Though Ted Leo has been talking about the dismal economics of his stock-in-trade since at least as far back as a January 2009 Spin article in which he predicted he’d need a new job by 2010, he was as shocked as anyone else to wake up on an unpleasant, 100-degree day last week to the news that he was retiring. A website had reprinted a quote of his without context—”By next year, there’s no way I’m going to be able to be on tour like I have been these last few years,” he’d told Louisville’s Velocity—underneath the headline “Ted Leo Mulling Retirement in 2011.” Leo was not. On his blog, he called the whole thing a “classic journalistic hissy-fit” and added, with emphasis, “I’M SURE I’LL NEVER STOP MAKING MUSIC.”
On the phone, the day before, from his house in Rhode Island, he didn’t sound so sure. “There’s just no way we can keep hammering along like we have been as everybody pushes on into their forties,” says Leo, who is 39. In 2010, he and his band, the Pharmacists, were “essentially touring the same way that we were when we were in our early twenties”—i.e., when Leo was crashing mid-Atlantic basements with Chisel, the mod-punk quartet he founded as an undergraduate at Notre Dame. But the more pressing problem was one that the younger Leo couldn’t have anticipated, back when he was sleeping on strangers’ couches and playing to audiences that didn’t always outnumber his band: Sales of his newest LP, The Brutalist Bricks, were lagging.
“It didn’t matter when we had no expectations of selling more than a couple thousand records,” Leo explains. “And I imagine—though I’ve never been there—it probably wouldn’t matter as much if we were selling hundreds of thousands of records. But when you’re selling in the tens of thousands of records, and half of your potential audience of, say, 40,000 sales are not buying it, then it actually, literally, does make a difference between being able to fund your tours and pay your rent while you’re on tour, and not.”
People even had the nerve to hit Leo up on Twitter to ask where they could find pirated copies of his new album: “I find it absolutely ridiculous that someone would approach the artist and say to them, ‘Hey where can I . . . ?’ ” he says. “You know, it’s available everywhere, it’s 10 fucking dollars. You know how much people spend on beer and stupid shoes and American Apparel clothes every week? Ten dollars—it’s 10 goddamn dollars. Dock yourself two beers this week, and you’ve got our album.”
As a Bloomfield, New Jersey, teenager growing up just outside of New York in the ’80s, Ted Leo was part of the first real generation of hardcore punk fans—young enough to worship Black Flag, but old enough to have seen them, too. By graduation, Leo was playing in bands of his own, as were most of the other people he knew. His progression as a musician mirrored the movement as a whole—by the time he’d reintroduced a generation of hardcore kids to the pleasures of the Jam, the future Pharmacists frontman had already tried his hand at everything from New York proto-thrash to D.C.’s signature emo-inflected post-hardcore. As his songwriting savvy grew, toward the middle of the decade, so did interest in Chisel. Like many punk acts at the end of the last century, the band suddenly found themselves in incongruous meetings with major labels, talking about potential deals. Leo passed on all of them and, in 1997, split the band up.
“By the end of the ’90s,” he remembers now, “I had been through the ringer with Chisel. We had been courted by major labels, and I came out of that deciding that I didn’t want to be part of that world. That’s when I started playing solo.” He was turning 30. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m done. I’m just playing music at this point because I’ve got songs, and I can go play them, and that’s what I’m going to do.’ All of the good things that have come since then—honestly, when I really step back and think about it, I’m like, ‘Bonus.’ Because 10 years ago, I had already gotten to the point where I was like, ‘Meh, I’m done.’ “
Instead, Leo’s post-Chisel career took off. In 2001, the Pharmacists signed to the sizeable indie Lookout!; their second release for the label, Hearts of Oak, came out in 2003. “That record came out and surprised everybody,” he says now. “It surprised us. It surprised Lookout! in terms of how it sold and how well people responded to it. And all of a sudden, existing as a band that could be a self-sustaining prospect became a potentially viable option for us. It was always just out of reach, but so close that it always made sense to keep trying for it, you know?”
But Lookout! shuttered in 2005; Touch and Go, the similarly august imprint Leo signed to next, collapsed in 2009. Now, he puts out records on Matador, one of the few large-scale independent labels still standing, and faces the same dismal industry climate that has adversely impacted the sales of acts much bigger than his. He did it his way, but his way may have led him to something approaching a dead end. “I’m not going to lie,” he says, “there are ways in which I’ve had to ask myself if my allegiance to the theology of all of this”—still touring in the same van, still selling T-shirts for $10, still dodging major labels—”throughout the years somehow hamstrung what myself and my songwriting might have been able to do otherwise.”
“But ultimately,” he adds, “I feel like I’m on the right side of some imaginary line.”
The Brutalist Bricks, Leo’s newest album, came out in March. It’s more relaxed than much of the Pharmacists’ output over the past decade, which was marked primarily by the Bush administration and Leo’s furious response to it. Bricks finds him in a less topical, more abstract mode; even the melodies, always his strong suit, are less concentrated and more diffuse. Songs tend to work with one or two ideas instead of five. Some of this is age and experience: “I’m just personally sick of having every song that I write be so weighted down with every single bit of meaning,” he says now.
But in part, Brutalist Bricks is an attempt to restate, using a slightly different formal frame, the way Leo has felt all along: “The idea is that the only reason that I’m pissed off about any of this is because of how much I love it all,” he says, when asked about the way the personal and the political commingle on newer songs like “Bottled in Cork.” “There’s that Crass line when they say, ‘People always ask us why we never write love songs, and our answer is, What do you mean we don’t write love songs? Everything we do is a love song. Everything we write is a love song. Our love of life is total.’ And that’s absolutely why I give a fuck in the first place—just because I actually give a fuck.”
Somewhere during our conversation, I realize that the weird chirping noises I’m hearing in the background are birds. Leo is looking forward to Siren Festival, he says, where he’ll perform this Saturday, followed by a booking slate that will take him through the end of 2010. After that, who knows? “I imagine we’ll have to tour less, you know, because we’ll have to be working in other ways more,” he says. “Beyond that, this is all in process.”
Ted Leo headlines the Voice‘s Siren Festival July 17 with Matt & Kim, Surfer Blood, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and so on