a long talk

Life, Death, and Titus Andronicus

Photo: Howard Bilerman

A Bergen County band that has taken up residence in recent years in Queens, New York, and a punk- and pub-rock outfit that is equally effective with lengthier, proggier jams, Titus Andronicus respects dualities. Singer-songwriter, guitarist, manager, webmaster, and problem-solver Patrick Stickles is a neighborhood guy with a nationwide gig, a local who keeps to a tight geographical radius except when it’s time to present his songs and ideas to audiences of admirers elsewhere on the planet. His songs bounce personal observations off of larger historical allegories. Titus’s 2010 breakthrough, The Monitor, juxtaposed inner stresses and Civil War stories; 2015’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy gestured both to the Shakespeare play the band takes its name from and the Clash’s genre-hopping 1979 double album, London Calling.

This year’s The Will to Live (out 9/30), Titus’s seventh album, finds a band trying to wrap its head around the disorder of the past three years, from lingering political and public-health crises in the world at large to the loss last year of Stickles’s best friend, cousin, creative collaborator, and sometime bandmate Matt Miller. The plan had been to tour The Monitor for its tenth anniversary and jump into the studio with the Montreal engineer Howard Bilerman (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire), but the process of conceptualizing the new album fanned out from months to years as unforeseen trials appeared. The record is robust, pained, and glorious, from the soulful “I Can Not Be Satisfied” to the psychedelic “Bridge and Tunnel,” as potent from the metaphysical concerns of “An Anomaly” to the calls for unity in its cover of British punk vets the Cock Sparrers’ “We’re Coming Back.” I caught up with Stickles at his favorite Ridgewood bar to discuss the business of making art out of grief and the role of death in ecosystems and later watched the band debut album cuts like “Baby Crazy,” an ethics lesson wrapped in a tuneful punk jam, for delighted fans at Union Pool in Williamsburg before Titus Andronicus embarks on a tour that intends to touch places like Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi.

Anytime I take a trip out to Queens, I look for the cemeteries.
There’s more dead people here than alive.

Yes, 5 million are supposed to be buried in Queens, and there are only 8 million people alive in the entire city. How has your year been? September is late enough to ask.
I kind of bit off more than I can chew this time. I guess after a couple of years of not having very much to do, I figured I would do it all. I’m married now. Planning for the wedding while planning this album rollout seemed like a great idea when I concocted it. It’s all working out great so far, but it’s been pretty hectic. I’m doing that part of my job where I’m expending a lot of energy but I’m not really making any money doing it, which is okay. It’s a great year for me. I had idle hands the past couple years. I’m in a good place, I think. I’m happy, happier than ever in a lot of ways. This album rollout, though, we’ll see how it goes. I’m allowed to go anywhere I want, I suppose but … This is about as far from my house as I usually get on any given day, if I don’t have a chore or an errand to do. I’m pretty happy with a small radius for my personal universe. We got the practice space not far from here. I like it.

Is your new album sort of a purge of the bad stuff?
I guess you could say that. It’s trying to process difficult experiences, hopefully to a positive end.

You said you had idle hands. Have you picked up any new hobbies?
Absolutely not. I lost interests.

I’m finding that friend circles shrunk.
That happens for me because I leave town for months at a time. It’s difficult as a traveling rock musician to maintain relationships as much as I would like to. The first year of the pandemic, I didn’t even really pursue my rock-music interests very much. I wasn’t productive at all. I was just bummed out about losing my job. A lot of people had worse experiences than I did, but that first year of not being able to do concerts or even really rehearse with the other guys, I was adrift for a while and lost my sense of identity. I was like a loaf. Last year, I had to kick myself in the ass a bit and get down to reasserting that part of my identity and being creative again, even though it was often like pulling teeth when I was getting started because I was still covered in cobwebs. Eventually, I got back on the horse, got back on the road, back in the studio. My job requires me to go on a lot of adventures, mandatory adventures. I’m about to embark on a big adventure and go to what are very exotic places for me: Fayetteville, Arkansas; Oxford, Mississippi. Places I haven’t been before.

I noticed a lot of southern dates in the itinerary.
People down there deserve the highest fucking quality possible of rock-music entertainment. They deserve it as much as anybody else. They’re underserved. The people that are interested in that stuff in a town like Oxford, Mississippi, maybe don’t have the community that we might have here in New York City. I’m counting on there being some pretty alienated people down there.

Other artists sometimes prefer a “skip the state to stick it to the governor” approach.
What was the name of that sheriff that they had down in Arizona? Joe Arpaio. A lot of artists were like, “Well, we’re not going to play there. We’re boycotting the state.” I always thought the people you’re trying to punish are not the people that have ever even heard of you. They weren’t going to be at the concerts. Why punish the kids?

Talk about touring The Monitor, your Civil War album, in the wake of a riot at the Capitol.
That Monitor [anniversary] tour, we scheduled that three times. We were going to do it in the fall of 2020. We said we’d do it in spring 2021, then that didn’t work out either. Ultimately, things settled down enough where the conversation shifted to a degree that we were able go in November of 2021, but after watching January 6th unfold, live on TV, which is very scary, there was a decision made that maybe we didn’t need to go certain places in America where they might not take so kindly to some Yankee coastal elites coming to town trying to explain the Civil War to them. The juice might not have been worth the squeeze that time. But we’re going down there now. There are plenty of good people down there that are ready to rock. Fayetteville, Arkansas, I would love for that to be packed, a blowout show. Maybe it will be. We’ll see. I can’t really read the ticket-count reports nowadays. It’s bad enough I got my Spotify-analytics app on my phone.

You’re still scheduling tours and maintaining internet stuff in addition to writing songs?
I’m the manager, yeah. I have a booking agent, but I make the itineraries.

Does that ever get hairy? Is it ever too much?
Absolutely. I run the internet store, which I did all day today. I’m overseer of van maintenance. I’m running up a tab down the block right now, I’m sure, with my fucking oil pressure. At this time of the cycle, where I’m going to be on the road in two weeks, all the logistical issues start to pile up. I’ve got to order the T-shirts from the screen printer, all that other stuff that I mentioned, plus rehearse and pay sufficient attention to my wife. I should take the cats to the vet before I go. It’s a stressful time and it would be cool in a way, I guess, to have somebody else dealing with that. When our first and second albums were out, people would occasionally approach us: “I should be your manager. You should just do the creative stuff.” But with the chip on my shoulder that I had at that time, I’d say that the legends that we grew up looking toward as our lodestars, they didn’t have that. Black Flag and Hüsker Dü didn’t have a manager.

So complete control is taxing, but everything looks the way you want it to.
That’s right. Furthermore, when we do something like put an album out, for example, whether it does really well or not that well or not as well as I’d hoped, I can maintain a certain amount of ownership over the result, whatever it is. If it does really well, I won’t have to say to myself, Is it only because I have these industry connections? I will succeed or fail on my own merits and the merit of the music that I make. That’s the idea, anyway. Also, it does give me stuff to do, which is nice, you know? Otherwise, I might just sit around all day. I’ve done plenty of that in the past couple years. Why do it now?

Let’s talk about the new album, The Will to Live. How’d you come to record with Howard Bilerman this time?
Great guy. He came to me. He actually went over my head when we played Montreal, where he lives. He called my boss at the record company, and he said, “Titus Andronicus is going to come stay at my house when they come to Montreal.” She presented it to me as though that’s the way that it was. I’m like, Sure, why not? I learned about the guy; his résumé spoke for itself. I found out he’s a great actor. Do you remember The Whole Nine Yards with Matthew Perry and Bruce Willis? He’s in it playing Matthew Perry’s best friend.

We were hanging out with him, and he was like, “I’m going to do your next record as well.” We had been to his studio years before. Our buddy Owen Pallett, the great violinist, took us there another time we went to Montreal. So when I connected those dots, I was like, “This will do.” He made an offer I couldn’t refuse. He was very generous with his time. We were going to make the record almost two years ago, when we scheduled the Monitor anniversary tour. The whole beginning of the pandemic, he and I were talking as though that was what we were going to do. Those months turned into years, but we kept talking about it. We were able to develop a shared vocabulary and a series of reference points, which was beneficial.

The guitars have never sounded better. On that Monitor tour, you played “The Boys Are Back in Town” essentially every night. 
We were back in town.

I’m curious whether all the tight guitar harmonies on The Will to Live maybe filtered down into it by nature of your interest in Thin Lizzy.
Thin Lizzy is a perennial influence for us. But really, it was Boston more than anybody that was the touchstone. I got this device called a Rock Man X100, which was invented by the guy from Boston. He’s one of my favorites, like, a real genius mad-scientist kind of guy. Then I found out that Def Leppard had used a Rock Man on the Hysteria album. They recorded all the guitars on this funny little device. We did a lot of that, and we used regular amplifiers as well. We just stacked them up, different tunings and stuff, and there would be, like, ten guitar parts on certain sections of the song. It’s meant to be a lush and luxurious sound that’s hard-hitting but also has a symphonic sort of heft to it. A lot of that stuff is reinforced with synthesizers and samplers that you’re not really supposed to notice. The idea was that people would listen to it and be like, I’m really overwhelmed in a pleasant way that I enjoy. I don’t really know why.

Titus Andronicus performing in 2018. Photo: Kieran Frost/Getty Images

The Will to Live feels like a structured narrative, but I’m a little foggy on hard plot points.
Not in a rock-opera way, necessarily, but it’s, like, an emotional journey that the narrator goes on from innocence to experience, to put it as pretentiously as I can. I happen to have the lyrics.

I wondered what was in the folder. The lyrics have … the brogue of Biblical scripture. Your lyrics are sometimes very “I,” “me,” but these feel like bigger, overarching observations.
I feel it’s pretty self-obsessed compared to other records. It’s told from the perspective of a nameless narrator, who is not me, literally, but similar to me in most ways. He’s not the world’s most fictional character. I have had these experiences the past couple years that have led me to think about the world and my place in it in a slightly different way. I wanted to create a narrator and narrative that would guide the listener through the audio equivalent of my personal journey, which I guess is what every artist does to a certain degree.

Between “Grey Goo” and “Dead Meat” and the songs about family at the end, like “Baby Crazy,” I thought I was listening to a death-and-rebirth story on the surface.
It’s hell on Earth, so it’s not actually a metaphysical hell. It’s coming to a grim realization of the violent brutality of the natural world.

Talk about “An Anomaly,” your song about how it sucks that death plays a key part in the natural order, keeping the machine from overloading and clearing out space for new life.
The natural world, like, a prehuman world, if we could imagine, it was a very violent place. It continues to be. There’s still lions eating wildebeest out there somewhere. That’s part of how we keep the machine from overloading, as you say. That’s part of God’s plan, for lack of a better term. In this particular song, I’m kind of thinking about how the violence animals commit against each other is necessary and not evil and malicious. They’re programmed to do it. The will to live is motivating them to a certain degree. I recognize those impulses within human beings as well, these fight-or-flight responses that we have when we feel like we’re getting pushed in a corner, whether that’s by another individual or by the larger society. I’ve noticed that we let those natural responses get perverted by supplementing them into our technological advances that we’ve made, like guns and and atom bombs, in ways that aren’t necessary. We don’t really need to be so violent. We’re not fighting to stay on top of the food chain anymore. That, to me, is the birth of real evil on earth.

Given that we’re part of an animal world, how do we know that the concept of decency isn’t just an illusion that we have grown about ourselves?
We have the resources to treat each other with a lot more compassion and kindness. We don’t exercise that.

That’s the story since time memorial. I want to ask about “Give Me Grief.” It hit me in a stretch where I lost one friend and had another death anniversary fall a few weeks later. It seems like I lose someone every year, and this song feels like a defiant Ugh, what else can I take? moment. I’m curious about your thoughts on processing grief in public, on being a person expected to a degree to write through the terrible things that happen to them.
This album is, in a lot of ways, a response to the loss of my cousin Matt Miller, a wonderful guy I loved very much. When he passed away, it was very painful. It was a terrible experience that continues to be difficult. I probably will never be all the way done processing it, I imagine. He was such an important person in my life.

I’m learning that the process never ends. You’re always going to want to text someone you won’t be able to talk to anymore.
I have that experience a lot. I’ve recognized that the compromise we make when we decide to be an open-hearted person and let love and joy and family and all these great things into our lives requires an equal and opposite reaction on the other end, which is loss and grief and really terrible pain. One cannot exist without the other, in the same way that we were talking about the beauty of the natural world and the violent and brutal part of it. They go together like horse and carrot. It’s inevitable and unavoidable, and the only way to avoid it would be to say, I’m going to protect myself from the most painful terrible things in life. I am going to also close myself off to the good things in life and become a jaded, cynical, reclusive misanthrope and take whatever comfort I can from that. To me, it sounds like a really lonely, empty existence. In that particular song, through the character of the narrator, I decide that we get the better end of the bargain when we open our hearts to love, even though we know that we’re opening them to pain also. I say, I have friends to give me glee, so I need God to give me grief. It’s needed for the recipe. That’s my stance.

There are so many internal rhymes in that song. Are you a big word nerd? I find that it rarely happens accidentally.
It’s something I do very deliberately. Even when I’m not working on the lyrics to any particular song or album, I just write a lot of poems, rap verses and stuff. You know? I study the greats.

What greats?
MF Doom, Biggie, Ghostface. Wayne. I got Tha Carter II and Bulletproof Wallets in the car right now. I don’t keep up with the contemporary stuff all that much, but I do listen to Hot 97 in the car. It feels like part of the New York experience. I gotta mention Redman and Lauryn Hill. And Joe Budden, for that matter. I’m from New Jersey. I try to keep the sword as sharp as I can even in the off-season. That’s one thing I did continue to do during the pandemic. I don’t have much of an outlet for most of that stuff. Maybe we’ll make my rap album someday.

What would you want people who only knew Matt through his time in the band and didn’t necessarily get a real sense of the person to understand about the kind of guy he was?
People who knew him through his connection to Titus Andronicus could discern that he was a stupendously talented guy. He sang on a little more than half of the records that we did. He did great acting in our sitcom from a few years ago. He had a beautiful voice and was a great actor and stand-up comedian. He didn’t in his life get the attention for that that I think he deserved it. He was just an incredibly warm, gregarious guy. Everyone was always happy when he was around. That’s why we called him “Money.” People are always happy when money is around.

Our mothers, my mother and her sisters, all got pregnant at the same time. We had a big group of cousins who all grew up in the same town, and there was these little micro-generational cohorts within that because he and I were only a year and a half apart in age. Me and Matt went to school together. I was at his house every day. Or else he was at mine, learning to be creative, making movies with action figures and learning about how to do music together. So it was a very close bond. When I say, “This person was my cousin,” it doesn’t quite cover it. He really was like a brother. He was my best buddy the whole time he was alive, a really important guy to me, a part of me.

I told a friend last weekend that I think everyone alive right now misses something. Some miss friends and family they lost. Some people miss a shitty past and some people miss a compassionate one, but the feeling that we’re not where we should be right now is universal.
I’m trying on this record to speak about the interconnectivity of all life. If you’re an openhearted person who allows themselves to feel things, then the titular will to live is that which unites all of us, which unites us with all living things, past, present, and future. This is something we have in common with people over there, with this plant, with the cats back at home. Everything that lives and everything that ever lived has been compelled by this will, consciously or subconsciously, even in living organisms that perhaps don’t have any kind of consciousness at all.

When I think about that and how I think of myself an individual, as do you, I think it’s great, but I think in just as real a way, we’re cells of a larger organism, which is life on Earth, which precedes us and will succeed us, so in that way my cousin Matt or your friend or any of the loved people that are ostensibly gone are not really gone. The organism is not gone. In a more metaphysical sense, if you are a component piece of this larger organism … You and me, we undergo cellular regeneration every eight or nine years, right? If you look at us eight or nine years ago, we’re not the same person. If you replace, one by one, every part of a ship, is it still the same ship? This is just something I try to remind myself of when I’m in pain about what’s happened in the past and I’m fearful of what may happen in the future. So that’s the name of the album. It unites all things, precedes all living things. Before there was life, there was the will to live. One day there wasn’t life on Earth, and the next day there was. How did that happen? We don’t know. If I were forced to guess, I would have to say that life appears to want to be alive, for whatever reason. It’s a mystery. It’s not beyond my comprehension but I notice it. I see it happening. Now I sing about it.

Life, Death, and Titus Andronicus