By Brian Kindle
Photos by Mike Dillon
Illustration by Drew Dunlap
The year is 1841, and Abraham Lincoln, bearded political titan and arguably the greatest leader in American history, is having girl problems. He’s just broken off his engagement with his fiancée, Mary Todd, and the split is not going well for him.
Maybe that’s an understatement. Chronically depressed, Lincoln is no stranger to melancholy, yet this one’s a real ass-kicker. He’s taking leaves of absence from the Illinois senate, failing to answer his personal correspondences and questioning his political career. It’s gone way beyond a simple break-up; instead, it’s become a battle with the darker elements of Lincoln’s soul. A few weeks later, he would write to a friend and law partner, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
It makes perfect sense that, some 129 years later, Patrick Stickles would seize upon those words and that moment while writing The Monitor, the second album by the band Titus Andronicus. Stickles (the lead singer and songwriter) and his compatriots in Titus have for a few years now been among the strangest and most compelling punk rockers in existence. They write songs almost exclusively about grappling with personal misery and meaninglessness, and play them in a way that makes those struggles epic and incredibly significant.
What could be a better symbol for Titus Andronicus than a heart-rent, utterly sad Abraham Lincoln? It’s about as grand and as miserable as it gets. After all, here was a guy who had experienced a seemingly boundless array of public tragedy: his country collapsed around him, and then he had to lead it through a hideous bloodbath of a war. And yet, what really got to him, what really broke him up the most, was an interior fight, the one taking place with the demons in his heart and mind.
Patrick Stickles appreciates that. And on The Monitor, he would use that image to convey to every scared, miserable dude and lady who would listen that their own seemingly pathetic struggle was every bit as real and significant as a literal battle. Heck, maybe even a literal war.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Instead, let’s return to 2008, when Titus Andronicus appeared essentially out of nowhere with their debut The Airing of Grievances. A fantastic collection of furious, ramshackle anthems, that album announced the band as an incredibly rare combination of smarts and desperate energy, depression balanced out by the overwhelming urge to cut loose and rock. They came off as angry, intelligent chroniclers of post-adolescent despair, with a sound that straddled a line between the best of punk rock and the best of rock opera.
Grievances was a glorious, occasionally brutal mess of contradictions: vast emotions set in small New Jersey towns, hyper-literate quotes married to chant-along choruses, inward neuroses played out in shambling, outsized rock and roll songs. The record was thick with alienation and existential dread; the lyrics concerned almost exclusively with rage at the world, personal inadequacy and a creeping sense of defeat. You could cut the angst with a meat cleaver.
But amazingly, the album left the listener feeling stoked, exhilarated even, not at all depressed. Music that deals with sadness and pain can all too often be an exercise in navel-gazing, but Stickles recognizes the universality of the darker emotions, and writes his songs accordingly. “Those feelings of dread or alienation are every bit as big and visceral as some feelings that might be more traditionally celebrated in song,” he says. “They’re an important element of our human experience and worthy of being celebrated along with the rest of them.”
“Celebrated” is exactly right. As weird as it sounds, Titus Andronicus is party music. Listening to it makes you want to immediately share it with a friend, or even better, shout the choruses along with a room full of other people.
It helps that at live shows and in person, the band members come across as charming and profoundly decent people. Their guitarist, Amy Klein, plays onstage with an infectious smile and looks like she’s having the time of her life. Their bassist, Ian Graetzler, also acts as the band’s manager and helps keep them true to their DIY ethics. And for a guy that spends many a night shouting out his personal failings onstage, Stickles is disarmingly ego-free, giving credit to his bandmates, his label, and most of all, his fans. “They bless us with a lot of enthusiastic support,” he says, “and that’s very validating and heartwarming.”
Still, when it came time for a follow-up to Grievances, it seemed like an impossible feat to pull off. How the hell had they even managed it a first time? When Grievances first came out, the band was five young guys (Stickles, the band’s lead singer, lyricist and creative force, was only 23), mostly hailing from the little town of Glen Rock, New Jersey, who had just created something big and something wild. How could they expand on a sound so huge, on songs so brimful of ideas and feeling?
Enter Lincoln, in many ways the patron saint of The Monitor. For their next trick, the band looked backward and outward, embedding their sound, themes and lyrical concerns in what Stickles calls “the most epic event imaginable, at least to an American audience” the Civil War.
Bizarre, right? Although the band had asserted a certain regional identity on Grievances, with song titles like “Fear and Loathing in Mawah, NJ,” that’s a far cry from wrapping an entire record in the conceptual framework of American history. Still, there’s a weighty tradition of allusion and reference in Titus’ music; their first album featured a lengthy spoken passage from Albert Camus, and heck, even their name is cribbed from a Shakespeare play. “We’re all collagists these days,” says Stickles, explaining his tendency to build off other art and history, “modern life kind of forces you to be one. These things, these quotes, give you an authority, I guess. Because who gives a fuck what I have to say?”
Hence the presence of quotes by Walt Whitman (played by The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn), and noted Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. And of course the ubiquitous Lincoln appears all over the album, his words even sneaking into the liner notes (the Honest Abe quote from earlier appears verbatim just after the album’s second song).
If all this were done in a semi-serious or ironic way, the conceit could easily have come off as hokey and lame, the band callously ripping off history to aggrandize their own angst. But blessedly, the band seems incapable of irony; Stickles says that the album is 100% serious and sincere.
“I think that if people have a tough time believing that it could possibly be sincere, that’s just because our society has been so brainwashed to think that anything sincere has to be cheesy or idiotic or something, you know?,” Stickles continues. “There’s a culture, especially in indie rock, that rewards detachment, irony, emotional camouflage, and that’s not really action that we care to get a piece of.”
“The parade of smirks has been long enough,” Stickles concludes. “Much better to actually have some feelings, to care about something. They don’t seem to reward that so much these days. I think that it has its own rewards.”
That naked sincerity certainly reaps dividends on The Monitor. There’s a fidelity and surprising reverence about it that not only makes it work, but makes it great. The concept is a loose one: all the songs still take place in the modern day, from the perspective of a first-person narrator who’s still struggling with the same themes of meaninglessness and confusion about how to live right. But the framework allows the band to indulge its epic impulses while remaining accessible. Most songs are multi-part suites that routinely stretch beyond five, eight, even fourteen minutes, but with a war at stake, it seems appropriate. And elegant flourishes of Americana find their way into the music, making for some of the album’s finest moments: the traditional folk of the first part of “Four Score and Seven,” the honky-tonk sing-along of “Theme from Cheers.”
Even though he claims he “doesn’t really know anything about the Civil War” (which might be more modesty on his part), he clearly venerates the characters and conflicts on display here, and is wholly unafraid to show it. Lincoln remains first and foremost. Regarding him, Stickles says, “I mean, I love him a lot. The icon of him represents a certain part of the American spirit that’s attractive to me, as far as a man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to go on to perform massive feats of justice.”
“But at the same time he was really depressed and had a lot of earthly imperfections,” Stickles continues, reflectively. “And, you know, was killed upon the occasion of his ultimate glory, making him quite Christ-like in the American pantheon. He’s just a fascinating guy. And he’s on our money.”
Let’s not get carried away with the parallels, but if you were looking for a Lincolnesque character, you could do worse than Patrick Stickles. The thick beard helps, of course, as does the lanky frame, the fairly deep-set eyes, and the overall air of intensity, undercut by his courtesy and a dry, self-aware sense of humor. When I met him, he smoked copiously, and drank plenty of coffee to wash down the cigarettes. He also comes off as a guy possessed with a healthy dose of humility, perhaps more than his fair share. Despite what he says, plenty of people do give a fuck about what Stickles has to say, an ever-increasing number at this point. You’ll meet them at any given Titus Andronicus show, a rowdy choir of punks, hipsters, and college kids. If you’re lucky, it will be an all-ages show, of which the band plays many, and wishes they could play more: Stickles bemoans the “alcohol-industrial complex” that prevents every show from including everyone. The high school kids will be there too, shouting Stickles’ own words right back at him.
An interlude: The year is 2008, and Titus Andronicus is sound-checking for a show at the Circle of Hope, an odd little venue on the northern edge of South Philly. It’s the meeting place of a non-denominational church, just a big empty room on the third floor of an office building. There’s no stage; the band’s set up on the floor, the crowd gathers directly in front of them, six or seven feet away. “Crowd” is being generous: there’s 20 people here, 30 on the outside. Most look like they’re in high school, a few in college, fewer still any older than that.
The band hardly seems to mind, or at least they don’t say much; instead they rip into songs off of Grievance, and Stickles yowls into the mic as if he were playing to a stadium, though he barely even needs amplified sound. Within a few songs, a tiny mosh pit has broken out, four or five high school kids as stoked as they’ve ever been. I’m in it too, and then, as the eponymous song “Titus Andronicus” reaches its climax, so is Stickles, trailing his mic cord, colliding with his fans. He shouts the closing refrain, “your life is over!” over and over again, and we all scream it out with him.
The band plays on, way longer than they need to. Maybe, like us, they’re just having a blast. At the end of the night, many in the crowd stick around for a minute to pat Stickles on the back, congratulate him and the rest of the band. I don’t really know what Stickles meant by “your life is over,” just like I don’t really know what he meant by most of his lyrics. I’m not sure if the others do either. But looking around, the little knot of faces seem exhausted and exultant. It seems like we just went through something together, like we fought a miniature battle, and we won. Maybe that’s the best answer to the “why the Civil War” question. If there was ever a band shaped by the mythos of struggle and conflict, it’s Titus Andronicus, and the Civil War was a struggle on a scale that’s still difficult to comprehend, an apocalyptic slaughter that consumed more lives than any other war in American history. Stickles’ war is an interior one, fought in the mind and the soul, but it’s hardly any less gruesome or terrifying.
Like any war, there needs to be an opposing side, and that enemy is pervasive and all-encompassing on The Monitor (the song “Titus Andronicus Forever” literally proclaims that “the enemy is everywhere.”). It can also be frustratingly vague, but that’s precisely how Stickles intended it. “Them is just the Other,” says Stickles flatly. “It’s not like there was necessarily an enemy in mind, beyond a vague opponent of justice. For me, it can just be any number of forces in my universe that I perceive to be oppressive in one way or another. It’s not anything specific as much as just a kind of a pattern in human behavior. Whether it be between large groups or just between individuals, people have a tendency to engage each as adversaries over pretty petty, stupid stuff. ”
A world in which we define ourselves as adversaries, in which each individual is locked in combat with moral, mortal forces they themselves can’t even pin down, endlessly “pushing a boulder up that hill,” as Stickles is fond of saying: that is the universe of Titus Andronicus. Things don’t seem to change, not even in historical sense. Stickles wrote The Monitor with an eye to the past partly “to take away the excuses that people make, that times change, that life is different now.”
It’s unforgiving worldview, it seems, but not necessarily to Stickles, who finds a certain liberation in the fatalism. “We probably never will win, but the struggle is all there is sometimes, you know?,” he says. “If that’s going to be a large component of our earthly experience, then we have to milk it for whatever meaning we can, right? Because, I don’t know, what else is there, really? That’s just life in an absurd universe.”
Yet, I can’t help thinking of that night at the Circle of Hope, and a handful of nights since then that I’ve seen the band play live. Nights when myself and the rest of the crowd did feel like there was something more than that, when Titus Andronicus made us feel like life was a little more than a lonely, endless wrestling match with the absurd.
The year, finally, is 2010. Titus Andronicus are returning to Philadelphia in triumph, riding a wave of attention and critical acclaim for The Monitor. The album is one of the best-reviewed of the year by everyone from Pitchfork to Robert Christgau, they’ve just been profiled in the The New York Times (alongside Ted Leo, no less), they’ve even appeared as musical guests on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon. Tonight they headline a sold-out show at the First Unitarian Church (a basement venue, yes, but the finest basement in the city), along with local heroes Free Energy.
The show, as always, is a grand rager. We all chant along with Stickles to old songs and new: “your life is over,” “you will always be a loser,” “it’s still us against them, and they’re WINNING!” At the end of the night, after Titus gives it their best for nearly two hours, we all head home enlivened and feeling a little bit more free.
It strikes me then that Titus Andronicus is actually improving as time goes on. They’re reaching a wider audience, writing increasingly great songs, making more money to keep them going. Stickles, whose voice is a notorious yowl, even sounds like he’s singing better these days. And while Stickle remains circumspect about their progress (“we will be successful when we stop making compromises,” he says bluntly), I talk to him about The Monitor a few days later, and in his own way he seems to agree.
“There is a moral, certainly,” Stickles says of The Monitor, referring to what he hoped the listener would take away from the album. “At the end of our narrative, our hero has come to an understanding of the ways in which he’s personally responsible for his own happiness and fulfillment.”
“And hopefully, the listener will understand that it appears to our hero that trying to pass the buck for his happiness or unhappiness is not something to strive for anymore,” Stickles continues. “Our hero has learned that he’s been looking to define himself in opposition to all these adversarial forces, real or imaginary, and now our hero sees the bankruptness of that kind of activity and will hopefully take more responsibility, pursue happiness more on his own terms.”
The inspiration comes in the fact that Stickles is talking about himself. Stickles has said that he’s basically incapable of writing fiction, and that all of his songs are based on his personal experience. He and “our hero” are one and the same.
Maybe, just maybe, all that time spent in the trenches of our personal struggles gives us the wisdom to choose our battles, and the strength to fight the ones that matter. It certainly did for Lincoln. There’s a part of that quote, the “most miserable man” one, that isn’t included on the album. Abe closes by saying, “to remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.” Lincoln did become better, not in the superficial sense of being happier or having more fun; he remained melancholy and stoic until death, but he stared down his personal darkness and moved through it.
Let’s hope that Stickles and Titus Andronicus continue to do the same. We need them out there; we need guys and girls who tell us that just because we’re losers doesn’t mean we’re required to lose. We need a band that’s willing to spit in the eye of despair, and throw an impossible, defiant party instead.