In 1861, the United States commissioned John Ericsson—widely considered one of Sweden’s greatest engineers—to construct an iron-clad warship eventually christened the USS Monitor. Napoleon had recently rejected a similar concept, but at the onset of the American Civil War, the North needed something to compete with a new fleet of Confederate ships; thus construction soon began at Continental Iron Works in good ol’ Greenpoint, then New York’s shipbuilding mecca.
Though that patch of Brooklyn is now a mecca of a different sort, Ericsson’s valor lives on. “This guy was definitely a visionary,” says Patrick Stickles, captain of Titus Andronicus, a punk-implosion of a band born in Glen Rock, New Jersey, but now (mostly) calling Greenpoint home. “He’s a great maritime genius. How could you not love someone like that?”
He corrects himself: “Not ‘love,’ but be fascinated by. Robert E. Lee once said, ‘It’s good that war is so terrible—otherwise, we’d be too fond of it.’ “
So deep was his devotion, in fact, that Stickles named TA’s new record The Monitor, though it’s not, as you might initially fear, a bloated, waterlogged concept album about a Civil War boat that just so happened to play a pivotal role in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. Instead, like Sarah Vowell with her history memoirs, Stickles uses the Civil War as a loose framework for a series of anthemic battle cries concerned more with self-actualization than mere re-enactment, addressing both historical concerns and the thoroughly modern perils of getting fucked up and drinking too much whisky and disappointing your parents and coping with people telling you that you’ll always be a loser.
The Monitor thus starts off quite aggressively, on the front lines, ready to wage war with marching drums and frenetic guitar juxtaposed with shout-outs to both minor-league baseball team the Newark Bears and martyred abolitionist John Brown. Throughout its 10 tracks, Stickles drops a slew of inside references to parties gone sour, iconic Jersey highways, and descriptions of the Northeast, particularly Boston, where he tried (and failed) to drop anchor after college. Droning atmospherics mix with power-pop chords on songs like, “A Pot in Which to Piss,” wherein Stickles slyly recalls the perils of a swirly: “I’ve been called out, cuckolded, castrated, but I survived/I am covered in urine and excrement, but I’m alive/And there’s a white flag in my pocket never to be unfurled/Though with their hands ’round my ankles, they bring me down for another swirl/And they tell me, ‘Take it easy, buddy, it’s not the end of the world.’ “
Stickles himself isn’t an aggro type, his talent for writing a fist-pumper for frat guys notwithstanding. He’s a tall, lanky guy with a thin, long beard, soft-spoken yet very sociable, but with hints that he’s fond of solitude, too. He drops Langston Hughes quotes while professing a love for obscure Spacemen 3 records—things you don’t acquire a taste for in the company of others. He writes all of the songs; band members have come and gone over the years, with bassist Ian Graetzer and drummer Eric Harm the constants. Titus gained notoriety with their debut, The Airing of Grievances (reissued by their current label, XL, in January 2009), but Stickles admits that the record-buying public—a fickle bunch, he notes—only snapped up 7,000 copies.
This might explain The Monitor‘s heightened ambitions: “I was thinking about the roots of external conflict—what the roots were between the Union and the Confederacy,” the frontman explains. “People who stood for one thing and people who stood for another, and their inabilities to get along. Why they stood for one thing and they felt so strongly. These external conflicts that we have with one another are really just outward manifestations of our own internal conflicts: that we’re unhappy with ourselves and we’re unable to be accountable for that.”
In a weird way, Stickles recently encountered such a conflict, the battlefield being a Williamsburg warehouse. The band was hired by Vice to play a big 15th-birthday bash on Halloween 2009: Do a set of Weezer covers, get paid, go home. The sort of opportunity a band that’s only sold 7,000 records needs to pay the bills. But shortly before their set, through a mixture of miscommunication and mishandling, Stickles found himself out on his ass on the pavement, dressed as a glammed-out Ulysses S. Grant, dismissed by security guards for bringing along an American flag.
Things eventually got sorted, and after ripping through the requested Weezer set (including a depressed “Buddy Holly” guitar solo), Stickles went home, dejected, and watched Trapped in the Closet, Chapters 1-12. The next morning, he articulated his thoughts about the night on the band’s blog, via a Hunter S. Thompson–referencing post titled, “The Vice Halloween Party Is Decadent and Depraved.” In addition to a blow-by-blow recap of his plight, he lamented the supposed “scene” the fete was celebrating, and his role in it: “New York City is supposed to be a haven for people like me, and I am still getting my ass kicked by the same goons who were kicking my ass in high school. They probably want to kick my ass because they see what huge assholes we all are, with our cocaine and our cameras and our annoying music.”
His conclusion was simple: “Kids, we are blowing it. Everything they say about us is true.”
Months later, Stickles still feels much the same. “We don’t want to be a band that plays bar mitzvahs or whatever,” he says. “But what can we do? We’d love to act like Fugazi, but Fugazi sold two million records. Unfortunately, we’re subject to the whims of our bodies. And our bodies want things like food and shelter and clothing.”
As The Monitor sails on, Stickles similarly shifts his tone from bombastic to reflective, cycling through disgust, guilt, and, finally, acceptance. The sound drifts from twang-punk on “Theme From Cheers” to the bar-driven blues of “Four Score and Seven” to the crescendoing guitar-rock closer “The Battle of Hampton Roads,” wherein Stickles, amid funereal-sounding bagpipes, considers the decline of true patriotism: “Because we have found out that if you’ve been assured/That there’s a way to live the values your forefathers gave you/Prepare to be told/’That shit’s gay, dude.’ “
Ultimately, like any good confessional, The Monitor chronicles a man wrestling with how to align himself with, well, his own self. Figuring out whether or not those who insisted, “You will always be a loser” (the record’s catchiest chorus, by the way) were right. Because that’d be the worst: realizing you’re a loser long after everyone else has. In the end, our hero heads home, thoroughly defeated, still waving a flag, but this time a white one: “I’m going back to New Jersey/I do believe they’ve had enough of me.”
Besides an evident fascination with naval warfare, Stickles and John Ericsson have little in common. The latter would go on to design what became the modern-day torpedo; finding revolutionary new ways to blow shit up became his calling card. Stickles, by contrast, turns inward, saddened by his surroundings, awash in self-loathing. Monitor highlight “Titus Andronicus Forever” is a fight song that repeats the line, “The enemy is everywhere/The enemy is everywhere/But nobody seems worried or to care”; near the album’s close, that sentiment is reprised as, “I’m sick and I’m scared/The enemy is everywhere.” It’s a desperate, sinking feeling—the original USS Monitor did sink, after all.
Titus Andronicus play the Bowery Ballroom on March 6