Interview: Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus

Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus

Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus
(Photo: Jorge Chantre)

Ever since their start in Glen Rock, NJ, in 2005, Titus Andronicus have been lauded for their energetic live performances. Frontman and guitarist Patrick Stickles sings intensely from the heart in unapologetic fashion. It’s musical honesty with a punk rock foundation that’s absolutely incredible. The band has their fifth studio album currently out, A Productive Cough, which was released Mar 2 through Merge Records. Stickles and pianist Alex Molini will be rolling through AS220 on Empire Street in Providence on March 9 to perform stripped down versions of Titus Andronicus’ songs with Rick Maguire from Boston indie rock act Pile kicking things off.

I had a talk with Stickles recently about the influence of ‘90s hip hop on his lyrics, heart-on-the-sleeve ballads, hope and optimism for the state of DIY venues and not lamenting about the festival season.

Rob Duguay (Motif): Your lyrics have a poetic tone while encompassing a lot of empathetic emotion. Whom do you consider your main influences when it comes to writing lyrics? Do you lean more towards musicians or do you lean more towards poets?

Patrick Stickles: Some of the best musicians are also some of the best poets, I gotta say. My lyrical inspirations mostly come from the rap music world. Not even necessarily their subject matter, but their attention to detail and the high standard of excellence that the best ones seem to adhere to. It’s a very lyrically driven form, or it certainly was at one point but less so today. I look back to certain rappers from the ‘90s: Notorious B.I.G., Lauryn Hill, Redman, people like that.

I try to hold myself to a similar standard so the lyrics would come across whether or not there was much of a tune. Maybe it would be good to read off a page. It inspires me to employ a lot of devices, internal rhymes, alliteration and stuff like that. I’m just trying to ratchet up the “dopeness” level as high as I can.

RD: That interesting that you get inspired by a different style of music than the one you perform. I can also totally see the attention to detail while listening to Titus Andronicus. In 2015, the band released the rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy to widespread acclaim. Rock operas are a rarity these days, so what made the band want to put out this type of album?

PS: I’ve always liked rock operas and concept albums. I like it when an album has a certain cohesive quality, and that can be when the songs are united by scenes, motifs or if they’re following a narrative. I feel like the long-playing album should be a singular piece of art. It should have a certain unity of action rather than just a collection of songs. That sometimes makes it easier to write the songs because you know what it is that you’re going for.

You could do a song about anything in the world and that could sometimes be a case of too much freedom. Sometimes you’ll find that you’ll have more artistic freedom if you put some limitations in place for yourself. Basically, I felt that the rock opera format was going to be most conducive to communicate the things that I wanted to communicate at that time and to tell the story that I wanted to tell. I went through some big experiences in my life and they deserved a lot of space to play themselves out.

RD: Do you have a favorite rock opera?

PS: Zen Arcade by Husker Dü will be quite close to the top for me. I also really like Berlin by Lou Reed, that’s not strictly a rock opera but it’s definitely united with scenes and characters. Of course Separation Sunday by the Hold Steady is a favorite of mine. There’s a lot of good out there and it’s not as common as it used to be. Some people might find that a little pretentious nowadays, but I don’t think it’s any more pretentious than writing a novel or making a movie.

It’s borrowing certain qualities and various standards from other mediums of art and applying them to rock ‘n’ roll music. That’s not against the law.

RD: No, not at all. Titus Andronicus just released their fifth studio album A Productive Cough on March 2. The first single, “Number One (In New York),” is a heart-on-the-sleeve ballad. For folks who haven’t listened to the album yet, what can they expect from it?

PS: You said it yourself, they can expect my heart to be right on my sleeve where it belongs. That song was chosen as the first single to give the indication that this record was going to be a little bit different than some of the other ones that we’ve made. It’s just a way of laying out the rules of the game for this year and trying to guide people’s expectations a little bit. A lot of the songs are a little bit slower than the songs Titus Andronicus is most famous for. There’s a higher percentage of waltzes and things like that on the record as opposed to the punk rock songs that we’ve been known to do in the past.

Titus Andronicus has always done all sorts of different things and the particular thing we might be best known for isn’t the full extent of my musical interest. If you look back at our catalog you’ll see that we’ve always been doing heart-on-the-sleeve ballads, as you called them, and slower songs and quieter songs. I don’t think it’s different than the other ones we’ve done other than it’s got a little more of a finer focus on that sort of material. Over the course of a career, Titus Andronicus has built this big house of musical ideas and, if the rock opera album was trying to spend time in all those rooms jumping around haphazardly, then this album is settling down in a particular room that may be a little dusty, but I think there’s some treasures to be found.

RD: That’s a cool way to put it. You also used to be involved with the Brooklyn DIY venue Shea Stadium as a ticket-taker along with Titus Andronicus using the place as a practice space. Sadly, Shea Stadium isn’t around anymore and DIY venues are dying off drastically all over. Do you think there’s a future for the unique places that are left or do you think there’s a shift happening?

PS: I certainly hope they don’t die off completely. I think it has a lot to do with that warehouse fire that happened in Oakland a couple years ago, do you remember that?

RD: Yep, the Ghost Ship fire.

PS: Yeah. I think that really turned up the heat on a lot of these places because very often they don’t completely comply with all the safety regulations, zoning codes and what not. I don’t think that it’ll ever really totally go away. There’s always going to be new generations of young people to step up, carry the torch and create their own thing. A lot of DIY spaces have historically not lasted very long, which is a sad thing but it’s just the way that it is. I think it’s true that somebody is always going to find a way to keep it alive even if they’re always going to be on the run.

These places aren’t necessarily built for long lives. It’s more like a virus that’s always spreading and mutating. As hard as the city government might try to snuff it out, I don’t think they’ll ever snuff it out completely. They continue to try and make it more and more difficult for kids to get these places started and sustain them, but it’s like they say: when there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s always going to be a need for young people to have spaces where they feel like they can exercise their angst, and I’m sure they’re going to find a way to continue to do that. Over the past few years, some new spaces like that have popped up in New York City and I’m hoping that they can stay one step ahead of the law for as long as they can.

RD: You put it perfectly. Festival season is steadily approaching so after this current tour, what does Titus Andronicus have planned next? Is the band going to be jumping on some festivals this summer?

PS: We’re not playing any festivals at all, haven’t gotten any invitations.

RD: That’s a bummer.

PS: Eh, well it would be nice to have the pay day from those things, but the truth is we’re doing the acoustic show this year with just myself and Alex Molini on piano. In this case, it wouldn’t be appropriate for a big outdoor summertime festival. I will say that we’re playing the Treefort Music Fest in Boise, Idaho, later in the month but that’s not a big outdoor thing with a big stage. It’s more like a SXSW kind of a thing where the festival takes over all the clubs in town and puts on shows every night, which I think is more appropriate for the acoustic show that we’re going to be doing. I’m not mad though, we’ve gotten to play some big festivals in the past so I can scratch that off the list. I’m not lamenting it too much although the money would be nice.

Titus Andronicus with Rick Maguire from Pile @ AS220, Mar 9:

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