Travis Morrison, the former Dismemberment Plan frontman, once described Ted Leo as “someone who could’ve made a million dollars on a major, but chose to stick it out on smaller labels.” Leo, a tireless, iconic rock songwriter, has insisted on the independent route for close to two decades now, releasing vitally infectious, melodic punk records for labels like Gern Blandsten, Ace Fu, Lookout! and Touch and Go. He’s currently preparing his Matador Records debut, due out in March, and he couldn’t be happier with his new home, the label behind Guided By Voices, Mission of Burma, Pavement and Yo La Tengo.
“It’s another case,” Leo says, “of me being lucky to work with people who have a shared history with me in terms of growing up in the American punk world of the ’80s.”
A New Jersey native, Leo dabbled in various bands throughout the ’90s before settling on the Ted Leo and the Pharmacists moniker around the turn of that decade. He and a rotating crew have been making catchy rock ever since, owing a subtle debt to the likes of The Jam, Elvis Costello and The Clash.
Following the unfortunate demise of Touch and Go in 2009, and before he’d signed to Matador, Leo had finished “almost a whole album” with his band, but it just didn’t feel right. After finding himself without a label, under no pressure and with a sense of precarious freedom, he wrote and recorded even more songs. Shortly after finishing the album, Leo went to Austin, Texas, to talk with Matador co-president Gerard Cosloy over iced coffee and shots of Jameson. The two instantly clicked.
“Rightly or wrongly, I often associate the genuinely sincere with the profoundly naive,” Cosloy says. “Ted’s records remind me that you can have a pretty thoughtful take on the state of your world without the naive part—or sacrificing one iota of sincerity. I think he’s already got a more impressive body of work than many of the guys I figure were influences.”
Leo’s aversion to the major-label path isn’t without consideration. In the mid-’90s, during his time fronting D.C. rock outfit Chisel, Leo was courted by the majors. On one hand, he felt like he was being handed a proverbial golden ticket, but on the other, he just couldn’t trust it. “I always kind of walk away feeling like it’s the quote-unquote ‘right thing to do,’ both right for me and right in some undefinable and possibly laughable punk-ethos way,” he says. “I don’t need to be a rock star. I don’t want to be a rock star. [I just want] a place where I can have a career. I know where I came from, and I know where I live and I actually kind of disdain a lot of the mass-media major-market music world. At the risk of burning some bridges here, it’s not really for me.”
Still, Leo is not without his fervent rock-star admirers. In recent years, he’s toured with Pearl Jam and Death Cab for Cutie, whose guitarist, Chris Walla, has already staked his claim as Ted Leo appreciator numero uno.
“I probably spend more time talking about Ted Leo than I should,” Walla sheepishly admits. “I’m a super fan. There is no way to not make this interview a totally geeky—I’m just tongue-tied. It’s ridiculous. I love Ted Leo. That’s pretty much how I talk about it. I get all hyperbolic. I actually find it kind of difficult to say anything intelligent about Ted Leo.”
One can only assume Leo’s joining the Matador roster will afford him more opportunities to turn rock stars into fanboys. And with a fresh set of tunes, these days the veteran songwriter emits a palpable sense of newfound energy.
“It’s got some borderline-embarrassing stabs at blue-eyed soul, which I often do, I guess,” Leo says. “It’s got harmony licks a la Thin Lizzy, which I also often do. I just feel really good about the songwriting in general. Beyond that, what I really, really like about this batch of songs is it feels totally liberated. It feels like we were finally able to take our seatbelt off.”