By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
A wildly unwieldy thing, The Monitor used a Civil War metaphor and arm-hair-raising martial drum codas-cum-guitar freakouts to explore the idea of defining yourself by what you are against, whether that be your ex-girlfriend, townie douchebags, the South, or your own insecurities. Relentless on all levels, it's the best rock album of this young decade and a tough act to follow. Titus Andronicus wisely decided against trying to out-Monitor The Monitor on Local Business, instead pushing for something slightly more streamlined and direct. But only slightly more streamlined; the average song length has only been dialed back to six minutes from 10.
"That was a pretty grandiose kind of a record, and to try to make it something that was more grandiose and more sweeping would have been really ridiculous," he says. "It was time to retreat a little bit. Away from concept-y, lofty things."
There are a lot of things Stickles does not value in this world: consumerism and status, for starters. One thing he does value is people. He's just not good at holding on to them.
Titus Andronicus started when Stickles was a sophomore at Ramapo as a "weekend warrior" kind of band. Since then, every member of the original lineup has left. Of the musicians who began the initial tour and publicity push for The Monitor, every one except for drummer Eric Harm defected, including founding bassist Ian Graetzer and guitarist and popular feminist blogger Amy Klein. The guitarist/keyboardist quit this spring, a few days before a tour. In total, 18 different people have been in the band. Wikipedia lists 20, but Stickles says two of the names are fake.
"Maybe it's just something about, you know, my screening process. I pick people that just aren't gonna stick it out," he says, sounding more annoyed by the constant defections than the mental health issues he was just discussing. "Sometimes people think that being in a band is gonna be cool and maybe they're . . . they find out it's not as exciting or cool as they thought that it was.
"Every lineup of the band we've had I've wanted to be the last one, and you know . . . rarely have we taken people on with the intention of them taking off a year later or whatever. I would much rather have a stable lineup, but it just hasn't worked out that way."
Titus Andronicus's 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances, was released by the tiny punk label Troubleman Unlimited before being reissued by XL Recordings. The Monitor was the band's first album to receive a major publicity push with a juicy narrative hook. Around this time, Stickles grew an infamous beard that became as out of control as his songs' running times. Part of this was looking the part. Part of it was keeping the world out. "It was my way of saying, 'Before you can judge me, I've already judged the world and decided to go in a different direction.' I mean, I guess that's kind of a silly thing to do, but I did it."
He has since shaved the beard. He's also trying to devalue the major theme of The Monitor, that we define ourselves in terms of what we are not, be it the assholes we hate or the healthy people we envy. "When I was a kid, that's what I thought it meant to be a punk or whatever. It was being in opposition to something. But what does that mean, really?" he says while gripping his mug. "It's better to think about what you are than what you are not. That's like the postmodern condition, right? Defining yourself by absence? It's bad news. It's no way to get ahead, as near as I can tell."
There's a photo at his mother's home of him in high school with shoulder-length head-banger hair—even though he says he was never a metal fan—and another one of him in his sophomore year of college with an already impressively full beard. There's a Sears holiday photo of him and his siblings dressed in checkerboard sweaters; his facial hair looks thick enough to stop a punch, and he's mugging like a man who always goes to 10 when seven will do.
Living in Brooklyn made him feel "very insignificant, just being a drop in an endless sea." But if you're going to have an existential crisis no matter where you live, Stickles says he'd rather have it in the big city. "I've tried, certainly, to escape Jersey. Yet here I am," he says. "I'll get out of here one day."