With streaming music platforms dictating our collective listening habits, just about every musician faces a struggle: How can you get your new releases to break through the algorithmic noise? Artists as diverse as Beyoncé and Nick Cave have premiered whole albums as films, while Frank Ocean and the Arctic Monkeys have even opened pop-up storefronts to sell physical records and branded merch.
“Even if you made the greatest thing in the world, if you don’t have an angle with which to sell it, you’re basically sunk,” Titus Andronicus front man Patrick Stickles jokes. “Or if you can’t find some way that it ties into some prevailing media narrative, what are you gonna do? If you can’t make a Game of Thrones meme out of something, who cares if it exists or not?”
Submitting to this trend by subverting it, Stickles and one of the smartest, most subversive rock bands going have decided to tease their latest album rollout with a sitcom of their own making. That’s STACKS, a pilot episode written by and starring Stickles that he hopes will be the first of many. The 36-minute episode weaves a loose narrative around three tracks off Titus Andronicus’s upcoming Bob Mould–produced album, An Obelisk, out June 21.
STACKS follows a nightmarish day in the life for Stickles’s character as he wakes into semi-improvised scenes. Beginning with his label PR pressuring him to partner with influencers and “pivot to synth-pop,” the episode follows Stickles’s character to band practice, then to the bar where he throws down on a rap cypher with his bartender before an interview goes awry when a journalist berates his last record. As the day progresses and the number of absurd interactions continue to mount, our character eventually realizes that he is complicit in this grind.
Is STACKS just a promotional rollout stunt? A meta-commentary on the nature of such promotional vehicles as a necessary evil in our age of ever-accelerating media consumption? An actual sitcom pilot? Maybe a little bit of all three.
“That’s the post-sellout era that we’re in right now,” Stickles says over beers at Milo’s Yard in Ridgewood, Queens, where a decent chunk of STACKS takes place. “Everyone’s acquiesced to the fact that there’s no money at all in the arts, and rather than fighting against that, it’s a ‘can’t beat em, join em’ kinda thing.”
Stickles thinks about the way that our society consumes content a lot these days. He mentions Philly rapper Tierra Whack’s 2018 debut, Whack World, full of minute-long songs that similarly address our collective content consumption habits. But he distinguishes STACKS from Childish Gambino’s Guava Island, a recent short film that also frames music around a narrative arc and doubles as a promotional vehicle: STACKS is more stark and subversive, a fictionalized satire that comments on and succumbs to the gimmicky album rollout strategy all at once.
“It’s intended to be a marriage of form and function that way,” says Stickles before explaining deep affection for sitcoms. The first Titus Andronicus record, The Airing of Grievances, was named after a fictional holiday from Seinfeld, while STACKS features Stickles’s cat drinking out of a promotional water dish from Marc Maron’s sitcom, Maron — a gift given to Stickles after appearing on Maron’s WTF podcast. Still, the existentialist absurdity of STACKS falls more in line with Maron’s place in comedy-in-theory genre, wherein a show is billed as a comedy but doesn’t always provide comfortable laughs.
STACKS was directed by Ray Concepcion, a Brooklyn filmmaker who met Stickles around Brooklyn’s mid-aughts DIY scene and has shot multiple Titus Andronicus projects, including several music videos, live performances, and a documentary for the 2018 album, A Productive Cough. “At this point, our union of vibes has reached a certain wavelength, its airy timbre shimmers with open-mindedness,” Concepcion wrote in an email. “It’s a certain kind of waveform that peaks and drops in all the right ways.”
Concepcion attributes some of STACKS’ aesthetic inspiration to late avant-garde Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. “It reached me at a vulnerable time in my life, a time that was spent reaching for an exemplary document of Slow Cinema,” he wrote, “a way of approaching images and sounds that repudiate [our] era of instant gratification.” He seems to take a lesson in narrative structure from Akerman’s art-house classic, similarly replicating that film’s day-in-the-life pace with STACKS to show how much the absurd scenarios that befall Stickles’s character clash with the energy and vibe of the rest of his day.
“This whole [sitcom] is basically meant to be a manifestation of my anxiety about the moment when the piece of art or content that I create goes from being my special, personal thing to grist for the mill,” Stickles explains over a second round.
Stickles’s character regains some of that control during STACKS’ musical interludes, which fit into the episode’s story but remind the viewer they are in a surreal, exaggerated reality. One such moment goes down at the bar when Stickles, under the alias Paddy Stacks, spits verses with his cousin, Matt “Money” Miller. Stickles raps:
Record label on my ass for an asset
Got me stressed out — I’m about to blow a gasket
Executives want some eggs for the basket
They’re looking for a hit — I can only give them classics
My back catalogue is fantastic
Track after track with the verbal gymnastics
The exchange is absurdly charming and confoundingly out of character from the gruff punk we’ve seen in Titus Andronicus, but maybe that’s the point — a moment of levity when the character gets to let off some steam and just do his thing. Finding humor in the slog of self-promotion expands on a theme from An Obelisk opener “Just Like a Ringing Bell,” which STACKS frames as Stickles’s hammy kiss-off to that particularly nasty reporter. “They’re making a dirty fortune selling something that’s barely working,” he sings, “an inferior version of rock and roll / Or whatever else ever has touched your soul.”
This idea is both the bedrock of STACKS and ties into the larger themes of An Obelisk, an album full of misanthropic anthems written in the style of second-wave English punk bands like Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts, Cock Sparrer, and Stickles’s favorite band, Crass, whose logo adorns his right arm.
“All these bands were firmly against the Establishment,” Stickles says. “Unlike the first wave of English punk, they weren’t middle-class arts students such as myself trying to pull some media scam. They were trying to speak about real-life, everyday working-class concerns.”
Each song on An Obelisk goes back and forth between Stickles’s use of the accusatory “they” and the more personal “I,” allowing our narrator to take ownership of his complicit role in the systems he feels have beaten him down. It’s a pretty drastic inversion from the usual perspective of externalizing blame in punk music, wherein everything awful happening to the singer comes from “they,” from the hands of the powers that be.
“It’s trying to be accountable that way, recognizing how much easier it is to point the finger at somebody else, how you can use that as an excuse to not do the work to make yourself a better person, a more constructive member of society,” Stickles says. “Which was kind of the point of The Monitor, as well. It’s kind of the point of all my records.”
Another inversion of punk tropes occurs in the future summer banger “Troubleman Unlimited,” sung from the perspective of a man whose arrested development turns him into an angry, feral outcast. In STACKS, the band performs the song in their actual, comically tiny practice space, another fleeting moment of triumph and epiphany in what’s otherwise the character’s waking nightmare.
“[’Troubleman’] is about trying to manage your anxiety in the increasingly frightening modern world, then finding a way to reconcile that with your own, personal baggage and hang-ups,” says Stickles. The title is also a reference Titus Andronicus’s first label, which dissolved in 2009 when founder Mike Simonetti pivoted to focusing on trendier Italo disco music.
“It also symbolizes this predilection toward death and destruction that men seem to have based on their biological imperatives to go out and kill something so they can survive,” Stickles adds. “Those are pretty useless in modern society, yet they continue to exist in all of us and compel people toward certain decisions.”
Over the course of the album, Stickles explains, Troubleman begins to understand his complicity in these systems that he thinks are oppressing him, just like our character in STACKS. “Ultimately, after doing that for a while, he will come to the conclusion that the only thing he can do to try and rectify this difficult situation is to make an effort to extend greater empathy and compassion to the people around him, recognizing that he and they are basically all in the same boat,” he says.
Stickles doesn’t always see that empathy reciprocated during these promotional rollouts, though — especially in the world of arts criticism. He laments that most large arts publications now only cover work that aligns with the publication’s brand voice and audience data, as opposed to profiling artists based on the merits of the work itself. This, he believes, has led to a disconnect between writers and musicians that hurts the potential for honest creative discourse in the media.
“It’s true that artists, culture creators, and culture commentators really should be on the same side, right?” he asks rhetorically as we finish up round three. “You could say that STACKS is some desperate plea from me to say, ‘Please don’t make me jump through all these hoops. Just let me sing.’”