Monday 23 October 2017

Trusting the concept

Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles talks to Eamon Sweeney about homestays with fans, covering Springsteen and having the confidence to release an album based on the American Civil War

Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

To state the blatantly obvious, New Jersey's most famous and accomplished musical luminary of all time is unquestionably Bruce Springsteen. However, a concept album about the American Civil War by a New Jersey quintet named after a William Shakespeare play has become one of this year's most intriguing word-of-mouth sensations.

The Boss needn't be quaking in his boots just yet, and he's got a firm fan and admirer in singer Patrick Stickles, who recently covered I'm Going Down live.

"He was a pretty big deal growing up in New Jersey," Stickles confirms. "I'd imagine probably a bigger deal than U2 or whoever you guys have got over there. Somewhere along the line, he has become our number one export. So there's always a temptation to reject him, but a song like I'm Going Down is pretty hard to deny. You've got to put everything else aside and just bask in the warm glow of life. Sometimes that's in the laugh of a child and sometimes that's in the music of Bruce Springsteen."

You've got to admire Titus Andronicus' ambition of marrying punk and indie leanings with historical analysis, as their breakthrough second outing is a concept album about the American Civil War. Perhaps this subject matter shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, especially considering there was a song on their debut album grandiosely titled Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'.

Stickles is a talkative ringleader for these conceptual punk rockers, musing about how writing songs about history might seem a little unusual in the throes of the digital age.

"On one hand, the unending inundation of information we get from the internet could theoretically make us more aware of specifics about dates," he says. "For example, Facebook has made it impossible to forget someone's birthday. But I do fear how modern-day events will be remembered. Information about our current history bursts into the world in 140-character nuggets."

Titus Andronicus' second album, The Monitor, is named after the first iron American Navy warship called the USS Monitor, while the closing track, The Battle of Hampton Roads, commemorates the 148th anniversary of a naval battle.

"If that naval battle had happened today, how would've people learnt about it?" Stickles ponders. "It's funny to imagine future generations looking back on the primary sources of our time such as Twitter and trying to make sense of it, because it's almost impossible to make sense of it right now. Even though we have more information, we are learning less because our cognitive loads are over-saturated. There are too many pieces of information trapped in a bottleneck in our long-term memory. I fear a little bit for what will happen to us, even though the internet is a great tool. Without the internet, it's almost certain we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. The coming years are going to have some pretty astonishing surprises. It's only getting started."

Stickles believes alt-rock is in an extremely healthy state, despite the obvious concerns about declining sales. "It's a little confusing because the music industry isn't what it used to be, but this is the only version I've ever been in," he says.

"There aren't that many people out there anymore who think they're going to become millionaires but, at the same time, there seems to be a feel for indie rock more than ever before. We're beginning to mint some serious superstars like Arcade Fire. Pavement are back with a bang and now they're canonised. It seems to be entering a new phase in its relationship with commerce."

You could also say that Titus Andronicus have a rather novel relationship to acquiring bed and board while on tour. On various web and social media pages, they appeal for fans to put them up in their hometown in exchange for free admission to the concert.

"We may also be willing to do some household chores -- straighten up, wash the dishes, clean some windows and water houseplants," they state. "In addition, we will entertain you with a bevy of jokes and delightful yarns. What beer the nightclub gives us, you may also have some access to. Basically, if you look after our sleeping, we will make sure that you have the most memorable and enjoyable concert experience possible."

"We've been able to stay away from hotels for most of our organisation's existence," he boasts. "It's a good thing for us. We did a tour of Europe staying in hotels and it was depressing. The interchangeability of them all made for an ongoing lethargic déjà vu, which was no fun. It's important for us. It keeps the overheads low because we don't make a ton of money. It keeps us humble and from getting too soft. You get to enjoy real life and culture instead of sterile hotel TV."

Amid these sprawling epic anthems that recall the energy of The Clash and The Pogues, there's plenty of humour and defiant resilience. "There are a lot of things in life that we all wish were different. Working to correct those things has to go hand in hand with walking amongst the rubble of our modern nightmare to find what useful things we can. I've found that it's only when you've established a working relationship with the things in life that make you miserable that you can make the best of the things in life that give you hope and fulfilment."

Titus Andronicus play Whelan's, Dublin, tomorrow and Cyprus Avenue, Cork, on Sunday

Irish Independent

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