Titus Andronicus Tackle the Manic-Depressive Cycle With New Rock Opera
Titus Andronicus on the roof of Shea Stadium
Photo by Mike Greeley
EXT. BROOKLYN STREET – DAY
“He paused for a moment, and his gaze became locked on the bottom of the mural. ‘Shea Stadium,’ it read, and five sold-out nights. For once, he was speechless.”
Patrick Stickles is narrating his own life. It’s in a deliberately melodramatic, fun way, but he’ll continue to do this over the course of the afternoon. Stickles, singer-guitarist and creative mind behind the much acclaimed punk band Titus Andronicus, is standing beside an in-progress mural right off the Jefferson Street stop in Bushwick. The painting depicts the cover of his group’s fourth album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a five-act rock opera out July 28 from Merge Records, for which the first string of supporting shows kicks off July 24 at the D.I.Y. Brooklyn venue.
Tragedy, the long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Local Business, is hands-down Titus Andronicus’s most ambitious project to date. While fictional (the plot consists of “an unnamed protagonist in deep despair, his doppelgänger, and a transformative odyssey”), the album focuses on the very real subject of manic depression, with which the singer was recently diagnosed. And while Titus Andronicus’s 2010 breakthrough, The Monitor, toyed with majestic ideas, comparing Stickles’s life to the Civil War, Tragedy goes astonishingly deep with details to convey the cyclical nature of being a bipolar person.
Some late-spring showers have halted progress on the mural today, but Stickles wants to explain the finer points of the album cover. Drawing attention to the artwork — designed by himself and former Double Dagger singer Nolen Strals — Stickles says he wanted to convey Tragedy’s plot “in an abstract way, like an old book.”
“The album has got five acts, but it also has a parallel structure across four seasons, and these correspond to the four phases of the manic-depressive cycle,” Stickles says, his bearing at this point like that of an earnest professor. He starts at the outer layer of the album cover — blackness — explaining how it represents winter: depression, “darkness, [and] the absence of light.” Working inward, the green of spring follows, conveying the new possibility of emerging from depression but also into a more manic state (“Which is where I’m in right now, on the record,” he says).
“And all of this converges into the sun, the summer, which would be full-blown mania,” Stickles says, pointing to the central sun on Tragedy’s cover. “Too high. Then we go backwards and it’s turning back — fall — into the dread of knowing what’s next."
More cyclical Easter eggs on Tragedy: the beginning and conclusion of the record being in the key of F — Stickles urges that the record be played on loop, as “manic depression is a cycle and a lifelong process" — and the two longest tracks being in the dead center (or summer) of the album. “None of this shit’s by accident,” he assures me later.
He snaps my picture in front of the mural, asking me to snap a picture of him shooting me, before we head to the appropriately named tour van, “Titus Vandronicus,” and drive over to Shea.
INT. SHEA STADIUM GREENROOM – DAY
“He was every bit the caricature that people take him to be when he pulled out Bruce, the book by Peter Ames Carlin. But then, when holding up the New York magazine with Larry David on the cover, he reminded everyone, ‘Hey, I’ve got a lot of interests.’ To me, Larry David is every bit the artist as Bruce Springsteen, even though I will be rolling my jaybirds on Bruce’s face.”
As we sit (and he smokes) in the humid greenroom in back of Shea, Stickles is cozy — the venue is his " 'Fortress of Anything but Solitude,' where everybody knows your name,” by his own reckoning. Founded in 2009 by current Titus guitarist Adam Reich, Shea has been a practice space and safe haven for the band since 2010, with Stickles and Co. helping out and working the door in order to “earn the right to practice” at the space.
“Every time I hit rock bottom, this was always someplace to go,” Stickles says. “If not for this place, I don’t know what my life would be like.”
It’s only fitting, then, that Stickles will start Tragedy’s tour here, as it’s not only a friendly space, but an environment that lives and breathes the principles that Stickles so militantly holds to.
“Bands reach a certain level of success and they forget all about the D.I.Y. scene, spend[ing] their lives on the hundredth floor of an ivory tower,” he says. “Working at Shea, you have no choice but to be exposed to everything that’s going on. I see a couple hundred bands a year working that door, a lot of first and second shows. It keeps me humble. Making the scene work reminds you that you’re not some fucking superhero — you’re a very small piece of something really, really big.”
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“Fuck Baby’s All Right,” he snaps, unprompted. “Fuck 'em. Shea Stadium’s the best 250-cap room in New York. Baby’s All Right doesn’t need to exist — it’s rehashed, Lower East Side nonsense in Brooklyn: a Buffalo fucking Wild Wings. Play at Shea Stadium, where rock 'n' roll is still a real thing. It gets me fucking pissed, man.
“Adam Reich, a fucking pioneer, found a neglected, forgotten corner of the big city and made it into something incredible,” he continues. “They say real estate is ‘location, location, location,’ but for anything subversive, the location is as far away as you can get from the dominant culture. Except they took the underground to the surface and now it’s withering. It’s an azalea plant; it doesn’t like direct sunlight.”
There’s a knock at the door. One of the night’s opening bands starts to load in, so Stickles graciously lets them in before we move to another room.
INT. SHEA STADIUM SIDE ROOM – DAY
“He was making specific demands, like what side of the couch to sit on, showing his madness yet again.”
We plop down on a couch in a smaller side room, a lot cooler with a pair of fans pointed at us. Stickles goes on to explain that while the idea of Tragedy as a rock opera might seem lofty, it came from a sincere place.
“At the original moment of conception [of the album], I was basically dead inside,” he says, calmer now. “I was in a very, very deep depression and I wanted to get out of rock 'n' roll; I wanted to end my fucking life is the goddamn truth.” He then urges those in similar situations to “give it another day.”
Stickles says that Tragedy follows his artistic principles of writing about the specific periods of his life, with this particular album built upon an “extremely manic episode from the end of 2011 into 2012,” followed by a big crash and an “intense depressive episode.”
“That experience changed my entire life and illustrated my true nature to me,” he says. “It was one of the pivotal turning points of my life. This album is a kind of attempt to explain why I behaved the way I behaved these past several years.”
As he’s saying this, he has pulled out a VHS tape and is scanning it for something specific on a nearby TV.
“There’s a lot of specific things I want to say [on Tragedy] in a certain order to make certain points,” he continues. “It would be a lot more sensible in a lot of ways to make something dialogue-based, but I don’t do those things, because I love rock 'n' roll. It’s the most visceral, confrontational art form. I don’t want to make art that can be ignored if you close your eyes or turn your head.”
He finds what he’s looking for on the tape. “Let’s check this shit out.”
A talent show flickers on, circa 2004, from his native Glen Rock High School in New Jersey, starring none other than Stickles and his friends — ex–Titus Andronicus members including future Real Estate frontman Martin Courtney. Stickles is silent for a bit, watching intently, before he speaks again.
“The band started out as an extension of this kind of shit: having fun with your friends from your local scene and just trying to have that feeling forever. The way I felt in this video, every fucking decision I ever made from then on was about getting to that feeling as often as I can. Titus Andronicus started so that this didn’t have to end when high school ended.”
This honesty is also prevalent on Tragedy: It is Stickles. Anyone relating to Titus Andronicus before should take comfort in knowing that Tragedy sees the frontman at his most honest, most ambitious, and most creative. Four studio albums into his career, it’s clear that Stickles wants to hold on to that feeling.
INT. SHEA STADIUM ENTRANCE – EVENING
As night falls on Brooklyn, Stickles is now at work, sitting at the top of the venue’s main stairwell, by the door, placid and personable as he asks for IDs and stamps hands for tonight’s show. Soon, he and his band will be on the bill, playing their sold-out shows and embarking on what might just be Stickles’s finest hour. But for once this afternoon, he’s speechless.
Titus Andronicus will play the songs of The Most Lamentable Tragedy at Shea Stadium July 24–28. The shows are sold out, but tickets can be found on the secondary market.
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