This weekend, Ted Leo returns to the Voice‘s annual Siren Music Festival for the record-setting third time, after performing in 2003 and DJing back in 2008. In anticipation, we called him up to talk about the rumors of his impending retirement, the challenges of getting older in a dying record industry, and what exactly his plans for the future might be. That story is here. But it’s not every day that you get a punk icon of Leo’s longevity and stature on the phone, so we figured: why not run the entire conversation? Our sprawling dialogue–about Twitter etiquette, pirating old Black Flag records, and the depredations of evil Italian promoters–is below. Read on if you like the guy.
The last time you spoke to the Voice, you basically said what you’re doing now is unsustainable. Do you still feel this way?
Even more so, yeah. I mean, that was only a couple months ago. Over the course of touring in the spring and getting an even better handle of how record sales with our latest record are going, it’s definitely unsustainable. That’s just the unfortunate reality of it.
So record sales are grim?
Well, it’s all relative, but I mean, [exhales] not enough to keep us in action at the level of activity that we’ve been acting at for the last decade or so. As everybody ages and aren’t quite so willing to live hand to mouth anymore, you just can’t keep doing it.
Going forward, do you have a sense of what the reality is going to look like in terms of the way your life will change?
I imagine we’ll have to tour less, because we’ll have to be working in other ways more. Beyond that, this is all in process. I’m gearing up for transitions, but what those transitions are have yet to really manifest themselves or be decided on. I mean, certainly there’s just no way we can keep hammering along like we have been as everybody pushes on into their forties.
Was the relative lack of success of the last record the dividing line?
I don’t know, honestly. I certainly didn’t think of it that way. There’s no dividing line, there’s no black and white: it’s just a series of decisions based on priorities and logistics and energy. I’ve seen this coming for a while I think, but at the same time I feel like our big goal has always just been to–I shouldn’t even say always–but when the Hearts of Oak record came out in 2003, that record actually surprised everybody. 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. And it was always out of reach, but so close that it always made sense to keep trying for it, you know?
Just to clarify, we’re talking about the business side of things. Of course we play music because we love playing music and, at the end of the day, that’s the be all and end all. We’re not going to stop. But everybody’s getting to the point where you have to factor in other things. It always seemed so possible that it was always worth continuing to try for–now it seems pretty impossible. And I’ve seen it trending in that direction in the same way everyone else has in the last few years. So it’s just a question of reevaluation, not so much what you do, but the way you do things.
And, you know, I doubt that I will personally ever stop making music, but I certainly have to realize that I can’t keep physically, mentally, or financially doing these tours of Europe, where we’re playing to five people every night and losing thousands of dollars and seeing these kinds of diminishing returns. In the states, at least as far as record sales go, shows are still great and that’s more than anything what keeps us going–not so much financially, but definitely mentally, physically, and energy-wise. People always talk about [goes into dumb-man voice], “Well, most bands make their money on the road with merch anyway.” I mean, I don’t know, I’ve never really found that to be entirely true. I suppose if you’re selling t-shirts for 30 bucks and people are actually buying them, that tips the favor in you making most of your money on merch. But we don’t do that either.
You seem to be one of the few people coming out and saying right now that record sales really do still matter. I can’t entirely tell if you’re joking or not, but I do see you calling out people on Twitter for pirating your album.
Well you know what, I’m half joking when I do that. I recognize of course that that’s going to go on. But what I find it absolutely ridiculous is that someone would approach the artist and say to them, “Hey where can I…” 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? 10 dollars, it’s 10 goddamn dollars. Dock yourself two beers this week and you’ve got our album.
Or at least please do me the courtesy of not coming up to my face and telling me you don’t want to spend 10 dollars on the record. I get it, we all share music. I do it myself, I share it with my friends–I learn about things by sharing things. Actually, just a couple years ago, I finally bought Black Flag’s Damaged on vinyl , because I had a tape of it since the record came out that I made from a friend and I never bought the record. So I get it, we all do it. But I didn’t go up to Henry Rollins’ face and say “Hey, uh, I really liked the record, I had this tape of it for five years, I never bought it.” Because it’s rude! That’s kind of why I’m snarky on Twitter. I just think that’s rude. At least give me the courtesy of pretending that you bought it.
Yeah, and from what you’re saying it does matter.
This is what I was saying in the previous interview. It didn’t matter when we weren’t selling any records–and again, all things are relative–it didn’t matter when we had no expectations of selling more than a couple thousand records. 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. So that’s all I’m talking about: there’s this weird middle zone that I think a lot of bands are in.
And again, I am absolutely not against free music. I would love to figure out a way in which it would make sense for everyone involved to share things much more widely and legally than they’re shared. I’m also a pretty generous guy. I’m not afraid to say that. I give stuff away all the time. I give stuff away at shows; I give stuff away on the web. It’s just sometimes, I do get a little miffed that the decision to give something away is taken out of my hands.
What about the personal side of it? You kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier: It’s tough to be a grown man on one side or the other of 40 and on the road as much as you are.
It’s always been a very manic existence. Being a touring musician who spends more of his life on the road than not, it’s a life of extremes. At all hours of every day it can simultaneously be the greatest thing that anyone could possibly be doing–especially when you’re actually on stage playing music to people, there’s really no other life that I would want to have–and at the same time, the grind of it all can be some of the absolute worst experiences that one can have. This is not a “Woe is me” thing: I’m just learning and thinking about all this. We’re essentially touring the same way that we were when we were in our early twenties. Now that we are in our late thirties, the negative things that used to not carry as much weight as the positive things become harder and harder to take. They start to both approach that evening out line. They’re both approaching zero and that’s terrible–you don’t want zero-sum game when you’re playing music. You want it to stay on the positive side of things and it still does, of course. But with every really degrading tour experience, it becomes more and more like “Ugh, really? I’m still doing this?” But the flip side is that then you have a great experience and that propels you to the next day.
Even just as someone who is getting older and still going to shows–your tolerance for all the kind of lousiness or boredom that surrounds them just drops. I’m sure it’s magnified 1000 times for a guy that has to do it every night.
In terms of what I was saying before about not changing what you do but how you do it: from the beginning, in our sort of rise from basements to small clubs to medium-sized clubs to big clubs, its always been the case that we’ve dealt with it in baby steps. I’d so much rather play a bunch of nights to a relatively full club with people who I know that actually want to see us than I would be to try to push the issue and follow the trajectory to bigger clubs or doing support slots for people who don’t want to see us. That’s kind of how I’m trying to think about things now. I probably have to start thinking about getting some other jobs and touring in a different way. When I talk about degrading tour experiences, I mean when we wind up in the wrong situation, we just have to rethink what the right situation will be and who the right people to work with are going be. You have to kind of remember your roots and continue to not try to…
…please Against Me Fans.
[Laughs] Just try to be realistic about what it is you can achieve with what’s in front of you. And hopefully you are doing things on the right level. Recent experiences that I can point to to illustrate this best: In Europe in May we were getting completely dicked around by these Italian promoters. This was one of those things where you have to try to understand what you can hope to achieve and where you’re at, but also you have to have some self dignity and say, “Wherever we’re at, I don’t need to eat shit to gain something or shoot towards something that is pointless to shoot at at this point in my life.” We’re getting jerked around by these promoters in Italy and ultimately we just decided that we didn’t need to eat this shit anymore. For what? To sell some more records in Italy?
I went to the internet and the other logical geographic course for us to take on that tour would have been to go back into Germany. And I asked “Does anyone in Germany want to book a couple last minute shows for us?” A couple kids did and we played a youth center in Mannheim and this tiny basement club in Cologne and they ended up being two of the best shows on the tour, because rather than showing up somewhere with your hands out like Oliver Twist asking the promoter–[Oliver Twist accent:] “Oh please, please promoter can I have some more?” [Evil Italian accent:] “Of course not. You don’t get any more”–we got to play small shows with kids who actually wanted to see us.
You wonder why bands break up–you’ve got to be having fun or making money or hopefully some combination of both of them. If you aren’t doing either, do something that will at least provide you with a good experience. And it seemed like going to play those particular shows [in Italy] would have gained us nothing but frustration. I’d rather have fun in small rooms than eat shit in big ones.
At one point in your Chisel days, probably every single one of your friends were in a band. Even your brothers were in bands. And then at some point a switch must have been flicked and most of them weren’t in bands anymore. After everyone quit–and given the situation you’re describing–what made you keep going past that point?
That’s a good question. I would say in a broad sense you’re probably right, but actually most of the people that I was close with that were in bands in the ’90s and probably going back to the ’80s are actually still making music in one form or another. Whether they are people that I actually play with daily and have known for all that time or–in Calgary the other night I got to see [Nation of Ulysses warrior Ian Svenonius’] Chain and the Gang. They’re a newer band and that’s actually a perfect illustration of what the answer to your question is. What keeps it going is that I can’t really think of a better thing to do with myself than to be onstage playing music, and I think that most of these people feel the same way.
All of this kind of meta stuff about careers and music, you would be foolish to ignore it after a certain point, but you would be really foolish to forget the impetus of it all, which is that you love playing music. That’s certainly what has propelled myself and everyone that I’m really close to to keep doing it for as long as we all have. It sounds corny, but it really is the truth. There is no other experience that I have encountered–no other “job” that I’ve encountered–that gives you the same kind of satisfaction as playing music.
James Murphy, from LCD Soundsystem, likes to say in interviews that he’s always thankful that he reached whatever level of success has now when he was basically thirty–like, he had spent his twenties trying and failing to succeed playing music, so by the time he got there, he knew how to deal with it. I think about you the same way sometimes: I’m old enough to remember eight million basement shows and benefits and stuff you played. By the time you were opening for Pearl Jam, I imagine you were unphased.
Oh definitely, and that’s actually another aspect to my specific story that bears mentioning. By the end of the ’90s, kind of in the same way that James was, I had been through the ringer with Chisel. We had been courted by 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. And I started playing solo solely because I wanted to get off the band hamster wheel, and I wanted to get away from all of this other stuff. And at that point in time I really had just completely put the brakes on, and that’s when I was turning thirty. I was like, “You know what? I’m done. I’m done with it. I’m just playing music at this point because I’ve got songs and I can play them and that’s what I’m going to do.” All of the good things that have come since then–when I really sit back and think about it, I’m like “bonus.” Because ten years ago I had already gotten to the point where I was like, “Meh, I’m done.” Of course that was also the point where I was like “Oh, hey, you can actually start selling records.”
It is a gift. It’s the luckiest thing in the world to be able to do all that. So yeah, when someone like Pearl Jam comes along and asks you to do some shows with them–I mean they didn’t approach us because we had the same management company or something. They approached us because they liked our music and that was flattering. And I thought, when else in my life will I have the chance to play Madison Square Garden?
Yeah, which is kind of an incredible thing that you’ve done.
Yeah, growing up that was sort of the mountaintop of rock and roll. You don’t stop caring about it at a certain point when you start caring about punk and everything. But part of the reason why you can afford to stop caring about it is because it seems like a ridiculous prospect that’s never going to happen. And then all of a sudden the opportunity fell in my life and I was like, “I guess I gotta do it.”
You’re probably too nice a guy to answer this question, but what do you make of the fate of the music that got you into doing what you’re doing now? I’m less asking you to call Rollins a sell-out than to give me an indication, patience-wise, where you’re at with the rituals you grew up with: basements, lyric sheets, DIY tours in vans, talking a lot before songs. I never know if this stuff ended of if I just got too old to seek it out anymore.
I’ll tell you this–it definitely never ended. Even when it seemed like we were farthest removed from that, every now and then we would wind up actually on a show somewhere that was a very vivid reminder of the fact that these things still exist. Or we would be in some town during a night off, walking around or something, and I would see a flier for a hardcore show and just kind of go to the show. And it would be pretty awesome actually to see that that scene still exists. Every generation coming up seems like they have their own version of that scene, which is really not that different than how it was for me. And in some ways it’s pretty friggin’ amazing and inspiring to see that that still goes on. I’m not going to lie to you, there are other ways in which I’ve had to ask myself if my allegiance to the theology of this throughout the years somehow hamstrung what myself and my own songwriting might have been able to do otherwise. But ultimately, I feel like I’m on the right side of some imaginary line. And I’m glad that there are kids who still love this stuff.
You have that lyric from “Ativan Eyes”: “We ‘strive to survive causing least suffering possible’/The Flux of Pink Indians gave me words for that.” I love that on two levels–one because I think you’re being sincere, and I’m curious how you try to apply that line in your life and work. Two because it’s only one example of many of how active older punk stuff is in your work–covering Stiff Little Fingers and so on.
For better or worse it’s still certainly very important in my life. While I recognize the borderline silliness of writing a line like that, I am actually sincere and it is still important to me. It’s also been one of the reasons why since we’ve been able to sort of pick and choose things like this we’ve always kind of tried to pay attention to what younger bands are doing and take them out on tour with us when we can.
You seem to have very little cynicism when it comes to things like that. Where you’re totally willing to let a band of 21-year olds come on tour if they’re a good band.
Absolutely. If nothing else that keeps us honest. It forces us to play to the top of our game every night. You can’t get on stage after the Screaming Females and half-ass it.
Regarding that Flux of Pink Indians line: You wrote a bunch of pretty cynical, angry records over the last decade. I feel like this one is less so, so I wonder where you’re at these days?
I definitely think that Shake the Sheets and Living with the Living, taken as a whole, are a little darker than both the records that came before them and the most recent record. What I hope that I have also been able to express even in the kind of bleakest songs if not records, as a whole is the idea that the only reason that I’m pissed off about any of this is because of how much I love it all. To borrow another UK anarchy band line–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.
If I’m angry about anything I hope that people at least understand that it’s because of the potential for beauty that I see, at the risk of getting to hippy about it. And to bring it back to your actual question about the new record and where I’m at now, I think that honestly, and this has nothing to do with the current administration or the fact that we’re not currently under the Bush administration anymore, but I’m just personally sick of having every song that I write be so weighted down with every single bit of meaning. That’s not to say that I’m gonna start singing summertime anthems anytime soon, but even with the more serious songs on Brutalist Bricks, I just tried to let there be a little more light and air in all the proceedings. Like, “Where is my Brain” for example, it’s not that it’s not a serious song –it’s about how ideas that look great on paper play out in the real world when actual flesh and blood peole have to deal with them. But rather than write some turgid, really heavy think piece about it, I was able to turn it into something cheeky with a little bit of humor in it. And that’s kind of where I’m at in general right now.
One wonky theory I’ve held about your output over the past five years or so is that you’ve become more and more aware of how entertainment, including what you make, can be escapist. The way at a certain point your records were wall-to-wall melody, and then that changed a bit. Sometimes I think these days you deliberately write less pretty songs to make the subtext a little bit more overt–I have in mind here “Bomb. Repeat Bomb” vs. “Who Do You Love” on Living with the Living, or “The Stick” vs “Bottled in Cork” on the last record.
I think you’re really right about that. I think that the new record is a more concise distillation of what started happening on Living with the Living. If you go back to Shake the Sheets, Hearts of Oak, Tyranny of Distance–most of the songs on all of those records have most of every single influence of mine, somehow synthesized into one song. I think the reggae song on Living with the Living is the best example because it started out as literally just a time waster, Garage Band experiment, where I just messed around with some reggae stuff. Bringing it to the band, my natural inclination in previous years would have been to punk it up or change it from reggae to more rock-soul, but at that point I was just like, “Fuck it, leave it a reggae song.”
You seem very comfortable with the social media era of being in a band. You’re on Twitter a lot. You even just took shots at the Brooklyn Vegan comments section.
The funny thing is when email first came out, I got really into it. And back in the day when Id’ get like twenty emails a week, I’d make one night be email night. I’d break out a bottle of whiskey and just answer all my fan emails for the week and gradually get drunker and become more incoherent as the email answers went on. But then that started getting overwhelming and I stopped being able to adequately respond to everything. Luckily at that time things like MySpace and Facebook came in and I was able to have a more slow interaction that those things enabled, versus the one-to-one interaction that emails entailed. And then those two things got completely overwhelming because everyone at a desk was on Facebook and MySpace and you just started getting barraged with messages and they get pissed off when you don’t reply immediately and I had to kind of run away from them.
I actually love Twitter so far because it goes back to that original back and forth low pressure flow of interaction that I think some of the other big paradigms of social online media initially promised and presented for a little while. And email and websites where you can long-form blog are always there, so Twitter is the perfect bridge for me because it’s quick, flowing, low-pressure, and if you want to take it further you can go to some of these other more static standbys like the blog or you can say, “Email me and we’ll talk about it more.”
How do you feel about the level of access that people who like your music have to you? I remember when Brutalist Bricks came out, it seemed like you were almost asking people to let up a little bit…
Yeah, definitely I was. That specifically had to do with what I think is thoughtless use of the media. If you want to talk about my record or talk shit about my record then go ahead, that’s your prerogative. But if you wouldn’t walk up to me on the street and say, “Hey, your record sucks!” then don’t “@” me because it shows up in my Twitter feed. Just think a half a second beyond what you’re doing, and add some social grace to your social media.
Are those birds chirping behind you?
This piece is pegged to Siren Festival, which takes place on Coney Island. Do you have any good Coney Island stories you’d be willing to share?
My last two times at Coney Island have been actually been the Siren Fest that I DJ’d, and the one that I played back in ’02 or ’03 or whenever it was.
No civilian memories?
No, not in recent years. I never really spent that much time in Coney Island. Being from the other side of the Hudson as close as I was to Manhattan, by the time I got to Coney Island I could be down in Seaside New Jersey, so I’d spend most of my shore time on the Jersey side. I’ve been to Coney Island plenty of times as a civilian as well. Actually, when I DJ’d the summer of ’08 it was a blazing hot weekend like it is right now and by the end of the day there was no way I was gonna not jump in the ocean. Which I did and it felt great while I was in there and when I was walking back to the shore I noticed this line of scum where the tide was. There were like Popsicle wrappers and crap and I was like “Ugh I have to take a shower.” So I have some regrets about Coney Island.