Q&A: Patrick Stickles seeks mutual validation through music
Patrick Stickles is the lead singer and songwriter of Titus Andronicus, a punk band from New Jersey that makes music that is big, loud and anthemic, recalling both an era when rock music defined popular culture and the independent bands, like Husker Du and the Replacements, that chafed against its commercial impulses. Titus Andronicus’ most recent album, 2015’s “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” chronicles Stickles’ battle with manic depression over three discs and 98 minutes. In anticipation of the band’s March 15 show with Craig Finn at Off Broadway, Stickles spoke with Student Life about the band’s intentions for “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” and beyond:
Student Life: As you’ve moved further from the recording process for “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” how has your relationship with it changed?
Patrick Stickles: Recording it was a very intense and immersive and, at times, [an] arduous, painful process. [We’re] talking about more than two years out of my life where it was occupying the biggest part of my thoughts pretty much every day and just getting obsessed over all the millions of tiny little decisions that would go on to define it.
Since putting it out into the world, it’s been my pleasure to not really think about it all that much. Once it’s done, and you can’t change your mind about it any more—and there were so many things to change your mind about while making it. You put it out there, and it belongs to the people now. And the audience will take from it what they will. My relationship with it is just that I’m happy that it’s out there and happy that it’s done, and I know that we did our very best on it and gave it everything that we had.
SL: There’s a tendency among artists to claim that they don’t care how their work is perceived by the media or by anyone outside of their own camp, but you’ve been fairly outspoken about the way your music has been received in the past. Is that outside conversation something you try or would like to ignore? Do you find value in it?
PS: A lot of it is outside of my control. When you put something out into the world, it’s the will of the people to decide what they’re going to get out of it. And you can’t really control that beyond a certain degree. I’ve tried in the past to make sure that as much information [as possible] is available about what the stuff really means and what we’re really trying to say, just so that people who are interested in that and want to be informed about that have the opportunity to do so…It’s every audience member’s right to interpret it however they want, and if they get something out of it that the artist didn’t necessarily intend, but it leads to greater enjoyment for them or it validates them in some way or just makes them feel better about the whole thing, then that’s fine. But I don’t think that the artist necessarily has to be silent and has to say that their intentions are totally meaningless because we definitely had some serious intentions. So, I feel like you might as well let them be known for those who are interested, and those who are not interested can just listen to the record and take from it what they will.
SL: Do you feel like you were more able to make your intentions known with this record than on your last [2012’s “Local Business”]? I know you’ve mentioned your frustrations with how “Local Business” was received.
PS: I hope so, and I guess what you say is true. I did kind of lose control of the narrative for a little while there, and maybe that’s somewhat inevitable in today’s world. But that probably did inform my eagerness to share our intentions and, if nothing else, to just try and make people understand that the decisions that informed the new record were not just arrived at flippantly—that every element of it was very carefully considered and that the artist is in control of the piece. It’s not just a willy-nilly, kind of haphazard, thrown-together thing; every element of it serves a certain purpose. And hopefully they all work together to create a cohesive whole that’s hopefully greater than the sum of the parts.
SL: Can you speak on your relationship with Craig Finn? Has he been a mentor to you at all?
PS: Oh yeah, absolutely. He’s been a very good friend to me and to the organization for a bunch of years now. And I can remember, back in 2009, we played at this small festival in England with [Finn’s band] the Hold Steady and I was hanging out outside, just minding my business, and out of the clear blue sky he came over and introduced himself and told me how much he liked our first record that had just come out. And he had a lot of kind things to say about it and kind of sparked up a little repartee. And from there it’s grown into a very nice friendship.
He and I lived in the same neighborhood for a few years and would hang out sometimes. He actually hired me to be his cat-sitter for one week when he was out of town, which was a very touching show of trust. And he’s been very generous over the years, at times when I’ve had certain questions or concerns about how to sustain a rock and roll career. He’s been there to advise me and counsel me and share what he knows as a more experienced veteran of the game—for that I’ve been very grateful. He’s just a very gregarious, open-hearted kind of guy.
SL: You’ve discussed your fascination with rock history and how artists of different generations relate. Are there any career templates from other bands that you aspire to or that you measure Titus Andronicus against?
PS: I respect anybody that can keep going and continue to do what they’re doing without trying to pander to some kind of perceived or imagined mass audience, which hardly exists in rock and roll anymore.
It’s tough now for a rock band to achieve mass success or get on the radio or have some hit song that’s going to pay their bills for the rest of their lives, but there’s certain artists—and Craig Finn and the Hold Steady would be one example—who just by doing their thing and sticking with it, have cultivated a sufficient fan base and a sufficient amount of support, [so] it doesn’t matter if they’re necessarily the hottest thing in the world in the eyes of media or in the mass, record-buying public. They have enough of a relationship with their real fans that those fans continue to come back again and again, year after year, to support them. The Mountain Goats is another good example.
Those are the kinds of things that I would hope to emulate more than someone who’s trying to create some sort of a smash hit and trying to please everybody. You can’t please everybody, so it seems to be better and more realistic to try and please a certain subculture of people and please them enough that they support you to the point [where] you can continue doing what you’re doing. I know that we’ll probably never be super huge, big rock stars. But maybe that’s okay, if you can mean enough to certain people that it doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest thing in the world.
SL: Do you think there are any advantages to the fact that it’s very difficult for rock bands to have sustained, mainstream success now?
PS: I could only speculate about that, about what it would have been like 15 years ago if we were going—not that I don’t often fantasize about it. Not that I don’t often say, “Oh man, if this was 1998, this song would have been a number one smash!” But here we are in 2016, struggling.
But I think that it can be a good thing, because that kind of golden carrot is not dangling so close to the nose of the rock musician anymore. So, there’s less temptation to pander or to try and dilute or transform your art in some kind of way that is against your true muse in order to please a global audience and make a million dollars…Now that rock and roll is not the dominant youth culture anymore, maybe it has a greater opportunity to return to its more subversive roots. Now that it doesn’t have to conform to the standards of the dominant culture…maybe the artist can be truer to themselves in a culture like that.
SL: Do you have any ideas for upcoming projects, musical or otherwise?
PS: I might have some germs of some ideas, but nothing that I could really speak to right now. The last record took such a long time and so much energy and thought that it wiped a lot of the slate clean. Since it’s been out, the focus has just been on putting on the show, staying on the road. We’re emphasizing that right now a lot more than thinking about what the next record should be.
And even though there’s a certain pressure within the industry to continually crank out product to stay in the public eye, ultimately, I feel that in the long run responding to those pressures is detrimental to the long-term health of the artist’s career. I find it’s better if you just let it occur naturally, rather than saying, “I’ve got to crank something out or I’m in trouble.” I don’t think that’s very conducive to good artistry. So, even though it would be great to have a new record out really soon, the new record has to decide when it wants to be born.
SL: You’ve mentioned how you’ve been approached by fans who relate to the themes on “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” particularly your struggles with manic depression. Do those experiences make you want to orient your future work around those kinds of topics?
PS: I don’t know if we could foreground them any more than we did with this last record. We tried to push them as much to the front as possible. But that’s always sort of been the goal for me, personally. I think that the artist really can only speak about their own experiences.
This band has always been, hopefully, some sort of mutual validation exercise between the artist and the audience. There’s many times in my life [when] I’ve felt alone or alienated and isolated and feeling like nobody could possibly understand my feelings. Or maybe I wasn’t getting the kind of support that I desired in my everyday life. But certain artists, musicians, bands and stuff have been there for me to articulate some of my secret feelings and let me know that I wasn’t so alone in the world and the way that I felt about… the stuff that I was dealing with.
I’ve always wanted to provide that same service as much as I can to others, and in so doing, in having people approach me and say that they relate to the stuff that we’re talking about and that it’s meaningful to them and that it articulates their secret feelings, that too lets me know that I’m not so alone in the way that I feel, and that there’s people out there who deal with the same things. As our music validates them, their support and their understanding and their appreciation of it validates me right back.
Titus Andronicus will perform with Craig Finn at Off Broadway on March 15.