Titus Andronicus Takes on the (Absurd) World

Music Features Titus Andronicus
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Patrick Stickles likes to find meaning in the meaninglessness of life. Since forming Titus Andronicus, he’s offered a broad collection of his own philosophical punk musings—touching on everything from existentialism to morality to his own absurd individual existence.

The way he’s communicated those ideas within the context of his group, however, has continuously evolved. On “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ”—the band’s first song off their first album, The Airing of Grievances—Stickles unassumingly meanders through the song’s opening verse, before unleashing a big, old, vociferous “FUCK YOU!”

Throughout that album as well as The Monitor—Titus Andronicus’ sprawling, triumphant 2010 follow-up—the band unabashedly laces its intellectual discourse with expressions of visceral obscenity. The concoction of culture and crassness comes across as heartfelt and honest.

That candidness comes into play again throughout the Glen Rock, N.J., group’s third album, Local Business, starting with the deceptively simple album title. The name speaks to their personal skepticism towards consumer culture; it also alludes to the band itself—a punk band shaking their fingers at the evils of capitalism while simultaneously acknowledging their complicit involvement in those same systems.

Titus Andronicus’ third full length also exhibits the inherent complexities of making meaningful music. In many ways, Patrick Stickles sees Local Business as the yin to The Monitor’s yang.

“You can look at it as a reaction to the last album, which you know, was not exactly about contemporary affairs in the strictest sense,” the frontman explains. “That was me talking about a time long ago. I mean we were talking about modern times, but obviously there’s a historic bent to it.”

The Monitor was loosely set during the U.S. Civil War. The 10-song, hour-plus album includes moments of transcendence—last-call sing-a-longs and bygone allusions of a forgotten era. Running the gamut from riotous noise to reflective odes, it retains a cohesion that few punk rock records ever have.

Stickles, the man responsible for bringing these lessons in American history to life, understood the pressures and expectations following up such a gargantuan record.

“It had a lot of bells and whistles going on,” Stickles admits. “To try and make a record that had more bells and whistles probably would’ve sounded ridiculous. It would’ve had to gone full-on baroque, ornate kind-of-chamber rock thing. That didn’t seem the thing to do.”

Thematically, Local Business is also a more straightforward album, largely stripped of the sweeping, overarching metaphors found throughout Titus Andronicus’ last two albums. As a result, we see more of Patrick Stickles’ personal side than ever before. While that’s ultimately a positive thing, it proved to be a challenging process for the band’s principle songwriter.

“I wanted to be a little more personal,” Stickles explains, “a little more honest and open about my earthly experiences—hide them less behind metaphors and really try to keep it real… for the kids, you know.”

Local Business,” he continues, “is us showing that we’re interested in things that are contemporary and dear to us instead of something that’s far away imagined.”

The “us”—that Stickles refers to—has changed significantly over the years, even since The Monitor came out in 2010. Current guitarist Liam Betson and drummer Eric Harm helped recorded that album—bassist Julian Veronesi also receives a credit in the liner notes, but only as a guest vocalist. Stickles worked alongside more than 25 total musicians, including The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Deer Tick’s Ian O’Neil and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner.

Although Stickles carries on as the band’s primary songwriter, the revamped lineup —featuring Betson, Harm, Veronesi as a full-time bassist and guitarist Adam Reich—focused on making an album comprised of the same cast that would eventually perform Local Business live.

“For the last couple of years, our bread and butter has been the live concert,” Stickles says. “That’s where we seem to excel and that’s where most of our attentions are focused for most of the time. It seemed to make sense to do a record more like that—like a concert—instead of some kind of fantasy event.”

During this period, Titus Andronicus developed a reputation as a dynamic touring band, putting on vigorous performances night after night. But the band had to adapt The Monitor’s larger-than-life songs to fit a smaller, more realistic touring lineup.

In making Local Business, Stickles and his bandmates nurtured a tight-knit relationship between the record and the road. In the band’s album announcement, they unequivocally stated: “Titus Andronicus the studio recording project and Titus Andronicus the raucous touring machine are no longer two distinct beings; there is only Titus Andronicus, rock and roll band.” It’s this faithful symbiosis that defines Local Business at its core.

“We wanted to do something that would be a reflection of what we were doing onstage,” Stickles says, “and also something that we could faithfully reproduce onstage.”

Along the way, the band placed an emphasis on sonic fidelity, allured to the concept after spending a lot of time listening to Neil Young as well as reading his biography. After pulling out all the stops with The Monitor, limiting themselves to the “moments that actually happened, rather constructing them after the fact” seemed like both a challenging-yet-noble endeavor.

“[Neil Young] says if it’s not in the room, it’s not going to be on tape,” Stickles explains about their recording principle. “There’s a certain intangible magic that has to come from an occurrence of a moment in time. You can’t exactly build it up through overdubs and achieve a magic moment. It has to happen for real.”

Titus Andronicus recorded the album at Marcata Recording in New Paltz, N.Y., over several sessions during this past April and May. In order to capture their newfound live ethos properly—while avoiding the banalities of daily preparation at home—the band hit the road last spring to test-drive their latest creations.

“If you want to record it live, like we want to do, then you have to be really well rehearsed,” Stickles acknowledges. “It’s tough for us to practice every day; that’s kind of a drag, you know. But there’s no problem in going on tour and playing every night.”

Along the way, the band toured with fellow New Jersey shredders Screaming Females and Diarrhea Planet—a group of younger Nashville rockers who forced the band to bring their A-game every night. Titus Andronicus also stopped through Austin, Texas, for this year’s SXSW festivities, including Paste’s evening showcase opening for Jesus and Mary Chain.

The goal of their spring tour was simple one: to get these songs ready for the recording process. “We had already committed to it before we went on the tour. We had an idea of what we were going to do,” Stickles states. “We didn’t really change our minds based on anybody’s reaction.

“A lot of the time, when you’re playing a lot of new songs, people are just kind of naturally slack-jawed about it,” he continues. “They don’t always get as amped up to it as they would to their old favorites. That’s natural—people want to hear the songs that they know. They get fired up about it. If we played a new song and people didn’t get as fired up, we didn’t take that personally. Our faith was strong, [even if] people didn’t freak on the new songs that they did on the old ones.”

Coming off of those performances, Titus Andronicus felt great about their new material—allowing them to enter the studio with an increased confidence and heightened focus. “That [tour] kind of gave us a golden opportunity to play the songs a whole gang of times that we wouldn’t have otherwise had and to play in kind of a high-pressure situation,” Stickles recalls. “By the end of our tour, the material is in really good shape and we [feel] really good about how we were playing it.”

Audiences latched onto a select few tracks off the bat, particularly “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)”—a brimming two-minute, three-word freak out during which Stickles repeatedly screams, “I’m going insane!” The track most closely resembles the bristling, rollicking fan favorite, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” and its audacious declaration that “The enemy is everywhere!”

“At the time I wrote that song, I just felt like I was going insane,” Stickles wryly recalls. “I was making a lot of crazy decisions. I was doing all kinds of things, fighting with all my buddies—just pretty much going insane like I said. Then I said, ‘Well you know, once again I’ll go to my art and express myself about it, exorcise these demons.’”

Amidst that chaotic period, Stickles also happened to get electrocuted during a rehearsal—an incident that inspired the ’70s keys-tinged throwback, “(I am the) Electric Man.” “I basically created a circuit between myself and the microphone and the guitar amplifier—some kind of grounding issue I suppose. I just got a little zapped,” he recalls. “There was also an element of some guys digging up the street outside who worked for the electric company. Then the lights went out in the practice space for a second. There was a little more going on, but it wasn’t such a big deal from a medical standpoint. I was alright, but I was very surprised—shocked if you will.”

Stickles downplayed the event, neglecting to inform those close to him, including his girlfriend and mom about his trip to the emergency room. He ended up doing a couple interviews that inevitably got published online, and that’s where many of his close friends and family first saw the news—something they weren’t too pleased about.

“I did go [to the hospital],” he says. “In retrospect, I think I maybe could’ve stayed home, but like I said I was really shaken up. I didn’t end up getting any real treatment or anything. They didn’t find anything wrong with me, but it did inspire me to write that song. I look back on it as a positive experience, even though it did get me in trouble with a lot of people.

“They didn’t see the fun in it,” he adds. “They were not amused, they thought it was a little more serious than I did.”

For Stickles, getting into hot water wasn’t out of the ordinary—or as he puts it: “It was a crazy time in my life, I was having all sorts of adventures.” But what he hadn’t done until Local Business was truly reveal himself and his own experiences through his work, at least in a direct sense. His past songs not only delved into Shakespeare’s canon, they had served as a unifying rallying cries for losers worldwide.

Both “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO)” and “(I am the) Electric Man” reaffirm what the band has done in the past. On Local Business, Stickles put his personal thoughts and feelings in plain sight, allowing people to truly see the frontman—idiosyncrasies, warts and all.

The one-two punch of “Food Fight!” and “My Eating Disorder” exemplifies this internal examination. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece that focused on musicians who deal with chronic illnesses—seeing how various long-term ailments impact their personal and professional lives. It’s in this piece that Stickles revealed details about his struggle with Selective Eating Disorder—the topic of these two songs.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Selective Eating Disorder can be defined as when “picky eaters’ diets can be so limited that their food preferences interfere with their social and professional relationships.” Picky eating suggests that his aversion to food is a bit frivolous—it’s anything but.

“I have eaten the same 15-20 foods for my entire life,” Stickles said back in February. “When a food from outside that pool is put before me, a foreign food, and I am made to understand that I must put it inside me, I will have a panic attack, and you will not be a happy camper if you are trying to ennoble me to conquer this particular weakness.”

While he wrote about the disorder for Paste, he simultaneously worked on crafting “My Eating Disorder.” Both works represent some of first instances he revealed this part of himself beyond his closest friends and family.

“I wrote that piece for you guys and I was coming out, sort of laying all my cards out on the table,” Stickles recalls. “With that being done, the next logical step seemed to be to express myself about it my preferred method of expression, which is music, you know.”

Stickles more than tells the story of his plight, he convinces us about the disorder’s gravity:

Yes, my body is some prison—why else keep it filled with poison?
No reason to celebrate, forget the milkshakes, Mom – it will take
More than a spoonful of sugar for me to swallow my pride this time
I decide what goes inside, I decide what goes inside my body

One more time, I decide, I decide what goes inside, I decide what goes inside my
My eating disorder – it’s inside me

Stickles has struggled with his chronic illness on a daily basis—not just physically, but mentally and emotionally—since he was little. He felt the symptoms long before he officially recognized that he might be part of the approximately 1,400 people diagnosed with the illness. He thought it was just an idiosyncrasy for years, and until the past few years didn’t feel like it was necessary a legitimate issue.

“The biggest effect in my personal life is that it hurts,” Stickles told me in February. “It hurts every day. Every day, I see food and I know that I need it to live and I hate myself for my otherness, and I hate the world that ripped me out of my perfect spirit plane or whatever bullshit and I am disgusted with my body and how pokey and angle-y it is and I never even wanted to fucking be born anyway, and it isn’t even for any kind of real reason and I’m just fucking alive and it is what it is.”

If “My Eating Disorder” shines as Stickles’ most unguarded and honest moment, then perhaps his most mature point comes as he laments his own egotism and selfishness on “I Tried To Quit Smoking.” Throughout the song, he recognizes his past wrongdoings, but never says sorry for his shortcomings. It’s complete acknowledgement without apology—not in angst like on past albums, but rather with a sincere, unabridged transparency.

“That’s a song about admitting your own faults, taking ownership of your own selfishness,” Stickles explains. “It’s about me saying I’m sorry about the bad stuff that I’ve done, but I didn’t do it to be mean, I just did it because of my individual selfishness. It’s hard not to be selfish, you know, because we’re all looking out for number one at the end of the day in one way or another.”

On the album’s nine-minute closer, Stickles’ perspective isn’t one of newfound resolve or a pledge to live better, rather it’s an understanding of his imperfect self and how he affects those around him. When penning “I Tried to Quit Smoking,” he thought about some of those he’d been closest to.

“[My ex-girlfriend] as much as anybody else,” he acknowledges. “She probably would be the one if you just had to pick one person, but it could be anybody. I thought about my mother too when I was writing it—or any person that you try to have a relationship with.”

“It’s a song about the dangers of getting close to somebody,” he adds. “You can try to get close to somebody, but it’s hard because at the end of the day, you are yourself and they are themselves. There’s a huge chasm—the tyranny of distance that Ted Leo liked to call it.”

In the song’s first four lines, he slowly admits: “It’s not that I wanted to hurt you / I just didn’t care if I did / It is not that I just forgot you / Also, I forgot everything else.” What’s apparent here—and throughout much of Local Business—is that the fear and loathing within his earlier outcries has dissipated. Once buried under the metaphorical weight of his own Shakespearean verses and obscure references, Stickles’ narratives now emerge with a resounding clarity. As a result, the already-mighty anthems—ones that have long stood as the band’s signature—have become increasingly potent.

Stickles has said that this album could be viewed as Titus Andronicus “creating their own local business.” On a personal level, though, he also says it’s an attempt to “rise above that stuff.”

More than anything, he’s become more eloquent in articulating the emotions behind his early exclamations, replacing the obscenities with a more formidable, meaningful dialogue about his own place in an absurd universe.