Music

Q&A: Ted Leo On Middle-Class Indie-Rock Life, His Dissatisfaction With Your Karaoke Preparation, and Five-Dollar Words

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Ted Leo and The Pharmacists have had a tough couple of years. Their previous two record labels, legendary indies Lookout and Touch & Go, both famously (and surprisingly) went out of business without warning, and his personal and creative lives haven’t run much smoother. His wife had health issues, he scrapped a completed record and, in a piece about how the economic downturn was affecting musicians, told Spin writer David Peisner that “I guess it’s time to find another job.” And though he admits he’s “been through a lot,” Ted’s not a complainer, he’s a giver. His melodies are dependably Lennon-McCartney worthy, his words are humane and true, and his live shows leave no quarter. And while there might be, theoretically, artists that are more innovative or fashion forward, those artists sure as hell aren’t busting their ass to learn your favorite punk classics and roller-skating jams for an all-night karaoke party.

Leo met with us at one of Jersey’s finest Irish bars, and as soon as this interview (and his whiskey) ended, he switched tables to begin planning that night’s WFMU pledge drive with DJ/Sound Of The City fave Tom Scharpling and prankster/drummer Jon Wurster. (He’s been a fan of the station since his high school days, and a regular guest on the Best Show for several years.) But first, Leo chatted about the making of the excellent new album The Brutalist Bricks, business blues, and “just fucking loving” music.

Two years ago, Spin did an article about how the recession was affecting musicians. You talked about how maybe it was time for you to retire and put the music thing to bed. I have to admit that when I read it, I was mad as a motherfucker. I was like, “Oh no, Ted’s a goddamn American hero. He can’t quit now.” So I’m glad that didn’t happen. But how close were you to calling it quits?

I’ve never been close to calling it quits. I think that the point was maybe a little bit overstated on my part. The point I was trying to make was that the reality of the financial situation, being a musician full time as I’ve been, is really that touch and go. No pun intended. I’ve been doing this over 20 years and I’m unable to tour in the kind of comfort that I think allows rock stars to do, like, year-long world wide tours, you know, and it’s a grind. It’s a great thing to do, there’s no question that in one sense it’s the best job you can possibly have. But in another sense, it’s gotta have a time-stamp on it. I’m already about to enter the first tour on this new record just dead. I’m exhausted from all the work I’ve been doing, it’s just not healthy. And it’s not sustainable at that level. And when things are going well, financially, it’s more standable than not.

But it’s really like a razor’s edge that we walk, everyday. This is not meant disparagingly in any way–it’s the nature of the beast–but you know the public can be fickle, and we already don’t sell that many records. If that took even a minor dip, it would have to be a hobby band for us again, instead of a life. I think that was more the point I was trying to make. And it’s not like I’ve ever been at the point where I was close to quitting. But I’m always at a point, which depending on circumstances, within a year it could go one way or another.

Do you think you could walk away from it, or would you just have to get a part-time job?

I don’t think I would ever stop playing music, but I would not be able to do it at the level of activity and engagement and energy and involvement that I have become accustomed to doing it. Oddly enough, I kind of made my peace with this ten years ago. All of the success that I’ve had as, quote-unquote, Ted Leo And The Pharmacists really already came after a point at which I’d kind of given up on the idea of that kind of success. So, in one sense it’s enabled me to wing it and just be like, “Alright, well as long as it keeps working out, I’ll going to keep doing it.” I think I’ve grown to really love doing it more than I ever had, so it would certainly be hard to even scale back. It’s not something I want to do. But at the same time, I think I can be zen about it. The ideal would be to able to recognize things with enough time that I could scale things back on my own terms, as opposed to like, you know, rolling a big new album out and having it completely and utterly flop. Then having to go, “Uh-oh, well okay I guess other circumstances dictate that, it’s time to hang it up.”

Do things even really flop anymore, because it’s hard to tell with the way sales are. Nothing sells very much. What would a flop be–bad reviews or something?

No, a flop would be… at the level that I’m at, it’s like this weird middle-class of musicians. So when you’re selling, say, a relatively small number–less than 5,000 or something–you’re not living your life around your music at that point. And I can say that from experience, because I spent the first 15 years of my music-playing life doing much less than that. But it starts to become this potentially self-sustainable thing when you get into the next bracket, which is a sales bracket in which you’re not like putting money in the bank, you’re not buying new cars or houses or anything, but you’re covering the expenses of doing what you do. So it becomes a non-losing proposition at that point, which opens up the door for the possibility of it becoming an actual viable job and life. And then just like with the other actual wage earners in other areas of America, it’s not until you really leapfrog into the 99th percentile that you actually start earning serious money. For the rest of the lower-middle class of people who are where I’m at, record sales actually still matter quite a bit, because again it’s the difference between it being a self-sustaining thing or not. And when you’re pushing 40 that matters more than when you’re pushing 20 or even 30.

I’ve seen pictures of you wearing a T-shirt that says “Uninsured American,” and I imagine nearing your 40, that must weigh heavily on your mind.

Yeah. I’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years–without getting too deeply into it–with my wife and health problems, getting caught without insurance, having to buy it and going almost broke paying for it. Luckily, her actually getting taken on full-time for a job she was previously freelance at finally allowed us to get health insurance. But I wouldn’t be able to afford it on my own.

If you had to scale back, what do you think you’d do for a living? I could picture you being a really good high school teacher.

That’s kind of what I was thinking, actually. Glad to hear you say that. Yeah, that’s probably where I would gravitate, I’d imagine.

You seem like the type of guy who could probably release an album a year if you wanted, given your songwriting abilities. But you took a while for this one. You toured these songs a while, I had heard some of these new ones in concert a year or two ago.

If we didn’t tour as much as we did, I could write quicker and put out an album more frequently, for one thing. I don’t know, the weird nature of the last couple of years, between Touch & Go falling apart, and we had actually started a record for Touch & Go the year before last, and we wound up scrapping it. It was decent, we could’ve put it out, it just didn’t feel right to me, you know?

Yeah.

For better or for worse–I think for better in this particular case because I think that the album we made this past year was the right album that we needed to make–I think maybe sometimes I exert a little too much attachment to, and thus kind of like wish for control over, recording and songs. Sometimes, maybe you just need to throw down and wash your hands and walk away and throw it out there and see what happens. But at the same time, I don’t know. Again, ultimately I don’t really know what the point would be of putting something out you weren’t 100 percent behind, so the fact that we actually threw away almost an entire record factored into the length of time between the last record and this one, obviously.

Was it, like, demoed, or had you actually recorded it?

No, we actually went into the studio and recorded it. A lot of the same songs, but something didn’t feel right. It just wasn’t right.

It’s like, “Yeah, it’s good but…[shrugs]”

We were excited about it going into it. I think we could tell even in the studio–I don’t know, it’s really hard to describe, I’ve never been in this position before. There was just tenseness and an unfinished aspect to it all, that I think left all of us feeling like we could do better.

[

So how did you end up on Matador? It seems like a little bit of a strange fit. Because when you think of their biggest artists, like Interpol or Pavement, they’re known for keeping it cool and having a bit of an emotional distance. Whereas you really wear your heart on your sleeve. It seems like a bit of a weird match.

I think that’s true for one view of Matador, which is a legitimate view, which is the Interpol/Pavement kind of axis. But first of all, everybody that runs the label are actually old punk and hardcore guys, and so we connect personally on that level. But also, I think that Matador as it is right now, it’s actually a pretty good time for us to be a part of that world. It’s actually pretty appropriate that, say on the continuum between Mission Of Burma and Fucked Up, we exist somewhere in the middle there. I think it’s actually a decent fit, at this point and time.

Have any of your friends, like maybe Jon over there, asked, ‘Are you going to kill Matador like you killed your last two labels?’

[Laughs] Oh yeah, that stuff gets said all the time.

But what was going through your head the second time it happened? Is it like getting divorced for a second time where you think, ‘I can’t believe this is happening again?’

Yeah, just sadness. Certainly both Lookout and Touch & Go, I’m sure, made some of their own decisions that led them to each of their demise. But it’s really more an indicator of where things have gotten to in the world of independent music and labels these days. Again, when you’re operating in that weird middle class, you can’t do it just for love anymore and you can almost always make ends meet, but it’s just such a highwire act to do it all the time. And it gets harder and harder, year after year, as fewer and fewer people are actually buying records. With Touch & Go it had a lot to do with the fact that they ran a huge distribution company, and it was the distribution that actually really actually suffered from the slow record sales, and with the distribution faltering, the label became not viable as well.

If you ever take a writing course, they always tell you to never use a ten-dollar word when a much more obvious word will do. Obviously, this isn’t an idea you subscribe to.

I think you choose whichever word is appropriate, and when you’re writing a song, you’re thinking about meter and rhyme as well as meaning. And often within phrases within lines in my songs, there’re allusions that nobody ever talks to me about. But for me, a ten-dollar word might say more than a five-dollar word, in terms of filling out the subtext or background or whatever. It might be the perfect word to fit, meter-rhyme-meaning wise, or it might be something I choose because of a certain broadness in definition or illusory quality. I don’t ever feel that you should not use a ten dollar word just because it’s a ten dollar word. I think it’s ridiculous to use a ten dollar word also just because it’s one, but if it works, I don’t see any reason not to use it.

Bonus: people learn new words. I had to look up “timorous” years ago because of “Timorous Me.” So, off the top of your head, with no more practice or cheat sheets, how many songs could you cover if you were to just grab a guitar and hit the stage with your band right now?

I bet you that if you gave us a minute to remember things that stumped us right off the bat, I bet you we could do a good 40 songs.


A montage of people singing karaoke with Ted Leo

Wow.

Yeah, having been through live karaoke sets before, we have our things we choose to do just because it’s fun for us on tour or whatever, but having done these karaoke things a couple of times, that really expands the covers repertoire.

When you do these things, do you have to like the song, or are you like ‘Okay whatever, I’ll just do this one for the people.’

I enjoy actual karaoke and I enjoy piano bar, camp sing-a-long, and so sometimes within that world it’s hard to draw the line between ironic enjoyment and actual enjoyment, you know?

Isn’t it always?

Yeah, it is always. Exactly. But when it comes to karaoke, who cares? We wouldn’t do something that we hated. For karaoke, obviously, part of the fun is doing things that are campy or like funny, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not enjoying it.

I saw your karaoke set at the Studio B a while ago. When you’re up there and people are really, really butchering the song, is it hard to keep a straight face?

Yeah, there were a couple of songs where it’s like, ‘You know what? We practiced for this. Don’t sign up to sing it if you don’t have some inkling to how the song goes.’ Especially when we’re talking about something like “Dancing With Myself.” There’s probably 60 other people in this audience who can do it without a lyric sheet. I mean, come on.

Is there any genre or a song that you and the band can’t do very well?

Um…[long pause] Not really. I mean once we get to the point of giving it the full thumbs up and deciding to do it, we can usually figure out a way to make it work.

Even like, say, an old school Metallica ten-minute long thrash epic?

Oh yeah, we can do that.

Have you always been like that, even when you were in garage bands, where’d you all just pick up a song and learn it?

Yeah, pretty much. I mean, personally, that’s just how I learn, by ear. I picked up a guitar and just started doing two-finger chords, and went from two-finger chords to like open string, dissonant Sonic Youth stuff, and only later did I actually learn real chords. I’ve always had a pretty good ear for stuff. As a matter of fact [multi-instrumentalist James Canty], who plays in the band and old friends of ours in DC used to play a game called “Stump Ted” where I’d have a guitar and people would just throw song names at me and I’d have to try to play them on the spot. I’d get eight out of ten.

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You’ve been touring recently with bands like JEFF The Brotherhood and Titus Andronicus and you’ll be playing shows with Screaming Females. All really great bands. It seems like you really have a feel for the new wave of punk.

Well, I’m always definitely excited by exciting new young bands. It’s really… at the risk of sounding like a jerk…I should watch what I say–

It’s cool man, it’s The Voice.

There’s a lot of kind of mellow indie-rock out there, and sometimes I’m in the mood for that, but more often than not, it’s not really my thing. I like exciting young punk bands, so it’s exciting to discover them and be lucky enough to catch them when they’re able to come on tour with us.

You were saying you’re almost 40, and you first really broke through, not to the mainstream, but to a larger audience around 2003. And some times you’ll see these younger bands that are basically kids straight out of college, getting that first wave of buzz. And some deal with it, and some crash and burn and can’t handle the backlash. Do you ever look back and think how you would’ve reacted if you were that age when you broke through, and does it make you glad that you were older when you broke?

Yeah, I mean, you know the band Chisel that I was in for most of the ’90s had our moments of–not the level of popularity that I’ve achieved last in the last ten years–but we rode the line a little bit towards the end of our tenure and could be sure that we weren’t going to be playing to nobody if we showed up at a club. I guess to the degree of difference between that and what I achieved around Hearts Of Oak in 2003, or whatever, it’s not that big a difference, honestly. Because when you play a sold-out basement, it’s kind of like every bit as thrilling as playing a sold-out Webster Hall. It’s a little different certainly, but one of the things we’ve never done is tried to force the issue of playing in bigger and bigger clubs. Like, we only move to a bigger club when we literally can’t play the one we’ve been playing at for the last bunch of time. So, those baby steps have made those transitions seem not so weird. Then you hit Webster Hall to almost a full house, or whatever, so then when you step out on stage at Lollapalooza, you’re a little bit already used to seeing a lot of faces whose faces you can’t see.

Honestly, I’m only speaking specifically in the live context I guess, but like it’s not that big a difference. Especially not if you’re happy enough doing what your doing. Especially after Chisel and before Hearts Of Oak, I spent so many years traveling around the country alone, without a band, playing to two-to-ten people every night, that it’s not daunting then when you see a lot of people show up. It’s a bonus, it’s nice. I kind of got to the point where it was like, ‘I’ve been doing this anyway, so thanks for being here, no matter how many people there is.’

You’ve had a lot of opening band slots. You’ve done Pearl Jam, Death Cab For Cutie, Against Me! and all these big festivals. What has been the toughest crowd you’ve ever had to open for?

Toughest crowd…wow. Believe it or not, I think that some of the Against Me! shows were actually harder than the Pearl Jam and Death Cab shows.

Really?

Yeah, and you know, no reflection on the band at all. But sometimes there are those crowds that are of a certain age and inclination where they just really want to see the headliner. There were nights, man, where I would literally have kids leaning their heads on my monitor with their eyes closed.

Jeez.

And at that point you just want to kick their fucking head, and go just, ‘Just wait outside asshole. Fuck you, you know there are opening bands, don’t push up to the front.’ Eh, whatever.

We were talking earlier about younger bands, and I find that with veteran artists as they get older, you can draw a dividing line between artists that still actually like stuff by younger artists, and those that just don’t. And the ones that don’t almost always start producing bad music, and the ones that do, like Neil Young and Trent Reznor, still do good stuff. And it’s not even that they’re checking stuff out to rip it off, but they still seem interested, you know?

You could probably, honestly, you could probably extend that to so many areas of life you know?

Yeah.

When you shut yourself off from energy and inspiration, it’s easy to see how you could stagnate. Some people go on to find different kinds of energy and inspiration in different places and continue to make great stuff. But I could see how being in the world of rock-and-roll, for lack of a better term, yeah, it could be easy to stagnate. And it might just say something about how much I really love music, too. Like, I just fucking love music, so when I see a young band that’s awesome I’m really excited for them and for the world that they exist.

I know the feeling.

Yeah, and so you know, it keeps me honest I guess. It keeps me in touch with that excitement about the music.

So you’ve never been at a point in your life where you’re like “Oh, three-chord punk, whatever blah, blah, blah I’ve seen it all before?”

Well, no, not in that sense. Three chord-punk can get as boring and blah, blah, blah as anything else. There are plenty of boring cookie cutter three chord punk bands, just like there are boring cookie cutter milquetoast indie bands or boring cookie cutter new metal bands, or whatever. That exists everywhere, it’s not really as genre specific so much as finding the realness that is there.

You’ve never gotten jaded about finding new music?

Nope. Always something new coming down the pike that is exciting.

What was the last newer song that you heard that you wanted to cover?

Ooh, last new one I heard that I wanted to cover? Actually, there are a couple of songs off the new New Pornographers record [Together], which comes out a month after ours, that I’ve already thought to myself, ‘I wonder if they’ll be pissed if I play this on tour before the album came out?’

They probably wouldn’t be that mad would they?

No, probably not, no. [laughs] There’s actually this song called “What Turns Up In The Night,” look out for it. It’s a corker, really really amazing song.

Ted Leo And The Pharmacists play The Irving Plaza on Friday, April 9 with the Screaming Females. The Brutalist Bricks is out now.

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