The Power of Negative Thinking

For Titus Andronicus's Patrick Stickles, everything is meaning less

Patrick Stickles uses the word "explicate" more than most graduate students and writes his songs like essays, stacking in imagery and narrative until the point is made. What makes his band, Titus Andronicus, great is that he can do this while making his songs compelling the entire way through. Shout-along choruses usually help. The band's new album, Local Business, has an underlying theme of choosing your own value system.

Or as Stickles puts at the start of the album, "I think by now we have established/That everything/Is inherently worthless/And there's nothing in the universe/With any kind of objective purpose."

It's not as depressing as it sounds, he swears.

Shakespeare might not approve.
Kyle Dean Reinford
Shakespeare might not approve.
The beard is gone. The eating disorder remains.
Photograph by Willie Davis
The beard is gone. The eating disorder remains.

"I do think that's true. But I don't think that's a negative statement. I look at it as more of a hopeful statement," he says. "Because if everything is meaningless, then that gives the individual a great deal of power to decide what is meaningful in his or her own life, right? With no inherent worth to anything, you know, anything can be worth everything, and you can create your own values and your own ideas about what's important."

Conflict is the driving idea behind all good drama and all good Titus Andronicus songs, and on a fundamental level, every Titus Andronicus song and album is about Patrick Stickles versus Patrick Stickles. He was on Ritalin as a child and became depressed during college: "Just being really pessimistic and not being really sociable at all. I didn't really have very many friends. Just really . . . and no desire to make friends." He currently takes Wellbutrin and Abilify for "depression and mania," and one of his best songs, "No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future," chronicles his struggles to become comfortable with taking antidepressants. "When I was first taking them, it made me question the authenticity of my feelings. Are my feelings more than just chemical reactions? I ultimately decided that they weren't."

Stickles is 27, came up in the age of blogging and social media, and, like many people his age, sees no point in trying to maintain a separation between his public and private life. " I want them to ideally be the same thing. " As such, the centerpiece of Local Business is an eight-minute autobiographical song titled "My Eating Disorder" that culminates with Stickles screaming "Spit it out/Spit it out" atop a crushing beat slowed to an agonizing crawl. You can almost hear his burst blood vessels on that last "ouuuuuuuut."

His disorder is called "Selective Eating" or "Adult Picky Eating," though he finds "'picky' to be a little diminutive." What it means is that he has a handful of foods he can bring himself to eat, "and I just get really scared when it gets time to eat something else. I get a panic about it. For no real reason. But it's just how I've always been." If he tries to force himself to eat something else, he will involuntarily spit it out. Because of his situation, he misses meals while touring and during the Monitor run often appeared gaunt. "A doctor would probably take some issue with my nutrition, but I'm getting enough nutrition to still rock, so that's my extent of worrying about it."

If nothing means anything, then honesty can mean everything. "It's like I always remember Tom Green—you remember him, right?—when he did that special about his testicular cancer," he says. "He explained that it was the thing that he least wanted to talk about or think about, so he knew it was the best thing to use in his art. So that stuck with me."

If nothing means anything, then even Tom Green can have value.

Stickles hands me an orange mug of coffee from the Greenpoint java emporium Grumpy's. It was one of his favorite hangouts when he lived in New York, though it's arguable whether he truly lived in New York. His band—and it is most assuredly his band—has spent most of the past four years earning a reputation as one of the hardest-touring bands around. He barely had any Grumpy time.

At some point in between those tours, Stickles and the woman he was living with broke up, and she got custody of Greenpoint. Which is how he found himself living back here, at his mother's house in his native Glen Rock, New Jersey.

Stickles's mom is a student assistance counselor in New Jersey, "which is like being a guidance counselor, but it's exclusively about feelings." His dad is a high school principal, and his stepmom teaches second grade. Well read as a kid, he majored in literature and minored in philosophy at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He says things like, "I'm always having an existential crisis in one form or another," when discussing "In a Big City," the rousing first single from Local Business. It's about the time Stickles moved from New Jersey to New York and got a mental and spiritual ass-kicking that left him feeling more hopeless than usual.

He is wearing a black hoodie with a Charles Bukowski pin attached to it, skater-chic khakis and a black Ramapo T-shirt. He is sitting on his mother's couch, often staring at the wall of photos while answering questions and discussing lyrics. We're talking Local Business, the highly anticipated follow-up to the 2010 release The Monitor.

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