Rock’s a niche: Titus Andronicus takes on the Tralf - INTERVIEW
blog by Ben Tsujimoto • August 26, 2013 @ 8:12am
Patrick Stickles references Albert Camus in his lyrics, crafted a song around his eating disorder and openly admits that rock ‘n’ roll is dying quickly.
Stickles leads Titus Andronicus to Buffalo for a show with Lost Boy and the Mallwalkers at Tralf Music Hall, 622 Main St., Buffalo. Doors open at 7 p.m., the show begins at 8, and day-of tickets run for $14.
Rebelling from the ideals of a suburban family in New Jersey, Stickles defies convention and laments authority, but he’s wise enough to clearly explain his path and how he’s revised his dream of becoming rich through rock ‘n’ roll.
Formed in 2005, Titus Andronicus has released studio albums in two-year increments beginning in 2008. “Airing of Grievances” propelled the band onto indie playlists, Civil War-based “The Monitor” earned a staggering 8.7 album review from Pitchfork—largely because it successfully rebelled against indie norms—while 2012’s “Local Business” invited criticism for its hints of defeatism.
Here’s a poignant segment from a review of “Local Business” by Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, who rated the most recent album a 7.0 in October 2012:
Most important, for a record whose title and purpose is to celebrate punk, DIY, and local scenes, there’s little sense of their previous fun or community uplift. During “In a Big City”, Stickles screams “Now I’m a drop in deluge of hipsters,” connecting with a sentiment on “Still Life”: “It’s just me, lonely me/ and the other relevant dudes/ arrogant enough to believe this is developing news.” These are representative of Local Business’ pervasive attitude, rife with the sort of sarcasm, gossip, and double meaning that dominates discourse in indie rock and its Twitter parallel universe.
In my interview with Stickles, only two minutes pass before he unleashes his distaste for structure. When I mention his short-lived aspirations to be an English teacher, the lead singer bristles at the memory.
“I would never want to be a part of that now,” Stickles corrects. “All those rules—[expletive] adolescents. My parents were teachers, and that was the only plan for me [then] without being an [expletive] failure. It’s the worst part of capitalist suburbia—teenagers screaming their heads off, trying to [expletive] each other in class.”
Emphasizing thrift yet flourishing in the less-than-flashy but “pure” DIY scene in Brooklyn—perhaps the one environment where Titus Andronicus developed and thrived—Stickles is aware that, while it offers some of the freedoms barred from modern education, rock ‘n’ roll isn’t the luxurious career path he saw as a child.
“Any schmuck in my parents’ worlds thought they could create the perfect rock song with four chords and become a millionaire, but no one is saying that anymore. Rock ‘n’ roll is on the way out. Now it’s a kid sitting at a computer in his mom’s basement trying to make the best dubstep song,” Stickles comments. “Trying to make [major] money off rock ‘n’ roll now is like masturbating onto a corpse.
“[Rock ‘n’ roll] is not dominant in youth culture anymore—it’s become an academic art form like jazz,” claims Stickles. “People go to university to play jazz in front of a small audience as more of a tribute to an existing form. It’s over as a popular thing.”
Seemingly without stopping to breathe, Stickles charts the path of rock ‘n’ roll—from ‘80s underground featuring Nirvana to the mainstream explosion of the ‘90s to the next 10 years of mainstream fading back to underground—and how, while five-star hotels, jacuzzis and glitzy tour buses aren’t in the future of Titus Andronicus (heck, Stickles lived with his parents in NJ when he wasn’t on the road in 2012), there’s still a reason Titus Andronicus churns out rock albums and schedules tours.
For Stickles, at least, the roots of his professional enjoyment are three-fold. He openly respects classical history—much of the subject matter from Titus Andronicus’ second album stems from Ken Burns’ 11.5-hour PBS special “The Civil War,” latches onto emotional expression—listen to “The Monitor” if you need evidence, and relieves stress through his craft.
“Every artist, however humble, is part of the history of art,” Stickles ruminates. “It’s people expressing themselves, just through different idioms. I approach a song like someone else might approach a drawing or a dumb essay.”
Branching off Pitchfork’s praise for Titus Andronicus’ ability to convey honest emotion—counter-cultural to indie music, apparently—I ask Stickles if he’s a pretty emotional dude. That question elicits this pseudo-sarcastic ramble that reads almost straight from a textbook:
“My inner world is full of contradictions,” Stickles explains. “Like any human, I have the capacities for logic and reason, but my brain generates abstractions. I’m able to think critically while being driven by intangible forces, like the instinct to flee from danger that can’t really be articulated in words. There’s synchronicity when these two forces agree—which can lead to a beautiful construction—or dissonance, which can be disastrously destructive.”
Drifting back to reality after his soliloquy on psychology, Stickles adds that rock ‘n’ roll doubles as a stress reliever, catharsis for an artist who dubs himself “somewhere between ape and Overman.”
“I prefer the idiom of rock ‘n’ roll because it’s the loudest and most viscerally confrontational,” the artist says honestly before telling me to hold and shouting “get a helmet on your head, buddy!” at a bicyclist outside his bus window.
The conversation turns to Buffalo—naturally—and here Stickles again mixes resentment, sarcasm and sincerity in what’s morphed into the most “indie” chat I’ve ever had. He mentions his New York City neighbor—a former Buffalo resident—who regularly shares her “righteous and ethical values” with Stickles, who doesn’t try to hide his tone of annoyance.
“But I appreciate the upstate [NY] scene,” Stickles adds. “Like Rochester and Syracuse, I know that Buffalo is often a forgotten part of the state. I know there’s a whole state—not just New York City.”
Stickles accepts that rock ‘n’ roll has run its course, that it’s descending back into an underground movement of academics who understand they’re reaching a niche audience—not becoming millionaires by producing the perfect rock song. Still, he’s—perhaps intentionally—a very tough character to read.
His sarcasm, contradictions and distaste for authority are paired with reverence for history, counter-cultural thriftiness and a mature perspective on the future of the genre he propounds.
Will he ever fight this very real yet defeatist mentality? Could Titus Andronicus usher in a new era of mainstream rock ‘n’ roll? Would Patrick Stickles even be interested?
(Header photo courtesy of Nick Kita, a photo shared by Titus Andronicus’ Facebook page. Stickles with the statue is courtesy of GreenPointNews, while the long photo of Stickles on the left is via Brooklyn Vegan. First photo in the text—to the right—is via Flickr / - EMR -.)