CHANNELING PENNY RIMBAUD Titus Andronicus

On
Civil War reenactors and Big Country fans, shitty MP3 sound and shitty
Pitchfork hegemony, punk anarchists Crass versus punk capitalism at Hot Topic,
and more.

 

BY RON HART

 

Formed in 2005 out of the North Jersey
suburb of Glen Rock, Titus Andronicus have grown into one of the most exciting
and original punk bands to come out of the East Coast in quite some time. The Monitor, the group’s anticipated
follow-up to their critically acclaimed Seinfeld-honoring debut The Airing of Grievances, is a
quasi-concept album loosely based on The Civil War that, since its March 9
release, has been gaining steam with each passing day in both critical acclaim
and with the band’s ever-increasing fanbase.

 

In fact, according to frontman Patrick Stickles (writing on
the Titus MySpace page), that actual day the new album came out also served as
the 148th year anniversary of when its namesake, decorated Union Navy
warship the USS Monitor, fought in the historic Battle of Hampton Roads naval
fight against the Confederate vessel the CSS Virginia. But for all you hardcore
social studies buffs and Civil War reenactors out there, this album is
certainly not an indie rock Cliff’s Notes on the Ken Burns documentary. According
to Stickles, The Civil War serves as an “extended metaphor” for the travels of
a young protagonist who relocates to Boston from
New Jersey and
the perils he faces in “trying to live decently in indecent times.”  

 

The group is currently engaged in a European tour before
heading back to North America for a summer filled with dates across the
Northeast and Midwest. BLURT was lucky enough
to catch up with Mr. Stickles in the midst of his hectic schedule to pontificate
on the new album, recording up in historic New Paltz, NY, American complacency,
record shops, cassettes, the perils of downloading, the Loudness Wars, the
monopolization of Pitchfork Media, and adhering to the principles of UK anarchy
punk greats Crass.  The Monitor is available at smarter retail outlets now. But if you
prefer to get your music online, check out the fan site Titus Andronic.us for a killer fan-made
compilation of b-sides, live cuts and rarities available free to download here.

 

***

 

BLURT:
You guys recorded The Monitor in New Paltz, NY.
How did you like it up there in Ulster
County?

Stickles:  Oh, it was
great. The mountains are beautiful, and the people who work downtown and hang
out there are really nice.

 

 Did you hang out in town a lot when you were
recording?

 We took a few trips
into town to go to the video store, the pizza place, Taco Shack…

 

 Yea, my friend Kevin Sharp runs Taco Shack.
It’s a great place to eat.

 No kidding, the one
next to the beer distributor?

 

 Yea, that’s the one.

 Yea, man. Most of our
trips to town ended up at those two places. Pretty much the one stop shop, that
little strip there (laughs).

 

 Did you make it to the great record shops
downtown, Rhino Records and Jack’s Rhythms?

 I’ve never shopped
there, but one time when we were mixing our record we went and saw this band
play at Rhino Records. They had a little outdoor fun summertime thing. That was
about as much as I checked out of Rhino.

 

 Do you remember the band you saw who played?

 This band called
Frankie and his Fingers, ever heard of ‘em?

 

 No, any good?

 Ah, well, you know
(laughs)…I can’t say whether they were good or not.

 

 How did you like recording at Marcata
[Recording, the former Harlem recording space
of The Walkmen before it was taken over by the studio’s house engineer Kevin
McMahon and relocated to New Paltz]?

 It was great. It’s
kinda between two worlds. It’s up in a barn. It’s pretty bare to the elements;
there’s not really heat or the absence of heat when you want it. But it’s also
a great paradise, a great place to hang out and just goof off and rock. It was
a cool little clubhouse for us for a month or so last year.

 

 You were up there for about a month?

 Yea, pretty much for
the whole month of August we were up there.

 

 You’re Irish, right?

 Well, I’m American,
but my ancestors are from Ireland.

 

 The reason I ask is because I definitely hear
a little bit of the Irish in the Titus Andronicus sound.

 You know, I’ve been
told that before.

 

 Are you a big fan of Irish music?

 Well, just like the
usual stuff-The Pogues and whatnot. And the band Parts & Labor. I really
like them a lot and they kind of have that Celtic thing going on a little, too.
And, of course, Big Country. You remember that band from the 80s?

 

 Of course. Those guys are Scottish, though,
right? In any case, The Crossing is
one of the great albums of the 1980s.

 The Crossing is such a killer album. We listened to that one a lot
when we were making our record. Our producer, Kevin McMahon, actually went on
tour with them back in the 90s. He was the sound guy for their opening band. So
it started out we would just play Big Country a lot to bust his balls, and
through that we found out that Big Country was actually awesome as it turns
out.

 

 Some of these unsung bands from the 1980s are
just now starting to get their just due as the sources of inspiration that they
are, like Talk Talk and OMD…

 OMD is good. Eric,
who plays drums in our band, has a lot of old OMD cassettes that he plays in
the van all the time.

 

 You guys are still fans of cassettes?

 Well, we’ve only got
a cassette player in the van. Typically we’ll listen to the iPod through a
cassette adapter, but I think its fun when we go to record stores to try and
get some old tapes to play in the van.

 

 The record shop is still important to you?

 Well, you know, the
record store is a very important institution. If you don’t have a place like
that in your community, the only places to buy music will be Barnes & Noble
and Wal-Mart or whatever. I mean, you’re not going to find a Naked Raygun album
at Target.

 

 Do you feel record shops are being purposely
phased out?

 They are pretty
specialized and it serves a very specific part of the community, and I guess
for a lot of people it would be pretty useless. But then again, everybody loves
music. I guess most people just like music they could just as easily get online
or at Barnes & Noble; and while they are there they can get some Starbucks
coffee as well. But if you want to get some kind of punk album, you’re pretty
much out of luck.

 

 The
Monitor
got leaked early online. What are your thoughts on that?

 Well, it would be
nice if [everyone who downloaded it] bought the album, too. But at the same
time, I know what it was like at 16. I’ve stolen them all. It was great going
online and stealing all of that music and listening to it and enjoying it. But
I’m paying for it in karma now (laughs).

 

  There
is something to be said about the quality of a real hard copy of an album at
the same time. Those MP3s don’t always cut it, especially the ones at that
128kps bit rate.

 Yea, that’s true. It
doesn’t sound as good as records, or even cassettes for that matter.

 

 However, given the case that so many kids
listen to music in that lossy format, do you think it will soon come to be
universally accepted?

 Besides the fact that
we’re making records these days that are so much louder than they used to be,
it’s pretty much a whole lotta static on [albums today].

 

 Why do you think that is?

 My understanding is
that it kinda started with the Loudness Wars – there’s quite a bit of
literature on the Internet about them. The first time I heard about it was that
Oasis album, (What’s the Story) Morning
Glory
. When that album came out, it was supposedly the loudest album that
had been out on a major label. Their thought that year was that when Oasis
would come on the jukebox, it would sound louder than everything else, so
people would, I dunno, pay attention to it. Now we’re all listening to the iPod
Shuffles and nobody wants to be the quieter thing that’s boring and gets
skipped over.   I guess they feel they have to compete for
some reason. They’re not doing themselves any favors. There’s not a lot of
dynamic range on modern records, unfortunately.

 

 With that said, how did you guys go about
approaching the sound on The Monitor?

 We made a conscious
decision, not so much when we were recording it, but when we were having it
mastered, that we weren’t gonna try to make it as loud or louder than “Big
Record X”. There were times when the guy who was doing the mastering was like,
“Uh, do you guys want to make it louder?” And we were like, “No way!” That was
idea of punk rebellion-the mastering process. I figured, you know if you want
it to be louder, you’ve got a volume knob on your stereo. You gotta leave a
little room to move.

 

 Now the Civil War theme on The Monitor is strictly a metaphorical
thing, right?

 Oh yea, most
certainly. It’s not like historical fiction or anything like that. It’s not the
story of Private Joe Smith of the 82nd Calvary Regiment.

 

  If you do listen to certain people on the
radio and on the Internet, your Alex Joneses of the world, they are convinced
this country is headed towards a second Civil War. Graham Parker just wrote a
song about the concept on his new album, actually.

 Well, I don’t
necessarily disagree, although I don’t think we’ll have another war about it.
However, we definitely have got a lot of the same problems or modern versions
of the same problems that led to [the Civil War] – just people disagreeing about what
America is supposed to be. You know, refusing to try and see other people’s
perspectives, big fish eating the little one, my God is bigger than your God
and so on and so forth.

 

 It’s definitely more of a passive-aggressive
battlefield these days.

 Yea, and that’s the
thing. One of the concepts I was thinking about in making the record was that
we’ve become so numb to our own feelings that we couldn’t have another thing
like The Civil War now, because we’re all just too bored and lazy. Too much
mind numbing crap to numb crappy minds, as Penny Rimbaud would say. Are you a
fan of the band Crass?

 

 I have a couple of their albums.

 Crass is definitely,
for me anyway, the most ethically excellent band that’s yet existed. I try to
take more ideological cues from them than musical, however. I respect them and
their message so much that I actually had their logo tattooed on my body, so as
to be a constant reminder for me to always strive for ethical excellence like
they did.

 

 That’s pretty cool a guy your age is into
Crass, because your generation grew up with stuff like Simple Plan and New
Found Glory and shit…

 And not even just New
Found Glory and all that, but any of the lame fashion punk bands of the early ‘00s
that you could get at Hot Topic. There were always these punk kids in Glen Rock
who we thought were, like, posers. They would wear Crass shirts and have Crass
patches on their jackets. So for a bunch of years, I thought Crass was just
another lame band some fake punk dude would have on his jacket. So I never
bothered to listen to them or learn anything about them until recently. Same
thing with that band Cocksparrer, you ever listen to them?

 

 I have a friend who is way into them.
Cocksparrer are definitely not a band you would hear about on Pitchfork, which
seems to have a bit of a stranglehold on youth culture these days, don’t you
think?

  My roommate and I were actually just talking
about that – how a lot of people worry about them having a monopoly on the
alternative or indie rock base. I’m wondering myself sometimes what there is
out there besides what’s on Pitchfork.

 

 And then you’ve got these other sites and
blogs who just essentially follow Pitchfork’s lead and crow about all the same
things, you know?

 True, they tend to
follow along with whatever the current wave of popular opinion is at any given
time. Do you really need a hundred different Web sites that post the same
video?

 

 Your last album, The Airing of Grievances, was named after a famous Seinfeld
reference. What’s your favorite episode?

 Favorite episode?
That’s really hard – they’re all awesome.  I would say “The Keys”, which was the last
episode of Season 3. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be probably that
one. It was the episode where Kramer’s got Jerry’s spare keys to his apartment.
But he’s abusing it, taking baths and having girls over. So Jerry takes away
the keys and Kramer realizes he’s in this existential crisis and he confesses
that he’s living in a fantasy world. There’s a great scene with him and George
at the coffee shop, and Kramer is talking about how he and George need to get
their lives together-that their lives were just meaningless. It was a deep,
profoundly upsetting but beautiful episode of Seinfeld.

 

 Kramer was a deep cat.

 True. Kramer was very
much the goof on that show. But he was also the most profound one, kind of in
the old Shakespearean tradition of the fool who knows more than the wise man.

 

 

 

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