Our Civil War
Titus Andronicus’ music addresses the battle within ourselves.
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
A caveat before reading further: Titus Andronicus’ frontman Patrick Stickles’ comments came under the influence of having not slept in 26 hours, after he and the rest of the band drove over night from Toledo to St. Louis to play on a hot Saturday afternoon at LouFest.
“I guess ‘Lou’ is short for St. Louis,” he said, adding that the band was playing “smack in the middle of seven or eight bands. Broken Social Scene is the headliner.”
It was just two years ago that Titus Andronicus, which hails from Glen Rocks, New Jersey, began to break through the oversized, amorphous cloud that is the U.S. indie music scene with their XL Records debut The Airing of Grievances, an LP that captured their rowdy, raucous anthem-punk style.
“A lot’s happened since then,” Stickles said. “We went through a couple guitar players and made this whole other record. We’ve pretty much wildly exceeded our expectations.”
The “other record” is sophomore effort The Monitor, released by XL this past March. While it continued in the same rambunctious fashion as their debut, the album is sprawling — more than an hour long with half the songs over seven minutes in length, and one clocking in at a whopping 14 minutes.
“I’ve never been too good at editing myself,” Stickles said. “At the time we were theorizing these songs, I guessed all would be three or four minutes long. What we ended up recording is a byproduct of me having poor temporal reasoning skills. We always strive for a level of grandiosity, but even I couldn’t have predicted that we’d go that far.”
The recording also expanded on the band’s low-fi punk sound, adding new instruments (bagpipes, fiddle, trombone, cello) that elevated these epic, drunken, Celtic-flavored sing-along ballads to a level as grand as the album’s so-called Civil War theme, which Stickles said shouldn’t be taken too literally.
“The music is set in modern times. The Civil War is only used allegorically; I thought it would be an apt metaphor,” Stickles said. In fact, the lyrics on The Monitor (named after the Civil War-era battleship) are both self-flagellating and confrontational, with slogan-like lines “Baby we were born to die,” “You’ll always be a loser,” “I was born to die like a man,” and most central to the album’s theme: “The enemy is everywhere.” Booze provides a lyrical counterbalance to desperation and hostility.
“The point is that we’re all complacent in our various societal ills,” Stickles explained. “All this stuff about the enemy being everywhere, just as often it’s inside us, our own bodies, our earthly prisons. We as individuals have to be willing to take responsibility for our own happiness and fulfillment. There seems to be a tendency of humans trying to pass the buck for their unhappiness, and say, ‘If other than xyz, I would have the life of Riley.’ To me, it’s a defense mechanism at best. It’s quite possible to achieve peace and happiness on this crazy planet, but we have to allow that to come from within rather than look for external reasons.”
Heady stuff, but beyond their deeper meaning, all those angry lines make for some amazing sing-along moments. Stickles agreed. “They tend to make the best rock and roll songs,” he said, acknowledging how much the band loves it when the crowd shouts the lines back at them. “Their enthusiasm has a way of quickly creating enthusiasm on stage.”
Stickles said the band has never played in Omaha, but heard that the city’s punks “like to rock out in the basement.” He also said he and his high school pals grew up listening to Saddle Creek Records, which opened the door to the next line of discussion.
There are probably 100 reviews of The Monitor online and in print, and I venture to guess that at least half of them compare Stickles’ rambunctious vocal style to Omaha’s very own Conor Oberst, from the overdriven screams to that distinctive Conor bray.
Stickles said he admires Oberst’s honesty. “He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s too scared to lay it on the line,” he said, “though his last two records kind of left me cold.”
As for the comparisons, “I’ll tell you because you rep the Omaha readership,” Stickles said. “I think it’s a little short-sighted.
“The constant comparisons to anyone gets old, even if it’s Jesus Christ. Doesn’t everyone want to be themselves? Don’t we all want to blaze our own trail, though I know this is rock and roll, and there’s not too much under the sun? But it seems kind of like, uh, cheapening slightly to say that if you’ve heard one guy you can pretty much guess what this guy is going to sound like. After awhile it feels like a feedback loop, a house of mirrors, like sometimes (reviewers) get these things to sound so similar that I’m reading reviews of other reviews. But maybe that’s me being a self-righteous, entitled type. Even if it were true, is it helpful? Who’s to say? It’s not in my control. As I put my art out into the world, it’s out of my hands. History will judge.”
It will indeed. Now go get some sleep.
Titus Andronicus plays with Free Energy Thursday, Sept. 16, at The Waiting Room, 6212 Maple St. Showtime is 9 p.m. Admission is $10. For more information, call 402.884.5353 or visit waitingroomlounge.com.
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An addendum to yesterday’s CVS Pharmacy item: There’s an organized protest taking place today at 4:30 p.m. on both sides of Dodge Street outside The 49’r. It’s called “The Rally to Preserve the Integrity of Dundee.” Find out more at the event’s Facebook page. Will it make a difference? Who knows… it couldn’t hurt…
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So, tough choice for tonight: The Pixies or Titus Andronicus? I grew up listening to The Pixies and love all of their albums. I consider them to be among the most influential indie bands in the last 30 years. And tickets are still available in the $35 to $65 range. The show is at The Orpheum and starts at 7:30. I guess since it starts so early, there’s no reason to not go to both shows…
Opening for Titus Andronicus at The Waiting Room tonight is Free Energy, a hot hot hot new indie pop band from Philly that sounds influenced by ’70s arena acts like Cheap Trick, The Knack and yeah, Thin Lizzy, along with a healthy dose of Pavement. 9 p.m., $10.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2010 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.