One of rock's best songwriters is getting back in the ring. He hopes you still care.
“I wrote this song 14 years ago,” says Ted Leo, gazing at his tiny audience. “There would be nights that I would look at the setlist and think, ‘I can’t believe I have to do this fucking song again.'” He grimaces. “And then I do, and I think, ‘I’m glad I kept it on the set list.'”
A minute into “Me And Mia,” one of his guitar strings snaps loose and flays about. He grins and shakes his head, trying not to look mortified. While restringing, a gentleman in a purple polo takes the opportunity to grab more Chardonnay.
“It just means you were rocking hard,” says Blair Flicker, the 57-year-old equity lawyer who’s funding the evening.
A few weeks ago, Flicker read that Leo was crowdfunding the release of his new album. At first, he thought he would plunk down $15 for a download, but then noticed that for a mere $4,500, Leo would do a private concert. “It all kind of came together [on] an impulse,” he says, noting that it was his girlfriend who insisted he get the shindig catered. “I feel like I’ve become a modern day Bill Graham.”
(Flicker, who spends most of the evening making sure I and the rest of his guests have enough food and wine, will later tell me without prompting, “I know it seems like a rich-guy thing to do, but I also give money to charity. And hey, I’m supporting independent artists.”)
It’s a Thursday evening in late June, and Leo finds himself on the top floor of an Upper East Side apartment complex, performing for 18 people in a common area that looks like the conference room he’d have to report to every morning if his life had gone down a rather different path. There’s wainscoting on the walls, a long wooden table, plush green sofas, less plush brown chairs and carpet, and Flicker has provided several trays of grapes, asparagus, hummus, and a variety of cheeses. Before the show, waitresses served guests mini-hamburgers with pepper sauce; Leo confirms he was taken care of with a vegan meal.
After restringing, he re-tries “Me And Mia.” If he’s truly sick of the song, he hits the “sick to death of my dependence” line hard enough that you can’t tell, hard enough for a youngish man in a blue button-down shirt to tap his fingers and nudge the woman next to him approvingly.
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Dressed in black pants and a short-sleeved, button-up shirt, Leo has an array of pedals and amps on a shelf behind him. (Solo shows never translate into “acoustic” with him. He always makes more noise than that.) Between songs, he’s a veritable raconteur. He apologizes that he can’t do a high, intense part on one of the new songs by himself, notes that Flicker requested “a higher percentage of fast punk songs” than he was expecting for a solo performance, and tells a story about playing the notoriously rough New York club ABC No Rio back in the day on a night when a belligerent audience member objected to Leo’s attempts at quality control, shouting, “Fuck tune, play punk!”
Leo’s set that night spans his entire career, from a few rarities to his more well-known songs to new material, including tracks from The Hanged Man, the first Ted Leo album since 2010’s The Brutalist Bricks. It has been a tumultuous seven years. The Hanged Man will be released in September, but its lead single, “You’re Like Me,” drops today. As in, right now, and right here, for the very first time. Listen:
After he asks the crowd if anyone knows his work from before this millennium, he runs through “River High” from his ’90s mod-revival punk band Chisel. If he finds the evening to be an incongruous affair (as he launches into an intricate passage from “Where Have All The Rudeboys Gone,” a waitress puts a plate of absurdly flaky, multi-colored macarons in front of me), it’s certainly not detectable from his performance, which is filled with vigorous hip-moving and deployment of his ever-voluminous falsetto.
Before capping the evening with a spirited run through of his 2010 single “Bottled In Cork,” Leo introduces a new song, “Let’s Stay On The Moon,” and calls it “the epic spiral of the record, and the most depressing song I’ve written.” A solemn tale of pain and helplessness, with a repeated refrain, “Let’s stay on the moon/ watch the earth go down,” the song changes the entire atmosphere of the evening, hitting a chilling, emotional peak for everyone when he hits the climactic line:
“We had a daughter/ but she died.”
After the evening ends, I asked Flicker if he thinks he got his money’s worth.
“Absolutely, probably tenfold. I would do this again in a heartbeat,” he says. “And if we didn’t have to clear out of the room, I would be asking him to play for another hour.”
I later walk out with Leo and a few of his friends, helping him bring his gear to his car so he can drive back to Rhode Island that night. He has a few more private shows like this lined up, he mentions, and so much more work to do on top of that.
As we get in his car to drive to his nearby home in Wakefield, he’s listening to Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC radio for news about the American Health Care Act. A day before my trip, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans renewed their efforts to strip healthcare away from millions of Americans, and Leo and I waste no time in cursing out the bastards at great length and with considerable invective.
Leo and his wife Jodi have a few friends in the relatively bustling Providence area, but they know almost nobody nearby. We drive by a local community center, and I ask if he’s planning on seeing Custard Pie, a Led Zeppelin cover band that will be dropping by soon. He chuckles and says he might. He misses going out. “I’m a social person. I like being surrounded by people.”
After living in New York for eight years “and bouncing around the area my entire life,” he and his wife officially left their apartment in Brooklyn Heights to move here full-time last May. “For the last three years I’ve been making zero money, so we’re just like, ‘Fuck it, we can’t do it anymore,'” he says after we stop to get coffee (which, despite my best efforts, he refuses to let me pay for). “My family is all from Brooklyn and New Jersey, and that’s my home. I really didn’t want to leave this last time. It was sad, especially because it was sort of a defeat. We couldn’t afford to stay in the city anymore.”
He then notes that he and his wife’s three-story house is “a quarter of what our one-bedroom apartment was in New York, and at a certain point you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ he says. Though he says that at this point most of the friends he had in the city have moved to Los Angeles, he still visits often. “I miss it when I’m there. I miss seeing people and being able to walk places and going to do something on a dime. Then I remember that I’m in my 40s and I don’t want to live hand to mouth.”
A few years ago he wrote a scathing indictment, “Run To The City,” that is one of the most anthemic moments on his new album. “It’s about the cycles of white flight and gentrification and all that,” he says. “It really pains me that I had to leave, but I at least feel good that we weren’t running from anything but our inability to afford it.”
Jodi — a blond-haired woman who, that afternoon at least, seems to share Ted’s predilection for dark clothing — bought this house in the late ’90s “for a steal,” her husband says. “I think the monthly nut up here for the first decade of it existing was like 300 bucks.”
Born Jodi Buonanno, she grew up in Rhode Island and went to college in D.C., where she fell in with the punk scene. (She saw the legendary Fugazi show where they played on the steps of the Supreme Court.) She doesn’t play as much as she’s like to anymore as her professional life is so demanding, but at least their lives and house is always filled with music. “It’s rare that one of us isn’t banging around on something, singing, unveiling some new music we’ve found.”
Jodi works in design and teaches at New York’s School Of Visual Arts. In 1996, she met Gee Vaucher, a visual artist and a member of the anarchist punk collective Crass through a mutual friend. She volunteered to scan Vaucher’s artwork for a book and became friends with the band. “She instantly started being very East End London, harassing me and being like, ‘Wut you got going on there?’ Jodi remembers, mimicking a Cockney accent. (Everyone in Crass is very “cor blimey,” according to Ted.)
She modeled this house, for a time, on Crass’ punk commune and art incubator Dial House. “Artists don’t usually get a break, so we designed this so that artists could come here and make a sustainable body of work,” she says. “We’ve had a bunch of people do really well.”
Sitting in her kitchen, she’s taken a break from working and listening to Moor Mother to offer me coffee and fresh sugar cookies and to talk real estate. The space worked “when we were in our 20s,” she says, but they recently started renovating it to make it more livable. “The kitchen we bought with the building had three giant industrial-sized stoves that we had to get rid of, because none of them worked.”
There’s been a DIY aspect of getting the house up to snuff that Ted finds satisfying. The most important project to him has been making the upstairs studio what he needed it to be, and then learning how to master it. In a world that’s felt out of control to him, it’s the rare thing he could hold on to, the place he retreated to often for the past six years after his life and career hit an iceberg and he lost all sense of himself.
Very few people outside of his immediate group of collaborators have heard the album, and he won’t even get the final mix and mastering back until later in the day. He’s both excited and nervous to play me the new songs, starting with “Moon Out Of Phase,” the heavy, PJ Harvey-like opener, a caustic song that he says was the first thing he wrote after the 2016 election.
It’s hard to avoid an obvious statement at this juncture. Leo is an unabashed fan of the Clash, and on first listen to the album, one had to wonder if this was his version of London Calling or Sandanista!, a sprawling opus that pushes his songwriting in new directions. There are hook-filled punk blasts like “Run To The City” and “Anthems Of None,” but the album also includes painfully intimate ruminations like “Lonsdale Avenue,” symphonic, Beatles-indebted art-pop songs such as “Gray Havens” and “The Nazarene,” and even “Used To Believe,” a power-pop number in his signature mold, ends in a torrent of multi-tracked, ELO-reminiscent harmonies, many courtesy of songwriter Jonathan Coulton.
He’s been itching for a while to move beyond the standard three- or four-person guitar-band songs he made his name on, without quite returning to the outré sounds he started his solo career with. One of the reasons he never even owned an acoustic guitar until recently was that was once self-conscious about presenting himself as a singer-songwriter and wanted “to be thought of like a punk band.” But that sort of thing doesn’t bother him anymore.
“I really wanted to let things breathe as a songwriter. I wanted to do the things that I never had the time or was always a little maybe… scared is the right word?” he says. “It’s hard to say, because if you go back to Hearts Of Oak, for example, there are keyboards and organ and melodica and a lot of acoustic guitars and other things. I think I’ve always tried to push the edges of that, but I guess what I wanted was to not have any edges at all to it.”
He recorded 27 songs total, and there were three versions of The Hanged Man in play at various times. One leaned toward the punk and power-pop that represents “what people would traditionally think I do,” and one leaned toward the exploratory art ballads he used the studio to craft (or as he puts it, one that was “completely the slow, dark, weird stuff”). He settled on a happy medium between the two for the actual album. (His friend Aimee Mann, who’s heard the album, says it has a dash of “mad scientist” about it).
“I felt a little more strongly about the darker stuff at a certain point, that it was in some ways a better current representation of where I was at,” he says. But eventually, he decided, “OK… but you can’t throw this stuff in the garbage. This is part of you as well, and you’ve got to bring some of this stuff back. So let’s figure out how it all fits together.”
Leo produced the album himself, and has grown to love exploring the intricacies of studio craft, and at some point wants to start recording other artists here. “I’m learning so much about how to achieve certain things; when I’m over mixing, and when to let go. I enjoy tinkering. I’ve been really far down the rabbit hole of it all, but am very conscious of trying to not land in that Lee Mavers mindset of making the second La’s record until it never comes out.”
I tell him he should put a picture of the infamous songwriter — whose perfectionist tendencies resulted in the La’s being one of alt-rock’s classic one-album wonders and “what could have been” cases — on the wall of the studio as a warning.
“It’s always in my head, actually,” Leo replies. “Lee Mavers, always in my head. ‘Don’t let that happen to you.'”
Theodore Francis Leo was born in 1970 in South Bend, Indiana, while his father, a small business lawyer, was finishing up school and his Vietnam service. “Literally, I am not from Indiana. It was purely circumstance that I was born there,” Leo says, hoping to set the record straight against anyone who doubts his New Jersey credibility. “I didn’t live there for more than a couple of months when I was an infant.”
He lived with his two brothers and sisters in Bloomfield, NJ, the “down-market, blue-collar neighbor of Montclair,” he says. “It’s very diverse, which is cool. I grew up in a weird Sesame Street bubble, which I am grateful for in a lot of ways.” His mother — a former grammar-school teacher who now works with kids with special needs in the Catholic school system — is Irish and his father is Italian. “I have the worst parts of both things. I have Italian hair distribution, but Irish hair color,” he says of the mix, adding that temperamentally, “I think I fluctuate between a steely Celtic reserve that can be pushed to a fiery Italian eruption.”
I tell Leo that in nearly every interview I’ve seen with him, he’s been described as “affable,” and the sobriquet “nicest guy in punk” has been thrown around more than once. I ask if he has to work hard to keep that temper in check.
“I have a temper that, actually, if you knew me 20 years ago, especially 30 years ago… I’ve done a lot of work on it,” he says. “I used to get this filter that would descend between my eyeballs and my brain, and I would see everything in the most catastrophic, negative light, and that would engender rage, and I grew up in a very demonstrative, rage-venting — in a benign way — culture. Fights were not alien.”
He pauses for a second, and starts tapping his fingers on his chair.
“Since we were gonna do a whole day here, I assumed that you wanted to talk about some personal stuff, but I’ve been debating how much I want to get into any of this,” he says. “I learned a lot about myself and what used to cause me to have explosive incidents, which, again, were never directed towards people, but could be directed towards a wall.” He then laughs. “Anyway, I’ve worked on it.”
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We’re both quiet for a moment, the first time either of us has stopped chatting in hours. (If your tastes or politics are even somewhat left of center, it’s very easy to think you and Ted Leo might never stop talking.) As unfailingly charitable a host as he is, the atmosphere has become a bit tense. Worried about pushing too hard, or asking something I don’t have the right to ask, I start talking to him about formative music experiences.
While Bruce Springsteen would have the world believe that for New Jersey folks, New York was an entirely different world that they could never access, Leo never felt that way. He has known people “who treat the Hudson River as the River Styx or some burning, unable-to-cross thing, but a million commuters go in and out of work everyday,” he says. “It made very little sense to me.” At the age of 12 he was attending early hip-hop shows, and then started checking out punk matinees as well as new wave groups like Adam And The Ants. “My parents didn’t have a kind of crazy, hip record collection, but the stuff they had was good: Buddy Holly, the Beatles, and the Who.” He says he realized “pretty early on” that being a music fan was a central part of his self-identity, though he didn’t start playing in bands until he was 18: “sort of late in the game for someone who was as involved with music as I was.”
He was “pretty content to be a fan for a long time. I mean, this is kind of nerdy, but I was really into track. I was a pretty good hurdler and I just focused on school, I’d go to shows but I didn’t ever learn an instrument.”
“Part of what I was alluding to before, just to go there…”
He gets out of his chair, paces around for a few seconds and heads to the balcony railing. He looks out for a few seconds and then turns to speak.
“I was molested by my piano teacher when I was 10, and it was never dealt with in my family. It was largely ignored. I don’t say this to condemn my family at all — they did the best that they could — but it had effects on me that revealed themselves as time went on.”
For most of his life, he says, he’s had “anger and trust issues, abandonment issues, and I think it just set me apart in some ways. I think it set me on a path to being self-sufficient in ways both positive and negative.”
But that’s not the point of him talking about this now.
“The reason I bring it up is more mundane,” says Leo. “I never went back to piano lessons, you know? And I never picked up an instrument again until I graduated from high school and I got an electric guitar.” That lack of professional training in music theory, he says, still bothers him to this day.
I used to get this filter that would descend between my eyeballs and my brain, and I would see everything in the most catastrophic, negative light, and that would engender rage, and I grew up in a very demonstrative, rage-venting — in a benign way — culture.
In a follow-up interview a few weeks later in New Jersey, Leo elaborates. First, he was sexually assaulted by an older boy he lived next to when he was “six or seven,” then he was molested by his piano teacher when he was 10. The same teacher also “apparently made moves” on his younger brothers, and one of them “blurted something out about it in front of my parents, and that shut the whole thing down.”
Even so, “I didn’t tell them about it,” he says of his parents. “I was freaked out. I was old enough to not thoroughly understand what was going on, and to know that it was weird but not why and just be a bundle of weird feelings about it. Some shame, some…” He looks around for a second. “I don’t know.”
His parents fired the teacher and moved. They talked with a psychologist, and “I guess the advice they were given was to not push forward, that it would be traumatic for us to go through a trial or something. That’s about all I know because we never talked about it.” He’s never seen his assailants again and has no idea what happened to them. He and his brothers have made some “dark humor” attempts to casually bring up the subject, but his parents never took the bait.
“So you and your family haven’t talked about this for a long time?” I ask.
“We still haven’t talked about it,” he replies.
“This will be a revelation to them,’ he says, clicking the stems of his sunglasses together.
He’s planning on talking to them before this piece runs. “I don’t want to throw my parents under the bus,” he says. “They were young back then, much younger than I am right now, back when all of this happened. I know that they got advice, that I think I can say with 100-percent certainty — in retrospect — was bad advice.”
But though he’s trying to protect his parents now, he admits that he resented them deeply for a long time, and also found the Catholic environment he grew up in to be oppressive. “That’s a whole other ball of wax. I just grew up in a very Catholic world where sex is shameful and purity is lauded. Coupled with all of this, it has always made me feel weird about my genitalia.”
After high school, Leo attended the heavily Catholic University Of Notre Dame. “Those are some of the worst years of my life. I do not have a lot of good feelings about that place or my time there.” Leo says that, at the time, he couldn’t acknowledge or process his trauma, which caused him to self-harm in a myriad of ways. “I had no idea how to process anything; I think that it can help explain why, in my later teens through my 20s, I did have a long period of what I can now recognize as manic and depressive episodes,” he says. “I can almost guarantee that if you ask a lot of people who knew me at that time, they would say that I was actually the most overly ebullient, crazy fun guy during those times, but…”
He trails off for a second.
“The life of the party?,” I ask.
“To some degree,” he replies. “I also think, though, that I can look back and say that there was always a little bit of an edge, the potential lashing out, meanness to it. But obviously, that’s a Psych 101 defense mechanism.”
“So you were the life of the party until someone said the wrong thing?” I ask.
“Probably, looking back.”
He had a brief “adolescent kid phase of drinking,” but was largely straight-edge during this period, and to this day enjoys a few drinks but never lets himself get drunk. (“I hate being out of control,” he says.) He had a different outlet for his anger.
“My standards for caring about what would happen to me and my fear of violence against myself greatly diminished, and I would not shirk from involvement. I didn’t ever start a fight, but it wasn’t something that I ran from anymore,” he says, adding that this started happening in his late teens, and continued into his time touring with his bands Citizens Arrest and Chisel. “There were times when I would be daring someone to start something with me. Usually in a ‘world’s policeman’ kind of way; like, if I thought there was some minor injustice that mirrored some of the greater injustices in the world. Stepping into the fray in a way that would almost invite martyrdom.”
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When he was 27, he saw a therapist for the first time. More recently, he’s been working with a therapist on a form of treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization And Reprocessing (commonly referred to as EMDR) to work through his trauma. “It can be visual or aural or tactile; sometimes you’ll hold things that buzz in your hand back and forth in a rhythm, while your therapist leads you through a series of thoughts surrounding an issue,” he explains. “It helps you decouple feelings from these memories and sort of remaps your neural pathways.”
The assault fueled much of the anger that has guided Leo’s life, but more importantly, it also fueled the empathy that has made his work compelling and made him one of the most beloved songwriters of the past 20 years. There were bigger names to emerge from the indie rock boom of the early ’00s, but there were few who created quite such an intense bond with their audience. Like fellow Jersey Boy Springsteen (whom Leo has covered on more than one occasion but has never met), Leo created a sense that no matter who you were or how downtrodden, discounted, or marginalized you felt, Ted Leo had your fucking back. He’s been there, and he knows how it feels. That feeling has reached its apotheosis with “You’re Like Me,” the first time he’s ever directly confronted his sexual assault.
That song, one of the highlights of The Hanged Man, is to a degree about his audience and why he’s devoted his life to what he does. But on a deeper level, “It’s [about] being someone who has your world turned around in a way that places you outside the sort of normal flow of life and events,” he says. “It’s [about] acknowledging those people as well.”
He was 19 when he “really wholesale and aggressively started rejecting [his] faith,” he says. His parents “were only 40, 42 — so younger than I am now — and they had a 19-year-old going, ‘Religion is bullshit! It’s a net negative for society!'” (It goes without saying that he’d started getting into Noam Chomsky around this time.)
His siblings also eventually decided they didn’t believe anymore. Though he’s had a rough relationship with his parents at times, “I gotta give them eternal credit for this: They actually really listened to us, and they eventually went through it themselves,” he says. “They’ve actually come back to Catholicism; [or] they came back to it in a way. I think a lot of Catholics do that, choosing their own version of it, their own way to approach it.”
His stance on faith made him, at best, an uncomfortable fit at Notre Dame. When he first enrolled, “I was one of about three people who listened to punk and that kind of stuff,” he says. He eventually found more members of his tribe at the college radio station, and then met the members of Chisel through mutual friends. “There was never a moment of ‘We should start a band!’ It was more just like, ‘Well obviously we’re going to form a band.'” He’d already played in the short-lived punk band Citizens Arrest when he was a teenager, but Chisel, which formed in 1990, were already built to last longer. Relatively speaking.
The group played mod-influenced punk in the Paul Weller tradition, shot through with a dose of American college rock. When the members graduated, there was very little deliberating; everyone moved to DC (one of the members had an internship at Amnesty International) to make a go of it. “We’d done some short tours, it wasn’t really a big decision. Our feet were already on that path.”
Not hardcore and not proto-emo, Chisel were an odd fit in the indie and punk underground of the ’90s. “I remember one awesome review in, I think, an early issue of Punk Planet. The reviewer said, ‘I can’t really figure out what subgenre of punk to put this in. I guess they’re trying to do an Elvis Costello thing, I don’t really know.’ It was like, you know what, I’ll take it.”
The group had a devoted fanbase, but didn’t rise to the popularity levels of, say, Rancid or Guided By Voices, and broke up in 1997. “It ran its course. We had different ideas about where we wanted the band to go, both musically and business-wise,” Leo says, adding that he was getting more into dub and experimental music at the time. “Our last tour was frustrating in ways that made it seem that maybe the aggravation was not worth it anymore. We weren’t the closest for a while after that, but we are friends now and I’m sure we’ll probably reissue some of that stuff soon.”
After Chisel broke up, Leo was still living in D.C., “not doing much” beyond writing songs and working in a video store. Alec MacKay and Amy Farina, his friends in the D.C. band the Warmers, asked him to open some shows. Leo was reluctant at first, because after Chisel ended, his attitude was, “I’m done with playing in bands. I’m done with the politics and the scene. I’m just done.’ But I could still play my songs,” he says. “That’s the moment that literally brings me up to today.”
For the first several years of his solo career, he would often sing live over his four-track reel-to-reel tapes, a then-unorthodox move that is now used by acts such as the Blow and Grimes, but in the late ’90s was “a very challenging move to audiences. People were like, ‘What the hell are you doing, karaoke-ing to your own songs?'”
Around the time Leo first started touring, Farina told her friend Jodi, who was at the time playing in the band Secret Stars, that she should meet her friend Ted, though not as “a love-interest thing,” Jodi clarifies. “She said, ‘You guys would really get along,’ and when we met on tour, we sure did.” They’ve played in each other’s bands, have been together for 20 years and married for 13.
“One early Cupid’s arrow moment was when he approached me while I was strumming aimlessly before a house show we were playing in New Brunswick, NJ and sat with me with his guitar. He began playing one of my songs in the sweetest way [“Eyelashes”] and we talked about the song as though he’d really thought about it,” she remembers. “I was headed to London for a few months after the tour and we began writing to each other, plus Ted sent me mixtapes that had included early demos of songs like, ‘It’s Alright, You’re Okay,’ which I listened to 1,000 times. A week before I was due to return to home to Boston, Ted sent a global express letter to me confessing his feelings that was signed, ‘Word. Teddy’ and I immediately call him to respond. Our mate, Dale Shaw, picked up the phone and when he told me Ted was not home, I left him a brief message, ‘Word to you, Ted Leo.'”
Leo eventually started using the name Ted Leo And The Pharmacists for the experimental music he was releasing through the tiny Jersey label Gern Blandsten Records, but the line-up eventually started to cohere into a stable unit. In 2001, he released the full-band album The Tyranny Of Distance on Lookout! Records, a set of songs that found him starting to create a unique merger of new-wave punk, Thin Lizzy riffs and literate, sociopolitical songwriting. But it was the 2003 follow-up Hearts Of Oak that brought him a level of success he never anticipated.
Hearts Of Oak earned raves from Rolling Stone and SPIN, and Leo was compared to Joe Strummer and Ian MacKaye. He played CMJ and even got to perform “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone,” a biographical account of ska legends the Specials that doubles as a elegy for an era of racially integrated, politically active pop music (featuring one of the best bridges any genre of music has bestowed upon this century) on Late Night With Conan O’Brien.
“It was amazing. I have no bad feelings looking back on that time. We really built everything show by show and brick by brick. There was something at that point in time about the type of music I was writing that was not as common yet,” he says. “It felt good and thus we stayed on the road for years.”
Ted Leo And The Pharmacists followed Hearts Of Oak up the following year with Shake The Sheets, an account of Bush-era malaise released right before the second most dispiriting election in modern American history. The advent of high-speed internet, file-sharing, and websites like this one led to the growth of a new generation of left-of-center bands finding an audience and some mainstream footing, but very few of those acts directly grappled with the political climate of the time. Along with Le Tigre, Bright Eyes, Thursday, and a scant few others, Leo always flew the flag for dissent: “The Ballad Of The Sin Eater” was an unsparing indictment of Ugly Americans released right in time for the Iraq War; “Shake The Sheets” an inoculation against learned helplessness released right in time for George W. Bush’s second term. He also once wrote a folk tune with the refrain “no more shall I be/ loyal to my sorrowful country.”
“It was always a little disappointing to me that people weren’t engaging. The government was doing its best to keep the American people from engaging with it, and I think that probably had its ripple effects into the indie music scene because we’re all citizens,” he says. “It felt dire and urgent to me.”
Though Leo has admitted he’s had some anxiety about whether anyone will care about his new music after his absence and where he fits into the current landscape of independent music, in many ways the timing of his return could not be better. He’s always espoused collective, unapologetic hard-left politics in his music and off-stage actions, as well as a healthy distrust of capitalism and the military-industrial complex: a once-unfashionable worldview that now nicely aligns with the rise in mass protest movements (he calls Black Lives Matter “hugely inspirational and one of the most important sustained uprisings and visibility campaigns in my lifetime”), the ascendant Dirtbag Left, and the growing popularity of democratic socialism. (During the reporting of this piece, there was a moment where we both got excited when it seemed clear that UK socialist icon Jeremy Corbyn was going to pull off a shocking electoral upset against Theresa May and the austerity-happy Tory government.)
The Hanged Man was written too early to be a response to Trump’s America, but one late addition, “William Weld In The 21st Century,” a poisoned ode to Gary Johnson’s running mate, tackles one of Leo’s biggest gripes.
“Look, William Weld seems like a nice guy, so I’m sorry to pick specifically on him, but he represents this standard of patrician decency that we sometimes as a country still look to for guidance. When, at the end of the day, we’re living in a time of potential death in the streets by racists and rolling back of every healthcare protection for women who need an abortion,” he says. “There’s blood at the end of this, and I don’t give a flying fuck about your respectability.”
Though the D.C. punk scene has a somewhat unfair reputation for being punker and more ethical than thou, he’s never been too uptight about this stuff. He’s opened for major label bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Pearl Jam, played (with reservations) corporate festivals and was a poptimist before that was a thing. (His cover of Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” is even better than his Clarkson cover.)
“I am aware that I can like something that Max Martin and company write for Kelly Clarkson and it doesn’t mean that I am in the bag for American Idol, or for Max Martin for that matter.”
But there are limits. He met with Columbia Records in 2004 about signing to a major label, and “did seriously consider it then, because the A&R guy who I was talking to said everything you as an artist want to hear: ‘We want to give you a home where you can just make music,'” Leo says. “You say that to me and I’m very close to signing on the dotted line. But it was just such a period of upheaval. It’s not that I didn’t trust this guy and his intentions, I just didn’t trust the situation and I didn’t do it. Why would I throw away people who have been loyal to me?”
Eventually, the couple found a doctor who correctly diagnosed her. The treatment “destroys your immune system to attempt to rebuild it,” Leo says. “It’s a very intensive process, and mortality is ever-looming.” Back then she wasn’t working, and he was doing well on the road, so he bought insurance on the open market. “Which is insane, but I had to do it. It was just one of those things, like, ‘Well, what are we gonna do? We’re gonna go into debt; that’s what we’re gonna do.’ There’s no other choice, you know?”
Eventually, there was a second round of chemo that would have cost $10,000 a treatment for 10 treatments. “So we talked about it and it was another one of those things where [it’s like], ‘I guess we have to try that. What happens when you’re $100,000 in debt? I don’t know. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.'” he says. “What actually wound up happening — this is a story that you don’t hear very often — [was] the drug company itself stepped in and donated the drugs to us. Obviously there’s some self-interest there because the more that they get on the books about it working, the quicker it becomes on label usage for it.
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This was a trying time for the couple, who separated for a bit, “One-hundred percent as backlash from the years of illness,” he says. “I lost my mind for a while, but then I got it back. And that’s just me, I wasn’t even the one going through it obviously.”
Jodi has had a few relapses, but has been healthy now for several years.
“I’d say that relationships that withstand this type of nightmare do so with a depth of conviction and selflessness that is unknown to you until you have to tap it,” says Jodi via e-mail when asked about this time period. “To me, our strain was like the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in which we were both characters at once — the one dying, the apparition, the one being granted another chance, the one leading the way out of hell. Both at once.”
He then adds, “When we go downstairs, I can show you stacks of CDs that I received when the label went under in lieu of payment of money that I was owed. It was in everybody’s interest for a certain period of time to keep the label afloat.” (He owns the rights to his Lookout! albums and plans to reissue them at some point in the future.)
He then signed with the Chicago label Touch And Go Records for 2007’s Living With The Living. It also went out of business two years later. “That really came out of the blue. That was nuts.”
In 2008, the American economy drove off a cliff, and SPIN interviewed Leo for a piece about how musicians were handling the crash. He talked for a bit about the fact that he might need to get a new line of work. Looking back, he says, “It’s really dumb that I didn’t get a day job, honestly. I was really playing with fire. I’d have been in a better state if I had gotten a day job. I sold well — for a band that didn’t do any commercials, [was] not on a major label, and didn’t do giant festival slots. There was a period of time where I had some cash and we could continue to do what we wanted to do without having to worry about it too much. But that period was well over by ’08.”
In 2010, he signed with Matador Records, arguably the ne plus ultra of American independent labels. “It seemed like a logical step,” Leo says of the time. He released The Brutalist Bricks, an acclaimed collection of sharp, incisive power-pop that failed to connect.
“I realized a long time ago that I’m never going to put out a record that is going to sell as well as Shake The Sheets did in 2004, just because that was sort of the last… the market has completely changed since, that’s just the nature of it,” he says. “But Brutalist Bricks certainly sold below even my meager expectations.” Ticket sales started to slow down as well, which he attributes to oversaturation.
“What worked for us in the first half of the decade was being on the road all the time and coming back to every town four times a year and really building an audience a couple of people by a couple of people,” he says. “By the second half and certainly into the teens there were so many more bands, so many more records, and I think some places we probably wore out our welcome, and then in other places we developed a reputation for being on tour so much that maybe you didn’t have to come see us this time because we’ll be back.”
The constant grind of being on tour, his wife’s illness and “the ongoing political situation at home and abroad” had started to wear on him and the band. “That’s when things started getting darker and darker. I think by the time that we were touring in and around Brutalist Bricks I was destroying our songs onstage, in retrospect,” he says with a shake of his head. “I hope that audience members don’t feel this as strongly as I do, but in hindsight, man, we were like Ramones-ing it on crack. The idea that I would be driving some of our songs faster than they already are is so, so insane. I think I felt an utter lack of control and I therefore needed to beat something into submission. Every night I was taking it out on my own songs.” He started seeing a therapist again at this time, but they were out of network and eventually he couldn’t afford it anymore.
To make matters worse, things quickly began to deteriorate with Matador. Part of the reason he signed with the label was the hope that the Pharmacists could get upstreamed to the Beggars Banquet in Europe. (4AD, Matador Records, Rough Trade Records, and XL Recordings are all part of the same worldwide group of labels.) That didn’t happen, for reasons Leo says were never explained to him. Regardless, “We stupidly booked our first tour after the record came out in Europe and wound up with zero support, no records, no promo, no nothing.” Leo still had to pay the band and crew. It was a financial bloodbath that he’s never fully recovered from.
“Everything really felt like more of a struggle than I think we had been hoping it would have been at that point. Show attendance was going down. Record sales were going down. We all needed a break.”
He soldiered on as best as he could. Until he couldn’t anymore. Chris Wilson, the band’s longtime drummer, remembered they were playing a small club in Pensacola, Florida the night Ted learned that Jodi was pregnant. They played the same club and stayed in the same hotel a year later, after the unthinkable happened. “It clearly brought back some bad memories,” Wilson says. Not that they talked about it. Leo sucked it up and pushed through.
“She was due in June, so we called her Junebug.”
They dealt with their grief differently. “One of my ways was coming up here and throwing myself into my work. Alone or with the cat, it’s a very contemplative place,” he says. “It’s stark in the winter up here.”
He would go up for a few days a week, then come back to be with Jodi and to “walk around and be depressed.” He started writing songs, because he was nervous about what would happen if he didn’t turn in another record soon. But it wasn’t working. He couldn’t help but wonder if anyone would care, or if it would matter. He tried to push through but couldn’t. Eventually, he realized that pushing wasn’t working.
“You can do one of two things: You can rush forward from that place and maybe achieve something that way, or you can just sit and be still and just settle in and not fight circumstances,” he says. “I think my energy was tending toward the latter, and at a certain point I actively tried and chose to embrace that and accept this suspension of time and hibernate.”
For her part, Jodi says that “in the immediate aftermath of the late-term miscarriage, Ted and I faced it together in lock step. His kindness, bravery, and vulnerability strengthened me and helped me face each day. After a few weeks, we both had to return back to work to keep our livelihood and because we love our jobs, plus we all grieve differently, physically and emotionally. As a very self-sufficient creative person, I am genuinely happy when Ted’s in his studio making things happen. I’m as impressed and moved as his fans are with the work he produces and I say that not as a dutiful wife/friend, but as someone who admires the craft and is so moved by music.
“I’m not sure how or if I have dealt with our daughter’s loss, but I am always looking to gain perspective,” she adds. “I barely scraped by for a while and am so grateful for those who put up with half of me or less.”
Though he never stopped working on music, he spent the next few years largely hibernating, doing a few shows but largely staying out of the public eye. Then Aimee Mann called.
I think I felt an utter lack of control and I therefore needed to beat something into submission. Every night I was taking it out on my own songs.
Mann says she was first hipped to Ted’s music by the late Scott Miller of Game Theory, and the two were later introduced by the comedian and radio show host Tom Scharpling, who has directed videos for both of them. Mann’s manager suggested Leo open some dates on the tour for her 2012 album Charmer. She invited him to ride on the tour bus, and they quickly became good friends. (Leo almost quit the tour to help with relief efforts after Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, but Mann’s manager convinced him that playing for his fans was also important. He would later play at a Sandy benefit organized by Scharpling.)
“It’s just really interesting to see somebody play solo on electric guitar and actually play solos and keep it going, because usually it’s acoustic guitar,” Mann says. “I just thought he was a really interesting player, and I’d start to be able to hear how having a trio with him would sound, if I added bass.” She started pushing him to write together.
Though he was always great company, Mann remembers that on tour Leo seemed “kind of lost and questioning whether he’d be able to continue as a musician.” Not that it was reflected in his work ethic. “Since I’ve known him, he would play a ton of benefits and do these shows where he was driving by himself all across the country and playing in people’s basements.
“I think Ted is a person who is always questioning himself and giving every endeavor 110 percent and [is] looking out for other people before he looks out for himself,” she continues. “He’s definitely got that… it’s almost a Catholic thing that borders on self-sacrifice. You know the joke about Ted, which he may have told you, is that we realized that everything he played and sang was 20 milliseconds ahead of the beat. So there’s like that straining-at-the-leash quality to him. That is in everything. It’s in [his] music, but it’s in his life, too.”
Eventually, Mann talked Leo into forming the Both, and the duo released their harmony-rich power-pop debut in 2014. Leo credits Mann for reinvigorating his enthusiasm for making music. But, of course, it wasn’t going to be easy for him. It never is.
“We collaborate on a writing level that is really close and deep and outside the normal arc of our lives,” he says. “It helped me learn to put aside so many of my own hangups — not just my own ego, but fear and imposter syndrome and anxieties and just be open to a process with the goal of creating the best thing that you can. I think I was able to bring some of that back to that period of gestation as well.”
“You have imposter syndrome?” I ask, honestly a bit surprised to hear a respected veteran performer at his level (i.e., Ted Goddamn Leo) admit such a thing.
“I still have it sometimes. It has manifested itself really bad when I’m working with Aimee and her people. They’re my best friends on the planet and are incredibly kind and accommodating. I fully recognize that this is silly, but they’re trained musicians and speak a language that I don’t,” he says. “I used to take criticism or feeling left out of the conversation really hard. Then my attendant anxiety on those things would make me actually perform lower than my standard. That’s how imposter syndrome really fucks you up. You can know that you shouldn’t be feeling this way, but the simple fact that you are puts you on your back foot and then you actually do fuck up.”
When told of this, Mann would not stand for Leo talking about himself in such a manner. “He is the kind of player who has an incredible ear. Stylistically, he draws on a lot of different things and combines them in ways that are really, really interesting. It’s a pity that he ever feels he’s somehow lesser than anyone, because I just think he’s such an incredibly accomplished and fascinating musician.”
“I think we got way off track in terms of what we wanted from each other. They had a lot of other things going on. I felt adrift for a very long time,” he says. “We had no communication for a long, long time and then at last we had some positive communication that I felt really good about and I still feel really good about, and ultimately we came to a decision that we were not going to be good for each other going forward, which left me a free agent — and enter the idea of Kickstarter.”
When reached via email for comment, Gerard Cosloy, part owner of Matador, said, “Without revealing some stuff that’s better left between Ted and ourselves, I’ll say this much. There was a period between albums in which Ted made it clear his focus was on the Both, when I think we’d have preferred to get cracking on another Ted Leo album. When we couldn’t come to terms with Aimee Mann’s representative on Matador releasing the Both’s LP, I think there were some lingering bad feelings on both sides, and it was absolutely my fault not to address that and clear the air.
“I think Ted deserves to work with people who are behind him 100% and if we didn’t do nearly enough to make him feel we were in his corner — not simply when things were going well — that’s on us, and I hope we learn from it,” Cosloy continued. “He’s as amazing a person as he is an artist and there is zero part of not working with him that I relish.”
Leo’s former manager is Molly Neuman, an absurdly accomplished punk lifer who co-owned Lookout! Records, played in Bratmobile, and is now Head Of Music for Kickstarter. She suggested he use the service to fund the release of his next album. But when he first heard about crowdfunding, he admits that “it felt very hat-in-hand, it felt very demeaning, quite honestly.” Then he started to think of it as a way of shifting the risk and removing the middleman. “I was nervous about whether I was going to make my funding goal and what were people going to think of me doing it, but I also felt that at this point in my life… it had been so frustrating. I just felt like I should try something different and I should challenge myself to do this.”
The pre-sale benefits have included vegan meals, Skype chats, personalized songs, and a box set of 7″s that will include the 14 songs that didn’t make the album as B-sides. The money earned will help with art, mastering, publicity and paying Wilson for his time. The Kickstarter achieved its goals, he’s thankful to note. Which means, “I will not be in any more debt than I already am,” he says. “Depending on what I have left at the end of this, I might actually be able to get myself close to out of debt. If I could be broke and out of debt, I would be so happy, because it’s only up from there.”
Because the Pharmacists, including bassist James Canty and guitarist Marty Key, all live in different parts of the country, Leo recorded the majority of the album himself, with guest contributions from Coulton, Mann, Jean Grae, and the comedian Paul F. Tompkins (it makes sense in context). Wilson (who’s in several other bands at the moment, including Titus Andronicus) played drums on the majority of tracks.
“Throughout the years I was like, when are James and Marty gonna get involved?” Wilson says. They’ve played only a handful of times in the past few years, including a goodbye set for the Brooklyn venue Death By Audio. But the band recently performed at an anti-Trump protest on inauguration day. “[Leo] kind of just pulled each of us aside and one by one was like, ‘The record’s gonna come out this year, you guys into touring?’ And everyone was totally in.”
But the logistics are proving difficult. At the moment, Leo (who plans to release the album under his own name) says that he would like to tour this fall, but everyone has commitments with their other bands, and he’d like to add extra musicians to handle some of the complicated arrangements. So it’s all a bit in flux at the moment.
But Wilson is ready to go. He says, “When [Leo] was sending me the 43rd mix of a song, I finally began to see it. Maybe he’s not ready to let this thing go. But I think it’s time,” he says. “After this long, it’s gotta be scary for him. I think it was good to give people a break. But then the length of the break makes it scary to get back to it.”
(He also says that he lobbied Leo several times to let him play on the spare ballad “Lonsdale Avenue,” one of several songs in which Leo writes about the death of his child, but he’s now happy he was rebuffed.)
The Hanged Man is a tarot card that, to Leo, sums up the past several years: his time in music-industry exile, the pain he’s worked through, the career anxieties he’s learned to let go of, and the cruel vagaries fate saw fit to bestow that he’s learned he has no choice but to accept. (With sadness in his voice, he says that because of their age, he thinks it’s unlikely he and Jodi will ever be parents.) “It represents a willingness to accept one’s place in space and time, and pause and accept a time of suspension in hopes that some wisdom will come from it.”
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It took him a long time to be able to let go, to get to the place where he felt he was ready to make the album he needed to make, something that he feels “truly encompasses the massive amount of life that I’ve lead since the last one came out,” he says. “I’ve lived more in the last seven years than in the previous 20.”
It’s been a long road back for him to a place where he’s ready to engage with the world, and it’s one of the reasons why he wanted to talk about his experiences with sexual assault and his daughter’s death for the first time in an interview. “It just felt like it’s gonna be healthier going forward. You never know how what you’ve gone through is going to resonate with somebody else, and I know that hearing other people’s stories helped me process my own story. So I want to add my story to that body of stories.”
Leo says that Jodi has been supportive of him talking about what he’s been through, as well as writing about it. “I think from the moment she heard ‘Lonsdale Avenue,’ she’s been supportive of this path for me. I’m approaching some of it with rawness, but I’m not approaching any of it without love or warmth.”
A few weeks after the election, Leo went on a tour of small towns in states that voted for Trump, the type of towns that never get underground acts. The tour was booked before the election, and he really didn’t want to go through with it, but he’s glad he did. None of the venues were big enough to have dressing rooms, and every night he was mobbed by people who thanked him for coming through, who wanted to let them know what it was like to live in a world where you felt alone for not agreeing with everyone around you. “For two weeks, I talked to people all night, every night, and it was great. It helped me process everything I was feeling, and it probably had something to do with why I feel like I’m back in a place where I can hopefully weather more of that.”
For a long time, Leo felt like the piano player in Sesame Street, banging his head because he couldn’t capture the sound in his head. He’s now happy he took the time to find it. “I knew what I was hearing. I knew what I wanted to hear and I wasn’t always sure how to get there,” he says. “I think that ultimately winding up with a record that is so confusing to me as to where it fits in in the current world of indie, punk or whatever music has been good. I think that I’ve had what I think is the right reaction to have to that finally, which is just, whelp, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
It’s a new feeling for him, acceptance. He’s still trying it out. The skyline of New York, the city he once loved and called home, the city he may never be able to afford to live in again, stands shining across the Hudson River, glaring brightly at him. Once our interview ends, he mentions he has to go into the city for a few business concerns; a few more things he has to handle before he can officially rejoin the world. He walks to the train at a clipped pace, his burden eased if not erased, eager to get back in the fray. Duty calls, louder than ever.
The Hanged Man is out 9/8. You can pre-order it here. Leo is also going out on tour behind the album. Here are the dates:
09/14 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
09/15 Washington, DC @ Black Cat
09/16 Washington, DC @ Black Cat
09/17 Allston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall
09/19 Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
09/20 Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
09/23 Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
09/24 Pittsburgh, PA @ Spirit Hall
10/23 Richmond, VA @ Strange Matter
10/24 Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
10/25 Atlanta, GA @ The Masquerade
10/27 Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
10/28 Austin, TX @ Mohawk
10/31 Phoenix, AZ @ Valley Bar
11/1 San Diego, CA @ Casbah
11/3 Los Angeles, CA @ The Teragram Ballroom
11/4 San Francisco, CA @ Bimbo’s 365 Club
11/6 Portland, OR @ Revolution Hall
11/8 Seattle, WA @ The Crocodile
11/11 Minneapolis, MN @ Triple Rock Social Club