Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are playing tonight at the Crocodile at 8pm, in support of his fantastic new record, The Hanged Man. I wrote a short preview of the show in The Stranger's online music section last week, but the interview we did touched on a lot of stuff that didn't fit into that piece, but that might be of interest—including, but not limited to, the shrinking lower-middle class of touring bands, the relief of not Tweeting as much as you maybe used to, the challenge of learning how to get a particular drum sound, Frank Sinatra's weird sci-fi album, and the importance of not giving up on a dream just because it seems increasingly futile.
An edited, but still lengthy transcript of our Q&A is below.
I don’t want to re-cover too much of the ground that has been covered in some of the other pieces that have been written about you lately, but I am curious how you feel about the increased transparency that is expected of musicians nowadays.
You mean generally?
And also personally.
Well, I feel like I’ve always been a pretty raw and open nerve. For example, forget about all the Stereogum stuff. Just taking the Kickstarter and what the ask of that is. I’m not sure that it would be the same for every artist, I think that for me it felt pretty natural to be very open about why I was doing it, and how it was all working, et cetera.
But I think if you’re someone who’s been a more opaque artist in the past, you could make it work as well. I don’t know that the level of transparency is always the same. That said, between social media and all the extra content that we have to produce for every single thing, I think I do feel a certain pressure to keep up the kind of transparency that I’ve always had.
Then when it comes to the other stuff, talking about trauma and all that, that was just kind of a snap decision on my part. I’d been processing it enough that it was... I think I probably anticipated—I don’t think I dropped any bombs on the record, but I think that I led enough of a breadcrumb trail to certain things, that I felt like I should probably get out ahead of some stuff and see how it fit. Understanding also, that being a human being means no matter what kind of island you think you’re living on, there’s always someone else who’s living on the same island.
Yeah, it’s such a tricky thing now, because the culture has evolved into a place where you’re, I don’t want to say rewarded because that sounds very cynical, but there can be a more welcoming environment for talking about things that used to be intensely private. But there can also be this sense of being just another drop in the ocean, sharing personal details about one’s life. Social media is a personal space in a way, but it’s also a marketplace.
For sure, yeah. I think I wind up struggling with it more on social media. Also, the crazier things get, and the more that goes on, the less inclined I am to weigh in on stuff at this point. I’m largely off Facebook. Facebook I use only for the rare promotional thing that I need to do. Twitter, I’m pretty active on, but even with that I’m just, I don’t know. I retweet stuff that I think should get amplified, but I don’t say much these days.
I guess there is that fear that the pressure to weigh in on something—because you feel like you have to maintain, I don’t know, a reputation or a brand as someone who weighs in on stuff. That’s insidious and it’s definitely something that feels gross to me, to be honest with you. I think that’s part of why I’ve been receding a little bit lately.
Yeah, I’m with you there. I’ve begun to wonder whether it’s part of the problem, everybody weighing in all the time. In a way, even as I say it, it sounds crazy to suggest that, but when you feel yourself at strong odds with the dominant culture and the people who are in charge, you want to raise your voice and be part of a resistance in some tiny way. Just by saying I don’t like this. But then at the same time, the biggest problem I identify in the world right now is just the glut, the sheer amount of stuff that is thrown out into the world constantly. And that leads to the question about making your record now. I know this one took you a while. How much of that was, “What is even the point of making a record now?”
Oh boy, yeah. You’re the first person to bring that up, and it certainly was a part of it. For reasons that you just laid out, and then also for personal reasons. My situation with my record label really led to a lot of self-doubt, so there were those kinds of things playing into it as well. I look around and I see how much music is released every day, and I see what people react positively to and strongly to, and I certainly ask myself many, many times, “Does anybody need this from me? Does anybody?”
I get enough feedback that I know there are, at any given moment, a handful of people who are like, “Yes, we need this from you.” But that could literally just be a handful. I can only say this with hindsight in this exact moment, but I guess in a way doing it as a crowdfunded thing was almost challenging the universe to give me an answer to that. Because it could have gone either way, or it could have gone three ways. It could have failed, it could have meagerly succeeded, or it could have wildly succeeded. It came through in a way that was really reenergizing and edifying.
There’s a sense that I can’t escape, having been pretty attuned to the independent music world for the last 30 years, or whatever, that the difference between putting out a record and not putting out a record is the smallest it’s ever been.
That’s really true, I know.
Because there was at one time, at least there was a fantasy that you put it out and it catches on, in a kind of, not even a mass audience way, but a totally respectable small audience.
In a way that is at least exciting, and warrants going and touring on it.
Right. Now that version of reality, even the small version of it, seems increasingly distant. I guess what you might call the middle-class, or lower-middle-class of bands, appears to be shrinking the same way the actual lower-middle class is. It’s increasingly hard to even know what that culture is.
You’re speaking a language that I understand and have used myself. I’ve definitely thought of it in those kind of class terms. The lower-middle-class ability to have a respectable audience that will buy a respectable amount of records, and turn out a respectable amount of bodies to a show, that will earn you a respectable amount of money to continue to make the next record, or get to the next show. That was a nice place to be for a while.
Probably the worst thing I’ve come to think, is that somehow the great democratization of the internet promise, which was sort of in keeping with the punk and indie rock dream—decentralization and fewer gate keepers or whatever—has led to a situation where it’s difficult to differentiate between all of the stuff. There really are like 300 or 400 records being put out every week. I’d like to think of it as fascinating, but I also find it massively disheartening to think that, the thing we all asked for is the thing that destroyed us.
They often go together, don’t they? You can’t deny the fact that leveling has brought a lot of voices to our ears, that we might not have heard before, that we’re really glad that we’ve heard. But at the same time, it is a leveling in a way, and there’s a lot of noise out there that sometimes one wishes one had a better mechanism for filtering out. Then yeah, we who are working in a particular field that is affected by this… again, sometimes it helps, sometimes it really hurts.
We’re talking about records, but let’s also talk about bands and artists— the sheer amount of people out there touring right now, has completely changed the landscape of even being able to tour. Not to turn this into grumpy old man territory, but there was something magical about starting a tour and finishing the booking of it via payphones while you were already on the road, just looking a month down the line. And really feeling like you were living a real special life on the tracks, the circus forged by Black Flag and The Minutemen, et cetera.
Now, you literally have to start booking tours like eight, ten months in advance. Or festivals are asking a year-and-a-half out. Whose life, other than the life of a very young person—and I don’t say that disparagingly, I say it as a reality—whose life is gonna be the same a year-and-a-half from now? Mine isn’t. My knees might give out.
It’s very difficult to adjust to that, I find. It’s easier to kind of give up. But then I listen to your record, and… I know your music pretty well and I have listened to you for a long time, and obviously we’ve met and preformed together. But it sounds like a very energized record, listening to it in comparison to the previous one. They don’t sound radically different, but this one sounds very vital and expressive in the same way that a lot of your best stuff sounds. Your energy doesn’t seem to have flagged at all. Is that something you had to push yourself to remember, or is that just how it comes out?
That’s a really interesting question. I am not sure. I think, it’s weird because for me there’s no separating the process, the different aspects of the process of making this record. The space, the time, the actual work, the engineering, learning on the job—it’s also part of the writing process for me. There are some times when it all felt very dark and ponderous, but that’s never the kind of record that I want to make.
The best I can say is that since I really finished it, post-Kickstarter, there were a couple songs that I didn’t write until April of this year that made it to the record. Since I really wrapped it up, and really mixed and remixed, and really drilled down on everything, just in the Spring of this last year. If there’s a buoyancy that carries through, I hope that it is, or I think that part of it is the buoyancy that I felt from the success of the crowdfunding.
I think that, like we talked about in the beginning, when the answer to that question came back, the really nice, “Yes.” I’m sure that energy fed into the completion of the project.
What were the songs that came after that?
Definitely “William Weld” and “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” were the last two that I wrote for it. The song “Gray Havens” I wrote this year, but I can’t remember, I actually really can’t remember if that happened before or after the March Kickstarter, it might have been before.
“Let’s Stay on the Moon” is definitely not free from a certain heaviness.
But it’s definitely… it’s not escapist, either.
Which is funny, because it is actually like a fictionalized sci-fi narrative.
About actual things. “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” literally, it’s a tourist shuttle goes up at some point in the near future and then these two people are looking back at the planet, and going like, “Why the fuck would we go back there at this point?”
I guess it is escapist.
It’s not escapist in that I’m trying to escape from anything, it was just a way for me to be able to, it was a way that I found to be able to express some real stuff, through a fiction.
This is a bit far afield, but are you familiar with the Frank Sinatra album, Trilogy, with the Past and the Present and the Future?
No, I don’t think I am.
I don’t go deep with Sinatra, but it’s a triple album, it came out in 1980, I think. I learned about it on Karina Longworth's podcast. And there’s a whole sequence where he goes on a space journey, and he goes to all these planets, and it’s really quite a thing for The Chairman.
Wow, I got to find it.
The funny thing is it was, I guess it was his biggest selling album ever, because it was the one that had his last big hit on it, which was the theme from New York, New York.
What? Oh my god, wow.
Yeah, pretty bizarre. Anyway. Apropos of nothing.
I’m glad to know.
I know you’re from New Jersey, so... Back to The Hanged Man, and this is almost certainly the gray hairs in my temple asking this question, but I found that something really exciting and validating in that it’s clearly written in the vernacular of rock and roll in a way that— and maybe I’m just imagining this—you don’t hear as much anymore. I guess I’m trying to say that I felt addressed by it, which is maybe the best thing I can say about a piece of pop music in 2017.
[Laughing] I love that, it’s great. You feel “seen.”
Yes, it’s always refreshing when members of the once-and-always-dominant class and culture feel seen.
There’s so much to say about that, actually. I guess the only other direction I would have gone would have been to be some sensitive acoustic record. I think this is my dominant language, and I certainly don’t want it to be stagnant. I feel personally like I did what, for me, were some interesting things, with the language on this record. I was conscious of, I think especially sonically, the production values and stuff. I was conscious of making a statement about that language. I wanted to make a record that didn’t have the drum sound that I hear on every indie rock or punk record these days. I very much wanted to make a record that sonically was in my happy place, you know? In my late ‘70s zone.
Sure. It’s funny about that sound, because it occupies a space that is both vague and specific. Like, It’s not quite power-pop, but then again maybe that distinction is a little picky to even think about. It’s always been a real fringe tone.
Yeah, it is true. It’s always kind of surprising. I guess there are mass culture, popular iterations, of it. Tom Petty certainly dabbled in that, and took it to great and popular places. I feel like there were a lot of one-hit-wonders in that genre, I certainly was conscious of a band like Pilot at times. But then there’s the great mass of $2 record bands out there in the used bins, that always remains kind of fringe... Game Theory, you know?
Definitely. It’s an interesting dilemma that it still feels like the pinnacle of a certain kind of aesthetic to a lot of listeners—well, I don’t know if it’s a lot, but some listeners, some of us. But in a way to do it now feels weirdly both fringe, and it communicates a certain affinity, let’s say.
Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I don’t have a problem saying I wanted to make a statement in that regard, I didn’t want it to be anachronistic, like being a garage rock band is—nothing against garage rock, but I didn’t want to be specifically referenced, anachronistic in my references or anything. I just wanted to express the sounds that I was making in a way that I loved, and that are explicitly not this other thing, I think. Maybe that’s more the issue.
Yeah. So when you say that you were eager not to have that sort of over-familiar drum sound for example, how much of the challenge was figuring out your own engineering chops, to avoid it? How many times did you have to revise it?
Oh, I was trying the whole time. I started demoing stuff for this, straight through and after The Brutalist Bricks record, which is going on, the making of that record was nine years now, going on 10. I was working the whole time, get a little bit of money here, do a little bit of research there, put a track down, the one mic that I think I want on Ebay. Figure out how to place it there, figure out how to EQ it over here. I even had my usual drummer, Chris [Wilson] come in and track most of the drums on the record.
In a gesture that I thought was very magnanimous toward the universe, and in the spirit of how I more want to be as person, he came to my place and he was like, “You want me to just play your drums? They’re all set up and miked and everything.” And I was like, “You know what? No. Let’s just do you. You set up this stuff the way you want it, you play the way you want to play, and I’ll work with it.”
It all sounded great in the room, and then I got back and realized that I should have done a lot more pre-production on his drums. Because there was no way that I wasn’t getting—the basic sound of the drums was much more modern and rimshot-y, and loudly played. This is not a reflection on Chris, this is a reflection on me as an engineer. I really had to spend a lot of time, and I learned a lot about 8-10, 6-10, 12k frequencies. And how to work with them on a snare drum. It was a big part of it.
Is this something you have been terribly interested in before? Were you always an amateur-to-semi-pro engineer, or did you like working with producers before because you didn’t have to worry about that?
I actually only worked with a producer once—well, that’s not true. I only worked with a producer who wasn’t already a friend once, on one record. And that turned out great, but it was the most I’ve ever been removed from the process. I have always liked having my hands in the dough, in the pie. But I always wished I knew more, I always really wished I knew how to really do it more.
I did a couple of records with Brendan Canty [of Fugazi], and working with him, I was there for every step of the process, but I wasn’t actually setting the mics up or anything. He speaks a real similar musical language, so I could say something to him and he would be able to interpret my obscure metaphor for how something should sound. But I did always really want to know. I really always did want to know how to do that myself. That was not an unwelcome part of the process.
I guess this is sort of an inevitable question, but I know you’re still in the thick of things, even though you’re on a little 10-day break, but do you have a sense of the future, beyond this record?
I really don’t, I don’t. Here’s what I know, I know that I feel really good about this particular chapter that’s happening right now. I know that I want to, I’m actually doing things in a real old, though I started this off with a Kickstarter, I’m doing things in a real maximalist old model way right now, because I can thanks to Kickstarter. I’m actually looking at radio, I’m actually traveling with a six-piece band, that I would never have been able to afford otherwise.
I’m taking, as far as the future goes, I’m taking the opportunity right now. Even just to go into the record, I made a double record with this elaborate artwork that I’m so psyched to have been able to put this piece of physical art out into the world. I’m doing what I can with what I’ve got right now, and yeah, I hope that I’ll be able to keep doing it. But part of the reason why I’m approaching this as maximally as I am right now, is because I’m under no illusions that I’m gonna be able to do it exactly this way again. That’s not super hopeful, but it’s also not bleak, it’s just realistic.
For some people it has been difficult to unlearn the old notion that you tour, and tour, and tour, and tour all the time, and then after three or four tours, you can maybe play in a slightly bigger place. And this idea that there is slow, steady growth to be found. Again I’m sure that is technically possible… actually, I’m not sure it’s technically possible. It seems like it must be technically possible. But it’s no longer the rule.
No, that’s for sure, yeah. I think that in unlearning, some of the learning that I’ve done actually came from this large hiccup of time during which, at least as far as my own main band is concerned, I have been mostly off the road. I’ve lived longer, and had to still make certain ends meet, and be an active artist in some ways without touring in the old way, now for a better part of a decade. I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of being a little more surgical about things.
I think that over the course of touring with Aimee [Mann] as The Both, we both learned this a little better, too. We started out planning a normal kind of tour, and very quickly we realized it wasn’t gonna continue to work that way for us. We had to start thinking differently, and we started doing shorter regional jaunts. That’s very inside baseball specifics, but that’s one of the things, you’re not going out on a six-week, all-US, all-Canada kind of tour again. It’s just not gonna happen.
I guess it’s sort of an abstract idea, but the notion that playing music, writing songs, recording them, singing them, putting it in front of people, et cetera—for most of my life, that was a recognizable goal, or even just fantasy, but there was a component of reality in it. It’s difficult to know if that’s not a recognizable fantasy anymore, to say nothing of it being a viable life... I guess, to wrangle this in a question form: First of all, does that ring true to you? And have you been able to understand your own path in the absence of that dream being real anymore?
Well, let me preface my answer by saying that I probably cling to that dream beyond reason, to a certain degree. As realistic as I think I am being, and as circumspect as I think I am able to be about a lot of this, I’d be lying if I said that deep inside of me that dream isn’t still trying to scrap it out, and make something grander happen. This is tough to say, but I think that... Okay, I’m lucky to have been able to achieve something of an audience under the old model, working toward that old dream, that apparently is still around. I think that one of the things to remember is that I think a lot of the audience still believes in that dream, as well.
And so to actually, going back to the very first question about, “Does anybody need or want this?” I think to put something out in a way that still gives a nod to the idea that we’re all—how can I put this?—that we’re all in this together, working toward that dream. I think that the audience actually appreciates that, as well. Maybe it’s wrong for us to do. Maybe it’s wrong for all of us, audience and artist, to keep clinging to this dream. But if the audience is there, then you might as well show up.
I appreciate that idea a lot. Because I want it to be true. I’ve never shrunk from wanting it to be true.
Yeah. I think that sometimes, because a little bit of punk damage enforced your internalized need to be especially humble about things, we don’t even admit to ourselves that we are clinging to that dream a little bit. I got to say, this experience for me has, I think it’s taught me something, not just about how my own audience feels about me. I think that it’s taught me something about how people who love music react to music that they love, being put out into the world.
Those times I’ve played shows in recent years, or gone to particular shows—it’s not as though the thing I always really loved about shows is any less true. Obviously audiences, certain things have changed a little, the phones and all of that stuff. But that also feels minor in comparison to the larger good thing that happens when you are singing, and you look down and you see someone singing along. Or you feel that interaction, from the stage or the floor. And in that sense, I think it’s maybe safe to take the risk of saying—even if it feels grandiose—maybe we do need this.
Yeah, I agree. Even if, maybe the struggle is just, or the trick to surviving in this, is honestly just managing expectations, not tamping the dream.
We did it, we figured it out!