Titus Andronicus Construct An Obelisk
Patrick Stickles does everything with intention. Having now released music via his Titus Andronicus project for over a decade, Stickles long ago proved that even in his work’s most aesthetically raw moments, there are layers of thought at play. So, while it may come as some surprise that he’s announcing a new album called An Obelisk — set for release on June 21, about 15 months after A Productive Cough — it should come as less of a surprise that the one-two was all part of a premeditated masterplan. That these aren’t just two smaller missives unveiled in quick succession following 2015’s sprawling rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy, but that Stickles had gone into it all imagining a whole new chapter for Titus Andronicus.
On a frigid winter day, Stickles and I meet so he can tell me how An Obelisk came about. Still residing on the border of Brooklyn in Ridgewood, Queens, he selects a Bushwick bar infamous to young residents of the area: Three Diamond Door, normally a catastrophic party spot on weekend nights but tranquil today, mid-week and mid-afternoon. There are a somewhat shocking amount of people occupying the place for a Wednesday at 2PM, perhaps plenty others with “alternative” work schedules, so Stickles opts for the smoking yard out back. Over a couple beers and a constant stream of cigarettes, he sets about explaining what he — now 33 years old, now several albums deep into his career — sought to achieve with An Obelisk.
Last year, much was made of how A Productive Cough was a “different” Titus Andronicus album. Though every Titus collection before had slower songs, rootsier compositions, and more explicitly contemplative tracks, A Productive Cough was perceived as a more consistently mellow affair, one accompanied by a stripped-down tour. An Obelisk, in comparison, is a loud, fast, full-band album — as straightforward and unadorned as A Productive Cough was intricate and orchestrated in its best moments. They are, in many ways, symbiotic works.
“I needed to renegotiate my contract with the audience, you know what I mean?” Stickles says, reflecting on the direction Titus took last year. The nature of A Productive Cough and its attendant tour was by design. Motivated by a mixture of frustration with the frenzy that could develop within the crowd at Titus shows and his subsequent feeling that the band was being sidelined as something they weren’t, a somewhat older Stickles was intent on expanding the definitions of what people could expect from Titus Andronicus.
“I don’t want to get pigeonholed,” he says. “I was trying to illuminate my essential purpose as an artist, which is to be a communicator and a validator. The loud rock ‘n’ roll music is one of the tools I feel entitled to use at times. But the tool is not the thing that matters, it’s the result.” For a while, he wasn’t entirely at ease with the result he was witnessing.
Much of the material on An Obelisk actually predates A Productive Cough, with some fragments having origins as far back as The Most Lamentable Tragedy. But it wasn’t time for this music then. Stickles put aside the songs for a while, believing that Titus Andronicus needed to try something unexpected first. Only now is he comfortable returning to the unhinged rock sound the band first built their name on, feeling as if A Productive Cough successfully rearranged the framework around Titus. And even then, he isn’t exactly 100% comfortable. “I’m very anxious about it,” he admits. “I’m worried we’re about to undo all the hard-earned victories we had last year.”
Accordingly, he decided to seek some help this time around, and leaned on an inspirational forebear. Early in our conversation, Stickles rummages through his bag and produces a book titled See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody, Bob Mould’s memoir and an important piece of loot from one of Stickles’ many visits to the office of his record label Merge. On the day we meet, Stickles has also just wrapped up a series of tour dates opening for Mould, himself on the road behind a new album. But those weren’t just a happy synergy of like-minded labelmates — the shows were a continued team-up from when Mould served as producer for An Obelisk last fall.
The idea hit Stickles about a year ago, after he caught wind that Mould was a fan of Titus Andronicus. (A 2016 Stereogum profile of Mould may or may not have had something to do with this.) Stickles asked their mutual connection Michael Azerrad — who, in addition to writing about Hüsker Dü in Our Band Could Be Your Life, co-wrote See A Little Light with Mould — to reach out. Mould was interested, and Stickles himself wrote next. Mould responded a couple hours later with the whole plan — what studio they’d use, what engineer they’d work with, how much time they had, which airline Stickles had to fly him out on.
In a separate conversation, Mould recalls when he first came across Titus Andronicus earlier in the decade. “I kept seeing their name in the press, I kept hearing people talking about the scene they were building in New York,” he says. “It all sounded very old-school and familiar, and I started listening to their music. They’re a great American rock band.”
Over the course of email exchanges, they figured out what their working dynamic might be like, what kind of producer Titus needed. A guiding hand and technical knowledge would be helpful; less so any instruction on tweaking songwriting. Mould deems it as “figuring out how much guidance was permissible.” “He’s got such a strong vision,” he explains. “You have to be mindful that he sort of knows what he wants already, as far as the spiritual side of it.”
“I respect him a lot but I still gotta be a little bit of a control freak,” Stickles says dryly.
While Mould’s approach as a producer was a kind of hands-off — helping the band capture the sound as best as possible and helping shape the album but not urging them to change much of what was already there — his presence clearly looms over An Obelisk for Stickles. Throughout our conversation, he periodically places his hand on the cover of Mould’s memoir while emphasizing a point, as if touching a holy text to ground himself. The passages he’ll occasionally read aloud from the book unfold as foundational scripture as much as they’re backing up the ideas he’s trying to convey. It wasn’t just Mould’s ’80s punk roots, but how he’d challenged his audience, how he’d evolved over the years. It was the fact that he’s still doing this, 40 years later.
A couple months after their initial contact, Mould and Titus Andronicus met up in Chicago to live and record at Steve Albini’s studio Electrical Audio for six days. It was the same studio in which Mould had made 2014’s Beauty & Ruin, allowing him and his engineer Beau Sorenson to hit the ground running. “My initial understanding was that they wanted to go back and revisit their rougher sound, be a little more live in the studio,” Mould says. “Stripping away a lot of the extra ornamentation that had been on their most recent albums. I was like, ‘Yup, I know how to make those records.'”
The tight timeframe mirrored the nature of the music and how it should be recorded. “A lot of the dialogue was centered around that: rough and ready, let’s not overthink everything, let’s capture the essential sound of the band,” Mould recalls. “We only have so many days, so we have to do this quickly and not look back.”
While Stickles is known for an intense focus and deliberateness in conversation, he self-deprecatingly and somewhat jocularly acknowledges Titus has not always … stayed on course when recording. “We’d prefer to get high in the studio and wait for something to happen, which is cool, but we couldn’t hardly take that further than we did making A Productive Cough,” he says. “I mean, wow, we were seriously faded that whole time.” In comparison, the band felt compelled to rein in their “lazy and aimless” ways to make the most of their time with Mould. “Nobody wanted to get on his shit list,” Stickles continues. “Nobody wanted him walking out of there saying, ‘What a bunch of bums these guys are.’ We wanted to rise to the occasion, you could say.”
The work hours were a strict 10AM-10PM (after which, Titus then partied and indulged in their new favorite pastime, gambling with dice). Everything had to happen efficiently, but there was still room for Mould to pass on some wisdom. He coached Stickles in better methods of singing, to save his voice. He taught him a trick in which, after screaming into the mic for a while, you place your hand on your forehead and on your throat, and if the latter is noticeably warmer you have to take a break.
Perhaps more importantly for Stickles at this juncture in his career, he was able to talk with someone who had been around, who had tried to take his audience along different paths a couple times over, whether in the singer-songwriter moment of Mould’s solo debut Workbook or his more experimental ventures into electronica around the turn of the century. “There were lots of talks about artists, and work, and audience, and expectations, and legacy,” Mould says. “Building your story for people. That kinda stuff.”
The resulting album is a taut 10-track collection that, with standout opener “Just Like Ringing A Bell,” fires off immediately and rarely lets up over the course of its 38 minutes. It does successfully translate the vibe of Titus’ recent live shows — no nonsense four-piece rock, sitting comfortably at the cross-section of classic punk and classic rock that’s always been woven into the band’s DNA — with few divergences or frills. (The title An Obelisk mostly portends more foreboding themes, but Stickles also notes that the music therein is, similar to an actual obelisk being carved from one stone, constructed from a unified and hardened strength, intentionally simple and to the point.)
If fans missed scraggly, uptempo Titus last year, they may be sated by An Obelisk. Stickles is ever fearful of reinforcing some people’s misconceptions about Titus Andronicus — the false notion that they’re a band with fun rock songs about partying in New Jersey — so he’s quick to reiterate that the music’s more spartan nature does not equate an album without the customary theory involved in a Titus outing.
At one point in time, Stickles planned on calling the album Global Business, a callback to 2012’s Local Business and a continuation of Titus’ penchant for internal references and recurring terminology. Instead, he gravitated towards An Obelisk, whose naming convention makes it feel more closely linked to A Productive Cough.
“When you use a definite article, you sound like a fucking dumb college kid,” Stickles argues when detailing his turn from “The” titles to “A” or “An.” “Like you think you know everything. ‘Budweiser, the beer, man, and I’ve tried them all.'” Perhaps it’s the evocation of open-ended possibilities, or less pressure than an album as dauntingly titled as The Monitor or The Most Lamentable Tragedy, or maybe it is just a more mature Stickles appearing over time. This is “the guy who accepts he doesn’t know everything in the fucking world and he’s not the smartest person ever.”
Otherwise, the meaning of An Obelisk is a bit more dire, one person’s journey of growth in the shadow of stifling societal forces. The album art depicts the titular structure in a fittingly overbearing, bleak manner, echoing the political concerns that informed Stickles’ writing. “[An obelisk] gets narrower as it approaches its peak,” he explains, likening it to the process of consolidating power in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of people, who might then erect such a structure to lord over all those below them. “One thing leads to another, and as the most unscrupulous people get power, they’re going to do their next thing and get more power, and on and on.”
After the dense and detailed concept of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, A Productive Cough felt like a more casual and intimate document, a series of autobiographical snapshots of life in New York. Like Tragedy, An Obelisk once again uses a fictional veneer, centering around a narrator with many similarities to Stickles without being told literally from his point of view — or, at least, not from his point of view today. “It’s part of a story of an individual’s personal and intellectual development,” he says.
The album often meditates on the distance between punk ethics and stereotypical punk identity, Stickles working through and cautioning against the act of adopting an outlook and set of principles without interrogating what they might actually mean or how you might personally apply them. Over the course of the album, the narrator alternates between “monologues” — screeds raging against the outside world — and “soliloquies” in which he struggles and comes to terms with himself.
The album divides evenly, back and forth, until the two start to mingle as the narrator reaches some better understanding of himself and his place within the world. The closing track, “Tumult Around The World,” is intended as a monologue that is more “sympathetic” — no longer lashing out at his surroundings in blame, but locating some small resolution about how we can lead better lives. “The conclusion is the narrator says, ‘I’m going to try and be a kinder person,'” Stickles says.
With the backstory of An Obelisk and titles like “Tumult Around The World” or songs like “On The Street” (in which Stickles conjures a classic, old-school punk chorus about there being “too many police on the street”), it’d be easy to see the album as being influenced by the current political and social climate in America. But Stickles is quick to point out that many of these circumstances have existed for a while, and he doesn’t have much optimism that we’ll fix everything even with the rise of progressivism in mainstream America. Instead, there’s a personal decision that might offer the smallest piece of hope in a definitively broken situation: “The world would be nicer if we could treat each other a little more decently as we fucking cook to death on our ruined planet.”
Much like people read Stickles’ own life in the bipolar narratives of The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the arc of the figure in An Obelisk would certainly seem to parallel reckonings Stickles himself has already gone through. “There are certain things I need to say, or certain tableaus I need to present, where I want it to be clear: This is not necessarily how I feel right now, this is a moment I’ve passed through to get to my current understanding,” he says.
He compares An Obelisk’s lead single “(I Blame) Society” to something like “Dimed Out” in that sense, a depiction of a place Stickles once occupied. “The sentiments that are appropriate to express in songs like that are not quite as three-dimensional as an idea I would present at a time where I was like, ‘Here’s what I really think,'” he continues. “I couldn’t even do a song like about what I really think. More important to me is to bring the listener on … a thought experiment.”
A Productive Cough and An Obelisk are essentially the antithesis of each other, both stylistically and narratively. But they also feed off one another, and you could almost view them as a different kind of double album, spread out over a year but still seeking to use two discrete chapters to say something as substantive as the gigantic 90-minute album that preceded them. “I’m thinking more in terms of constructing an era right now, than a single big chunk of something,” Stickles says. “Which is why it’s important for us to be following up the previous one.”
The pace is not something he’d expect to maintain if there was another The Most Lamentable Tragedy in the works, and two albums between 2018 and 2019 has mostly cleared out his stockpile of material. But having pulled it off, he does yearn to be more prolific. “Taking three years off between albums — fucking get real,” he says. “You’re supposed to be a musician, make some music. What the fuck are you doing? Fucking sitting around the house staring out the window, probably.” He devotes a lot of time to the latter, as well, he’s quick to note.
As far as further masterplans to come, he’s coy. There are some ideas he’s mulling over, but nothing he wants to “put a ring on” until the music starts to come together. “I guess all I can say is I want to continue, and I want to continue without puffing up the catalog to the point that it’s redundant,” he reflects. “I don’t think we’ve made any redundant records so far.”
That’s one other way in which he could look up to Mould in the process of finishing An Obelisk: There’s a musician who’s kept his job. That’s far from a given in Stickles’ line of work. Over the years, he’s insinuated that Titus’ end could come sooner than later, but he doesn’t want that to happen. “I always tell people I’m an elected official, that I serve my constituents and based on how good a job I do, they will continue to support me and vote with their dollars to keep me in office,” he says, once more returning to a political comparison. “If there comes a time when I have to tie a little ribbon around Titus Andronicus, that’ll be because my constituents have voted me out of office and I have to get another job if I want to feed myself.”
Of course, anyone who’s experienced the overwhelming energy of a Titus Andronicus show, or anyone who’s connected with the visceral yet literary blend Stickles has perfected in his songwriting, would hope that day never comes. Anyone who’s been along for the ride over the last 10 years, they’ll know that An Obelisk isn’t a standalone monument, in this instance, but one more block in what Titus Andronicus has been carefully building through the years. With any luck, Stickles is slowly making his way to being a lifer, just like those he surrounded himself with during the making of the album. With any luck, the student is continuing to evolve, just like his characters.
01 “Just Like Ringing A Bell”
02 “Troubleman Unlimited”
03 “(I Blame) Society”
04 “My Body And Me”
05 “Hey Ma”
06 “Beneath The Boot”
07 “On The Street”
08 “Within The Gravitron”
09 “The Lion Inside”
10 “Tumult Around The World”
06/21 Brooklyn, NY @ Rough Trade (Record Release Show)
07/23 Washington, DC @ Comet Ping Pong
07/26 Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle (MRG30 Festival)
07/27 Fredericksburg, VA @ Fredericksburg All Ages
07/28 Philadelphia, PA @ PhilaMOCA
An Obelisk is out 6/21 via Merge. Pre-order it here.