Comfortably Glum: A Lengthy Conversation With Titus Andronicus’ Patrick Stickles About Satan, Survival And America
Talk to Patrick Stickles for even just a few minutes and you’re bound to learn something new about the world. Talk to the Titus Andronicus mainman for two hours and you’re pretty much guaranteed an entirely new worldview. Or at least an intense glimpse into his. The New Jersey-born musician – who now lives in Ridgewood, Queens in New York – formed the band in 2005 and released their first album, The Airing Of Grievances three years later. Its mix of rambunctious indie-punk and cerebral yet emotional lyrics brought the band a good deal of attention at the time. Yet if the commercial potential of that record never grew to stratospheric heights, Patrick’s ambition as a songwriter was infinite. The personal traumas detailed in 2010’s second record, The Monitor, for example, were wrapped up in a metaphorical narrative about the American Civil War, while 2015’s fourth album, A Most Lamentable Tragedy, was a high-concept concept album across five acts, 93 minutes and 29 songs that explored manic depression through a narrator and his doppelgänger. The rootsy rock of A Productive Cough offered the band’s mellowest sound to date, but An Obelisk – a counterpart to its predecessor – speeds things way back up again with its raucous, disorderly Oi!-inspired songs. It’s a record that rails against the world as Patrick sees it, a visceral and philosophical takedown of the systems that keep the status quo in place. This is just part of the two hour conversation that formed the basis of the feature in Kerrang! issue 1778. Be warned – he holds nothing back.
An Obelisk is very much a punk record, compared to the more mellow strains of the last record and the epic rock opera of A Most Lamentable Tragedy. What inspired that change?
“Sometimes I use the metaphor that the musical interests of Titus Andronicus create a house and in this house there are several rooms, and on an album like the triple LP rock opera, the idea was to race around from room to room and cover as much ground as possible. This time around, with this particular era, I thought perhaps it would be better to pick one room and kind of settle down in it for a little while and really dust all the corners of it. Hopefully that makes each of them a little more accessible than, say, a 93-minute rock opera which is maybe slightly daunting task to push upon the casual listener in this Spotify era.”
But you don’t really want casual listeners do you?
“No, I don’t. There have definitely been times when I’ve thought ‘I need to make the barrier for entry quite high to keep out the lookie-loos,’ and there might be something to that. I don’t necessarily want to turn casual listeners away, but my intention really is to be someone’s favourite band. But I want these things to serve as an invitation. You can take this piddling little three minute track for what it is and bop to it and then forget about if it you want – which most people who are exposed to it will do – but it’s also an invitation to take a deep dive that I’m hoping will be rewarding for those who are willing to invest their time.”
Speaking of investing time in the band, there have been a lot of members of Titus Andronicus over the years.
“About 22 including myself.”
But the current line-up also played some parts on A Productive Cough. So do you feel any more solidified now?
“I learned to let go of that illusion a long time ago. My buddy Dan McGhee, who plays in the great band Spider Bags, he tells me it’s not about keeping it together, it’s about putting together. You know, though – that’s the way life is. People, they come and they go and there are certain times and moments along the path of life when you and certain other people can walk that path together, and there’s eventually going to come a time when your paths are going to diverge. And when that moment happens, you can either foster feelings of resentment towards them, saying ‘Hey, you enriched my life and now you’re taking away those benefits from me and I’m not going to get to enjoy them anymore and you’re probably just doing it to be a jerk and I’m mad at you now,’ or you could say ‘Hey, this person enriched my life at this time and I’m just going to move forward along my personal path with gratitude and appreciation for the good things they brought me during that time.’
“That’s more what I’m trying to do these days. It’s easy to give more weight to the negative things because we feel them a little more viscerally. But this current line-up has been around since around this time in 2016, so that’s three whole years without anybody quitting, which is a pretty good run for me. I didn’t find any of them on Craigslist. We’ve all got pretty long relationships.”
Do you find it difficult to delve into different styles from album to album? It seems that doing that is almost making life more difficult for yourself.
“Yeah, but you’re making it sound like it’s a big chore, when it’s a joy. And I don’t know that I could do the same thing over and over again if I wanted to. The person that made the songs that made me the most famous – he’s not around anymore. That guy was a couple of complete cellular regenerations ago, to say nothing of the different formative experiences I’ve had since that time and the way that my own personal tastes have evolved.”
Do you recognise the person who shed those skin cells in those songs?
“Sometimes. I recognise that those are moments that I went through and they were valid at the time and I continue to work to validate them, but the past few years especially I’m not really that interested in writing songs that are like My Guide To Life – my narrators and stuff, it’s not like self-help music exactly. I’m not presenting myself as some kind of hero that has all the answers. I present myself as somebody that struggles for understanding and fulfilment as much as the common person does. Those are the kind of figures I relate to more easily, not some dude who’s like ‘Boy, I’ve got it all figured out!’ Fuck you. You didn’t figure out shit. You’re casting an illusion for yourself so you can make your life more comfortable so you can sleepwalk through it like the rest of these zombies.”
Presumably, writing these songs does help you figure some things out, though.
“It definitely helps – maybe it’s a bit of a cliché but it’s a form of therapy for me. And the things I tell the audience with my words, these are things I feel compelled to tell myself first. My own little personal pep talks – but I put them out in the world hopefully for the benefit of people who have had similar experiences. And when I meet people that have had those experiences and gotten positive benefits from the music and it validates them in a way that they’re not always validated in their everyday life, that in turn validates me, because I feel less lonely and alienated having met them. So it’s a nice little loop of mutual validation that we create with the audience.”
Doesn’t that teeter on the edge of the premise of the self-help thing that you’re not interested in?
“Right. But it’s less about ‘I have the answers’ and more ‘we have the questions’. And I’m asking the same questions of myself that my audience may be asking themselves. Ideally. But I can’t predict how they feel – I can only talk about my experiences and hold onto the faith that I’m not unique in my experiences, which is what I thought as a younger guy. Like ‘Oh my god, I’m the biggest freak in the world and nobody else has ever gone through this.’ But I’ve encountered the work of plenty of artists who have proven to me that that’s not so, and that’s kind of the public service that I’m trying to perform, humble as it is.”
What are your hopes for a) yourself, b) for the band and c) what band can do for yourself?
“My hope is that I can l keep my job one more day, basically. Maybe as a younger guy I had fantasies that if I make a certain set of decisions and follow through on them in a certain way, maybe I’ll get rich doing this or maybe I’ll be really famous. And that illusion has been shattered time and time again over the past 14 years.”
But it doesn’t seem like you’re somebody who’d really want or enjoy fame in the first place.
“Right, because then they’d put me on the chopping block and I’d be getting exposed to people that only want to dunk on somebody. So I’m pretty comfortable with the level of fame that I have, but I’d certainly like to have more money. Not to buy a house or anything or some shit – I’m not crazy – but to be able to do more and better work. I basically have everything that I want as far as material things, so I’m not really interested in pursuing those and I’m very grateful for the apartment where I live and I’m generally able to feed my cats and shit like that, but I could definitely be a little more comfortable.”
What is the purpose of all this for you?
“It’s not to get rich. This is my form of public service. If I knew I wasn’t having a positive impact for certain people – not everybody in the world, but certain people, and they do exist – without them I would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. Probably right as soon as I figured out I wasn’t going to get rich or famous. That was never the intention exactly, but I was naïve enough at that time to think it wasn’t completely outside the realm of possibility. I didn’t think that it would happen, but I did occasionally indulge myself in the fantasy that it could happen. But I don’t really like to devote as much energy to that anymore.”
Do you think you’ve sacrificed anything by being in Titus Andronicus?
“Hell yeah. I could have had a very fancy life. At the time I decided I was going to go pro, I had an open door to a bunch of fancy grad schools – not to brag – and if I’d followed long that path I’d probably be financially more comfortable now, but I’d very likely be unfulfilled and generally miserable. Not to say that I’m generally ecstatic most days. And then also I would have had a fucking boss. But I’m the boss. I might not sit at the head of a gigantic corporation, but nobody tells me what to do. Then again, our last record didn’t come close to recouping, so we’re very deeply in the red on that record so I’ve got to pay back a fairly generous advance. But even in a position when we could sell 50,000 units, which was a very long time ago, that wasn’t our bread and butter. We’ve always most of our money onstage. We’re in the business of selling tickets and t‑shirts and whatnot. I made more money licensing a song to a video game than I ever made from selling records.”
That’s the kind of thing most bands need to do to survive these days.
“Right. And there are certain syncs that would chafe my soul a little too much. I know we live in a post-sell-out era now – or so they say – and doing like an Apple commercial or one for fucking Halliburton is how people make their money, so how are you going to shame an artist about that? I’m not in the business of publicly shaming anybody, but I do think that all this talk about the post-sellout era is basically the creative class saying ‘Okay, they won. You can’t make a living purely being an artist anymore, so why even try, and why even talk about it as though it’s something that we should aspire to?’ And that goes right along with the streaming thing – the streaming services pay us a fucking 3/10th of a penny for a stream, or whatever they pay, so I guess we just have to get a billion of them. I don’t like the way the creative classes have just rolled over and taken it and internalised the devaluisation of their work to such a degree that if anybody says that’s maybe not the best case scenario, then they’re going to get dragged and jumped on by people who gave up that fight already. But you know, us permalancing creative types are always right on the edge of giving up. The fantasy of giving up can get a person through a long night – not unlike suicide.”
Don’t go there. Or maybe do go there.
“That’s just what Nietzsche said, that thoughts of suicide are okay by virtue of blah blah blah – whatever he said.”
Have you ever thought of giving up either?
“Yes. Both life and particularly the music industry, but gratefully I think more about quitting the music industry these days than I think about quitting the human experiment. But you know what my problem is? Sometimes I just find it difficult to exist in the present moment. To be here now. I have all this great stuff going on but I have a great deal of anxiety about ‘What if I don’t have all this next year?’ And therefore I will piss on the present, so to speak, and I will disable myself from enjoying my many blessings while I have them. It’s also true that we grow much more from our suffering and our struggles than we do from our successes. And it’s true that if I had more money I’d probably get lazier. So thank God I’m broke!”
But aren’t most people broke in America? That almost seems to be the default setting of the modern age.
“That’s real life for most people. These fucking powers that be that are trying to squeeze out the middle class. Fucking assholes.”
And it’s so much more pronounced here because of the healthcare situation. Or lack thereof. You really see the effects of that shrinking middle class and the for-profit healthcare system.
“People are dying. It’s against the law to get sick.”
Obviously the songs on An Obelisk address many of these issues. What do you think your role and responsibilities as an artist are in terms of the current state of the world?
“Well, it’s definitely not to present some kind of coherent policy platform. I don’t have a plan. I think my purpose is that, everybody who’s in this mess – which is to say 99.9% of Americans – we’re all in the mess together and everybody needs something that’s going to put gas in their tank. Something that’s going to make life just bearable enough to get out of bed one more dark and difficult morning. I know the power that art of all kinds has to do that because that’s happened for me, and that’s basically all I’m trying to do. And on top of that offer validation and tell people ‘Hey, life is tough for me too.’ We’re in it together. There’s tumult around the world.”
That sounds like a song title…
“Hmmmm. Not such a bad idea! But yeah. It’s just keeping gas in tank. That’s all that it is. And if I didn’t have my favourite artists, it’d be tough to keep going.”
But shouldn’t there be more to life than just surviving, just existing?
“I mean, maybe. No other animal thinks that way. My cats don’t think there’s more to life than just surviving. We invented that idea because we have this disease of consciousness. Our human consciousness and our so-called logic and reasoning is an anomaly, an aberration. It’s an abomination. It’s Satan. My cats are controlled by God. I’m controlled by Satan. There’s your pull quote.”
But again, no-one thinks deeply about these things anymore – it’s like we’ve reverted to this kind of primal, feral state.
“Right. Tribalism. Because we know that Mother Earth is on her last legs but we can’t come right out and say that because that would be intolerable. And furthermore, our primal instincts that would have served us very well when we were living in the jungle – for guys like you and me to say we should be killing something, let’s go kill something that feels right – we don’t have outlets for that. This is why people get into MMA and shit. People have got to be the most frustrated animal because there’s something within us that knows what we’re supposed to be ‘doing’ but we can’t because we exist in society. And by the way, this isn’t me saying ‘Let’s go back to when it was okay to kill people’ and I would hit a cavewoman over the head with a club and drag her somewhere – I’m not advocating that by any means. But we push our animalistic nature off into a dusty corner and there it gathers strength and it comes out in even less constructive ways. Like, ‘I’d really love to go hunt a wildebeest but I can’t so I’ll build an atom bomb.’”
Which is analogous to the whole idea of Make America Great Again…
“Exactly. ‘Great’. Make America How It Used To Be. But we can’t. We can’t make the world how it used to be.”
Why do you think people have got so swept up by that?
“Because they’re scared. And why wouldn’t they be? The world is dying, there aren’t as many opportunities, there’s no middle class, we’re entering into an economic apocalypse, the collapse of civilisation is at hand. People have been saying that for a long time, but if you think about it, human history is pretty long and this post-industrial age we’re in is pretty short. Not to get too heavy, but I do think this post-industrial age is the endgame. People that said ‘They just built a railroad through my town, we’re done’ – they’re not exactly wrong, if you look at the tiny little sliver of human history that we’re occupying right now.”
Do you have any hope?
“I have a hope that I could be happy and I have a hope that I could work to be a kinder person. Do I have hope that some billionaire is going to build me a rocket ship and upload my consciousness to the mainframe? I don’t desire that. These fucking billionaires trying to build rocket ships when they’ve got enough money that everybody could eat. Why would we feed everybody when we could build a rocket ship? And all the rich people can live in some app. Yippee. Get the fuck out of here with that shit. These wealthy people. I can’t wait till my girl AOC [29-year-old NY Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is president and we’ll have that 70% marginal tax rate, which is so fucking reasonable – and by the way, Make America Great Again, there was a 70% marginal tax rate under President Eisenhower and now, because a woman of colour like AOC says it, now it’s socialism.”
Which sounds like a good time to talk about the symbolism of the obelisk, beyond its phallic connotations.
“Have you ever noticed how our capitalist system over time seems to consolidate power and wealth and equity onto a smaller, smaller base? And at the same time an obelisk will narrow as reaches its peak and then ultimately terminate in some kind of pyramid, which we understand to be a very loaded symbol of the establishment – or the Illuminati if you prefer. You don’t have to look further than the dollar bill to see that.”
Wait. The Illuminati…
“…are they real? Them and the reptilians and the aliens that built the pyramids. No, that’s not real. I mean, they don’t have a secret society where they sacrifice people and stuff, but it is true that there is a ruling class that there is an infinitesimally small percentage of the population that do govern our lives. That’s true. And some people find it easier to accept that if they turn it into some kooky thing, but it is true. And what about all the George Bushes and their Skull and Bones associations and stuff? This is real and the decisions that affect us are being made behind closed doors by people that do not have the common person’s concerns and anxieties. That is true. Does anybody think that’s not true. Does any working person think that their opinion matters as much as Elon Musk’s? Nobody thinks that.”
He’s one of the billionaires who wants to go to Mars.
“What an asshole. Mars isn’t even that big, I found out. I look at a picture of the solar system and was like ‘That’s where we’re going to go?!’ That’s not even that much bigger than the moon. Why don’t we go fucking hang out up there if we want? And they don’t even have that much fucking water up over there! There’s some kind of sludgy, icy underground ocean or something like that.”
Doesn’t he also want to build some super high – speed train type thing?
“He wants to build a train that will take you from DC to Boston in like half an hour. That would be cool and convenient if we had that, but that’s like some rich people shit too. Like, I want some proper New England crab cakes – so I’m going to hop on a train and get to those crab cakes in 20 minutes. That’s stupid. You don’t need that. People got along just fine for tens of thousands of years without that nonsense. And these rich people, they do this shit just because they don’t know what to do with their money. And the most appealing thing about them throwing their money around is that it reminds them that they have a bunch of money. Like fucking Jimmy Iovine (Interscope Records founder) has got the piano John Lennon played on Imagine. Do you need that? ‘No, but I couldn’t find something to spend 10 million dollars on.’ Or like fine art – someone like barfed on a canvas and we all agree that this thing’s worth a million dollars so let’s fight over who gets to spend a million dollars on it. That’s how they occupy their time. It’s pretty fucking sad – like, let’s go look at the sunset for a while. That’s free.”
Titus Andronicus’ new album The Obelisk is out now through Merge Records.
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