title.
STEREOGUM: Besides the sound you were after, what else has changed since you started writing last summer?
TL: I thought that that batch of songs we had last year, a bunch of which we’ve played live a lot at this point, was all I was going to be able to squeeze out. It had been a really rough couple of years on the personal front for me, and I just wasn’t feeling good about writing. But what I realized, once all the pressure of getting a record out last year dissipated, was that that was actually just the beginning of the writing for me, to the extent that we’ve tracked more songs than we’re going to need. And I’ve still got a lot coming. I’m nowhere near done yet.
STEREOGUM: What’s made the last few years difficult for you?
TL: Honestly, I don’t want to get into it all that much. Family and loved ones’ health issues, deaths, personal craziness. It was just rough. Not to mention aging in a rapidly changing music world and not having much of an idea of where one fits in anymore, but that’s a whole ‘nother interview…
STEREOGUM: I think that people love to hear statements and anthems from your songs. Do you struggle with how much of your personal life you can bring into it?
TL: I rarely write anything that doesn’t have some root in something I’ve been through or have been through with someone else, I guess. The trick, for me, is usually to try and find the “universal” in those personal things, and push the song toward getting into those sorts of bigger questions through the more specific instances that touch you directly.
STREOGUM: Some people thought liberals would have nothing to complain about after January 20. But I feel like finding subject matter’s been less difficult that they thought.
TL: I agree, though I also don’t know what people expected to change in just a few months, but that, also, is another interview. But as far as my songwriting and politics go, A) “shit sucks” no matter who’s in charge — the world can get better and the world can get worse, but we can always envision something better than we have, and therefore, there’s always something to sing about, and B) I was doing this long before George W. Bush, and I’m sure I’ll be doing it for a while yet.
It was actually last summer that I got sick of getting so frustrated and hung-up on current events, and started looking more broadly at my songwriting, and really exploring a little deeper what I’m looking for and where I’m at with it, and I still found plenty of political things to get into that weren’t so direly wrapped up in the millennial frustrations that had been dogging me through the Bush years, you know? So that’s a process that has carried on into the stuff that I’ve been writing since, as opposed to something that’s changed since last summer. I think, for me, the change actually happened last summer.
STEREOGUM: What’s the actual writing process like for you? And how do you filter ideas to what you have want to record?
TL: I wish I could say that I had a tried and true formula, but I’m a little all over the map, actually. I do keep a notebook, I do use my cell phone’s little voice memo recorder that nobody uses to help remember melody ideas, but I also wind up often being so scattered that before I can get to my notebook or before I remember that my cell phone has a little voice memo recorder that nobody uses, the idea is gone and I have to wrack my brain to get it back, which is sometimes successful, sometimes not. I’ve probably lost many times more good ideas than I’ve produced.
As far as filtering ideas go, I’m pretty prolific musically, but not nearly as much lyrically, so it kind of winds up that whatever I have finished lyrics for is what makes it on the record. We did 15 songs in the studio this time around, but I’m sure we’ll cut a couple from whatever final form it takes. Everyone got all grumbly about Living With the Living being “too many songs,” but A) it’s a double album, it’s meant to have a ton of songs, and B) I really felt strongly at that point in time that this was the statement that I needed to make — those songs were all so linked in time and process, that I couldn’t imagine cutting any one of them — I tried to do it, believe me — but I couldn’t. This time around, I’m much more relaxed about it. I love everything that we’re doing, but I’m not attaching such… “preciousness” to it.
STEREOGUM: I couldn’t go, but my friends who did go to your New York show at Pier 54 show said the new stuff seemed more punk rock.
TL: The newest song we played that night is called “Everything Gets Interrupted.” I think we had just learned it a day or two earlier. It’s tough to gauge audience reaction because we’ve been blasting through our set, and not really making a big deal out of it when we do throw a new song in. We just wanna play it as a normal part of our set, and see if it works in that way. Luckily, we’ve gotten positive feedback on a lot of it later on, e-mails, etc. Also, we’re all really open to improving on anything that we do, individually and as a band. We love the music we make, but it’s not like any of us thinks we’re God’s gift to modern music. When we start playing new songs we do it with the intent that we’ll be self-examining a little and feeling them out before we go into the studio to document them.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a name for the record, or a release date?
TL: We do not have a title yet. I’m thinking hard about that. As far as release, in part, that depends on what we decide to do with it, label-wise or otherwise. I think that, though I am still writing, I’m going to make the executive decision to clamp the musical hemorrhage with the 15 that we’re recording now, and even assume that a few of them might not make the final LP. We’ll have some extras, and I’ll be ready for another one sooner next time around! Also, we’re snatching studio time here and there as we can get it.
We finish tracking here tomorrow, but we’re not going to mix for real until the end of September, so it would be a bit of a pipe dream to try and get this out before the end of the year. I think I’m gonna allow this happy recording process to be the coda on this decade for me and start the next one with a new record release. There’s no “producer” per se, but we’re working with an old friend, Phil Palazzolo, who I randomly ran into last spring after having not seen him for many years. He’s been doing a lot of recording with the New Pornographers and Neko Case lately. We hit it off again so well, and that kind of inspired this whole thing to come together so quickly.
STEREOGUM: Will the album all be a little more punk rock?
TL: Mid-’80s hardcore is well represented in this batch of songs! Flexing those decrepit muscles and feeling good about it also inspired me a bit to push the elements of what has come to be, maybe, my more “normal” types of songs and really not let my own hang-ups and expectations get in the way of the potential of where we could go with this band, while still staying “this band,” if you know what I mean.
STEREOGUM: Have you been listening to a lot of ’80s hardcore while you’re writing? What else have you been listening to?
TL: I’ve never stopped listening to ’80s hardcore since it was the ’80s and I was in hardcore bands. As far as other stuff goes, as with everyone, I think, your obsessions ebb and flow in some sort of cycle, but there are some constants that are always satisfying to you, and so far, it’s been a year of those constants: old punk, old hardcore, old crust and metal, old reggae, Wings, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, Irish/Celtic folk, the Masters Apprentices, the Minutemen, the Small Faces, and the Faces.
Most of the new music that I’ve been taking in this year has been from touring with new bands — Titus Andronicus in the spring and Jeff The Brotherhood in August, and both bands were amazing, and honestly, pretty fucking inspiring.
STEREOGUM: “Decrepit muscles?” I noticed you posted a scene from “Logan’s Run” on your blog … have you been obsessing over getting older?
TL: Ha! It’s actually not something that I obsess about. I like being my age, actually, though I do also like to joke about it. But to be honest, to be hitting the age I’m at while the world of music and music commerce is in so much flux, you go through those phases of heavy existential angst. I hope I usually come out of those phases with guns-a-blazing, but there’s no denying I go through ‘em!
As promised, here’s an MP3. Ted says:
So, remember, this is an EXTREMELY rough mix. There’s probably actually too much going on – this is what I was saying about getting all you ideas down and applying the razor later. But here it is, nonetheless – I hope you enjoy!
If there’s a band you want Progress Report to drag out of the studio, or bed, for an update, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.