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Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles named his band after one of Shakespeare’s most violent, least regarded plays. He writes songs named “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’.” His band’s most recent album uses the Civil War as a metaphor for political and personal alienation and strife and drops lyrical references to Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and The Modern Lovers, and its liner notes include a Jersey Honor Roll that tips the hat to Ted Leo and The Misfits.
So, yeah, the man knows his history, which makes his band a perfect candidate to play the Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute concert this Sunday, when they’ll cover acknowledged influences The Replacements. (It also helps that The Monitor is one of best albums released in the current decade–it’s certainly one of the best balancing acts between absurd ambition and pulse-quickening catharsis to be released by a young band in quite a while.) It’s hard to not appreciate Stickles’ deeply informed culture-mashing and outspoken nature, so we emailed him a few questions for our piece on the Our Band show. What we got back was a thesis statement too good to not run (almost) unedited. Enjoy, and cross your fingers that he goes through with covering “Gary’s Got A Boner.”
Your music, especially the songs on The Monitor, is rich with allusions to decades’ worth of underground iconography, and Titus Andronicus regularly cover alt-rock touchstones from the likes of Bikini Kill and Weezer in their sets. Could you talk about your connection to the history of what we call, for better and worse, alternative music? Do you consider it a tradition that you are doing your part to carry on, subvert and/or reshape?
This is one of the things that often annoys me about “punk” or “alternative” music–the idea that there is such a thing as a “Year Zero,” that everything which came before is worthless and we have to tear down the temple to build one that is everlasting, or, to quote our boy Guy Picciotto, “ahistorical–you think this shit just drops right out of the sky!” Our Band really did a lot to show my teenage self that punk DID have a history, and a very rich one at that–the difference was that this history was meant to be a source of empowerment for those living in the present.
This history was not academic, not some stuffy old bullshit to collect dust somewhere. The bands in the book didn’t make up some kind of indie-rock Mount Olympus. Rather, they gave us many sets of strong shoulders upon which to stand and see what might lay ahead. The era the book describes, a time when “punk” and “indie” rock were sharing the same cradle, seems to me now a time of immense possibility. Consider Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth. It seems obvious to me that these were punk bands, and yet they never for a moment wore punk’s lunkheadedness as an albatross. They saw that the freedom punk offered was for opening up new doors, not slamming old ones. Nowadays, not to elevate and idealize the past like I just said was a dumb idea, it seems like you can be a punk band if you scoff at any sort of “sophistication” or expansion beyond the well-established rules and parameters, or you can be an indie rock band if you deny that blood pumps through you and that you are an animal and that there is a part of you which longs to thrash and scream and surrender to the visceral part of yr monkey brain. The bands in Our Band didn’t play by these nonsense rules, so it should be no surprise that it was in these years that history took a few giant leaps forward, in terms of “alternative music” anyway. A little bit more of that same spirit now, that same sense of freedom, but also the strength we can draw from those which have come before, could help us move ahead in modern times too, perhaps. The band that knows this best now, by the way, is Fucked Up, and I hereby request Azerrad’s next book to be about them.
As far as history goes, how important was Our Band Could Be Your Life to your musical development? Did you discover any artists from that book that you had never listened to before? Or were you already hip-deep in the underground by the time it came on your radar?
Not to sound like a smart-ass, but most of the bands in the book whose music I continue to have an ongoing relationship with, like the Replacements and Sonic Youth, I was already listening to a little bit when I got the book. I saw the reunited Mission Of Burma around the same time I got the book; I didn’t think they were that great then and I still don’t. Ditto Mudhoney. Ditto Big Black–what is the deal with this Steve Albini guy? Does he think he’s funny or something? Of course, around this time, I pretty much thought Fugazi sounded like Red Hot Chilli Peppers, so maybe I am due to try some further critical reassessment. The band that I really came to love through the book was Dinosaur Jr., so thanks for that, Mike.
Did the artists profiled therein give you any guidelines for how to conduct yourself in the music industry while maintaining your artistic credibility?
Much moreso than any sort of musical guidance, Our Band for me was an introduction to a whole world of ethics that I had never even considered. As a young teen, my understanding of punk was largely confined to the Sex Pistols’ fuck-everything negation, or the vague sloganeering of the Clash and their devotees–first among these for me, Rancid–which was Greek to me. To be introduced to a whole world of American bands who had values strong enough to bet their entire lives on them was a revelation that I am still recovering from.
For me, none of these were more admirable than the Minutemen, a band who lacks some of the iconic qualities of Black Flag or Fugazi, and whose music I have never especially enjoyed. Yet, their “econo” philosophy spoke loudly to my teenage self–the way that they rejected the excesses of ’80s Hollywood, itself a perfect symbol of American consumerism as a whole, was emblematic of the freedom of the punk to tear down the walls of indoctrination that have been built around him or her and replace them with values of yr own choosing. D. Boon and Mike Watt being as well-informed and well-spoken as they were demonstrates that they took seriously the responsibilities that come with such freedom. Yes, American Society may be a morally bankrupt nightmare, and a great big loud “NO” is always necessary, but it isn’t nearly as simple as cutting off yr sleeves and putting Elmer’s in yr hair, which seemed to be the message of ’70’s punk, England-style as I understood it. Such freedoms have to be earned, by commitment and dedication and constant, thoughtful consideration and reconsideration. Their righteousness was no free pass out of examining yr motives, as the many spats between Boon and Watt found in the book showed.
For practical purposes, I think about the Minutemen often when Titus Andronicus is conducting business, or even if I am not thinking about them, the values they helped to establish as a viable alternative for American punks are carried in every decision we make. What sets the Minutemen apart from a band like Fugazi or Crass, who would seem to have the market cornered on serious, high-minded righteousness, was that their righteousness was PRACTICAL. Even though they could talk at length about “world issues” or “foreign policy” or whatever, their philosophy was deeply rooted in the here and now, doubtless informed by their working-class upbringings. They provided answers to questions that were very much of the land: where are we going to sleep, what are we going to eat, how are we going to get to the show, and so on. In this, the Minutemen proved the classic cliché of the “personal being political.” Sometimes there is a tendency to think of a punk band as some kind of political machine, but really, when the whistle blows, bands are collections of individuals, and an individual is the sum total of her or his decisions, large and small. Every day offers the individual a hundred opportunities to “be the change [they] want to see in the world,” just by living in accordance with yr own carefully considered value system. Maybe it doesn’t “make a difference” in the grand scheme, but the Minutemen were rich in the truest currency upon this earth: the knowledge that yr actions came from an honest place in yr heart, and that they were undertaken because you wanted to, not as some grab at some imaginary brass ring, not to please some itinerant god, not to score a couple extra points in some game that nobody can agree on the rules to anyway. Or, to sum it up more succinctly, keep the overhead low.
Some of the artists profiled in Band, great as they are, seem like a cautionary tale of what not to do when running a band–though it’s good to see that Dinosaur Jr eventually got over their “communication issues”–or what band-slash-cred destroying decisions to avoid. Are these things you think about in terms of your own band?
I think that Azerrad’s definitely had an agenda as far as demonstrating to young musicians what could happen to them if they put their eyes on the wrong prize. Is there a single chapter in the book that doesn’t end with the band moving to a major label, and a short paragraph neatly wrapping up how they came to start sucking? The Replacements, Husker Du… shit, even perennial favorites Sonic Youth pretty much let the air out of the bag following Goo, as near as I can see. Rather than taking this a simple “Don’t sell out–money sucks” sort of message (even though that is probably still good advice for anyone playing punk rock music–what’s up, @AgainstMe #suckit). Rather, the stories in the book are more like tiny little Greek tragedies, where hubris serves to remind the rocker that s/he was better off thinking of themselves on the level of humans rather than the gods–better to be concerned with “what is” than “what might be.” That isn’t to say that one should be unambitious–Husker Du certainly proved that was ok–but rather, that priorities should always be checked and the proper effort made to keep them in order. Punk rockers must walk upon the Earth! Punk rockers need their fingers in the soil!
Why don’t more bands try to sound like The Replacements?
We learned from the Goo Goo Dolls that it wasn’t a sure thing.
With so many great songs by them, how painful is it to just pick a few?
It isn’t even so much that the Replacements have a lot of great songs, but rather that the totality of their early catalog, the great songs along with the very bad songs, create a context that is much more than the sum of its parts. They built a world where anything was possible, a universe rich with far-reaching wormholes, where razor sharp left turns were not only possible but pretty much guaranteed. Can you imagine any other band in history who could put “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “Sixteen Blue” right next to each other and have it make any sense? Such was their magic. To try and capture such twists and turns within ten minutes is a fool’s error. It was briefly considered that the most fitting tribute to the legacy of the Replacements would have been a set of all goof songs–this would lean heavily on Hootenanny, of course–or else a set of all covers that the Replacements did–“Heartbeat–It’s a Lovebeat,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy,” etc. Really, ten minutes of the “best” Replacements song is highly antithetical to their true ethos. We are not as brave as they were, though, so there ya go.
Are you restricting yourself to just songs from their indie albums for the set? Because while that would be understandable, I’m pretty damn sure you would destroy “Bastards Of Young” bastards of young” replacements and “Left Of The Dial.”
We will only be playing songs from the Twin/Tone catalog, considering that is the era which the book covers. We will take it one step further, though, and play only songs that correspond to important passages from the book. I will also go on the record and say that the last four albums are trash compared to the first four. Tim, in particular, I never liked, for all that everyone says it is the best. Would the Replacements have been so quick to make the jump to Sire if they could have known that the immediate result would be their worst-sounding album? Tommy Ramone–good punk legend and everything, but what a bad producer!
Anything else you wish to say on this topic?
Titus Andronicus–along with Ted Leo, St. Vincent and many others–will play the Our Band Could Be Your Concert 10th anniversary special at The Bowery Ballroom on Sunday, May 22.