Titus Andronicus singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who is ever at a loss for words. Mere seconds after picking up his cellphone at a northern California gas station, he’s off and running, to the point where keeping up isn’t easy. Over the course of a rambling but never less than entertaining 45-minute conversation, he’ll cover everything from the idiocy of having set goals in one’s life to the way the supposedly progressive hipsters of North America have done fuck-all to make the world a better place since the election of Barack Obama.
Ask a seemingly simple question—like whether he’s happy with the way Titus Andronicus’s sophomore album, The Monitor, turned out—and you’ll get an answer that’s a bit like a mystery wrapped in an enigma. For example: “I tried to do it to my specifications. And we did what we wanted to do—made the record that caters to our individual and collective sensibilities. I don’t know if I could define it any more clearly than that.”
The only time Stickles seems to falter is when he’s asked to consider what might happen if The Monitor finds the mass audience that it so richly deserves. And that question is an important one.
As ambitious as it is sprawling, the 10-track release is nothing short of fucking monumental, a turbocharged distillation of early-Replacements drunk rock, gunpowder-scorched Americana, and blitzkrieg-bop punk. Bearing little resemblance to the grimy garage band we heard on 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus isn’t writing songs these days—it’s serving up made-for-screaming-along anthems.
But what’s really impressive about The Monitor is the way the album works on a number of different levels. Thanks to the Civil War–themed cover art, song titles like “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, and scratchy reenactments of speeches by Abraham Lincoln and William Lloyd Garrison, the record can be read as a concept album for those obsessed with the Battle of Gettysburg.
Dig deeper, though, and it’s also the story of a kid who leaves the hell of small-town New Jersey, hoping to reach his artistic potential in more enlightened environs—namely, big-city Massachusetts. Our hero—if he can be called that—is quickly horrified to discover that people are pig-fuck ignorant no matter where you go, turning The Monitor into a scathing damnation of holier-than-thou Brooklyn Vegan hipsters and, more importantly, the prom queens and football heroes who make life miserable for the rest of the kids in backwaters across North America.
So what has the singer at a loss for words? Well, how about the fact that The Monitor is crazily good enough that it’s only a matter of time before it catches on with the mainstream. At some point Stickles is going to find himself standing on-stage, watching the kind of jocks he grew up despising bellow along to “The Battle of Hampton Roads” lines such as “Is there a girl in this college who hasn’t been raped?”
“I don’t know what to say about that,” the singer admits. “Perhaps you’re right, and that’s going to happen. And what’s to be made of a situation like that? It would probably be a little bit naive to say that some date-raping frat boy is going to be drawn to our music and then see the light through our illuminating manifestoes. I’d have to have my head pretty far up my ass to think that was terribly likely.”
There’s a good reason Stickles is troubled by such a scenario: he’s the small-town New Jersey kid he’s singing about on The Monitor.
“It’s me—I was the guy,” he says flatly. “And the disillusioning thing was that I found my college years to be pretty stifling as far as the company that was available and the kind of stuff that they stood for. When I moved up to New England, the crown of American democracy, maybe I had some overly naive hopes about how different things might be. They just weren’t.”
Stickles makes no attempt to gloss over his past. Noting he actually had an okay time in high school, he goes on to note: “But I still pretty strongly hated myself all the way through it, and into college and all of that. Only recently have I been able to accept myself and all of my failings.”
Therefore, if you’ve ever been on the outside desperately looking in—especially in your town’s backbiting equivalent of Williamsburg—you’ll be able to commiserate with him on “A Pot in Which to Piss”, where he sings, “I’ve been called out, cuckolded, castrated, but I survived.” And you’ll wince at “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”, which finds him chanting, mantralike, “You will always be a loser, man.”
But if you’re looking for an easy answer as to why you’ve never quite fit in, don’t expect Stickles to provide one here. After all, Monitor ends with him back in New Jersey, impotently howling at his own miserableness in “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, with: “I’m as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been/And there is still nothing about myself I respect.” Except that one thing has changed: namely, he’s realized the enemy—the jocks and prom queens and self-obsessed hipsters—aren’t half as responsible for his own tortured existence as he is. And when it comes to explaining this during the interview, Stickles has no problem articulating.
“I’m trying to express through our record that we’re maybe just reflections of the same thing,” he says. “That one is just an outward manifestation of the other. That these external conflicts are just products of our own internal conflicts. These pissing contests are just ways to move the blame onto somebody else’s shoulders.”
Titus Andronicus plays 917 Main tonight (April 1).