Titanic Titus Andronicus: Patrick Stickles on Why His Band Made a 93-Minute, 29-Track Rock Opera About Manic DepressionMatthew Greeley
In early September 2013, New Jersey punk band Titus Andronicus played a show at a VFW post in Missoula, Montana. To promote the gig, the group’s quixotic singer-songwriter Patrick Stickles did an interview with local daily newspaper The Missoulian in which he divulged for the first time his plans to write and record a rock opera. For Titus Andronicus, this sort of grandiosity is expected. The band’s prior three albums pair shout-y, relentlessly visceral guitar anthems with big-picture concepts derived from American history, philosophy, and sociopolitical theory. Titus Andronicus’s most celebrated LP, 2010’s The Monitor, draws parallels between the Civil War and Stickles’s own upbringing in suburban Jersey. This is a group with the body of a street-alley brawler and the mind of a college professor.
In the interview, Stickles said his rock opera was about a young man, his doppelgänger, and a “superhuman race [that] has this curse upon it.” He mentioned inspirations such as Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy and psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire, a book about manic depression and how it affects artists. He declared that his magnum opus would include about 30 songs and be accompanied by a film. And that it would come out in November 2014.
At the time, most of this was just talk. Aside from a new song called “Fatal Flaw” that Titus had performed live, all Stickles had were a few riffs and a lot of vague ideas. But he boldly laid out his ambitious blueprint anyway. As he admitted when reached by phone last week at his apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, Stickles wanted to deliberately put himself in a corner by talking about the album publicly, so there would be no chance of backing out.
“It’s like if you decide that you don’t ever want to be part of straight society so you go out and get some face tattoos or something,” he said. “It’s to say, like, even if I want to someday sell out my current principles, I won’t be able to get a straight job with these face tats. [In my case], I wouldn’t be able to put out some underwhelming, 40-minute, bland, drab thing. I wouldn’t have that option without significant embarrassment to myself.”
Stickles’s rock opera, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, didn’t go exactly as initially conceived. Recording began in September, two months before the original release date, and wrapped up in February. Clocking in at 28 songs (plus a 78-second intermission) spread out over 93 minutes, Tragedy took longer to make than Stickles anticipated. Aside from covers of Daniel Johnston’s “I Had Lost My Mind” and the Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” as well as a sloppy rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” — which all make sense in the context of the album — Stickles wrote all of the songs himself. The Most Lamentable Tragedy will now be released July 28, the same date as Stickles’s 30th birthday and the same month as the 10th anniversary of Titus Andronicus’s first show.
Fittingly, Tragedy is very much a capstone record, a grand attempt to encapsulate everything this band has ever done well while adding new flourishes, including strings and concise song structures. While Tragedy is the band’s most sprawling album yet, the songs are tight and hooky, coming and going in just three or four minutes, or about half of the time as many tracks on Titus’s previous records. Stickles says this dichotomy is reflective of the album’s exploration of manic depression. Tonally and musically, Tragedy is similarly bipolar, veering between angry, mile-a-minute punk and melodic, reflective dirges. The album’s first single, “Dimed Out,” definitely derives from the album’s more manic side.
“By creating a really big canvas, you have the opportunity — and really the responsibility — to expand in as many different directions as you can,” Stickles said. “These things all reflect the mind space of the main character. Depending on how optimistic or empowered he is, the music will reflect that. It will have the capacity to be more uplifting or more, you know, down-lifting. For every weight you put on that side of the scale, you have to put the equivalent weight on the other side of the scale.”
Stickles acknowledged that punk bands typically don’t make 93-minute rock operas. But he’s never shied away from ideas that others might dismiss as pretentious. It’s a quality that has both endeared Titus Andronicus to those inclined to view it as the latest iteration of the Great American Rock Band, and alienated others turned off by the group’s unwieldy, overstuffed albums.
“I love rock and roll — just regular LPs give me a lot of pleasure,” he said. “I have another, equally strong love for pieces of art that have different standards in place for, like, what makes them excellent, you know? I wanted to work on a macro level and a micro level. You can enjoy [this album] for three minutes and it’s just a good time. Or you can invest 93 minutes and hopefully you’ll get something else out of it.”
In conversation, Stickles is articulate and funny, but not too funny. No matter what, he sticks to his core artistic earnestness. For example, Tragedy includes two more installments of Stickles’s “No Future” song cycle, linking the rock opera to Titus’s other albums. When I joked that “No Future” is like his Fast & Furious franchise, Stickles replied dryly, “I haven’t actually seen any of those films, but if you want to work it in there, I get it, it’s the Internet.”
For Stickles, Tragedy is an inherently serious proposition. The album not only sums up his career, it could very well represent the end of it.
“Every time I make [an album], I kind of figure that it’s going to be the last one,” he said. “When we did the first one, I thought, We’re going to be the Sex Pistols, we’re going to make one album and then we’ll get back to regular life. And then we made the second one, and I was like, OK, we’ll be like Neutral Milk Hotel and make two albums and get out of there because I’m almost out of ideas. And then we made the third one, and I was like, Jesus Christ, this fucking sucks, I’m having an awful time, why the hell would I ever want to make another one? And now, making this last one, it was like, Jesus Christ, this is the fourth one. That’s how many fucking [ones] Velvet Underground got. And also, I’m getting old, what the fuck are we doing? I know every musician says this at some point, and it’s not just because I’m going to be 30 years old. This is how it is. This is a young person’s game; it’s not a sustainable lifestyle.”
If this is the end, Titus Andronicus will bow out on a high note — Tragedy rivals The Monitor as the band’s best record. It’s even surprisingly accessible in places, with songs like “Lonely Boy” and “(S)HE SAID/(S)HE SAID” that dabble in power-pop and wild heavy-metal-style soloing. Just in case he does decide to pack it in after this, Stickles planned ahead, inserting various Easter eggs that link the album back to Titus Andronicus’s 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances.
“The last note on the new record is F, and that’s the first note on the first album,” he said. “The last song on our new record is a cassette tape recording, and the first part on the first song on our first album is a recording made from the same cassette player. It’s like when a TV series doesn’t know if it’s going to get renewed for another season, so they say, ‘Let’s leave some doors open if we get another season, but if we don’t, let’s make sure this season finale is an effective series finale.’”
There are two kinds of rock operas — there’s the Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which have relatively easy-to-follow narratives, and there’s Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade or Green Day’s American Idiot, where the songs are thematically linked but the story is less clear. The Most Lamentable Tragedy leans toward the latter — the relationship between the protagonist and the doppelgänger is primarily a metaphor for a meditation on the slipperiness of maintaining mental stability.
“It does have a sort of linear-ish narrative, but it’s not, like, Styx’s Kilroy Was Here, though there are some moments that are Styx-ish, where two characters will talk to each other,” Stickles said. “But it’s more like a series of monologues.”
Rest assured, The Most Lamentable Tragedy isn’t really all that “Styx-ish.” The record’s clearest antecedent is Zen Arcade, particularly on harder-edged songs like “Stranded (On My Own)” and “Into the Void (Filler),” where the screaming guitars and Stickles’s vocal histrionics push Tragedy deep into the red. I guessed that the Who’s Quadrophenia was another influence, given the mental illness theme and Tragedy’s five-act structure, which is similar to Quadrophenia’s four-sided narrative. Stickles also favors recurring musical and lyrical motifs, as Pete Townshend did — along with the Johnston cover, Stickles wrote his own song called “I Lost My Mind” as a kind of echo.
But while Stickles has done his classic-rock homework, he claimed to have “never really listened to [Quadrophenia] much.” Instead, he points to Lou Reed’s tortured 1973 musical theater piece Berlin as a guidepost for Tragedy’s more orchestrated numbers.
“In the aesthetic universe of our rock opera, the downcast songs are more like Zen Arcade, which is, you know, very bare-bones, kind of mean rock production,” he said. “And the more uplifting, empowered, sort of optimistic, moral, heightened-reality sort of stuff is more ornate and fancy like Berlin.”
The other obvious influence on The Most Lamentable Tragedy is Stickles’s own experience with manic depression, which in the past few years has caused him to act erratically and nearly derail his band, he said. At the same time, it also fueled his creativity, which in essence made his career. This conflict is central to the record.
“It’s really tricky when psychopharmacology gets involved, and you want to go into your brain and start pulling out wires hoping you’re going to find the one that makes you piss everyone off. In the process of doing that, maybe you’ll find that wire, but you’ll pull out five other ones, too, that did stuff that you like,” he said. “There’s lots of times I could look back, especially over the past three years or so, on the way that I lived and the way that I’ve conducted myself in this business, and it’s startling to me now that I should still be doing it. We kept it together, but there were some dark times, you know? I was just fucked up.”
Stickles declined to go into specifics, preferring to maintain the wall between himself and his work. (“It’s self-indulgent enough as it is,” he said.) The Most Lamentable Tragedy isn’t a memoir, but rather a work of fiction, he insisted. The parallels between the album and Stickles’s life can’t be completely set aside, however. When I asked whether he’s come out of his dark period, Stickles’s answer echoed the mix of hope and pain heard on the album.
“You never do come out of it,” he said. “I don’t want to sound too grumpy about it, but a few years ago, coming to understand that I was a manic depressive contextualized a lot of the stuff that had happened to me earlier in my life. And coming to glimpse my true nature through modern medicine, I’ve realized that it’s just life. There probably won’t be a point for me where I say, I win. You win when you get to do it another day.”