“I’m never not thinking about politics,” he says over the phone, the day before the presidential election. “It always finds its way into what I’m writing, even if it’s not as explicit as some of the stuff from the 2003-2004 era.”
Leo — who started Ted Leo and the Pharmacists in Washington, D.C., in 1999, and before that played in punk bands like Citizens Arrest and Chisel — has never been a preacher or one-note moralizer. But in terms of full-throated anger and frustration, he’d be hard-pressed to be as explicit as he was in the early days of the Iraq war. “I want to take it to the president, him and all this cabinet, with a broom / I want to sweep the halls of arrogance, sweep the walls of the excrement of these baboons,” Leo declared on the title track of 2004’s Shake the Sheets. “But I respect and prize the covenant, I respect the process, I respect the rules / when will we find a chord as resonant as to shake the sheets and make us move?”
It’s tricky to write good protest music, but Leo balances rage with humor and humanity, filtering it all through skilled songwriting. Leo has always drawn comparisons to Joe Strummer and Billy Bragg; beyond what he shares sound-wise, Leo has similarly remained a convincing vehicle for populist politics because he’s always seemed like a man of the people. He makes himself available to his fans at shows and on the internet, sometimes to his detriment: After a few years of touring, he had to stop selling his own merch at shows because, after talking to people for hours every night, he started losing his voice.
You don’t necessarily have to agree with Leo to enjoy his music, which trades heavily in high-energy major chords and driving, fist-pumping beats. But if you are on the same page (and maybe even if you aren’t), it’s likely to get you riled up.
As the Bush administration came to an end (and the Iraq war continued), Leo persevered, though more subtly. He considers 2010’s The Brutalist Bricks “under-thought-of” as an election-cycle record — “There are songs on The Brutalist Bricks that kind of presage even Occupy ideas,” he says. “People were like ‘You should write something for Occupy!’ And I was like, ‘I did!’”
But lately, addressing the political climate in his writing has been more challenging. He’s currently putting together the first Pharmacists record since The Brutalist Bricks, which he’ll release next year. But “as far as this particular election cycle goes,” he says, then pauses and laughs. “I mean … since the primary season began, people have been asking me, ‘Why are you not weighing in on this?’ And I really have had very little to say.”
That’s not for lack of concern. “By the time 2015 got underway, there was very little that I felt I had to offer, to be honest with you. And I was, and remain, sort of baffled that we are where we’re at, in a way that I find actually hard to address in song.”
His most direct attempt came when Kickstarter asked him to contribute a song to its Election Issues project, a collection of political art intended to “spark conversation and action.”
“I thought I might challenge myself and do a deep dive on an actual issue, like a civics lesson in song,” he says. “But what I wound up writing about was the GOP exploitation of the fabled economic anxiety of the white working-class voter, the exploitation of racial animus under the guise of economic anxiety.”
Writing that song, which he called “In the Mean Times,” was a challenge. While he’s ultimately happy to have done it, initially, “the idea of writing that song even seemed dumb to me. It seemed so obvious and so frustrating and so ridiculous that it almost felt cheap to consider writing a song about it.”
He’s never minced words about what a Trump presidency would mean. As he wrote on the Kickstarter Election Issues page, “Donald Trump told us who he is. He is a racist. He has always been a racist.” But, Leo also admitted, “The amount of noise in this campaign has been ratcheted up to a level that makes it hard to even understand what’s at stake anymore.”
The stakes are, of course, clearer now. But those feelings are nonetheless easy to relate to. As the last months of the campaign dragged on, it was hard to carve out the mental space to process, let alone create. “When everybody, including myself, is chattering and expressing themselves in their pithy ways all day every day on the internet,” Leo says, “there is a little bit of that, ‘Oh, hey, maybe you should hold something back, so you can actually write about it, you know?’”
Just a week after the election, the noise of the internet still feels deafening, but those pre-election thoughts feel like part of another world. And, because Ted Leo is Ted Leo, he won’t shrink from speaking out against the new administration.
Before midnight on Nov. 8, Leo tweeted a reminder that the next day he’d be heading out on a “mostly ‘red-state’” solo tour. “Bring your emotions, bring requests if you have them, and tell me what local organizations I should direct some of whatever scant dollars these shows generate … because this isn’t where this ends.”