The Power of Negative Thinking
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.
"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.
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."
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