In Conversation: Ted Leo Is Building a Home
Having formally stepped away from the Pharmacists for the first time in his career, Leo is taking a new approach at this whole rock star thing.
It’s been seven years since Ted Leo’s last album, The Brutalist Bricks. In the attention-span starved climate of 2017, that kind of break can feel like eons. Actual breakups and subsequent reunion tours from festival headliners have happened in less time (see: LCD Soundsystem), though it’s not as if the Indiana-born, New Jersey–raised Leo ever stepped away from music altogether. His SoundCloud page has been a fertile source of between-album tracks, including a series of covers released in 2012 (including tracks by Donovan and Matthew Sweet) as well as his frustrated political anthem, “In the Mean Times,” released just after the November presidential election. Most notably, however, Leo began a collaborative project with Aimee Mann called The Both, which found him stepping away from the charged punk songs of his band The Pharmacists in favor of a subtler, albeit more accessible, power-pop approach.
Yet Leo also found himself undergoing a period of personal struggles. He spent a couple years finding new grounding after a fallout with Matador Records, relocated to Rhode Island and set up his own home studio there, and, most devastatingly, suffered the tragedy of his wife Jodi’s miscarriage. The Hanged Man, Leo’s first solo release not to be credited to Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, feels like a release valve after a period of both creative productivity—an entire second album’s worth of songs has yet to be released—and intense frustration and trauma. It’s also the prettiest album he’s released to date, with lush arrangements, gorgeous balladry, and just the right amount of saxophone. And, expectedly, some blistering punk songs for good measure.
We caught up with Leo in a phone call from his Rhode Island home, where he discussed the challenges of recording his most ambitious album almost entirely on his own, how working with Mann helped him open up his own songwriting, and how addressing a fraught political climate has helped to foster a community.
This is your first record in a long time to be recorded almost entirely on your own. How did that change how you approached writing the album—or determining when something was finished?
Just by the nature of the fact that I did most of it alone, it would have to be a different process. But that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to rush it, but there was also a point at which I realized I wasn’t going to get an album out as early for a host of reasons. Some were my own and some were external and frustrating, and at that point, since I knew I was missing every hurdle or goal I had already set for myself, I knew I had to let go of trying to finish it by a certain date and just try and finish it just by feeling it was finished. So that allowed me to let songs breathe a bit.
Did it involve more trial and error than past records?
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I’m pretty happy with how this record sounds. I’m actually pretty proud of the engineering and mixing job I did. And while I always had my hands in that [on past albums], I never did it all from the ground up. I never positioned mics myself and figured out how subtle changes happen when you move something around. That in itself was a big learning process that became part of the actual making in the record—my learning on the job how to engineer better. There are some things that are on the finished record that made it all the way from first demo versions of songs that I just kept. But most of it over the course of time has been replaced and replaced and replaced. Initially I was doing drums myself, but I knew I wanted to have Chris [Wilson] come in and do the final drums on a lot of songs, because he’s a drummer and I’m not.
There’s a much bigger, lusher production sound to The Hanged Man. Was that an explicit aim with the record when you began to write it?
Yeah, I wanted to do it for this record. I don’t think I ever really skimped on arrangements or instrumentation in the past, but it was just the nature of what I wanted to do. For example, with The Brutalist Bricks, I didn’t do anything crazier than throw an acoustic guitar under an electric guitar. But I did know I wanted to make this a lush affair.
How did collaborating with Aimee Mann have an effect on you as a songwriter or as a performer?
“I think it probably is important to hold on to some semblance of hope, but certainly, it’s a dwindling resource. You know?”
I had not had as much fun playing music as I had when we were touring together in ages. For one thing, it was really good in getting me reinvigorated to finish this record and be happy about the ability to play music again. But I also learned a lot. I think our heads were often in more similar places than people would have given us credit for. My head tilted one way and hers titled in another, but I think we worked really well together.
I do think I was able to take some of that back, things that I learned from her, whether it’s thinking a little bit more about tightness of construction or being a little bit more on top of nailing my rhyme schemes, things like that. In the past I’ve also been a little bit wary of a grandiloquence of expression. I think she helped me be more poetic.
“Moon Out of Phase,” the first song on the album, seems to capture the feeling of waking up the morning after Trump was elected. It feels very much like it’s setting the stage for something…
Thank you for mentioning that. Nobody has mentioned that, and it was intentionally put there to be a scene-setting device. Aimee suggested I start the record with “Gray Havens,” because the whole bunch of songs felt very cinematic to her and she said you should have a stage-setting piece here. And I took her advice, but I didn’t want to start with that song, and I went with “Moon Out of Phase,” because I thought that one worked a little better.
This isn’t the first time your music has touched upon politics, but while the frustration is always palpable, it never feels hopeless. Is it important to you to retain that element, even amid that frustration?
As long as I actually have hope, yeah. [Laughs.] I don’t do much with an agenda unless it’s something I’m already thinking and feeling. I think it probably is important to hold on to some semblance of hope, but certainly, it’s a dwindling resource. You know?
The news every day does paint a bleak picture…
Yeah. There’s a macro/micro aspect to all of this where hope for the macro world of politics and issues might be dwindling, and it certainly affects how we feel about surviving on the ground in a micro sense. But at the same time, you know—this is really corny—but the immediate things that surround us that give us joy or reason to live: That’s an embodiment of hope. I made a record, I like the record, there’s music. It’s a thing. It’s not enough, it’s not even close to enough, but it is a thing that’s hopeful.
Does being able to address those frustrations, political or otherwise, in your music provide a source of catharsis for you?
“I made a record, I like the record, there’s music. It’s a thing. It’s not enough, it’s not even close to enough, but it is a thing that’s hopeful.”
Somebody asked me the other day, talking about politics and about preaching to the choir—a lot of my audience knows what they’re gonna get, and it’s rare that I have any pushback or “keep your politics out of my music” these days. But I don’t see it as preaching to the choir. I see it as community and catharsis and reinforcement. One of the things that drew me to political music in the first place is because it made me not feel crazy, like I wasn’t the only person in the world who was thinking and feeling a certain way. It tapped me into a broader community of people who did share a lot of my concerns. I still get catharsis from it in a way.
Has addressing social or political concerns in your own music also opened up conversations between you and your audience?
Absolutely. Whether remotely via e-mail or at shows too, which actually probably happens more often. I’m not often at the merch table anymore, [but] if I am or if someone approaches me, those conversations do happen a lot. I still play a lot of solo shows, and those are usually smaller than the band shows. And those are opportunities I cherish. It’s easier for me to sit and talk to people more. It’s really nice. FL