Patrick Stickles, the singer, lyricist, and guitarist of punk rock band Titus Andronicus, has a lot to say, and say well. This is the guy who delivered a punk rock concept album based on the Civil War, 2010's The Monitor, the last song of which is 14 minutes long. Titus Andronicus's latest record, Local Business, was intentionally made to sound rawer: the band did hundreds of one-take recordings and played all their instruments live, together, for the record. But Stickles' lyrics are poetry. They're stirring, some of the most courageously cathartic lyrics I've heard in a long time, but can be hard to catch under the grind of equal parts Springsteen, the Pogues, and Bright Eyes, so you've got to listen close.
Oh, yes, and a couple of weeks ago Spin published a 9,000 word essay Stickles wrote on the Replacements playing together for the first time in two decades, an essay that is sprawling, bizarre, and almost Tolkien-like in its mythic scope. Seriously, read it.
So when I called Stickles up to interview him prior to Titus Andronicus coming to town over the weekend, I expected to not have to prompt much to get the conversation going. I was right. He held forth until the minutes ran out on my phone, I shit you not. We still would be talking if that hadn't happened, and I would have been gladly listening, because Stickles is a punk rocker of the old school: he lives his art, crashing in a closet in the performance space he helped found, consciously rejecting the flashier trappings of success.
The paragraphs below are barely edited; these wisdom bombs kept dropping out of Stickles' mouth fully-formed. Read on, and next time you listen to Titus Andronicus, have the lyrics in front of you so you can read them. This guy's one of the most articulate punk rockers I've ever heard.
Smile Politely: Have you been to Champaign-Urbana before?
Patrick Stickles: Yeah... we played at some kind of festival in I think it was 2008. I forget what it was called.
Stickles: Yeah Pygmalion, that's it, like fuckin' Tartuffe. It was a pretty good time as I recall.
SP: What did you study in school? Your songs are so literate and I had read in another interview that you decided to give up grad school and pursue being in a rock band.
Stickles: Well, as an undergraduate I studied literature... That's what my degree is in, for whatever that's worth, and I was gonna go to grad school in the autumn of 2008, but at the same time I felt that I would be able to create certain opportunities for myself by putting my energy in a different direction and I guess deep down inside I knew that I never wanted to do any of the things that grad school was going to enable me to do, and I guess I knew in my heart of hearts that it was all a fucking scam. And it's all like, you know, another atrocious trick of the fuckin' white man, fucking patriarchy, OK, you know, just another fucking industrial complex that exists to support its own self and subjugate people and control their thinking.
And I wouldn't have been able to articulate it at the time, being as brainwashed as I was by my parents, and by New Jersey's suburban society, which is much like the Midwest in its grid-like and rigid nature. But I knew deep down, I guess, that all the promises were... a pack of lies, it's a bunch of self-serving bullshit, that it would be much better to be an artist, even if it meant being a fucking bum, which is what I am.
Who knows what my life would be like now, if I had made a different series of choices, I would maybe have had a life that was more like the life my parents had planned for me, but whatever, that sucks; I'm sorry, it's a lot of nonsense.
SP: What do your parents think of your music?
Stickles: Oh, they love it, and I love them. Don't get the wrong idea. I love them to death; they're great folks, but they brought me up to be a... capitalist, to be some straight-laced guy, and they wanted to turn me into somebody that would follow all the rules and get all the rewards. They didn't take time to appreciate that maybe the rewards for following all the rules weren't everything in the universe. It's not their fault; everybody thinks that way. Everybody wants to play [society's] sick game and win, and the people who win can't wait to teach their kids how to win.
SP: Do you consider yourself a patriot?
Stickles: I do in so much as I believe that the government should represent the needs and the desire of the people and of the community, and I believe that each of those individuals can make up that community at the same level of dignity and are entitled to pursue happiness to the extent that it doesn't impede upon the happiness of others, and that they earn this right for themselves just by virtue of their existence, by the virtue of our common humanity, and some people say that's what America is about. There are certain documents that corroborate that, and none of it's real, it's all an opiate, just another fucking fairy tale, like heaven, or Santa Claus, or anything else: this perfect land where everybody gets the same respect and is entitled to the same freedoms and stuff. That's not what our country's like, but I do think that would be good if such a country could exist.
I think with the proper dedication maybe that could be achieved someday with a lot of sacrifices on a lot of people's part and a lot of rethinking on what it means to be secure and successful in America, and a real rethinking of what people are entitled to, and the ramifications of our system. And I won't be the person to lay out the whole plan for anybody, but I am informed of a better alternative to the society we have, and I want to encourage people to also be hopeful and imaginative and faithful, even if won't be achieved, to have faith it will bring other good things in our lives, if not the realization of all our fondest hopes and dreams.
So I believe in all of that stuff, but that doesn't mean that I like everything that the government does, or like having the government around.... I feel like they're breathing down my neck all the time, it's a terrible stressful feeling, you know? It's very agitating, nauseating: thinking about how they're watching you all the time. Like they can do whatever the fuck they want to you and you can't say anything about it, how in the face of their impossible power you have no rights and no real agency. And they just permit you to feel the illusion of having agency as you're going about your daily life. When in fact you're a puppet and a pawn and a peon, and any time they decide they want to get rid of you they can, and there's nothing that you can say about it. It's such a horrible feeling, having that over your head all the time.
To the government we're just numbers. We're just fractions of a percentage, and we're completely expendable, and disposable, and replaceable.
SP: So what do you do? On one hand you can stand up and demand that you get that enfranchisement back and on the other hand you can resort to violence or protesting, but it seems like these days there's no peaceful, sane way you can do this.
Stickles: I guess the only thing you can do is try to live your life with as few compromises as possible. And accept that not making certain compromises to the system means certain sacrifices... the more compromises you make to play the system's game, the more luxurious and comfortable your life is. And people think that they don't have any choice but to look at the bottom line and say "Well, there's no way that I can do this instead of this, where this thing pays more."
And people love to be fucking assholes at any moment and say "Oh, I'm just doing my job." As though if something is profitable, it's morally unimpeachable. People can point to their bottom line, their profit margin and say "You can't deny this, whatever I did, however how cruel or unusual."
People think they don't have another choice but to do that, but they do. You can say that even if society tells me I need all these things, otherwise I'm subhuman—you can make the choice to not demand those things, to keep up with our disgusting decadent society. And in not needing those things, you take away the control of your oppressor. But there's a way that they have a power over you, that they control all the nice things in life, and if you don't play by the rules you're gonna be cut off from these things, you know, passed off into the wilderness, and they want to make you believe that there's no way you can ever survive or prosper or be happy out there, but it's not true.
And it relates to being in a band or being any business. If you just have certain expectations about what kind of rewards you want, what kind of rewards you think you realistically can get from doing what you want to do, if you just cater your expectations accordingly it doesn't matter that much at the end of the day if you're number one in the world, if you're getting paid the most for doing what you're doing, or if you have the nicest life superficially.
SP: You seem to be happy in the life that you're choosing. So what are your expectations, as a member of a decently popular rock band?
Stickles: I'm not happy. I'm not satisfied with my life; it makes me sick the way that I live. Back home I don't have a window, or a toilet, or a sink, or anything; I live basically like an animal, in what amounts to a cell, and I haven't got any money, I don't have enough stuff to eat, I don't have a bunch of options, but I don't like to sit around complaining about it all the time like some people, and say, like "Oh, it's so fucked up that I can't think about my art and nothing else and have some fancy life in some fancy neighborhood in New York City." I made this choice a long time ago that it was more important to my happiness that I'd be free to make the kind of art that I want to make and to make my art the central focus of my life. And unlike a lot of these hipsters nowadays, I don't think that that entitles me to every fucking thing in the world. So in a way, I'm happier than a lot of these people, even if I'm miserable, because I didn't get into this shit to have a nice life. I got into it to have my idea of a nice life, which is where I wake up in the morning, and I do what I want. In America, and in New York City, you don't get that freedom without a price, without making sacrifices and compromises.
Check out Titus Andronicus on Sunday night at the Canopy Club with Lost Boy. Tickets are $16, show starts at 9 p.m.