Titus Andronicus Forever!
Jersey Boys (and Girl) Strike a Chord
“On this subject I do not wish to speak, think or write with moderation. I am in earnest, I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard.”
– William Lloyd Garrison, from the 1831 inaugural edition of The Liberator, as quoted by Titus Andronicus on The Monitor (and recited by Patrick Stickles’ high school teacher)
That shattering sound you hear is journalistic objectivity being tossed out the window. Every few years an album comes along that simply connects. And oftentimes those records soar despite daunting obstacles, self-imposed or otherwise. Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor is one of those records. The New Jersey quintet’s 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances, intermingled a healthy share of high points with an off-putting degree of overambition. So when news arrived that follow-up The Monitor would be a concept album about the Civil War, it seemed leader Patrick Stickles was indulging his worst instincts. All the warning signs were present: a fourteen-minute closing epic, four other tracks clocking in over seven, titles like “Four Score and Seven.” Yet the band’s spirit easily overcomes the weighty conceit, and the sense of drama only heightens the impact.
You can hear a dizzying array of influences packed into Titus’ wordy yet rollicking attack: The Pogues, Bruce Springsteen, The Hold Steady, Billy Bragg, Bright Eyes/Desaparecidos, The Mekons, Ted Leo (“like us, a guy who recognizes that New Jersey roots are everlasting,” salutes Stickles). There are artists on that list I don’t particularly like; somehow, however, Stickles and company find ways to borrow the keeper aspects of all those sources. And they deliver the goods with such an unguarded fervency it’s even driven some to utter the N-word. That’s right – Neutral Milk.
So I promised myself that if I got the chance to speak with Titus’ auteur (a conversation long delayed when their springtime ATL date was pre-empted by van trouble) I’d open with a simple question that risked shutting down the interview before it started.
“Patrick, the Civil War? What the fuck?”
Stickles refused to take my bait, shrugging off the baggage while mounting a somewhat impassioned defense of his plot device. “I just put it out there and people can make of it what they will. If they don’t want to go near it that’s their foolishness because it’s a pretty important piece of American history. If you don’t learn the lessons of history you’re doomed to repeat them, just like we are repeating the mistakes of those times. Hence, (dramatic pause) an apt metaphor. What album isn’t a concept album about your fucking life, unless you’re just singing about nonsense?”
Stickles declines to acknowledge that his high-risk gambit doubled as perhaps the savviest marketing move of his life. “I noticed the theme about 40% of the way into writing – it was undeniable,” he adds matter-of-factly. The Civil War provided a journalistic hook that made an easier sell of an album of literate barroom punk from a still emerging indie band – ballsy moves like paraphrasing the Boss and Billy Bragg in the space of a single couplet didn’t hurt, either. Apparently the metaphor piqued more curiosity than it drove people away, as folks quickly realized the record wasn’t about the War Between the States so much as universal themes like the futility of trying to outrun your past. “It seems people like it more than the last one.” Sales of the debut topped out at about 8,000, a figure Stickles refuses to sneeze at. “We never thought we’d even make a record for more than ourselves and our buddies.”
We’re on the back porch of the EARL, a couple hours before the band’s September show. Bassist Ian Graetzer is shooting hoops, while multi-instrumentalist Amy Klein relaxes on the wooden steps. Stickles is uncomfortable with the “resident genius” mantle, admirably refusing to do interviews without his bandmates (“we’re all equals here”). But he interrupts his diffident veneer to exude pride over band longevity. “This is our longest surviving iteration. We recently celebrated our 100th show as Titus 5.0,” he beams with the detail of an archivist. Among this band of equals, however, high school buddy Graetzer has been the one constant. “The responsible one” who essentially doubles as road manager, the well-groomed yet muscular Graetzer looks like he’d be equally at home at a hardcore show one night and interviewing for a straight job the following morning. This is in stark contrast to the lanky Stickles, whose craggly beard makes him look older than his 25 years and cements his image as the ascetic academic. (Stickles honed his literary chops as an English major at Ramapo, “New Jersey’s public liberal arts college,” as the school’s website declares.)
Those hankering for a follow-up to The Monitor had best put another log on the fire, however, as Stickles has yet to begin the writing process. “That’s the kind of thing I do when I’m at home,” he says, explaining an aversion to workshopping material on the road. “I remember touring with a band this summer who shall remain nameless, where we never got a soundcheck because they just wanted to good around playing covers of ‘90s punk songs. So I would never do that.”
Apparently, Stickles is a binge writer, though, so there’s hope for a reasonable turnaround. The entirety of this record was penned subsequent to debut Grievances “save for one song, which was going to be on the first one except we only had two sides of vinyl to work with. A double LP from an unknown band would have been a bit….” Audacious? Clearly any such reservations have since been retired, as after a brief apprenticeship Titus have been happy to let it all hang out. Despite the slapdash punk trappings this is a band that clearly sweats the details and thinks in old school album terms, talking up the gatefold sleeve and photographic grandeur that adorns The Monitor. “I think our CD sales are pretty slim in relation to vinyl,” Graetzer conjectures. “Maybe our perceptions are off but to me CDs are just garbage – you put them on your computer, then throw them on a shelf somewhere. The vinyl is still a piece of art worth owning.”
By his soliloquy in the middle of Monitor closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” Stickles is spewing out lyrics with a raw desperation that recalls Kurt Cobain at the depths of In Utero. So how long can Titus keep the flame blazing at such a level? The band uniformly scoffs at the notion that the clock is ticking. “We’re not the most intense thing out there by a long shot – Slayer’s still the hardest working band in the industry,” Graetzer counters. “It’s like running a marathon, but a marathon is really just a series of short sprints,” adds Klein, who’s bubbly enough both on and offstage to seem like a member of a different band.
“I’d like to think I can keep moving for a few more years,” Stickles laughs. “If you can’t get yourself psyched up for 75 minutes a night you’ve got other problems. It can be demanding, but it’s the funnest thing in the world,” he concludes, dropping his grammatical guard in the name of sheer passion.
A few hours later, Titus Andronicus demonstrate that a year of touring has done nothing to dull their edge. They’ve cultivated an unusually rabid audience – this Monday night Atlanta throng was no exception – but the quintet took nothing for granted. It takes a special band to turn a line like “You will always be a loser” into a triumphant singalong. But nearly lost among the hubbub is a final line that ties the sentiment to the theme of their Jersey roots: “…and that’s OK.”