Patrick Stickles has always been something of an overachiever. He may be a product of the New Jersey punk scene and an avid fan of DIY (he’s got the Crass logo tattooed on his arm), but the 30-year-old Titus Andronicus frontman would sooner quit than succumb to the simplistic, safe paradigms which dominate his preferred scene–and can you blame him?
Even with their unfussy arrangements, the Garden State band have held tight to a progressive reputation, thanks to Stickles’ abundant literary allusions, extensive, intense word bank, and Civil War-inspired motifs. They’re the brainiest band in punk–and fortunately for their fans, one of most batshit acts as well.
Last summer, Titus Andronicus unveiled their best, most ambitious project yet: a five-act, 93-minute, 29-song rock opera about bipolar disorder titled The Most Lamentable Tragedy. They’ve been mired in the madness ever since then, bringing their tale of an anonymous protagonist’s quest for life, love and sanity to sold-out clubs around the world.
Of course, the band’s storied live reputation isn’t the only reason the material’s done well on the road–their songs confront tough issues like eating disorders, suicidal obsessions, and toxic masculinity head-on, lending a voice (or more accurately, a scratchy-throated scream) to the indescribable death drive pushing for us to fail.
Titus Andronicus definitely had a lot to scream about in East Williamsburg last July, when they descended upon Shea Stadium for five consecutive sold-out concerts. A year later, they’ve compiled the highlights of last summer’s stint for their first live album, S+@dium Rock: Five Nights at the Opera.
For Stickles, the album isn’t just a collection of live recordings; it’s a celebration of unpredictability, of catharsis–of magic. “There’s just something vital and exciting about people playing a song,” he explained over drinks one recent afternoon. “It’s that one moment in time that will never occur again, which is pretty magical.” Over the course of our conversation, in between puffs of Marlboro reds, the Titus Andronicus frontman detailed the new record (and the sprawling LP that preceded it), future plans, and of course, madness.
What made you decide to do a live album, and why now? The shows that the live album was culled from happened at Shea Stadium. For those of your readers who don’t know, one of the special things about that venue is that all the shows there get recorded and go up on the special official website, liveatsheastadium.com. They got the whole rig installed there, and considering that we were going to play five shows anyway, it seemed like it was only appropriate–and all too easy.
That seems to be how a lot of the bands I’ve studied have made their live records: they set up shop somewhere for a few days; we were going to do them anyway and the shows would be recorded nevertheless (like any Shea Stadium show) so why not? We figured it’d give us ample opportunity to get the right performances. If it was only one show that would be quite a lot of pressure, and that could spoil the spontaneous element of it that makes it so exciting, but with five nights we could be as spontaneous as we wanted and still feel confident that we put something together.
Considering the breadth of the material covered over the span of those five shows as well as your disdain for recycling setlists, why does the album stick entirely to The Most Lamentable Tragedy and its associated sessions? The more boring reason is that all of our records up until this most recent one all came out on XL recordings. We’re not affiliated with them anymore, and I understand that there’s some kind of clause in our contract that we can’t go back and re-record all our old hits. Maybe there’s a certain window or statute of limitations on that but in any case, it didn’t feel like going through all the wrangling necessary to unfreeze our old hits–so that pretty much pared down the songs we could pick from.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy tells the story of a man coping with bipolar disorder, a condition you and I both have. Obviously, performing when you’re on a grandiose high is enthralling–but how do you deal with the inverse scenario? Does depression make it painful to play shows? That’s one of the big challenges for the manic-depressive artist–the place you’re in at the moment of conception, when you first have your great idea–can be a different place than what it is when you actually deliver it. But once you get up there and go through it, that’s one of the less depressing times, what with the adrenaline and all. What you say is true–the perfect artist would probably be a raving maniac all the time, but I pity the poor people who’d have to be around the artist when they’re not onstage.
Would you ever consider performing the entire album start-to-finish? We’ve only played it in whole during practice. I think the time when we could have gotten away with that whole thing has probably passed right now. It’s either in the past or it’s nine years away. If we were to do that, it would be more my dream to not just get up there and play it, but to have some actors with the headset mic and everything would be nice.
What’s the big takeaway from this live LP? I’ve got my marketing takeaway–Oh, wow, I didn’t know that this overblown rock opera had all these concise hits on it! [laughs] I don’t know… when you make something and offer it up to the world for public consumption, you surrender a lot of the power that you have.
When you get up on stage, you don’t necessarily go through all the experiences that you had that led to the creation of the piece [you’re performing]. Not to totally ruin it, but there’s a certain mechanical element to it. You try not to go through the motions, but I don’t necessarily relive the whole thing when I’m singing it. It was an emotionally intense experience to write the record, but once that’d been purged–not that these concerns are ever over or finished–I wasn’t ripping my guts out every night. I put as much energy as I can into it, but a lot of the cathartic stuff has already passed.
S+@dium Rock: Five Nights At The Opera is out 7/29 via Merge Records. Pre-order it digitally here or on vinyl here.