Welcome to “Personal Playlist,” a recurring interview series at Vinyl Me, Please, where one artist picks one song from each of their albums to talk about (or one song from every band that they’ve been in). Here are the six songs Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles chose, from “Albert Camus” to “Tumult Around The World.”
Patrick Stickles has always been an open book. As frontman of Titus Andronicus, he’s made dense, literary, and urgent punk songs over the past 14 years. From the ever-changing New Jersey-bred punk outfit’s 2008 raucous and youthful debut The Airing of Grievances, Stickles’ ambitions grew as rapidly as the band’s audience. Its followup, 2010’s The Monitor, was an astounding achievement, a concept record that fused Civil War history and themes with Stickles’ inner turmoil. 2012’s Local Business scaled back the dense narrative themes in favorite of full-throated rock ’n’ roll but still features an intense and vulnerable 12-minute odyssey in “My Eating Disorder.” The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a 93-minute rock opera on mental health and neurodiversity, a term which Stickles prefers over triggering words like illness and disorder, was another triumph.
With the rollicking, ’70s-tinged A Productive Cough from 2018 and the band’s fiery latest, the just-released Bob Mould-produced An Obelisk, Stickles and Titus Andronicus have created a rewarding and self-referential world of ambitious and meaningful punk. Though Stickles is quick to be humble and self-effacing — joking over the phone that it feels wrong to have six Titus Andronicus full-lengths when bands like the Velvet Underground only put out four — he’s reflective and honest when he dives into his sprawling discography. In a candid interview that spanned over 80 minutes, Stickles looked back on his career and gave unflinching accounts of one song from each of his band’s studio efforts.
“I don't know that any one particular song can encapsulate my personal ambitions but each of them is hopefully an invitation for a curious and potentially a sympathetic person to take a deeper dive into this world that I've been trying to construct these past 14 years,” he says over the phone. He continues, “The kind of fan that I am of other artists, I do like finding out, the process behind the creation of these things and whatever kind of other contexts in the artist's life led to that moment of creation. I like to make that option available from my own listeners.” Read on for the stories behind six of his band’s most iconic songs.
It’s been over a decade since this album was released and you were obviously at a very different stage in your life. How do you look back on those early years and these songs?
I look back on that album with a lot of affection and tenderness, and it really stands alone in the Titus Andronicus catalog because it was created with virtually no expectation of reward or recognition or anything like that. When we made it, we were just young green college kids and there was certainly no promise that the record was ever gonna find any kind of an audience. So it really was born out of the love of self expression and, the good time playing rock and roll with your buddies. It was uncorrupted by any kind of like a business or career aspirations. As far as I knew, it was going to be the one album that we were ever going to get a chance to make.
As soon as it was done, my plan was that I would be right off to graduate school. That makes it unique in that every record that came after that, from my second one all the way up to today, they can't help but be corrupted by business and career stuff. There are these little dangerous ideas like, “Oh my God. What if a lot of people heard this and loved the album? What if I could get rich off this one?” I haven't spent much time fantasizing about getting rich, but for the second album onward we did know that there would be like some kind of an audience and that there would be some kind of money element to it, which is a necessary thing in our modern capitalist society. But it's not always a useful ingredient in the artistic process. Whatever you think about the artistic merit of an album, like The Airing of Grievances, it's special to me because we really did make it for what you might call the right reasons.
Out of all the songs on the LP, why did you pick “Albert Camus?”
Well that song was basically the first real song that I ever wrote. I wrote that when I was 18 and I played that song with my high school band. This is a couple of years before Titus Andronicus got started and basically the song is just about me and my high school friends. And I hate it when bands sing about high school. That's kind of one of the most annoying things to me. But I give myself a little pass for this one because I actually was in high school when I wrote it. You hear like some middle-aged guy with a guitar singing about what it was like in high school and that's pretty gross to me. But anyway, back in high school, me and my buddies, we used to love to get in trouble, petty vandalism, getting drunk, and running around. Just stuff kids like to do.
Around the time of writing this song, I was starting to get a little bit of an inkling that the reason that high school kids like us, enjoyed to get into trouble or do this kind of like a goofy little rebellion thing like in the suburbs of New Jersey has a lot to do with young people like starting to realize they don't really exist in the real world. You know what I mean? They kind of live more in like a facsimile of the world that our parents created for us. I guess you get to a certain age and in your adolescence, you start to notice a nagging void at the center of that a false world. You start to recognize that and you reject — well, I did anyway — these categorical imperatives and these ideas of a higher morality that are handed down from previous generations.
This world is designed for you to just sorta sleep walk through without questioning it or thinking critically about it. As it happened, we also got assigned the famous Albert Camus book in school, The Stranger. The main character of that book has a basic existence and he's recognizing the emptiness at the center of his world and his life. So he chooses to lash out against the absurdity of that through committing a murder. Me and my buddies never murdered anybody, obviously. And it is kind of like quite the dorky cliché, I guess, for like some teenager to read these existential novels and be like, “Oh my God, like, I've been totally wrong about a world that's at this point.” But, some version of that did happen to me.
**Life definitely changed for you between these albums. I keep thinking about how you said earlier in our chat that you were supposed to be going to graduate school after The Airing of Grievances. How did you feel about this transitional state before The Monitor came out? **
Well, graduate school went right out the window, obviously. As soon as I had the faintest idea that I could get out of going to graduate school, I went ahead and made sure that I could make that happen. We went out on tour behind the first album and did like 200 shows or so. We went on this wild worldwide adventure and it was all terribly romantic and exciting for young kids like that. We originally thought we would vanish right into obscurity and maybe just have our first album be like a little souvenir for our high school buddies. Now we've got like 10 times that budget and people actually know who we are and this is going to come out on a big time record label. We really wanted to go for it and swing for the fences. So in that sense, it was in more innocent time than now, but there were a different set of a different set of expectations going into the making of that one. But the world still felt fairly wide open.
You can definitely hear that openness on the LP. It’s such a collaborative album. This song in particular is a duet with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner.
Jenn Wasner is about as tremendous an artist as you're likely to find these days. We used to run into Wye Oak a lot back in those days. We pretty much got started at around the same time back when we were really young and scrappy. One particular night we were playing a show in Greenville, North Carolina, and Wye Oak was on the bill. We struck up a friendship and developed that friendship. We started out at the same time and we were in similar spots in terms of our careers. She's one example of one of the masterful artists who helped me out on this record. One of my favorite ways to make a record is to look around at the wide network of artists who I know and am lucky to have worked with. I want to let myself be the beneficiary of their talent.
For this song, I sent her the demo version of it and then she learned the words for her part, but I didn't really have to, I didn't really coach her, give her much direction at all. I wanted her to do the Jenn Wasner thing. She sang her verse beautifully and I was just happy as a clam up about that. And then, there's a little bridge part, where she came up with a gorgeous harmony that elevated the whole thing to a, even a deeper level. I didn't tell her to do that of course. She's just one of those artists. She opened her mouth and it's like she had some kind of direct line to God, you know what I mean? It was just a blessing. I’m so grateful for all the people on that record.
What do you remember about writing this song?
This one is actually the oldest song on the album. I actually wrote that song before we made our first album. There's a version of it on CD-R that we put out in 2005. It didn't fit on our first record but I'm glad that that happened because I think it fits more comfortably with the themes of the second record. On the whole, The Monitor, is pretty accusatory in tone throughout. This narrator, or me, is often like pointing my finger at another, and these external forces. But that's all well and good and we love punk songs with that punch line but in the wider context of the record you have to have a corrective for that. I wanted something that was a little bit more compassionate and empathetic. Even though a lot of the lyrics are complaining, there's some self-reflection in admitting my own flaws. It's easy to get mad at someone else but if you spent your whole life getting up tight, it's a pretty lonely life. That's why the lyric is: “It's all right the way that you live." I took that from an old Velvet Underground song title. The song illustrates to me what I think is something about the heart of Lou Reed. While he's known for being a bit of a jerk or an asshole, there were definitely moments in his art where he was the most compassionate guy and tried to offer empathy and understanding to a variety of marginalized groups. I’m not looking to compare myself to Lou Reed but he set the bar for me in a lot of ways.
Your music has always talked about mental health and neurodiversity. How was writing about your relationship with food?
Wow, thank you for saying “neurodiversity” instead of mental illness. I’m really trying to get people on board with this. Well, writing, it wasn't all that difficult. What was a lot more difficult than writing it was carrying the ideas and the song around within me for my whole life as this almost shameful secret. It is scary to reveal intimate parts of yourself that you can't be sure other people are going to understand. But, this song exemplifies for me one of the important things about my career, which is my audience. I don't mean in the sense of greater fame or adoration or anything. This is probably the case for like a lot of artists, where my art is a big part of the way that I process my feelings about what it's like to be alive in my body. I'm trying to tell the audience something and I'm also trying to tell myself certain things. My real essential purpose as an artist I think is to be a validator in kind of much the same way as Lou Reed was trying to do. To externalize my feelings in a way that I can hopefully attract people into my art that feel similarly about life or have had similar experiences so that we might both feel a little bit less lonely and alienated. If I see them being validated, I too am validated in return.
Did the response to this song surprise you? Did you find your fans shared similar experiences?
Yeah! You can never be sure but I feel like this is the song where I connected with my favorite corner of the Titus Andronicus audience. I think this song is part of the genesis of that little community, whether it’s people with food issues or people who experience body dysmorphia or control issues. These people are typically not the drunken macho frat boys who could ignore the lyrics well enough to punch their friend in the face at a Titus Andronicus show. Sometimes the literary agenda of the songs can be missed to inspired mixed martial arts on the dance floor. These are meeker people who I can relate to in a much deeper way. This song showed me a part of my audience I didn’t know I had.
I like the song “My Eating Disorder” because I don't think that just any old party band would have had a song like that as far as the lyrical content. There's no ambiguity about what the song is about. When you hear a title like that, the song can only be about one thing. The word “my” in the title is important too. It's me trying to take ownership and declare agency over my particular food issue. It's mine. It doesn't belong to anybody else and nobody else is really entitled to an opinion because they're not the one living through it.
I remember when this album came out you meticulously annotated every song’s lyrics on Genius. Where many songwriters don’t want the mystery behind the music revealed, it seems that you love having people in on your process.
It was a very meticulous decision-making process to create the rock opera. There were just like so many millions of decisions and all the decisions that were made, there were reasons that they were made. I knew what they were because I made the decisions for the most part. It's born out of me sharing those things. But the Genius thing was also a way to try and like shield myself from a possible assumption that Titus Andronicus' music is not really about anything. I'm starting to sound like a jerk but I have this fear that people will just say whatever about this and not assume intentionality on the part of the song. For a lot of people, I might as well be saying gibberish. I guess that's fine, but there is more to it than that. I never want to be accused of just saying the first thing that pops into my head or indulge in incoherent emotion.
For this song, it makes more sense in the context of the album. In the narrative of the LP it makes sense in context but as a standalone it seems like a straightforward party song about living with your amps turned to 10. Since this was the lead single, were you worried people would misconstrue what you were trying to say?
After all the things that I just said, you'd think I'd be a little more worried. I don't know about that. Now, I look like quite the fool because I didn't really think about that. You're absolutely correct that it has a different meaning in context. This is the sort of thing that I'm more and more interested in as the years go by. This was the first album where I utilize a narrator which is not myself. This is also what I'm doing on the new album that's coming out. I like doing that because ideally it helps me make it more clear that not every song that I write is my personal guide on how to live effectively and happily. My narrators are very flawed and unreliable people. I like that because in context and over the course of a record, particularly a 93-minute rock opera, that creates the opportunity for the narrator to actually learn something and grow a little bit.
“Dimed Out” was my attempt to write a song about the really fun parts of having a manic episode, which are, staying up all night every night, doing a bunch of drugs, rocking out super hard all the time, and spending money that you don't have. Did I say drugs already? There are moments like that where you think this is all there is to life, let's just milk this until it's totally dry but it will never be dry. It's a fun and exhilarating experience and rich material for a triumphant rock record. I have learned that is not an effective or prudent way to live. In this album, the narrator has to learn that the hard way. This is also a corrective like what we talked about earlier about with The Monitor: If I write a song about how fun it is to do drugs then I also have to have songs about the price you have to pay when you pursue that kind of lifestyle. You can’t have the high without the comedown even though there have been many times in my life where I’ve deluded myself into thinking otherwise.
This song really gets at the heart of the tension between how people act in private and how they do when they are in public and observed. It’s something I think about all the time.
I like how you used the phrase observed. The “observed self” comes from Jean-Paul Sartre.
Was that what you were thinking about when you wrote this?
Absolutely. That was where I learned about the observed self versus the unobserved self and how grotesque the observed self can be when we look at ourselves through the eyes of another person. Yuck.
Talk to me about the recording process around this record and how you were feeling a year or two ago.
Man, how was I feeling back then? You were saying there are whole elements of shame, frustration, anxiety, and an inability to hide certain things matter more to keep hidden away. But sometimes our particular daily temporal needs will prohibit that kind of anonymity. In New York City, where I live, I live in this building and the first floor of the building is occupied by a retail space and that's the titular bodega. Consequently, I have had, and I now have a very intimate relationship with the people that work there. I see them literally every day and you can't eliminate some of the distance that would sometimes make the consumption of certain things more comfortable for the person doing the consuming.
About this time and kind of on the rock opera too but particularly for this song, I had gotten to be interested in wanting to write what you might call an essential song. A song that definitively owns its subject matter and a song that will become the ultimate song for a certain feeling. Songs like this would include “The Boys Are Back in Town” by Thin Lizzy, which is maybe the greatest example. There's never going to be a better song about the excitement [and] what it feels like when friends you haven't seen for a long time return. That will belong to Thin Lizzy forever. My roommate Ryley [Walker] went out do some shows for a few days and my favorite joke to do is I play that song when he comes back and walks through the door. Right from the opening chord, you know exactly what's going on. Another example would be “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen or if you want to get more esoteric about, the theme from Ghostbusters. I wanted to have some songs like that on my resume and I chose to do that with this particular I had with my bodega friends.
The concerns on An Obelisk feel particularly outward compared to the inward concerns of your catalog. I don’t want to say it’s your political album because that’s so cliché but you’re grappling with more external issues here.
I would say that’s correct. I’m really giving it to the establishment on this one. That’s intentional but it is another one of those things where like, I have to recognize that if I'm going to be so hard on external forces, I have to be equally unsparing about the internal forces that dictate my life. If you look at the track list, it's pretty much one for one as far as where a song that I'm giving the establishment a hard time [in] is followed by a song where the narrator has to admit his own faults.
This is a unique part of your catalog because you worked with a new producer in Bob Mould. How was that? I also live down the street from Electrical Audio. How was your time in Chicago?
It was incredible. I can't really speak much about Chicago, like I've been there dozens of times, but on this particular occasion, I rarely left the building. I really didn't leave. The other guys were more eager to get fresh air, so I'd have them pick up my cigarettes. That probably speaks [to] the immense beauty of Electrical Audio, which is a pretty amazing studio. I haven't been to every studio in the world, but that's probably the nicest one that I've set foot in. It's also pretty remarkable that it's not so nice because a whole bunch of hits were made there. There haven't been. But it's a shining and tangible monument to the good things you can have in life if you conduct yourself with a modicum of integrity like Albini has.
Out of the entire tracklist, why this one?
With what we were talking about with the last song, it's another one of my attempts to write a song that is essential. I mean, it's not as essential as the other one because this song is basically about being all in this together as human beings with concerns and anxieties as well as hopes and desires and stuff. There's, obviously there's a million songs about that so I couldn't hardly write the definitive song on that topic. But I wanted to write like a “We Are The World”-type song. When we first debuted it live we joked onstage that it was a cover this obscure punk supergroup from the ’80s that none of the audience had heard of because we made it up. But a lot of people fell for it. It’s a long, stupid story but for that particular song was from a second wave British punk band came out with a charity single in the vein of “We Are The World” to raise awareness for worldwide suffering. It’s one of my attempts to write a classic enduring essential song. Whether or not I succeeded this is my attempt and it forces me to gaze at my own navel a little less and open up my universe a little bit more.
Chicago-based music journalist Josh Terry has been covered music and culture for a number of publications since 2012. His writing has been featured in Noisey, Rolling Stone, Complex, Vice, Chicago Magazine, The A.V. Club and others. At Vinyl Me, Please, he interviews artists for his monthly Personal Playlist series.