Titus Andronicus on paper may seem at odds with Titus Andronicus in action. Never shy about self-reference (see "Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe"), high-mindedness (see "Upon Viewing Bruegel's 'Landscape With the Fall of Icarus'"), or tongue-in-cheek commentary (see http://titusandronicus.net: Specializing in punk solutions since 2005), the band makes plain that its output is not reflexive or off-the-cuff, but conceptual, a pilot program for a still-forming worldview. Its last two albums explored the Civil War and the eco-system of the local music scene, respectively. Despite the philosophical underpinnings, the music is pure punk in execution: frenetic and lively. Titus Andronicus shows no willingness to reconcile inherent contradictions and no sign of abandoning grandiose ambitions. In fact, the band's next album will be a rock opera, the most grandiose of rock offerings. In this interview, frontman Patrick Stickles talks about the medium and the message.
Your songs tend toward big, existential ideas. Do you ever feel stifled by the limitations of your medium, as though the themes you deal with in your songs might be better explored through media such as fiction or film?
While it may be true that rock 'n' roll cannot traditionally allow the level of detail and explication of ideas that some other formats can offer the artist, it has one major advantage over, say, a book or something: A book can be easily put aside and ignored by the idle student, but a rock 'n' roll band, at its best, is impossible to ignore, and engages the audience in a more confrontational and visceral manner. Words on a page can beckon an eager mind, but rock and roll will shove its message down the throat of even the most ambivalent bystander. Books, paintings, these sort of things invite as rock 'n' roll attacks. In the same way, articulating a feeling on paper may allow greater clarity of expression, but it will be lacking in the catharsis of screaming those same feelings. The physicality of the act of rocking grants transcendent qualities to even the most crudely expressed feelings, tearing down the walls of apathy the listener may put up around themselves so that essence of these feelings, as articulated (however crassly) by the artist may touch the primal oneness within.
That being said, all this screaming and getting in people's faces and the ceremonial endurance of all the loud noises, is easy to turn on and off like a faucet (easy to turn on, anyway), but as the artist gets older, the practicality of less physically demanding mediums of expression grows in its appeal. As I get to be an old man, I can see why certain creative types would find it preferable to spend a year writing a book, maybe with a nice cup of tea in hand, than spend that same year screaming. Also, the price of finding the right place to do all that screaming may be greater than finding a place to put a desk. For now, I choose the life of screaming.
It is important to remember through all this, though, that while we may find it appropriate to try to achieve certain artistic ends with an album that other artists may find more suited to a novel or film, all of that stuff is secondary to the real essential element of rock 'n' roll's appeal, which is the toe-tapping element, the jumping up and down part of it, the part of it that touches the Dionysian and the Bacchanal. Rock 'n' roll having this element separates it from other art forms, but it does not deny it the same hifalutin' ambitions that a painting or a novel may have. The trick is making it work on both levels, so that it may satisfy a sweaty throng on a Saturday night who want nothing more than to connect with their animal nature, or a desperate loner on a Wednesday morning who seeks validation and understanding. It is the same trick we humans must play, balancing the cerebral and the carnal impulses that are forever at war within ourselves. Rock 'n' roll, at its best, will please both ape and ubermensch.
Each Titus Andronicus album seems to have a thematic through line. Do you find taking a thematic approach makes for an unwieldy creative experience, or does it lend a sense of structure?
During the songwriting process up to this point, it is not that I have purposefully catered the songs to adhere to the parameters of the project, but that the parameters of the project have been kept loose enough to allow for me to freely follow the muse. The moment of creation validates the work from birth — it would be foolish to reject something that feels right because it doesn't fit into some predetermined scheme. The particulars of the scheme are established much later, with the disparate pieces of work as evidence of the larger picture.
If anything, the larger concept of the rock opera offers me answers that can reached somewhat logically which I would not have at hand if trying to simply write three perfect minutes of rock. A three minute rock song as a completely blank canvas seems like a lot of freedom, but for me it can mean a lot of hand wringing, as one way to move forward is as empirically “good” as a million others — should I play G then C, or G then D? “Oh baby” then “yeah” or “yeah” then “oh baby?” Having even the vaguest of over-arching themes or goals eliminates a lot of guesswork sometimes.
As you've alluded to, you've said your next album will be a rock opera. How close will it stick to a proper narrative?
The rock opera we are working on now will follow a narrative across five acts, but it is more of an allegory or a fable rather than “This is the story of so and so who performs actions x, y, and z, and then this other one does this.” Our hero sings more about what it feels like in a succession of moments than a laundry list of events advancing the plot forward. If in one part of the story, our hero is sad, he sings about being sad. When he becomes happy, he sings of happiness. It is more a plot like that than, “...and then a thousand starfighters appeared and they all fired their lasers and yadda yadda.”
The rock opera you are working on was inspired by your own experiences with manic depression. Have friends and loved ones urged caution in the level of autobiography you put onto the album?
As far as the level of autobiography in the rock opera, the important people in my life know better than to advise me towards making art which is “safer.” I have told most of my secrets already in previous Titus Andronicus songs, which were all autobiographical, but the rock opera is a work of fiction and not autobiography. That is not to say that all the things which happen to our hero did not happen to me, but the hero of the rock opera is not necessarily me, and he should not be thought of as such, anymore than Hamlet is Shakespeare, not to compare myself.
Do you have a vision for what you'd like the Titus Andronicus canon to look like when you're done? Are you working from a playbook set forth at the beginning of the Titus Andronicus run?
I cannot claim that every movement of Titus Andronicus up to this point has been a piece of a larger, unified scheme. When I started the band, I was just a dumb kid doing whatever and making a mess. Now that I am an adult, and the person responsible for this body of work, even if the person who made it means as much now as a snake's last molted skin, it now falls on me to contextualize the things we have done in the past, reconcile them with the sort of artist I want to be now, and create work which will act as a sort of glue between what we have done, making connections between the pieces and trying to create a larger picture which will be more than the sum of its components.
In much the same way as I cater the structure of the rock opera to accommodate its disparate pieces, so too must the work we do now suggest a context which allows for that which has come before to coexist and reveal itself as part of a process of growth and development. With each new release, you come, hopefully, a step closer to achieving your artistic ideal, and as a more perfect realization is achieved, the seeds of it come to reveal itself in that which came before. The artist always has had a vision, but could never communicate it truly, could never liberate it from its cerebral prison, but can only present the best possible articulation of it at that time.
As the body of work grows, the artist is able to present a clearer and clearer vision of his or her or their ideal of artistic goodness, and the listener can take their own understanding of that ideal and bring it to the earlier work, more able to forgive youthful weakness of expression and see the essence, almost see into the mind of the artist. It is in the mind that the great work is done — all these artistic forms just faulty mirrors.
Paying dues as an opening act is par for course for most up-and-comers out to build a buzz. But singer-songwriter Meredith Sheldon, formerly of the Ben Taylor Band and Family of the Year, is paying her dues in style. She may be unsigned, but, as tour support for Johnny Marr (of Smiths fame), Meredith finds herself sharing an audience with a rock legend. (The tour comes to Mr. Small's Theatre tonight.) And it isn’t the first time. A few years back she was in the same position when Evan Dando brought her on tour with The Lemonheads. Sheldon is lucky by her own account, but the songwriting acumen she displays on her new self-released EP, A La Mar, makes plain that it wasn’t just luck that brought her to the precipice of opportunity. Brash and bright, A La Mar espouses a fake-it-till-you-make-it ethos that pays little heed to risk and much to reward. In this interview, she talks about catching breaks and capitalizing on the opportunities she was given.
As an unsigned artist how did you end up on tour supporting Johnny Marr and, before that, the Lemonheads?
I’ve been really fortunate in the people that have heard my music and supported me, taking me on tour and becoming great friends, as well. Evan Dando was a big supporter of my demos and got me to start playing live by taking me over to England, even though I had never played any of my solo material before. I met the Marrs’ on that tour as well, and they became amazing friends and supporters. Marina (of Marina and the Diamonds) had some of my demos from when I was 18 and had been offering to take me on tour for ages, so when that finally materialized it was really fun.
You're in the process of releasing series of self-recorded EPs. Do these span your entire career, do they represent your output since you embarked on the solo project, or are you still in the process of recording them?
The EPs are comprised of material I've been working on over the past couple of years. They are what I've made on my own, with some help from someone on drums occasionally and my wonderful friend Matthew Cullen, who mixes them. I am beginning a full length album as well, which will include many of these tracks. In the meantime, [I] just wanted to get out the songs I've made to make room for new ones.
Am I right in hearing "A La Mar" as Spanish for "To the Sea?" Does the ocean hold a particular significance to you? Where does it fit into your music?
I have always been at home by the sea, have always lived nearby and spent a lot of time next to it on the island of Martha's Vineyard where I now live in Massachusetts. Its very cleansing for me. It reminds me that energy is constantly moving and changing, and I always want to have that flow in my music (and in my life for that matter). Its easy to get hooked on things and want to keep doing them, but ultimately the greatest joy comes to me when I try things out of my comfort zone and find myself surprised by what comes out.
Brighten up your Monday with a new song from indie-folk band Butterbirds. Butterbirds makes music that they accurately describe as "squawky, demented, friend jams." This week's MP3, called "Double Fisting," is from the group's new album Sweet Little Honey Nothin' and features squawky vocals over feel-good folk-rock instrumentation. Stream or download the track below, and check out the rest of the album here. If you like what you hear, you can catch the band playing at Brillobox on Tuesday with BRONCHO.
Sisters Ali and Jamie McMutrie are continuing to make an impact years after dramatically rescuing dozens of Haitian children after the 2010 earthquake in the region. Now, the McMutries run Haitian Families First (HFF), a nonprofit organization aimed at helping and empowering Haitian families in despair through emotional, social, and financial support.
Tomorrow (Nov. 9), the pair will host a benefit party at the Rex Theater, featuring karaoke, live performances, and appearances by local celebrities. Mikey and Big Bob of The Morning Freak Show on 96.1 KISS FM, WTAE’s Sally Wiggin, and mayoral candidate Bill Peduto, among others, will compete in a celebrity karaoke competition at the event. And don't worry — there will be non-celebrity karaoke, too.
This is the second annual live rock 'n' roll karaoke costume party hosted by HFF and all proceeds will benefit the organization. Randy Baumann of the DVE Morning Show will perform at and emcee the event, which starts at 9 p.m.
More information and tickets can be found at www.haitianfamiliesfirst.org/events
Free jazz musician Daniel Carter will perform in Pittsburgh this week with his trio The Moon. Carter, who is from Wilkinsburg, plays saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and flute and has performed with major acts including William Parker, Thurston Moore, Matthew Shipp. Though never receiving too much attention for his work, Carter has been active in the New York scene since the 1970s and has releases on notable labels like Eremite Records, Aum Fidelity, Thirsty Ear, and Silkheart Records.
The Moon — comprised of Carter, electric guitarist Adam Caine, and drummer Federico Ughi — will play two sets tonight (Wed., Oct. 30) at the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville. For more information and tickets, head over to the Thunderbird website.
Just try to pin a descriptor on Philadelphia's Far-Out Fangtooth. The band proves itself a moving target every time. In a post-genre landscape, it fits right in. Though they borrow liberally from the best of many canons, catering to going trends is not part of their approach. Moreover, Far-out Fangtooth don't pick and choose when to make their influences known. These influences are always present and all at once in an unholy, bastard stew. The result is sprawling and dire, as appropriate to a jittery rainy-day drive as it is to a ritual of blood sacrifice. In this interview, guitarist and vocalist Nicholas Kulp talks about joining up with the band, ignoring lazy reviewers, and making the Philly scene with contemporaries like Kurt Vile, Purling Hiss, and the War on Drugs. Far-Out Fangtooth's new album, Borrowed Time, came out Tues., Oct. 29, on Philadelphia's own Siltbreeze records.
The band started as a two piece with a guest players moving in and out of the line-up. How and when did it become the four piece it is today?
[The band was originally] a recording project/performance act by Joe Kusy and Vinnie Alvaré. They were in a bunch of previous bands together, but were never really in bands in which they had complete creative direction. They recorded a cassette in early 2009. [I] traded Joe a screen-printed poster for it. In August, [I] joined the band and that October Tania joined on bass. We began developing existing songs and making new songs together, and also started playing a ton of shows.
There were still guests invited to play, but after Tania joined, [the four of us] became the core group.
What have some of the influences on your sound and group dynamic been?
When we became a four piece, we wracked our brains on what we were [and] wanted it to be. We [came together around] similar influences. The Velvet Underground, The Cramps, Jesus And Mary Chain were some, with the main influence being Smashing Pumpkins, a band we all had in common growing up ... Some additional influences were Christian Death, Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3, The Vaselines, and The Seeds. There were definitely more, [along with] some contemporary bands like Crystal Stilts, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Naked on the Vague, and Blank Dogs.
We definitely share and admire communal social movements and the idea of cult and ritual. Andy Warhol's Factory, The Source Family, Charles Manson, and the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky are common cultural interests. We played with R. Stevie Moore a few years back and after we played a dude came up to us with his wife. He bought three 7"s and told us that we were the modern version of the Manson Family band. We were flattered, but [we're] not about to go senselessly murdering anyone any time soon.
You've been described in a wide variety of ways, ranging from garage to all the way to goth. Are you comfortable with any of these designations?
This day and age your describers or "genres" are what people go off of to pinpoint what you are. There are lazy music reviewers who call everything "shoegaze" if it has a little fuzz and reverb. In the beginning, we were described more on the garage end of things, but have always gotten the goth tag. [It] might be because we primarily wear black on stage and had photos of us wearing sunglasses after dark. Goth is a genre with lots of variation in specific style. We play a kind of dark psych music, which could qualify as one of those variations. We're more on the psychedelic side of the garage, and the post-punk side of the goth, but no one can really pin-point us on one thing and we don't really care.
In terms of sonic layers, the new album, Borrowed Time, seems to have more going on than the last album, Pure and Disinterested. Was that a conscious choice or a natural byproduct of the experience the band has gained since the last time it recorded?
Definitely a bit of both. On this one there was an Engineer, Paul Cobb, and a Producer, Justin Pittney, who also engineered and produced The Thorns EP for Hozac. Justin is a friend who has known us since the beginning. He became focused on emulating our live sound. This record really does capture that more than ever. Also, there was the choice of recording on 2-inch tape, which really helped to create more room for expansion.
Borrowed Time seems to have been conceived and executed entirely in Philadelphia, the city whose recent exports also include Kurt Vile, the War on Drugs, and Purling Hiss, bands with whom you seem to share some common ground. Can you talk about coming up in the scene in Philly?
Yeah, we have been a part of this scene now for four years, and have been living here for the past eight to ten years. [We've] been a part of other bands and scenes and have seen things come and go. We feel like this city's scene has a lot of great people [in] it, even if they are hiding in their own pockets and don't really get the recognition they deserve. This city is dirty and gritty and most of the people here can see through the bullshit. This isn't New York, there aren't a million bands, although there are a lot more recently.
Since the blow-up of Kurt Vile, the War on Drugs, and even Cold Cave, there has been a huge shift in Philly. There's also been the recognition of Birds of Maya, which gave birth to what the world now knows as Purling Hiss and Spacin'. They've all seen daylight via Richie Records. A lot of bands are coming from here, and there's a fire going on, and we definitely feel positive about Philadelphia's scene.
Siltbreeze Records has also played a big role in our outlook on Philadelphia. To do our first record for [Siltbreeze's] Tom Lax was such a mind blower for us. We really wanted to make a record that exceeded his expectations of us. Most people in this city forget that his label even exists here. Siltbreeze is a huge part of underground music history and we are proud to be associated.
From what I've seen and heard, I assume that Halloween is one of the more important days on your calendar. Was the album's release timed to coincide? Besides celebrating the release, how did you spend your Halloween?
Our release show is on All Souls Day, which honors the dead and those spirits who rise from Purgatory. We will be celebrating Halloween this year as the send off for our tour to the Midwest and back.
Far-Out Fangtooth plays Brillobox Sun., Nov. 3, with The Night Beats and The Hidden Twin. $8.
The unstable and often sub-par working conditions of adjunct faculty at colleges and universities have been making headlines recently. This Tuesday (Oct. 29), in conjunction with Campus Equity Week, a benefit concert will be held at Howler's featuring adjunct and adjunct-friendly bands.
The concert will include performances by Emily Rodgers (who is currently an adjunct instructor of English at CCAC, Duquesne University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh), The Homeless Gospel Choir, and The Armadillos. The free show starts at 8 p.m.
Happy MP3 Monday! Today's track is from local math-rock musician Tiger$Eyes, who just released his debut EP entitled Heavyweight Champ in September. Stream or download the title track from the EP below and check out more T$E music on Bandcamp.
Brett Detar grew up in Greensburg and came of age in hardcore band Zao and emo outfit The Juliana Theory. More recently, he's been writing soundtrack music and solo work that's more in the vein of Americana; he answered some questions for CP via email on a day off from his current tour, which comes to Thunderbird Cafe on Sun., Oct. 27. The show starts at 9:30 and Gypsy and His Band of Ghosts and Joseph West open.
Pittsburgh-area folks know you for some heavier bands — what made you pick up the acoustic guitar a few years ago?
My two solo records are very rootsy country/folk/Americana stuff. I've been heavily into that music for at least 10 years now. I recall the last few Juliana Theory tours - me wearing Waylon Jennings shirts on stage and blasting Loretta Lynn and Gram Parsons in the van in 2004. I've never been one to limit myself to a few styles of music. Zao to The Juliana Theory was a pretty big stylistic jump, as was TJT to my solo stuff, as is my solo stuff to the film-composing work I do that sounds like none of the above. Haha. Maybe I just get bored easily. As for picking up the acoustic guitar - that's always been my go-to instrument since the beginning of my songwriting days. I've written more songs on an old acoustic that I bought in New Kensington in 1993 than probably every other instrument I own combined, so not much has changed in that regard.
As an established artist, how did you come to the decision to issue your latest solo album as a free download?
I've released both solo records on vinyl LP, CD, and free download at my website. I like to make it very easy for people to get the music however they want. Lots of people pay for the music in both the physical formats and at iTunes and Bandcamp, etc., but I also know that a lot of people will search out how to download the record for free at some torrent site or something, and I'd rather them come and get it straight from me. I sell CDs for name-your-own-price on tour and more than anything else I just want people to have the music - to spend time with it - and hopefully be moved by it, so I'm honestly happy to let people download it for free from http://brettdetar.com.
How has your approach to touring changed, over the years, and through your several bands?
Touring as a solo guy is a lot different than touring with a band because there aren't 10 guys to wait for on a smoke break or their cellphones at every truckstop! It's also a lot easier to pick where we eat when there's only 2 people in the vehicle. Picking food stops in a big band always meant someone would be let down. Ha. As for my approach to playing shows as a solo guy, I've really been enjoying stripping down songs to just my voice and either a banjo or a guitar. It doesn't allow you to hide behind walls of guitars and loud drums. I have to be more engaging, sing better, and pick a more engaging set-list than I ever had to in the past. It demands a much higher level of performance. I think it gets much more to the heart of a song than any other touring I've done - and songs are more important to me than anything else in music. Stylistically, a lot of "ex-punkrock-band-lead-singers" go out and play solo shows where they essentially play their old band's songs in the same basic way but "unplugged" on an acoustic guitar, or they play relatively the same style of music their band was known for but just do that on an acoustic guitar instead of in front of a band. That's totally cool and I understand why a lot of guys do that. I'm not slagging on that vibe, but I'm taking what might be the road less traveled. I've never played any songs from my old bands, and I don't play stuff that really feels much like anything I've been known for in the past. I'm playing pretty much straight-up country and folk music on banjo and guitar. It's fingerpicking and pretty mellow and I'm singing with my real voice and singing much better than I have at any other point. I've been really enjoying it. Oh, and the other big difference is sound checks are much shorter, and there's no one in the band to get mad at me if the singer has a bad show!
What keeps you in L.A. these days, and what do you miss about Pittsburgh/Greensburg?
Lately I've been doing a lot of film-scoring - composing all the music for movies - so it's mighty helpful to be near Hollywood for that stuff. I'm also a sucker for sunshine. Being a kid in Greensburg, I was always happiest when it was super sunny outside and you know as well as I do that those days are something you gotta wait for around here. I'm a bit spoiled now having sun pretty much every day. I miss a lot of things about home - my family and friends of course - and Penguins games. Those are way up there. I miss the pizza and Italian food too. I've done a lot of traveling in my life and there's nowhere in America (NYC included) that holds a candle to the pizza in Western PA. Seriously, it's the best. No matter where I end up I always take with me a bunch of things that have been formed in me by the greater Pittsburgh area - particularly my work ethic and can-do attitude. The 'Burgh taught me that if I work hard enough I can figure almost anything out. You can take the boy out of Pittsburgh but you can't take Pittsburgh out of me.
What are you listening to in the tour van this time around?
Well, first off I'm touring in a car like, the classics used to do in the old days - Hank Williams and Cash and Elvis and all those guys started off touring in cars, which is kinda amazing to think about. It's only me and a couple instruments and my buddy Joseph West, who's also playing the Pittsburgh show, and we're skinny guys, so there's no need for a van. Haha. That being said, I've been listening to a lot of talk radio, Pens games and ironically enough - really heavy stuff like Trap Them and Doomriders. My go-to standby is always my favorite XM radio station, Willie Nelson's Roadhouse, which plays nothing but classic country. Good stuff.
Head out to Lawrenceville tonight for a night of soul jams and dancing with DJ Jonathan Toubin. Presented by Brooklyn Brewery Mash and Pandemic, Toubin's Soul Clap and Dance-Off is well-known DJ night and dance contest that was founded in New York City. Around 1 a.m. there will be a dance contest judged by a local panel, and dancers can win a $100 cash prize and a free trip to Brooklyn for the Soul Clap Nationals in February.
Tickets are $5 at the door, and one dollar of each ticket sold will benefit Slow Food PGH, a local sustainability nonprofit. The party starts at 9:30 p.m. at Remedy bar (5121 Butler St.).