Titus Andronicus Are Not the Taliban: Sorting Out the Long, Twisted History of the Band
Kyle Dean Reinford
Titus Andronicus draw more from hip-hop culture more than you think. Songwriter, bandleader and Wu-Tang Clan fan Patrick Stickles' lyrics are deeply post-modern and full of hypertext links to everything from The Velvet Underground to Albert Camus to Curb Your Enthusiasm. And like any hustler with a sense of business acumen, they now know the value of a promotional mix tape.
Released earlier this year, Titus Andronicus LLC featured a sturdy live cover of Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back In Town." While introducing the song Stickles' tone of voice makes it difficult to tell if he is making fun of it, the crowd or himself. The dude is that dry. I have seen his band open for a number of top-tier indie heavyweights, and every time he thanks, say, Cursive or Okkervil River for having them I always wondered if he was taking the piss. When I asked Stickles about this recently he seemed genuinely unaware of this tendency ("You gotta make 'em laugh, I guess") but swears he's easy to work with.
"The other people in the band. I like to think that I give them a lot of positive reinforcement," he says. "I mean, we like to joke around a lot. But I don't, like, dis them by any means."
The reason this is pertinent is that since forming in Ramapo College in 2005, Titus Andronicus has been through so many members than even the guys currently in the band don't have a concrete idea what number member they are. Since the release of the New Jersey punk army's 2010 breakout album The Monitor, Titus Andronicus underwent a full line up change one member until only Stickles and drummer Eric Harm were left. They are now joined by on-off-and-now-on-again guitarist Liam Betson, bassist Julian Veronesi and the band's most recent recruit and eighteenth member overall, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Adam Reich.
Because of his tendency towards drama-punk bombast, bloodletting lyrics and high-pitched screams, Stickles has been compared to Conor Oberst for most of his career, but says he doesn't not want Titus Andronicus to be Bright Eyes-style operation with a songwriter and rotating musicians. In his mind, the current line-up of Titus Andronicus is the final line-up. Of course, he says that every time, but this is the first time that the band that played on the album is the one that will tour it.
I recently traveled to New Jersey for a feature in this week's Village Voice about the making of said album, the rabidly philosophical Local Business. During the reporting of the story, I also hung out with the the band at their practice space and crash pad, the DIY venue Shea Stadium, which is conveniently enough owned by Reich. Stickes is one of the most intriguing songwriters working in any genre, but Local Business proves that he is working with a formidable, locked-in unit that is worthy of attention. Here is a transcript of my time with the band; consider it your chance to get to know the starting line-up of your Titus Andronicus. Liam, you're probably the second-most senior member of the band at this point, right? Because you left and came back. Liam Betson: Yeah. Technically speaking, Eric's been around longer and more consistently, but I'm the second-most senior member in terms of when I first played with the band. You were in high school when you joined the band. LB: Yeah. They were touring around, playing in college, things like that. What was that like? LB: We just played around New York when I was, like, 15 years old? It was just good fun, really.
Were you able to get into all the shows? There's a story about when Jane's Addiction started, Dave Navarro was 15, I think and couldn't get in to the bars they played. Same with Tommy Stinson from The Replacements. LB: Around New York, not so much. They would let me into all the venues. But when we went on tour in 2008, I was 18 or 19 years old and in other places they would kick me out after we played it. Just like wouldn't let me in there before or after. Like in Seattle I just had to sit in the parking lot. Met a lot of interesting characters back then.
Patrick Stickles: Was that the show when the guy ran into the dumpster and said "Gabba Gabba Goo?"
Adam Reich: Yeah, because that's the safest place for a 19 year old. Parking lot in some weird club.
So how did you get in the band anyway? You were in high school, how did you meet these college kids? LB: Well, I was a freshman in high school and Patrick was a senior and I was in a band with Patrick and I's mutual friend, Sam, from a record store and so I was just in the scene. I was playing music in a high school scene that Patrick was also a part of. So we were just kind of around similar people and some of my friends' older siblings were Patrick's friends. So there were just mutual friends.
PS: But isn't it true that I used to bully you a lot in high school?
LB: Yeah, he wasn't the nicest guy in high school.
Really? I can't see that. Did you give him swirlies? LB: He wouldn't give me swirlies, but he dumped a cup of something on my head. Not piss or anything, but a cup of beer on my head. And, uh, he used to pick me up, because I'm a pretty small guy, pretty slight, and I'd be walking down the hallway, minding my own business and he's lift me up as high as he could. So he was mean to me back then. But it was all in good fun.
PS: We had a lot of laughs.
Why did you want to join this jerk's band? LB: Because I liked him. Because I knew he had good songs and I figured that him picking on me was just a way of showing affection in some strange way.
AR: He was hazing you.
LB: He was hazing me, yeah. But I liked the band and I liked the songs, yeah. So I figured it wouldn't be so bad, joining up.
You've recorded on all three albums, right? LB: Yeah. It's worked out that I have.
But after The Monitor, you decided that you'd go to college? LB: Yeah, I went back to college. I went to college right after we had done, started doing tracking for The Airing of Grievances. That was the summer between senior year and freshman year of college. And, yes, so I went to college for that and just, by happenstance, there was an opening in the band over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. So I just went on a couple tours with them that summer and recorded The Monitor and went back to school that September. My parents wanted me to go to college and I wasn't going to deny that it was a pretty good decision to go to college. So I just did it and people have come and gone in this band and I've always been kind of around.
Did you ever think you'd rejoin the band? LB: I always thought it would be a possibility. I didn't, like, actively think about it but I never thought it was impossible that I'd rejoin the band just because...you know, even though I wasn't playing I was still friends with everybody that was in the band, so I knew that if there was an opening and I was around that it could potentially work out just because I'd already learned the songs before.
What was it like after you left the band again and The Monitor came out and it got all this acclaim and they were touring everywhere. Was it tough to watch them play those songs? How did you feel about it? LB: I felt good about it. It didn't hurt me or anything. I wasn't disappointed that I wasn't there for it. I was just happy that it did well and they were able to go do it. And I'm happy that I can go do it now that I've graduated and I can look forward to driving around the country, playing shows. Because I was going to apply to work at a grocery store in town, in Glen Rock, that my buddy works at. So it seemed like a great alternative to working in a produce department. So it was good, yeah. It's good to play music with my friends and I don't have to get a day job.
So Eric, I guess you would be the second most senior member of the band. Eric Harm: Um, well I guess, yeah. Well, Liam is, really. I would be the third. Um, out of everybody here, I was the third person to play a concert with Titus Andronicus.
PS: Me being the first.
When you joined the band, were they still a local college band or were they more touring nationally? EH: I think they had done one tour but it wasn't a full national tour. It was sort of an East Coast thing. I assume you guys must've gone down to Chicago. Think I saw pictures of that. But I knew that the band had already achieved at least more greatness than I ever had in any of my previous bands because of the 7-inch. None of my previous bands had any kinds of 7-inches. Any memories from those early shows stand out? EH: Just, I mean, I just have memories of having fun and learning songs with you guys. Like...
AR: The owner at some restaurant?
EH: Duck Inn? I wasn't at that show. I didn't play that one.
What happened? PS: Just this owner...we went to play this girl's birthday party in Mamaroneck, New York, at this bar and the owner didn't really know what he was getting himself in for. So by the second song, or in the little bit of it I guess, he was grabbing the guitars and trying to hit people in the band with the guitar and calling everybody Taliban...
What?! PS: Berating us, saying "don't do that to the people, do something nice." He called it heavy metal music. Anyway, then he gave us the boot.
You got two songs in, then you had to leave? AR: Shitty birthday.
EH: You gotta take whatever job you can get at the time, right?
So Julian, you joined the band early 2011, after Ian left, right? Julian Veronesi : Yeah.
And you were a fan before? JV: Oh yeah. Definitely. My friend, Ian, who's now in Deer Tick...that's how I met these guys when they were little, young sprouts, they'd come to Springfield -- that's where I'm from, West Springfield, Massachusetts -- and they would come to Springfield and play our VFW, and then one day I was living in West Springfield, working for my dad, not knowing what I was gonna do with my life and I got an email --
PS: It was a Facebook message. JV: Yeah, a Facebook message.
What were you doing for your dad? JV: He's like a landlord, so painting walls and stupid shit.
Handyman stuff? JV: Yeah, handyman stuff even though I'm not very handy.
It was kind of in the middle of the tour -- how long did you have to learn all the songs? JV: My first show was at the Mercury Lounge in February and we started practicing pretty much right after the New Year, I think. That was actually the last show that the old bass player played, was the New Year's show, 2010 into 2011. So I knew before that, I guess at the end of 2010, that I was going to be in the band so I listened and learned some of the songs and then showed up and practiced them for like a month, month and a half and then I played my first show.
EH: You picked 'em up pretty fast.
Do you feel like the fans are kind of like "who is this new guy?" Or are they used to different shows with different lineups? JV: I think they're probably used to it at this point.
AR: I saw a YouTube comment giving you love the other day.
PS: I saw that.
What'd it say? AR: Said that he's great, that he's killin' it. They love seeing Julian.
JV: I didn't know my mom had a YouTube account.
Adam, you're the most recent guy, right? AR: Yeah, I'm the rookie.
So you were working sound and had to jump in when the other guy left? AR: Pretty much.
What was that like? How did that come about? AR: I mean, it came about pretty naturally. It was kind of a weird experience playing my first show with the band some 72 hours after having the conversation about having to do it. I was making the joke that it was like finals week and Patrick gave me a list of songs and was like "listen to these, this is what we play, we're gonna practice tomorrow so do what you can." What was the first show you played? AR: Boston University? Boston College? I don't know, I get them confused. I think it was BU. Um, and it was fun. I mean, it was still nerve-wracking for me in the beginning.
JV: It was pretty stressful, it was kind of a scramble in the beginning.
AR: Yeah, it was a scramble. Like, looking to my left, like, checking out people's fingers in the middle of the show like "alright, I'm there."
Did the last guitarist quit when there was a show in five days or...? AR: There were extenuating circumstances. He couldn't do the tour. It wasn't like he was just like "fuck this." Like, something came up that he, you know, needed to be there for.
PS: But the fact remains that we were about to begin a long tour and recording process. We suddenly had one hand tied behind our back.
JV: Yeah, there were...a whole tour and a whole album that we had put a lot of work into. This was a sort of piece of the puzzle that suddenly disappeared.
AR: And I was really into the challenge of a high-pressure situation. I was pumped.
So you own this place? AR: Yeah.
How do you end up running this place? AR: I've sort of been around on the periphery for a long time. I'm really good friends with the guys in the So So Glos. We grew up together, I produced all their albums. Sometime about three or four years ago I started looking at spaces around here to set up a recording studio and I've always been interested in recording bands live and started taking the idea of how I can do that consistently and was like "man, it would be cool to open up a place where bands could play shows but they get recorded and it's sort of treated more like a studio more than a venue" and slowly over time the project slowly morphed into what it became, which is basically a D.I.Y. space that records all the shows and has an archive of shows on the internet and stuff.
The So So Glos -- do they co-own this place or is it all you? AR: They don't really co-own it. I sort of own it, but they've been incredibly instrumental in the process of setting it up and taming it and we all sort of do a committee. It's like a big, extended community. It's a big community space. There are a lot of people involved.
Did you start as a musician or did you kind of start as an engineer? AR: Yeah, I've been playing music pretty much my whole life. A bunch of different instruments in a bunch of different bands but I don't know, I got...I started getting really into recording and production and engineering and that pretty took a big chunk of my 20s off from playing bands just to do some other stuff: to record people, to record myself, and do sessions and run the space. So it was really refreshing to get back into playing in a band, which was one of the other reasons it was great for me to come on tour with these guys.
Were you rusty when you came back to guitar? AR: Um, nah.
PS: Adam's a slick hired gun on the side.
JV: As scared as we might have been about doing the tour a man down, within an hour of the first practice we were all very confident that it would go off without a hitch.
AR: I've played with a lot of people, off and on, here and there. I've done some weird session stuff. I've just played with a lot of musicians and I've been very...I'm very used to getting thrown into situations like "this is it, these are the chords." It's not like I didn't...I mean, I've known the band and the music for years so like it wasn't something totally cold. We've been friends, you know, for a while. I've known Patrick for I guess years now. It felt really natural. It never felt like...it felt right pretty fast.
I wasn't aware that you were the Jeff "Skunk" Baxter of the D.I.Y. scene. PS: That's good. You just need a beret.
Is it tough splitting your focus? AR: Yeah. Definitely. It's a struggle. But when you have things on both sides that you really care about you find a way to make it work.
Is it easy for you to delegate responsibility or do you like to run everything here? AR: If I had it my way I would definitely run everything but there are so many people who are involved with the space that are so competent and so incredible that things have a way of taking care of themselves. Basically when I'm here I'm in it like 100% and when I'm away, I'm not. And that's just the way it's going to have to work for indefinitely.
So you've been a fan of theirs for a while. AR: Yeah. I mean, I've been around for a while. Being friends with the So So Glos and the sort of deep history that the two bands have...the first Titus show I saw was probably back in 2007. Um, which might have been the first show you played with the So So Glos and Dead Herring. I don't know if...
PS: One of the first ones.
AR: Um, so I've been around them for a while. Not necessarily, you know, directly.
As a fan of the band, what did you think, before you joined, was special about them? AR: That's a good question. Truth be told, back in the day I wasn't a very big fan of the band. I thought the band was kind of slophouse, I was like "man, I don't know." But I was, like, it really grew into something for me. And as time went on I really learned to appreciate...and, you know, it blossomed into full appreciation long before I started playing with the band.
There's a difference between knowing all the parts and then kind of biding with the band. How long does it take after someone leaves for everyone to kind of gel together? EH: Very cyclical. It's usually like...I feel like we've had less time each time it's happened. With Adam's case, he knew the songs within the first week of the tour. It didn't really take long at all.
AR: I went from not really knowing how to play any of the songs to, like, playing pretty much all of them the next day. It was just overload for me. For a while it was just stressing to not fuck up. But pretty quickly it was like "this feels pretty normal."
You learned them all in a day. AR: Pretty much. Maybe, like, two days. It took like two days to learn a bunch of the stuff. And I think as the tour progressed we started doing more stuff. Like learning new stuff and playing songs for the first time at soundcheck and playing them that night, stuff like that. But that was fun for me. Now it feels fine.
I know a lot of the songs from the album have been in the setlist for a while. "My Eating Disorder' and "In A Big City," I think I saw you guys play those with Fucked Up last year at Le Poisson Rouge. What does touring these songs do for them? Do you feel like you need time to really discover hat the song is?
EH: Well, we played with these songs on tour this past spring a whole lot. A big part of that is because we knew we'd have to record them immediately following the tour, so we had to be playing them because we weren't really going to have time to put a lot of practice in between the tour and the scheduled time in the studio, so there was really a practical reason for playing them a lot on the tour. We played a bunch of new songs at that Fucked Up concert which, that was a concert where they played David Comes To Life from beginning to end. They did one at Le Poisson Rouge and one at Warsaw. It was a fun idea they had and when we had the opportunity we were like "well, we've got some new songs. Maybe this is a good opportunity to try them live." It was just for fun. Because we wanted to play them and we had to keep them in the setlist because by the time that spring tour rolled around, we had to really get tight so we could do them right on the record. Knowing we were going to do the record the way we did, which is recording the record live, pretty much. How does the audience react to the set full of new songs. Do they love it or are they like "are they going to play the one I like?"
EH: I expect the audience not to like that. But they didn't hate it.
JV: Depends a lot. Some people are really curious about new songs and are like "oh, you guys are playing new songs tonight? That's really cool." But I think the majority probably is like "scoff."
It's not like you guys go full Animal Collective. EH: Yeah, play 13 new songs and maybe two hits right at the end.
So who put the "Stop Blog Rock" sign outside? Is it you? PS: Yeah.
Where'd that come from? PS: Well that was influenced by the So So Glos. They often throw out slogans like "R.I.P. Blog Rock" stuff on Twitter and what not. So I found a stop sign and wanted to put it up around here and figured they're always talking about the death of blog rock.
But is that more their stance than yours? PS: I would like to see the death of blog rock too.
Isn't blog rock more of a '07-'06, thing? What constitutes blog rock today? PS: Blog rock is bands who want to get on the Internet by any means necessary, I guess. Bands that'll hop on trends. Like, for example, the bands of that era, a generation of bands who had to have the floor tom and snare drum set. Or like the era of bands in, like, 2008 where a band with one drummer and a guy with a loop pedal.
AR: Kind of pandering.
PS: Anything that's hopping on trends kind of half-assed.
You guys seem to have an "us versus them" mentality. You do your own thing, internet fickleness be damned. JV: You've gotta do what feels right. And if that happens to be in accordance with the Internet, then that's cool. But if it's not, than that's equally cool.
EH: I don't know if it's a conscious decision. We all read the Internet. We all do. Like, I wouldn't want to not do something because I'd be afraid I'm be lumped into something I thought was a good idea and then saw "oh, this is some sort of trend now, I don't want to do it." I wouldn't want to have that.
AR: We're not trying to pander to the Internet or to anybody, really. Or by any means sacrifice anything you think is legitimate or the right thing to do because you don't think it'll look cool. But if you want to wear Crocs, you should wear Crocs. If you wanna write a song about anything, you should do it.
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