Patrick Stickles, Creator Of Universes, Learns To Make Do In This One
Spend any amount of time with Patrick Stickles, and you will often feel like you are in a movie where the voice-over narration, provided by Patrick Stickles, and the commentary track, also provided by Patrick Stickles, are playing at the same time.
It’s a gray January afternoon, and I’ve “crossed the threshold,” in his words, into the Queens apartment of the Titus Andronicus singer, guitarist, and creative force. Before I sit on his makeshift couch (which once served as the backseat of his first tour van, often referred to as “The Titus Vandronicus”) for our interview, he insists on removing the copious cat hair that’s been generated by his two gray-and-brown tabby kittens, Raekwon The Chef and Ghostface. To the right of the car-seat couch stands a sprawling, several-feet-high cat tower for the kittens’ hiding and scratching needs. It takes up about a fifth of the already cozy room.
As he wraps scotch tape around his hand over and again to sop up the fur, he starts rolling. “His DIY spirit was now only alive in the way he removes the cat hair with a makeshift lint roller,” he says in a mock orator voice.
I once thought this was something he did to entertain journalists (I’ve interviewed him on several occasions), but according to both Stickles and his bandmates, he’s just always like this, often without even realizing it. “I don’t know why I do that,” he’ll say later. “All the world is a stage, I guess.”
The cats were given to him by the owners of the convenience store below his apartment. “One of the bodega stock boys who doesn’t appear to work there any longer…he didn’t really speak any English, but he gestured and I went down to the basement and saw that the mother had just squeezed out a whole litter,” he remembers. “And he was like, ‘Take one.’ So I took one. And the following day I was like, ‘If one is good, two is great.’ It’s much better if they have a friend.”
He pays tribute to this important institution with “Above The Bodega (Local Business),” the Van Morrison-like rave-up that serves as one of immediately grabbing left turns on the new Titus Andronicus album A Productive Cough, an album designed to be a series of left turns.
“That song is a complete work of nonfiction,” he says. “I don’t tell any lies in my music — it’s all taken from real life.”
The song, which moves with a horn-guided R&B strut miles away from the battle cries Stickles made his reputation with, examines the dichotomy between how we present ourselves to the outside world, and how we are seen by those who know us best: the bodega workers who catalog our daily purchases. Which, in Stickles’ case, typically consists of “beer, cigarettes; nothing healthy,” he says, taking sip of a Lagunitas IPA. He waits a second. “I do get some bananas there.”
“Do you think they judge you?” I ask.
“If they do, they don’t say it,” he replies. “That’s more like Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of the observed self versus the unobserved self. You know what I mean?”
When talking with Stickles, you are rarely more than 20 minutes away from a reference to an existential philosopher. Similar to the narration, it feels like a youthful affectation that slowly turned into a reflex that then slowly turned into a natural outgrowth of who he is at his core.
“When you’re all by yourself, you can kind of give yourself a longer leash, because nobody’s watching you — unless of course, you believe in the unobserved observer, which is God. Which Jean-Paul did not,” he continues. “But it’s when you have to put yourself under the true gaze of another that you see the grotesque reflection. But that’s all within my mind, and the bodega staff are all wonderful people. I couldn’t dream of a better crew from which to get my consumer goods.”
As he’s talking, Ghostface pokes her head into the glass of water her owner poured for me, and begins licking. Stickles is immediately horrified, snatching the glass away to bring me a new one. (Both glasses feature ice cubes in the shape of cats. He never does anything remotely halfway.) “Ghostface, that’s silly! You have a bunch of water in your dish,” he says, gesturing to a black cat food dish emblazoned with the official logo of Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, as well as caricatures of the comedian and his numerous felines. Apparently, you get one of those for free when you appear on Maron’s show, as Stickles did several years ago.
Stickles lives in a small two-bedroom apartment with a roommate who feeds his cats when he is on tour. The roommate didn’t know much about his music career when he moved in, and has made the decision to keep it that way. “I like it better that we’re on this equal playing field where he doesn’t respect me too highly for my artistry, nor does he think that I’m a total fucking chump,” Stickles says. “Which would maybe be an equally valid response to my music for certain people.”
The giant bookshelf in the left-hand corner of the living room is bifurcated into stacks of Titus Andronicus vinyl albums and singles, which Stickles sells through the band’s web store (which he operates himself), as well as copious reference materials. There’s a stack of seven 33 1/3 tomes (a small-press in which authors write book-length examinations of a classic album) stacked sideways on the shelf, right next to copies of Alan Moore’s classic superhero deconstruction Watchmen, a faded copy of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, as well as biographies of Billy Bragg, Neil Young, and Keith Richards, to name just a few. He shows me a signed vinyl copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, which he jokes he might have to sell if things ever get dire — or just so he could afford a ticket to Springsteen’s Broadway run.
Ever the raconteur, Stickles embraces his host duties with gusto. He shows me his bedroom, which contains a small organ with a Weezer sticker. Before I can say anything about it (and I wasn’t planning on saying anything about it), he points out that, yes, his bed does not have a frame on it. Between that and his two cats and his singleton status, he worries about the parallels one can draw between him and the already legendary New Yorker short story “Cat Person,” in which a man in his 30s with (possibly apocryphal) cats and a substandard mattress is held up as an example of Why Dating And Men Are Terrible Now.
“That was some chilling shit,” he says, shaking his head. At first, Stickles asked that the mattress stay off record, and pleaded (jokingly, I suppose, though it’s sometimes hard to tell with him) that I not call this piece “Cat Person.” Then during my second visit, he pointed out that he’d since purchased a bed frame. He wanted it known that he was getting it together, that he’s not like That. Unchecked male privilege, the type examined in “Cat Person,” has been on his mind for a while now.
It’s a brutally cold December night, and Titus Andronicus are about to play their only show of 2017, an unusually small tally for a band of ever-moving road dogs. Stickles takes the stage at the Market Hotel, a DIY venue located deep in the heart of Bushwick, a section of Brooklyn doing its best to remain grimy and ungentrified. He picks up a guitar and begins to prologue unabated for several minutes.
“Special night that it is, we want to keep this a very peaceful and respectful gathering, OK? We must have no violence tonight, please. Keep it polite. I’ve been saying this for many years, but it’s in the news this year, a lot, so I feel more confident than ever, reminding all of you, not that you need to be reminded, that unwanted and forcible touching is not acceptable,” he says. “Everybody that is here tonight has the right to feel safe and respected within their personal space.”
He continues for several more minutes, telling the crowd: “Ask yourself, have the people around me affirmatively consented to what I’m about to do?” He ends by saying, “I gotta say, do me a personal favor, because if I see any of that macho behavior, I’m going to get upset. And you wouldn’t want that. You want me to be happy too, right?”
He’s been giving a variation on that speech before his shows for the past several years, calling on his fans to respect everyone’s personal space. But last winter, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. fallout and the rise of the #metoo and Time’s Up movement, he wanted his audience to know exactly where he stood.
Stickles and his band have earned a reputation as one of the most consistently intense live acts on the planet, but the wariness he’s begun to feel while watching the often violent mosh pits that erupt at his shows and the stories his fans would tell him about feeling unsafe inspired him to turn the volume down for A Productive Cough.
“A lot of people seemed to think that Titus Andronicus was a good enough ticket on any given Saturday night to just go in and be bombarded with, you know, meaningless noise so that they could get rowdy and push their friends around and push strangers around, and do all sorts of awful things. That’s not at all my intention,” he says. “I can’t deny that I might have been interested in some of those things as a younger guy. But I see a lot of problems with it now, and I want to very much move away from that and create a piece of art that will illuminate more of what I think my essential purpose as an artist is. Which is not just to enable some kind of macho bro fuck-fest.”
Though Stickles’ new album is not as high-concept as his song cycles The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy, he’s really only capable of dialing it back so far. Even at seven songs and filled with some of his more pristine melodies, introspective lyrics and swaying, waltz-like tempos, he finds ways to subvert the idea that A Productive Cough is his stab at a mature singer-songwriter record. “That’s a dirty word,” he says once I utter it. “Because I’m never gonna be mature.”
The album opens with “Number One (In New York),” a slowly unfolding, hymn-like ballad lightly seasoned with saxophone, sleigh bells and pianos that never really settles upon a chorus during its eight-minute length. Like many moments on A Productive Cough, the song finds Stickles both rubbing his eyes in horror at the world around him (“The villains have taken their vengeance”), wondering if he can go forward (“Eleven years in and trying to stay relevant”), and then admitting it’s not like he has any other choice (“I can’t leave the life alone”).
Featuring gang vocals (including some hypeman boasts from Stickles’ cousin Matt Miller, who also appears on the cover) and swampy horns, the album’s more upbeat numbers (including “Above The Bodega (Local Business)” and “Real Talk”) nod to some of the loosest moments of the ’70s rock canon. But the somber hymns “Mass Transit Madness (Goin’ Loco’)” and “Crass Tattoo” truly surprise, demonstrating an understated grace that feels hard-worn. The latter even features a guest vocal turn from the singer Megg Farrell, who muses about the titular tat of the anarchist punk group Crass that Stickles got at the age of 24.
He recruited Farrell for the song “to elevate it to just unfettered gorgeousness,” and also as a nod to Crass’s album Penis Envy. “That was their big feminist statement, and part of making that statement was that the regular lead vocalist Steve Ignorant, the cis-male, would step aside and seed the spotlight to Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre, the female vocalists in the band. So I thought it would be in keeping with the ideological mission of Crass to do a version of the same thing.”
He concedes with a chuckle that it would be nice if this uncharacteristically sumptuous chamber-pop song became a hit amongst the Adult-Alternative and NPR set. He rolls up his sleeve to show off his ink, and explains how it’s the song that best ties together the album’s overarching theme (because it’s very unlikely he would ever make an album without an overarching theme) of holding on to the beliefs and values that gave you purpose and fire when were young, and which get harder to keep as age and rent payments have their wont.
“Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” he says with a nod, while removing his sweater to flex his bicep. “But every time I see my right shoulder, I say, ‘Oh, that’s right, I’m a punk and I have to live like one. I have to respect my interior authority and I have to reject these arbitrary power structures that control our society.’ It’s just a reminder. It’s harder to keep our memory of these things as we get older and the yolk that we carry through lives grows heavier. But I’ll always be 24 for this little few square inches.”
After a water break, Stickles has gone over to his vinyl collection to give me a tour. He’s got Cheap Trick’s Live at the Budokan, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out, Billy Joel’s The Stranger and — “Oh hey, this is fun!” he says with glee — a copy of Lou Reed’s “The Original Wrapper” single.
“Classic rock is mostly the music that I love. Though I still love punk rock music, it’s not that I necessarily choose to put it on all the time,” he says. “I would much rather listen to…” he puts his face closer to the shelf. “Wait, where is it…”
I ask him what he’s looking for.
“I was looking for Carole King’s Tapestry.”
“I think of myself more as a Carole King nowadays,” he says, “than the Ramones.”
“Interesting,” I reply. “How so?”
“Oh, I don’t know, I can’t follow that up,” he admits. “That’s just a soundbite.”
He makes a “Eh, what can you do” gesture with his hand.
“But we should mention that there’s a very important distinction between the genre of punk rock music and the ideology which we call ‘punk,’ you know?,” he says. “Because punk rock music is a series of signifiers as exemplified by the Ramones and the Clash and Sex Pistols and Black Flag, and people like that. But what is being signified is the ideology which is really nothing more than the rejection of external authority and the elevation of the interior authority. So in a very real way, to me, this new Titus Andronicus album is the punkest one yet because I’ve never been doing more of what I wanted.”
Continuing in that vein, Stickles will spend the year touring with a two-piece version of Titus Andronicus that will feature pianist Alex Molini, a graduate of the Berklee College Of Music In Boston. “[Molini]’s got all the charts written out, he’s listened extensively, he’s practiced at home, so he’s doing a great job,” Stickles says. The tour will pull from the ballads and slower numbers strewn about the Titus Andronicus catalog, such as “Stable Boy” and “To Old Friends And New.”
After referring to it as an acoustic tour several times, Stickles finally stops and corrects himself. “To be totally clear, it’s not really acoustic. We’re still gonna play the electric guitar, obviously,” he says. “I’ve never played the acoustic guitar on stage.”
He’s hoping the tour will highlight the literate, introspective and often very witty lyrics that have made him a hero to his fans, but which he worries many listeners don’t notice over the ferocious attack his band unleashes. While discussing the matter, he continually vacillates between wanting to demonstrate artistic growth with not coming off like the type of guy who would use terms like artistic growth. “And I’m certainly not gonna be sitting on a stool up there, God forbid.”
He promises a loose, off-the-cuff evening. “I’m not trying to necessarily put people to sleep, even if I do want to comfort them slightly rather than bludgeoning them,” he says of both the tour and the album. “But as far as the rawness of it and the raggedness of it, that’s kinda all that I can do. I couldn’t make a James Taylor record if I wanted to.” He shrugs and lights another cigarette. For him, 2018 will be a year Titus Andronicus draws a line in the sand for their fans. He’s fine with whatever side fans choose.
Stickles admits that when he was younger, he was the type of fan who was intensely possessive of his favorite artists, and later would speak out when he feels they made missteps, publicly criticizing the punk group Against Me! for signing to a major label and the singer-songwriter Kurt Vile for licensing a song to a Bank Of America commercials. He shudders slightly when I bring these instances up. “I’m not necessarily proud of all those things,” he says. “As much as I might’ve been trying to foster dialogue, it was every bit as much about patting myself on the back and thinking that I’m smarter and cooler and that I keep it more real.”
I tell him I’m not trying to make him feel bad about the past, but I wonder if he can empathize with fans of his that might feel betrayed by his recent mellower mood. “I can’t let their expectations influence me too much or I’m just going to be pandering to them,” he says, “and I’ll be nothing more than a dancing monkey, right?”
He builds up steam, dabbing his hand in the air, and brings up one of his heroes’ oddest, vocoder-drenched departures. “Maybe Trans was not everybody’s favorite Neil Young record when it came out, but I think that the people that really love Neil look back now on it and understand why his catalog is so much richer for having those sorts of things in it, and what I’m doing right now is not nearly the departure that Trans was.”
Titus Andronicus released three albums via the Beggars Banquet-affiliated label XL, where they were by far the heaviest rock group on the chic label and therefore well out of place. After checking out their performance, label head Richard Russell said, “‘I always liked ‘I Fought The Law,'” Stickles remembers. “He thought we were the dumbest thing.” Laura Ballance, co-founder of Merge Records, first heard of Titus Andronicus while touring with her band Superchunk, but became enamored with them after seeing Tom Scharpling’s video for “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future.”
She remembers that when Stickles first discussed Tragedy, his Merge debut, with her and Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan, “we had this meeting where he described to us what the record was going to be about; just making drawings on a whiteboard, diagrams, numerology things. It was incredibly intensive and complicated, so we knew right then that we were biting off a lot,” she says with a laugh. “But of course we didn’t know for sure what he would come through with. Because a lot of times bands will have these grand ideas before they start recording that turn into something different by the time they finish the record, but I have learned that Patrick is a man who is true to his word.”
She says that when Stickles told her his next album would be more acoustic-based, “I didn’t know what his idea of that would turn out to be. And I’ll have to admit, when he turned in the record, I was a little bit shocked by what I heard, just because it’s so different from what I think of Titus Andronicus as being,” she says. “At first, I was like, ‘Wow. This is different. What is this gonna mean to his fans?’ But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized Patrick’s fans are true fans, and the ones who aren’t, he doesn’t have any time for them [laughs]. And who needs ‘em?”
“I bet Parquet Courts don’t have to deal with any of this,” he says, gestures his arm out expansively. To give me some “local color” he’s taken me to his rehearsal studio, which is approximately the length of two New York closets. Maybe a little smaller. With about a quarter of it given over to a dented file cabinet. “Tough times for a rocker.”
He starts digging through his files, showing me pages upon pages of lyric sheets for A Productive Cough; driving schedules; stage set-up diagrams and various artwork. Ever studious, he keeps all his notes. Eventually, something else captures my eye.
“Voodoo Lounge?” I ask, referring to a CD copy of the rarely commented upon 1994 Rolling Stones album. I don’t say, “Really?” But it’s implied.
He turns around and springs to life. “Yeah! ‘You Got Me Rocking’ is their best song of the past 20 years.” He does a miniature hip shake. Perhaps aware that that was a bit much even for him, he pulls out a DVD bootleg of several late ’90s Neutral Milk Hotel shows. “No one would buy this now,” he says with a shrug. “You could get it all on YouTube.”
Stickles grew up in Glen Rock, New Jersey. His parents rocked, he said, though not too hard. His dad’s favorite band is Blood, Sweat & Tears. His mom had a tendency to make a cassette tape of one song that she loved over and over. This was how he was first exposed to Patti Smith’s “Because The Night,” and, indirectly, the song’s co-writer Bruce Springsteen. For a guy growing up in Jersey, Bruce wasn’t as omnipresent as you’d think.
“I borrowed the greatest hits CD from one of my cousins when I was 16, and it just kind of went from there,” Stickles says. “He’s cool. It’s a little overstated how much I like him. I do like him a lot.”
I point to the bookshelf and ask Stickles how many Springsteen books are there.
“A lot,” he concedes. “But I have more books about Lou Reed.”
The first music that ever felt like his own, Stickles says, were the late ’90s rappers on constant MTV rotation: Missy Elliott; Busta Rhymes; his beloved Wu-Tang Clan. Though he’s often thought of as a punk scholar, Stickles insists that his formative experience with hip-hop inspires his songwriting, especially his approach to storytelling: a tendency to make callbacks to other songs and media (The Monitor, for one, is dense with references to Elvis Costello, The Notorious B.I.G., Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Dark Knight, to name just a few texts), and “my obsession with internal rhymes and assonance and alliteration. Those are the guys that established the standard of excellence that I try to reach for, if not always in subject matter, then the way that they take strength from their pen; the way that that’s their weapon to lash out against an oppressive society.”
It was a good life, growing up in Glen Rock. Good schools; great parents. “They’re very, very supportive, wonderful people,” he says. “Punk rocker that I sometimes am, it might not help my image to admit that, but it is true.”
He discovered Rancid and the Ramones when he was 13 and got his first guitar shortly afterwards, eventually forming the band Seizing Elián, named for the Cuban child who made headlines when caught in a nasty international custody suit; there were probably a lot of high school punk bands with similar names in the early ’00s. The band lasted through high school and drifted apart after he enrolled in Ramapo College, majoring in literature and minoring in philosophy.
I’ve come back to his apartment for a follow-up interview. He’s dressed in a white T-shirt and black jeans, and there’s a copy of Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking next to his television. He’ll kill most of a carton during our talk. I tell him I’d like to talk to him more in-depth about a few subjects, including what he told me about trying to make his shows less bro-y and his disgust with toxic masculinity.
He’d previously told me he considers himself a feminist (“Isn’t everybody? Besides, you know, all the other people”), but this time he walks over to his book and brings out one of his notebooks. (He really does keep everything.)
“I took a class back in school called Comparative Feminist Theories that was a class of about 10 students, myself being the only male in the group,” he says. “It really to me was just like a punk class, because it was all about the things we accept as being the truth are just things that are getting handed down from society, and then society has got hidden agendas and that they hide insidious toxic messages.”
He starts flipping through, showing me his notes. He says that Adrienne Rich’s poetry collection The Dream Of A Common Language was a big one for him. “[Rich] talked a lot about the coded messages in our language that marginalized women, the way that ‘him’ and ‘his’ were in the top 20 or top 10 or 20 most used words, while ‘her’ and ‘she’ were barely cracking the top 50, and just talking about post-structuralism.”
He talks more about hierarchical systems for a bit, then concludes, “It provided an important link for me between a lot of the punk stuff that I had been interested in and slightly more scholarly versions of the same thing,” he says, looking at the notebook one more time before putting it away. “You’ve got bell hooks in here, all kinds of shit. This was a great class.”
We start talking about a recent show we both saw by his hero Ted Leo, in which the celebrated songwriter, known for his insightful and politically incisive between-song banter, discussed how society needs to rethink its kneejerk veneration of the “angry young man” archetype once embodied by the likes of Elvis Costello — and which, I point out, at this point in our cultural history has denigrated into GamerGate internet goons and Men’s Rights Activists. “Or the whole third-wave emo, murder-your girlfriend lyrics of Saves The Day and all these guys,” Stickles adds. “I was never all that into that stuff, but hopefully, it seems like there’s not going to be as much of a place for that moving forward.”
He comments on this archetype on A Productive Cough’s most outrageous moment, a re-write of one of Bob Dylan’s most well-known songs, dubbed “(I’m) Like A Rolling Stone,” in which he rewrites the lyrics to invert the accusatory rage of the original to emphasize “I know how it feels” and take stock of his own actions.
“These angry finger-pointing guys are maybe the architects of their own dissatisfaction to a certain degree, right?” he asks. “And you get to a certain point where it’s not so cool to have such a chip on your shoulder and scoff and turn up your nose at everything.”
He emphasized that “I’m not taking the piss exactly, not out of Bob, who I love.”
“Yeah, but it’s a ballsy move to rewrite the lyrics, though,” I add.
“Well, I have to have a certain number of ballsy moves, you know what I’m saying? Especially after the rock opera,” he says. “Although, can we say ‘ballsy’ in 2018? We need to find a synonym for that.”
Ten years ago Titus Andronicus released their debut album The Airing Of Grievances, a raw collection of shredded voice punk and philosophical musings (Albert Camus gets a song title) that attracted a following back when positive internet write-ups and some buzz could turn “blog rock” groups likes like Voxtrot and Tapes ‘N’ Tapes into national concerns.
At the time, Stickles was preparing to go to graduate school and figuring nothing much would come of the album besides getting to play a few more shows around New Jersey.
“I thought, ‘This is a nice little document of this time.’ And we did it and we were a real band for a while there and made an album and everything.” He turns his attention to Ghostface, who again is trying to drink my water. “Stay away from there, you little devil! Anyway, they only ever wanna do what they’re not supposed to. But we were just college kids at that time and there was no real ambition that there was gonna be any kind of career. As far as I knew, that record came out in April of 2008 on Troubleman Unlimited, and I thought in September I’d be off at graduate school.”
He thought he would go on to become a high school English teacher after finishing school. Instead, he decided to defer his education for a year to tour. Eventually, the band would sign with XL Records, who would re-release Grievances and gave them a larger budget to work on the follow-up. This was the first time Stickles had to deal with a major lineup change in his band, something he’s gotten used to.
“It’s not necessarily something I would’ve chosen, but it’s the way that it is. That’s the hand that I’ve been dealt. And you know, that comes right along with the iron fist with which I rule the organization. Every lineup of the act so far has always been, in my fantasies, the final one, and then we would take it all away to the Rock Hall like U2 or Aerosmith, God forbid,” he says. “But that’s just not the reality of the industry. You can hardly make a living off this shit. The real reward is the mission.”
He starts petting Raekwon. “This is my steady line-up now, me and these two. That’s a lifelong commitment right there,” he says. “They couldn’t get away if they wanted to.”
For A Productive Cough, he brought in the three players he’s been touring with lately, and then several additional brass and ensemble players, for a total of 21 contributing musicians. He’s finally embracing the idea that Titus Andronicus will always be fluid, though he says from the start of the band he’s always known that it’s his band. His high school band ended his first year of college when all of the members decided to get out of New Jersey. “At that point I was like, ‘My next band is not gonna fuckin’ sputter out when everybody else decides that they would rather go to Washington State,’ you know?
After thinking about it for a while, he concluded that Mellini is the 22nd full-time member of Titus Andronicus.
“What it is ultimately, is I want to be the one that decides when it’s over,” he says. “So as long as I can continue to provide the labor to keep the gears turning, then the dream will last as long as I say it does.”
The Airing Of Grievances marked Titus Andronicus as a promising young band. If they had broken up on the day that they released The Monitor, they would still be considered one of the most important artists of this decade.
The Monitor was released three months into 2010, right before the rise of the Tea Party would stratify American politics. Like a bearded, guitar-slinging Cassandra, Stickles diagnosed the world around him and predicted the no-quarter-given culture wars that would define the next decade of American life. Arguing that the Civil War never ended and has instead become combined forces of the willfully ignorant and toxic masculinity versus the rest of us, he also lamented humanity’s need to have an enemy to stand against in order to feel validated (the album ends with the lines “I’d be nothing without you/ Please don’t ever leave”). He crafted epic punk-Springsteen anthems that demanded to be played too loud and wrote lyrics that demanded to be tattooed onto your arms. At the Market Hotel show, I saw it was clear that there were still people who needed to shout along with lines such as “The enemy is everywhere,” and “It’s still us against them/ And they’re winning/ They’re winning!”
“I was right,” he says. “I grow more correct by the day, happily enough. That set me up pretty good for the 10-year anniversary of that record. Hopefully, things don’t get better.” He begins narrating: “‘He said smirking; obviously, totally not serious.’ Of course, I’d love for things to get better.”
The genesis of the album comes from when Stickles moved to Somerville, Massachusetts for a relationship that didn’t work out. He found that the town made him miserable. “It was a logical extension of my college years and I had no friends and nothing to do, and I was surrounded by garden-variety bro culture,” he says, adding that he dealt with it “mostly by not leaving the house, where I would stay and get high and watch that Ken Burns documentary.”
It was a very Stickles move for him to make an album that looked at a breakup through the lens of American history and humanity’s inherent love of conflict and the resentment he felt as a thoughtful person in an uncaring environment. I ask him why he thinks people are like this.
“Well, Nietzsche says that the whole universe is nothing but a series of forces that are perpetually in conflict with one another and exerting their will to power on one another. Is he correct? I leave that to smarter people to say,” he says. “I wish I knew. All I can do is notice it. I’m just here to observe and report.”
Thinking about how his new album ties in the lineage he established with The Monitor, he says, “There is still a war going on, a culture war. I don’t necessarily think I’m qualified to be a soldier in it, but I would like to be a nurse in it. Because it’s harder and harder every day to get out of bed and carry on with this crazy human experiment.
“I sure would love to not be angry anymore,” he continues. “That would be great.”
The Monitor, dense with references to American history and classic rock and punk songs (the opening track tweaks lyrics by the Modern Lovers and Springsteen) felt like a conscious effort by a diligent student to force his way into the canon. It worked. Titus Andronicus went onto become one of the most dependably ambitious and rousing bands in the American rock underground, and their influence has only grown. It’s hard to imagine Car Seat Headrest’s multi-suite songs about personal failings, Gang Of Youth’s ambitious guitar sprawls, the Hotelier’s blood-boiling personal exorcisms or Jeff Rosenstock’s epic state-of-the-union screeds existing in quite the same way without Titus Andronicus.
For a while, it bothered him that The Monitor was still the band’s most popular album, and admits that The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a 29-song rock opera about an unnamed character’s battle with bipolar disorder, was the group’s attempt to knock it off the pedestal. But he’s made peace with it now. “If that didn’t do it, I can’t imagine what I could do now to correct that,” he says with a shrug. “I guess I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder. But what good does it do for you to get mad, you know what I’m saying? This is one of the things about the artist’s life: You put yourself out into the world and you have certain dreams or aspirations about how it will be perceived, but ultimately, it’s the prerogative of the audience to decide how they’re gonna take it. That’s all there is to it.”
Stickles formed Titus Andronicus as a way to reconnect with some of his high school friends, as he found he couldn’t connect with anyone any other way. In college, he first began experiencing major battles with depression.
“I was just living a dreary life. I didn’t have many friends. I was not happy at that time, not happy in that environment,” he says. “But it took a few more years after that for me to come to a complete understanding of my own brain chemistry, but that’s another ongoing process, too.”
It took Stickles several years and a few different drugs for him to figure out what helped him. After Lexapro stopped working for him, he eventually concluded that he has bipolar disorder, and his doctors “agreed, based on the evidence.” He’s currently taking the anticonvulsant Lamictal. “It has a certain stabilizing effect,” he says. “But it doesn’t really do much to help me when I’m feeling down.”
All of his albums touch upon his battles with mental health in some way, and Local Business has a song called, bluntly, “My Eating Disorder” that culminates in an intentionally tough-to-listen-to dirge, with the lyrics “Spit it out!” repeated ad nauseam. He also has what is now known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, wherein certain foods seem nauseating to him and he can’t bring himself to consume them.
There’s been a movement this decade to destigmatize mental health discussions and to encourage people, especially young men, to seek help for depression and self-harming tendencies. Stickles was again well ahead of the curve on this, and showed true courage in writing about his issues (one of the most striking lines on Local Business is when he says he’s a “lifeless automaton/ feeling like a ghost”) and discussing them in interviews. “It’s gotten intense at times,” he concedes.
“I actively court the so-called ‘mentally ill’ as my core fanbase, though I don’t prefer that term. Because I put it out and go, ‘This is what’s going on with me,’ and the purpose of that is for people with similar struggles to see themselves represented by me to a certain degree and to validate the stuff they’re going through,” he says. “So I’ve been approached by people with, I don’t wanna say more serious issues than me, but people have reached out to me in their deepest psychosis. Not that I judge them, but I’ve gotten some pretty far-out emails.”
He continues. “That’s what I’m in it for. When people say, ‘I feel validated by this piece of art’ or ‘I turn to this piece of art in my darkest hour and it put gas in the tank for me,’ that’s really the thing that I’m after. That means a lot more than getting a nice review on a website. No offense to any of the websites, I love them and I love to get nice reviews,” he says. “But that’s really the cornerstone of my mission. I’m never gonna be an arena-packing superstar, but I can do that for people in maybe a way other people can’t or won’t. And maybe that’ll be forgotten, but it’s happening right now.”
Chris Wilson, the band’s current drummer, first met Stickles when Titus Andronicus played with one of his other bands, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. He played on Titus’ 2016 tour and A Productive Cough. “Lyrically, he’s very open about talking about mental illness and things like that. I think maybe artists are starting to do that a little more, but he’s definitely more open about it than a lot of people and I think a lot of people can relate to that, as one of the many subjects he talks about,” he says. “As mysterious as he can be, I think his lyrics can be pretty relatable to a lot of people.”
Stickles describes himself as slowly cycling, and says that in his manic moments he tends to devise ambitious projects that he’s then obligated to follow through on during his down moments.
“I lay out all these things that I’ve got to do for myself, knowing full well that I might not be quite so full of beans when it comes time to execute these plans,” he says, “because if I don’t make a lot of promises about this stuff, I might not end up doing anything.”
“How often does depressive Patrick get mad at manic Patrick for making big promises that he now he has to follow through on?,” I ask.
“Oh, a lot of the time, most every morning. But I’m also grateful to that version of myself because that’s the part of me that really appreciates being alive, and I need to do what I can to keep in touch with that part of myself and to honor that person’s wishes, because I know that someday he’s going to return and he’s going to have a lot of gratitude at that point that I stuck with it.”
He says his last major depressive period was in 2012, which he calls “a really rough time where I couldn’t do anything at all. Since coming out of that, it hasn’t ever been as bad. That was a huge episode, and I’ve had plenty of depressive episodes since then that have lasted fucking 18 months at a time where I don’t wanna do shit. I barely wanna do shit right now, but I have a certain amount of perspective at this point.”
The 2012 experience was the catalyst for The Most Lamentable Tragedy, which Stickles feels will probably be his definitive statement on the subject of mental health and depression. But he can’t quite shut the book on it. It’s just not the way that works. “All the stuff in the rock opera is still happening to me now,” he says. “But it can be subtextual at this point, I hope.”
Around the time of The Most Lamentable Tragedy release, he annotated the album for Genius. On a notation for album closer “Stable Boy,” an organ-driven, scratchy and sparse ballad in which the character Stickles writes about makes the decision to keep living, he wrote, in succession: “I won’t kill myself #REALTALK;” “You won’t kill yrself #REALTALK;” and “We won’t kill ourselves #REALTALK.”
“An important decision to make. A lot of people did not pick up on that part of it. But the hero of the rock opera did survive through the recognition that the dark times weren’t going to last forever. Nothing lasts forever, like we say in the song. The concept of forever is a human invention and the animals don’t burden themselves with these ideas. That’s why it’s great to have these cats around. They just hang out and have a nice nap.”
The Patrick Stickles of 2018 is a man who is learning to accept what he cannot control. He knows he’ll always probably have to deal with shifting lineups; he knows there’s a popularity ceiling to his band. He knows there will always be people who think he peaked with his second album, and he knows he will always have his ups and downs. He might always have a problem keeping people around. He knows there will always be shitty bros, wherever he goes. He is learning how to be OK with all of this.
“I put things in my songs — as much as I’m telling them to my audience, I’m telling it to myself first. So when I write a rock opera album, or I write any of my songs about how ‘you can’t give up, you’ve got to keep going,’ that’s me,” he says. “I’m telling myself that because that’s something I need to be continually convinced of. When I put myself in a situation where I’m going to have to repeat these sentiments over and over to audiences around the world, it becomes kind of like a sort of a mantra in that way, right?”
“And these things are easy to forget, and I try to create situations for myself where I’m going to have to be continually reminding myself of these things, that I can’t give up, that I got to keep going,” he says. “I tell my audience that, but I’m really telling myself that.”
Our interview ends, and we head to the bodega downstairs, where he grabs two IPAs. He walks me to the subway, which is along the way to his rehearsal space. Practice starts in 10 minutes, and they still have a lot of work to do. It’s hard work for him, taking it down a notch. But he’s going to try. He’s going to figure out how to make himself heard without screaming.