In Conversation: Boring into the Darkness with Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus

Raging against the dying of the light with the New Jersey band’s new rock opera, The Most Lamentable Tragedy.

Five years after their richly allegorical Civil War concept album The Monitor, Titus Andronicus and their New Jersey-born brass articulator—punk rock composer/singer Patrick Stickles—have returned to deeply etched thematic narrative fare with The Most Lamentable Tragedy. It’s a 3xLP, five-act, 29-song punk-rock opera that uses its author’s much-discussed struggles with manic depression as the root of his central character’s adventures in love and frustration—a far cry from the small-town world of The Monitor’s follow-up, 2012’s Local Business.

TMLT is so many things: Stickles’ not-so-tragic Tragedy is epically Springsteen-ian, knee deep in gleeful early rock and roll, and surprisingly cheery and melodic for a story so gut wrenching (see the power pop of “Fatal Flaw” for proof).

FLOOD called Stickles at his home in Queens, NY—where he was in an expansive mood on the eve of Titus Andronicus’s next tour—to chat about his group’s return to grandeur.

One should’ve known that naming a band after a Shakespearian tragedy would lead to rampant conceptualism. Did you know from the start that the constraints of pop would encumber you?

You’d have to make the distinction between the band itself and the beginning of my musical life. When I was thirteen, fourteen and just starting to write songs, they had the usual normal choruses and stuff. I stopped writing choruses at age sixteen and didn’t get back to it until a couple of years ago—I’m almost thirty now.

So just in time for The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Do you know why you eschewed rock’s big chords and time signatures when you did?

I don’t think I made long, complex songs—lyrically and musically—as a statement of intent, but there was this drama to it all. I think that was a reflection of the fact that I had interests beyond just regular boilerplate rock and roll.

Too restricting. And I always had a thing for writing long. I had these fifteen-minute opuses that I wrote for my high school band, Seizing Elian, [which I formed] with [Martin Courtney], who later wound up in the band Real Estate. I don’t know that I started out wanting to be the fancy-pants guy, but I guess that’s what I was. Getting back to your Shakespeare question, I don’t think I made long, complex songs—lyrically and musically—as a statement of intent, but there was this drama to it all. I think that was a reflection of the fact that I had interests beyond just regular boilerplate rock and roll. Not to put that stuff down. I love “Louie Louie” and “Wooly Bully.”

There are a whole bunch of artistic disciplines and a world of knowledge to be gleaned, so why not glean it and use it.

Exactly. I liked the idea of going beyond the medium. It’s all about having something to say and different ways as to how you want to say it. Normally you’re saying the same old, same old. Or you can experiment and find another way.

How does the new album’s conceptual arc compare to what you did with The Monitor‘s war-song cycle?

I don’t think that The Most Lamentable Tragedy is so wildly different from that album. It just had a different setting and principles of artistic unity. I wanted The Monitor to sound like one album and one set of experiences rather than single, separate songs. I’m an older, wiser writer now.

I spoke to an opera company director recently who did a work based on the life and death of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Within any opera, there’s much to say; it’s a great exposition of fact and fiction. The director spoke of the composer having to rein it in—to keep the conceptualism and the flavor of Parker, but make something succinct, operatic, and approachable.

My mind is a fount of music, but it isn’t always catchy stuff.

It is a balancing act. I think about it more and more with every record—especially since I’m singing all the parts and I’m not what you’d think of as a naturally gifted or superlative singer. Like, I got turned away from choirs and musical theater stuff as a kid because I didn’t have the voice for it. So I was never going to get by as a singer. My mind is a fount of music, but it isn’t always catchy stuff. I’m not McCartney. So the rock and roll part is the sugar on my stuff, especially considering that not everything we say is so nice. We have misery and despair in the music of The Most Lamentable Tragedy.

You’ve always been frank about being manic-depressive and about having had to deal with your condition throughout your life, and that struggle is at the center of TMLT.

There’s no choice but to be frank, but there’s more to it as well. Ultimately, I really think you have to listen to our stuff a few times over to catch everything. Look, I love “Wooly Bully” and such, and then there’s something a bit more complex, like Lou Reed’s Berlin. I’d like to think we’re in between. I’m bridging all of my interests here. I want to make art—all art—a visceral experience. I want to scream and shout, and in some cases mumble and whisper. I want to have it all. Do it all. I do. FL

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