It’s four o’clock in the morning in Weehawken, New Jersey, a speck of a town just beyond the Lincoln Tunnel, and Titus Andronicus — quite possibly the best young band in America — is watching The Nanny. They’re 12 hours into a music video shoot, and they’ve got 16 more hours to go. And so right now the plan is to hole up in production manager Jill Kaplan’s office and sleep for an hour or two. It’s a brightly lit, drafty space overrun with junk: Dimitri From Paris and Tom Waits concert flyers, an international snow globe collection, Jill’s infant daughter’s plush Elmos, a childproof plastic fence, pizza boxes, beer bottles, sprawled-out bodies.
Earlier in the day, the set was buzzing. A group of Titus fans who’d answered an extras casting call milled around, talking loudly about how the Arial font is just a Helvetica knockoff that ruined all the modernisms. A rep from XL Recordings, Titus’s label, killed it with a broad impersonation of front man Patrick Stickles’s deliberate, old-fashioned manner of speaking: “When it comes to business decisions I refer to the marketing prowess of the folks at Extra Large Recordings1 I just make classic rock-and-roll songs.” Kaplan entertained us with tales from the big-budget heyday of music videos, including the time the head of Slip-N-Slide Records halted an on-set conspiracy to nab her new engagement ring. Drummer Eric Harm, guitarist Liam Betson, and bassist Julian Veronesi crouched in front of a boxy TV to watch a Yankees-Orioles playoff game, and to make fun of the announcers for calling Mark Teixeira “so good” at first base: “So good!” “So good!” “He could do this for a living!”
Note: XL is not actually called “Extra Large Recordings” by anyone but Stickles.
Between those bouts of relaxation came six hours of grind-it-out shooting. The video is for “In a Big City,” a track from Titus’s new album, Local Business, their third. Titus arrived with 2009’s The Airing of Grievances, a howling punk basher that also wanted to stay up late chugging coffee and chattering about Camus. And as great as it was, it didn’t prepare anyone for 2010’s The Monitor.
Across a 65-minute running time, by way of clearing out his own inadequacies, rage, and regrets, Stickles liberally name-checks on The Monitor. The Civil War is its stated thematic catchall, and it kicks off with a selection from Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, rendered in the wavering voice of Stickles’s octogenarian high school drama teacher: “From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some transatlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia — could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River.” But within those first two minutes we also get the Garden State Parkway, the Fung Wah discount Chinatown bus line, semi-pro baseball, Billy Bragg, and, yep, The Boss. It’s a true ramshackle epic.
Stickles never thought Titus would survive past their debut. “Not to say that we didn’t care about it a lot, or that we didn’t wish for bigger things,” he says. “We just thought that realistically, it was kind of a fun thing only.” When they recorded The Monitor, he says, “I figured that was gonna be the one — the one shot at the title. Balls to the wall.”
Which is maybe why, when Stickles found himself writing an inconceivable third album, he decided not to blow past the grandeur of The Monitor, but to scale back instead. Local Business is an album, he says, “without so much fancy stuff.” Certainly, it will disappoint some — those looking for a continuation of the grand Titus vision, those betting on Titus as an Important Voice of the Young People. And how will that affect reviews? And how will reviews affect the stability of a band that’s seen more than a dozen members come and go, with Stickles its only constant? If The Monitor was supposed to be one last, full-throated cry, what are we doing here?
T his being indie rock in 2012, the shoot is a stripped-down affair. There’s a six-man crew and an inexpensive concept: Stickles stomping through his native Jersey, alternately backed by his band and confronted with human roadblocks, making his way toward his adopted semi-home of New York City. The theme: change.
The deceptively ambitious plan is to shoot Stickles and the band at the same spots at sunrise and dawn and elsewhere in the day, and to edit these moments into a thematically consistent, but trippy, vision. Hence the 24-hour shoot. And as the director, a former Harvard physics major named Isaac Ravishankara, put it in the treatment: “I really think the physical and mental nature of this challenge will add to the tone of the piece.”
First, the crew set up at an outdoor staircase jammed between two well-trafficked roads. When the cameraman, his peripheral vision cut off by the RED One steadicam strapped on his person, backed up to get his shot of Stickles marching down the steps, one of the crew members’ jobs was to make sure he wouldn’t get murdered by oncoming traffic: “OK, go now. Oh no, wait. WAIT. Car coming. Back, back, back!”
Next, the operation moved to a set of railroad tracks tucked behind a business park. As the production van took a lap around the parking lot to check for security, Ravishankara delivered a spiel about how sometimes permits aren’t readily available, and so sometimes you have to steal shots, and maybe only critical personnel should be leaving the car right now. We pulled up, turned down the lights, and a set of headlights lit us up. Everyone held their breath, hoping it was restless teenagers and not cops. Then the car rolled past, slowly, and everyone exhaled.
Later we got to a field buttressed by, as Kaplan pointed out with a dash of indifference, a warehouse where they store the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats and another warehouse where an Al Qaeda cell was uncovered. We were tucked between two leering overpasses, and it was surprisingly chilly, and as we stomped around the field it may have well been soft piles of manure we were stepping in. But when Ravishankar broke out a fumbling version of the “superman dat ho” dance before the camera rolled, everyone laughed.
So now, back at the office, people are passing out — some attempting to do so in Kaplan’s daughter’s surprisingly ample crib — but a contingent has decided to stick it out all night, with a marathon of The Nanny as their only companion. A PA admits to never having seen it, but luckily Harm proves to be particularly well versed, so he provides a complete rundown, peppered with spot-on “Ohhhh, Mr. Sheffield!”s. The conversation meanders, and the last thing I hear before falling asleep is the lighting guy suggest that since Betty White has been in the entertainment game for so long she’s almost certainly given Charlie Chaplin a hand job.
A week after the shoot I drive to New Jersey, past miles and miles of manicured lawns and a “Welcome to Glen Rock” sign until I arrive at Patrick Stickles’s parents’ home. Halloween’s coming up, so there are spider webs on the conifers and skeletons hanging from the trees. On the Stickles’s front door there’s a wreath, and in their bay window a giant smiling cartoon pumpkin wearing a witch hat. The car in the driveway is a weathered, sensible sedan, and it’s sporting a row of bumper stickers: Obama-Biden, COEXIST, a peeling Titus Andronicus. Over it, mounted on the roof of the garage, hangs an American flag.
Stickles answers the door, escorting me in past a cozy carpeted den with fluffy couches, and into a tidy kitchen that overlooks a back deck. He’s been living here with his parents since June, he explains, since leaving his apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“I used to live with a woman,” Stickles says. “And you know how they can be sometimes!” He stops. “It wasn’t really like that. It was my fault. I had to move out. And I hadn’t really gotten back on my own two feet. And that’s when I learned I wasn’t really all that responsible.” With the Local Business tour coming up, Stickles figured he might as well hole up here for a while, then find a more permanent residence later.
Right, awesome, I blurt out without thinking.
“I don’t know if it’s awesome,” he says. “It’s reality.”
His mother comes in, carrying a load of laundry down to the basement. “You guys getting along?,” I ask.
“I love my mother. She’s the best. She takes very good care of me. Makes sure I always have my favorite foods around and stuff. She’s a hell of a woman, that mother of mine, I tell you —”
She cuts him off, laughing. “He’s fun to have around.”
“Yeah, you know. I’m fun.”
We talk about the rest of the family, including Stickles’s older brother, a naval pilot stationed on a carrier off the coast of Norfolk. He flies F-18s. “Well, actually now he’s a flight instructor,” his mom explains. “But he does know how to fly those planes.” She rustles around an empty cookie jar. “You killed that, huh? Good.”
Stickles started Titus Andronicus his sophomore year at Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey. At first it was a weekend hobby. By the time he graduated, the band started taking off. He remembers a raucous, packed early show at Death by Audio, in Williamsburg, that convinced him this could be something: “It was a little taste of the high life.” He’d planned on going to grad school to study education and become a teacher. “But rock and roll came knocking. And I couldn’t resist.”
Stickles wrote Local Business at his Greenpoint apartment, and the band recorded the album in the spring, at a studio converted from an old barn in New Paltz, New York. Inspired by Neil Young’s biography, they decided to record everything live. “It was nutty,” Stickles says. “Playing the songs over and over and over again, for weeks on end, stockpiling hundreds of takes. It was really banging our heads against the wall.”
Now that the album’s about to see the light of day, there’s a new set of concerns. Titus got their first bump after Pitchfork favorably reviewed their first album. “To put it into perspective,” Stickles told Exclaim! in 2008, “our review went up on a Friday. On Thursday, we had 89 plays on MySpace. By the end of Friday, we have somewhere in the area of 17,000.” The Monitor had critics in its corner, too. But Stickles, who admits to reading every single review written of the band, knows “it could go away anytime. And I hate to think that would be the end of the band. I’m envious of bands that aren’t beholden to trends, that aren’t in danger of being thrown out with the next crop of worn-out buzz bands. I’d like to move beyond a place where that’s quite so dangerous.”
That leads us to talk about a recent Grizzly Bear feature in New York Magazine, which revealed that the band — top-tier indie rockers — deal with real financial struggles. “It hit home for me,” Stickles says. “I am a little scared of what I would do if I didn’t have the band anymore. I’m in my late 20s. I don’t exactly have a lot of skills. All my real job experience has been delivering pizzas.”
Right now, then, he’s focused on keeping Titus together. Burned out on sleeping on strangers’ living room floors, Stickles’s bandmates “have a funny habit” of dropping out on him. Guitarist Adam Reich joined the band just before recording, when keyboardist David Robbins split; Betson played on the first two Titus albums, went away to college, then came back. “I’ve always wanted it to be a real rock-and-roll band,” Stickles says. “I’ve always hoped that every lineup would be the one that would stick. But it just hasn’t happened so far.”2 Signs of hope: For the first time in Titus history, the full band that recorded the album will be touring behind it. So is this the lineup that’ll stick around? “I think so. But I said that about the last one, too.”
Despite what that constantly shifting lineup might suggest, there have been no reported signs of tension within the band. In fact, when band members leave — like co-founding bassist Ian Graetzer and guitarist Amy Klein, who has gone on to some solo notoriety — they usually get fawning, endearing farewells.
Stickles kicks off Local Business like this: “OK, I think by now we’ve established / everything is inherently worthless / and there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.”
“It’s a hopeful statement, you know?” he tells me in his mom’s kitchen. “Everything is worthless, yes. But in that void we are empowered to decide what’s worthwhile. There might not be much meaning to things, but through that we’re able to create our own meanings. It’s empowering.” This is kind of his thing: As stark as the guy can get, there’s often promise peeking out somewhere.
Rare for a guy his age, Stickles uses the phrase “rock out” — “they rocked out with us,” “we just rocked out a little bit” — regularly, and without irony. This is important: When he says all he wants is a “real rock-and-roll band,” and when he says he just wanted Local Business to be a “rock-and-roll album,” it is not filler. That is the vision. The grandiose narrative of The Monitor is gone. But that razor-sharp desire to grasp control by plumbing all the sad shit in his head is very much still there. Despite its scaled-back ambitions, as far as rock-and-roll albums from real rock-and-roll bands go, Local Business might well end as one of the year’s best.
Stickles has come along at a treacherous point in the music industry,3 when there’s no particular reason he or anyone should consider the possibility of becoming a lifer. Like his heroes, The Replacements, he makes smart, literate rock that still rocks. And he’d like to do that, exactly that, for as long as he can. If that means till the end of today, well, OK.
Then again: “The temptations are still there. We could still be doing Bud Light commercials or something. I don’t really believe in this post sell-out era that we supposedly live in. I think you can still sell out.” Not that he’s a complete hardliner: “They made me put on a different shirt when we made that video, I’ll tell you that much. They didn’t like the shirt that I brought. It was a white shirt, but they wanted me in a light-brown shirt. So that was one concession that I had to make.”
“I don’t think far beyond the next tour we’re doing,” he says. “My expectations are not that high. I mean, here we are at my mother’s house. I’d like to have my own apartment again someday, and hopefully rock and roll will pay for that. Beyond that, though, I don’t ask for much.”
He pauses, then continues. “Now a lot of my peers, people I went to high school with, have got real fancy jobs, or like they’re getting married and stuff. And I still feel like a little kid.”
“But you’re way more famous than them!,” I offer, only sort of facetiously.
“Perhaps. Yeah. But some of them are the most important people in someone else’s life. I’m not the most important person in anyone’s life except mine. True love? That’s real fame.”
Is that what Stickles is really looking for?
“I’ve had it before. It would be nice. But for now I have to settle for indie rock celebrity.”
It’s come time to go. I walk back through the den, where I spot a framed photo of Stickles sporting a gnarly old-man punk rock beard, with his brother and sister. All three are in identical argyle sweaters, and they’re smiling broadly like a bunch of happy-go-lucky goofballs.
“That was from a few Christmases ago,” Stickles says. “We had some fun.” As I walk out, he offers me a banana for the road.
Back in Weehawken, I’m awoken at 5:30 a.m. — it’s time to get the sunrise shot. Eric and Liam are still up, but The Nanny marathon has segued to That ’70s Show, and now they’re deadpanning about Ashton Kutcher, who apparently “got voted most handsome once,” and who was great “before Demi ruined him.”
Everyone piles back into the van, and we climb through a residential neighborhood to a park at the top of a hill. We walk through a gazebo into an opening, and get smacked by the greatest view of New York City I’ve ever seen. Jersey City’s to our right, a bundle of dark gray clouds hovering grimly above; Manhattan’s West Fifties are directly ahead of us, clear as can be. Dunkin Donuts boxes are laid out on a bench behind us. A crushed Red Bull can is tossed down as a blocking marker. A PA duct-tapes the rips in his jeans. And the black sky, dotted with stars and a crescent moon, slowly turns purple.
Stickles is lined up at the edge of the hill, the band hanging stoically behind him. It’s the last moment of his music video journey: He’s staring down NYC, taking it in, and then turning around and going back to where he came from. Ravishankara primps the back of Stickles’s hair as he stands and waits, then the director tugs the other band members’ shoulders to get them into place just so. The cameraman prods: “Isaac, the sun’s coming up.” “I know, I know,” Ravishankara shoots back, before retreating behind the camera. And the purple sky, hanging over spindles and marked by light jet streaks, turns an odd greenish hue.
“Lifeless automaton, feeling like a ghost,” Stickles yelps off-key, a cappella, and everyone marches forward in the early-morning chill, with the sky going a fiery burnt orange now. “This looks beautiful, you guys,” Ravishankara offers peacefully. “Let’s keep going.” “I don’t know much,” Stickles complies, shouting out, “but I know which side’s buttered on my to-o-oast.”
“In a Big City” finds Stickles taking stock of his situation, and it’s not quite clear where he’s finding cause for optimism. “And some of my dreams / are coming true,” he sings at one point, and the implication that maybe those dreams aren’t all they’re cracked up to be hangs heavy. But the greenish purple that’s gone bright fire orange over the devastatingly clear Manhattan skyline has now turned into a lemon yellow, and so when Stickles hints at minor hope, it’s hard not to hold on with rigid fingers. “From Jersey I come, but I pump my own gas,” he shouts. “I’m a dirty bum, but I wipe my own ass / If you’re chasing any other kind of currency, son / you’re really doing little more than twiddling your thu-uh-umbs, ohhh.” And then the sun comes all the way out, and then it’s just another Thursday morning in New Jersey.
Below, the premiere of Titus Andronicus’s new video, “In a Big City,” from the band’s new album, Local Business.