Concepts and Connections

Titus Andronicus follows its artistic instincts and creates a long and conceptual new album

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click to enlarge In an era noted for short-attention spans, Titus Andronicus made a 93-minute Rock opera.
In an era noted for short-attention spans, Titus Andronicus made a 93-minute Rock opera.

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randiose ambitions are nothing new to Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles. The name of his band is lifted from Shakespeare. The group’s second album, The Monitor, was a sprawling concept album based on the American Civil War. And, among many other pressing themes and preoccupations, the dangers of contemporary capitalism remain a constant topic of conversation.

But Stickles and his merry band of pranksters might have topped themselves with their fourth long-player, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a five-act, 29-song, 93-minute “Rock opera” that the lanky, copiously bearded frontman has described as a “complicated metaphor about manic depression, melding elements of philosophy, psychology and science fiction through the plight of one troubled protagonist’s inner demons.”

It’s also the New York City-based quartet’s most sonically diverse effort to date, channeling everything from prime-era Replacements and Pogues to the more straight-ahead sounds of classic rockers like Thin Lizzy and Bruce Springsteen, but always delivered via a ramshackle grace all its own.

CityBeat recently chatted with Stickles to discuss everything from the Paris terrorist attacks to the perils of Spotify lists and the artistic evolution of his Rock & Roll fantasy.


CityBeat: I didn’t realize until I looked at your Facebook page the other day that you guys had to cancel your show in Paris last November in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. What went into your decision to cancel it?

Patrick Stickles: That was a tough decision to make, but things were very uncertain. Our concert was scheduled to be on the first night that city was even allowing for concert halls to be open. Prior to that night they were all on lockdown and nobody really knew what was going to happen. It was a tough thing to do. There’s a part of me that wanted to buck up and not let fear carry the day, but we talked about it within the organization, and the consensus of the group was to play it on the safe side. Looking back on it now, it’s clear that it probably would have been fine (to have played).

CB: In many ways music acts as a buffer from the chaos and pressures of the real world. What was it like to have your world impacted in such an immediate and visceral way?

PS: It’s true. Rock & Roll is kind of an attempt to retreat into a fantasy world where the concerns of average citizens seem to be far away, but we’re part of society like everybody else and we’re beholden to the strange, powerful, mysterious forces the same as everybody else. Rock & Roll, this fantasy life, as much as we hate to admit it, it’s a part of the wider world, too. We haven’t got a complete alternative society that we exist in. Our alternative society only gets put up for a couple hours a night. And even that is sort of a fantasy, a mass hallucination between us and the audience.

CB: The new album is more than 90 minutes long and has a particular narrative. Are you playing most or all of it during the live show, or are you mixing it up with older stuff?

PS: It will probably take up a really good chunk of the set list, but we try to represent all of our records. Everybody’s got their particular favorites, and as much as the artist needs to please themselves first — and maybe the new stuff is a little more interesting and exciting for us to play — we’re still providing a public service for the kids. We’ve got stuff they want to hear.

The new album and every album that’s come previously is a means to promote the general band entity, the ongoing Rock band project. Fugazi used to say that the record was the menu and the show is the meal. So even though records are driven by a certain artistic purpose, and they all want to make certain statements and they have real reasons to exist in the format they do, they also are means by which we’re able to do the more day-to-day work of being a Rock band. The biggest part of that is getting out on stage and getting out in front of the people.


CB: Do you have a specific goal or theme in mind when you go to write a new album, or is it more of an organic process?

PS: This new one is a Rock opera. The concept definitely came before there were any tunes or lyrics or any songs written for it. I was in a non-creative, kind of sad, depressed place after the completion of our last record. Looking forward and thinking about whether I wanted to continue on in the record-making business, I would say to myself, “If there should come a time to make a record again, I should try and speak about this kind of struggle that I’m going through right now.” Every record is sort of that way. It’s kind of like your yearbook. You can look back on a record and say, “This is the kind of stuff I was interested in and concerned with during the year or two that it took to write and make it.” Looking at the couple of years that it took to make this Rock opera, I knew what it was that I wanted to discuss and that I wanted to frame it in a more linear narrative. That guided a lot of the songwriting process and facilitated a lot of the decision-making for me. I had a sort of outline for a story and I knew the music had to reflect whatever was going on in that point in the story. In a way, it made it a lot easier.

CB: Do you think about the audience at all when you’re making an ambitious project like The Most Lamentable Tragedy — especially in this era of streaming and of a more fractured listening experience?

PS: The album isn’t necessarily the important format that it used to be, but then again Rock & Roll isn’t the important medium that it used to be. So an artist can either say, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to get with the times and meet the consumer more than halfway if I’m going to get their attention,” or double down in the opposite direction and say, “I’m going to give my artistic interests a gratuitous level of respect,” and in that way the artist acts as a role model for the audience to say, “This was not something that was created to fluff up some Spotify playlist. This is a cohesive piece of work, this is something you should spend a good deal of time with and that you should give your full attention and that you should treat as a serious piece of art,” which is what I desired for this record.



TITUS ANDRONICUS plays Friday in Taft Theatre’s Ballroom. Tickets/more info: tafttheatre.org.


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