Not too long ago, Ted Leo ran out of things to say.
At that point in his life, the 36-year-old indie rocker had released four full-lengths with his band the Pharmacists, was constantly touring, and was regularly updating a blog that addressed everything our bipolar political system to Bravo's absurdly addicting schedule of reality television shows (big ups to Top Chef and Project Runway). It seemed the man always had something on his mind.
Not this time. After his 2004 release, Shake the Sheets, Leo's creative well had run dry; when it came time to write material for a follow-up, he was left with nothing.
"It's kind of bizarre, actually," Leo says. "For so much of the period going into the record, I couldn't find anything that I was very excited about saying. It took a lot of work."
Funny then that Living with the Living, the just-released album that seemed nearly impossible to make, turns out to be not only Leo's longest but also his most expansive collection of influences and ideas.
"With Shake the Sheets it was very much a decision to make that a more concise statement musically and thematically," he says. "Going into [Living with the Living], I had the deep desire to open it up a little more. I was snatching writing time here and there over the course of almost two years, so naturally different ideas are going to be popping in and out of your head over the span of that much time. But again, understanding that, I was definitely desirous of letting that happen."
Unlike his preceding albums, Living with the Living doesn't pack one predictable Ted Leo punch after another. While the man has always been wonderfully reliable, delivering smart pop anthems with enthusiasm and passion, he isn't known for an evolving brand of songwriting. He found his stride early on and stuck with it.
Living, though, is a scrapbook of stories and moments rather than an ultimate statement on a specific and single idea. "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" and "Army Bound" are obvious antiwar sentiments while "The World Stops Turning" and "Who Do You Love?" are lighter, invigorating pop songs. Maybe it was the time between albums, or maybe it was the general and constant search for inspiring material—either way, his bout with writer's block turned out to be a disguised treasure.
"Each of the songs certainly has more to do with itself than the rest of the record in some ways, but in other ways it's also, for me at least, only in the context of the whole thing that most of the songs make sense," Leo explains. "There's a certain dynamic, an ebb and flow of energy and style that goes from start to finish that really makes the experience of the record for me."
That experience starts with the raucous opening song "The Sons of Cain," a fast-paced, upbeat tune with big rock guitar and a chorus that ends with Leo trying his damnedest to destroy his vocal cords. "A Bottle of Buckie," with its jangling guitars, has a more familiar TL/RX flair, but it gets upped with a blatant nod to Leo's Irish roots with a whistle solo and layered acoustic guitar. "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb" unleashes the aggression that Leo generally saves for live performances, "The Unwanted Things" is more reggae than he's ever been before, and "The Toro and the Toreador" is a smooth and slow late-Beatles-esque tune.
And while Leo might agree that the album is a success, you gotta wonder why, if it was so hard in the first place, did he even try again at all? Since the late '90s, he's gone from playing basements and tiny backroom shows to filling up thousand-capacity venues on his own and opening for Death Cab for Cutie on their most recent arena tour. Hasn't he gone far beyond all the challenges a bright-eyed beginner sets out to beat?
"The only kind of goals I have are short-term," Leo admits. "Of course you want every show to be successful and every record to sell better than the last one. But other than that, no, I have absolutely no career goals at all. It's something I just wind up continuing to do. Sometimes I think it's because I love it, but other times I think it's because I just can't leave it."
While discussing his new album, reality TV, and Top 40 hits, Leo also talked about being a longtime vegan with a knack for cooking. Here’s one of his favorite recipes:
Ted Leo’s Great Roasted Beets
3–4 decent-size beets, washed
2–3 cloves of garlic, whole & peeled
Lay out some tinfoil and lay some parchment paper on top of that. Put cleaned, unpeeled beets in a vertical line across the middle of the parchment paper and drizzle some olive oil on them. Peel a couple of whole cloves of garlic and place them around, and lay out some herbs like thyme. Then fold up the tinfoil and cinch it up at the top like you’re rolling up the top of a paper bag. Put it in the oven and bake it pretty high, around 400 degrees, for about 30 to 35 minutes. Pull ’em out. The skin pops right off and the beets get infused with the garlic and the herbs and taste great. You can also take the beet tops, chop ’em up, and put ’em in a risotto—and you’re good to go.