Interview: Titus Andronicus

Punk band recruits Baltimore musicians, draws inspiration for latest album from, oddly enough, Civil War

March 03, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Titus Andronicus' "The Monitor" may be the first punk album inspired by Ken Burns.

Patrick Stickles was aiming for big themes on the album, and he found them, improbably, in Burns' Civil War documentary: "The destructive relationship between the self and the other," he said, and "the tendency of humans to pit themselves one another as individuals and as groups."

Deep, right? It would have been, except pretension is something the band is incapable of doing.

The album, which was released last March and includes appearances by lots of local talent (Jenn Wasner, Dustin Wong), moves a lot quicker than it sounds. And in the end, the Civil War is nothing more than a framework to brood over the strum und drang of suburban life in the band' native New Jersey.

They're now touring with it, and will open for the legendary punks the Pogues on Monday at Rams Head Live.

Stickles, who writes most of the songs, started working on the album soon after the band finished "The Airing of Grievances" in the autumn of 2008, he said.

It took about six months for the songs to come together — along the way, he caught the Civil War documentary — but just a month to record.

Stickles said he and the other members of the band —drummer Eric Harm and bassist Ian Graetzer, who has since left — locked themselves in the upstate New York studio-barn of producer Kevin McMahon and banged out the album quickly to save money.

"When the clock is running, you can't be too indecisive," he said. "You can't be indecisive in rock 'n' roll anyway. That's what makes it good."

The songs play as impulsively as the 25-year-old's line makes it out to be. There are allusions to the Civil War — the title refers to the famous ironclad warship from that time, and the last track to one of its battles - but its 10 tracks are presented over a breathless beat that sounds just short of petulant.

To record some of the tracks, Stickles enlisted local talent.

Jenn Wasner, of Wye Oak, was brought in to duet in wilting ballad "To Old Friends and New," and Ponytail's Dustin Wong plays guitar in "The Battle of Hampton Roads."

Wong "whipped out a 13-minute guitar solo and left us all with our mouths agape," Stickles said.

Double Dagger's Nolen Strals made the biggest local contribution. He designed the album's daguerreotype artwork and reads a speech by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison on the first track. In the video, his garbled voice is heard coming from a beat-up radio near the end.

Stickles said part of the album was even recorded at Strals' basement.

When the band plays at Rams Head, Stickles said, he hopes for a better experience than in the past, when not many people came out, and those who did weren't too receptive.

"Baltimore has really been the toughest egg for us to crack in the Northeast," he said. "All of our headlining appearances have been notable flops, not that they haven't been fun."

He mused half-jokingly, "I don't think our message of rejecting the establishment has caught on in Baltimore."

On Monday, Titus shouldn't have a problem pulling in the crowds. The new album is excellent, and the band it's opening for is punk standardbearer the Pogues. The Irish band has been as much of an influence on Titus as Garden State poets Bruce Springsteen and Ted Leo.

"Their music is really rousing and often very exciting, but at the same time quite poignant," he said. "Within one song they've got a spectrum of emotion that a lot of bands can't claim in several. One of their songs can make you feel a hundred different things."

The Pogues, he said, were also instrumental in demonstrating that punk is a spirit, a genre where anything is possible, from traditional Irish songs, in the Pogues manner, to referencing Civil War warships in your songs.

Stickles said he'd heard the Pogues were coming to New York to play on St. Patrick's Day, as they've been known to do.

"I was feeling bold, e-mailed our booking agent to see if we could open for them at the show," Stickles said. "You can imagine our ecstasy when they said, 'Forget the show, how about a tour?'"

For him, it's "the fulfillment of a crazy, childhood dream."

If you go

Titus Andronicus and the Pogues perform Monday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets, at $55, are sold at or by calling 410-244-1131.

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