A Chat With Ted Leo About "The Weird Small Business" Of Indie Music

Ted Leo embarked on a solo career almost as an afterthought, after his band Chisel broke up in the late 90s. More than a decade later, he’s writing and recording his sixth Ted Leo & the Pharmacists LP and starting a solo tour opening for Aimee Mann. Surprisingly, the two connected thanks to sketch comedy. Leo has appeared on Tom Scharpling’s “The Best Show on WFMU” and Julie Klausner’s “How Was Your Week?” podcast, for which he wrote the theme song. And Mann has collaborated with many comedians onstage and on TV, most recently in her two recent videos directed by Scharpling.

I recently spoke with Leo by phone to talk about his unexpected rise in the comedy world, his Twitter presence, and where he sees his career going from here. Things got a little heavy toward the end, though I’m not sure the occasional “[laughs]” interjection can really convey Leo’s tone when he talked about the music industry. There wasn’t a trace of self-pity in his voice, just a pragmatic sense of what is and isn’t possible for a working musician of his stature.

John Lingan: So how did you and Aimee Mann end up on a double bill? I’d never really grouped you two together stylistically.

Ted Leo: Back when [Leo’s 2001 solo debut] The Tyranny of Distance came out, I remember reading an interview with Aimee where she mentioned that record. And I said, “What? Most of my own friends don’t know that record.” I mean, I grew up hearing ‘Til Tuesday when I was a kid in the 80s. But I started exploring her solo career a little more. And for me, [Tyranny] was a little bit of an attempt to flex my own peripheral singer-songwriter muscles, which often take a back seat to noise. I was intrigued by what she saw in that record.


Weirdly, through our mutual comedy friends, we ended up meeting and hitting it off. We’ve been on a number of comedy shows together but we’ve never actually played a full music show together. It’ll be interesting to actually travel and play some music with her.

And how did you find yourself involved in comedy to begin with?

There are really two things that led to my becoming friends with all these comedy people. One thing is, we’re the same age. And a lot of them grew up listening to or getting involved in the same kind of music scene that I have been involved in for most of my life. So we share a sensibility. And we wound up, unbeknownst to each other, becoming sort of mutual fans over the years. So when I would run into like, Patton Oswalt or Paul F. Tompkins, it all came out. “I love your music!” “I love your comedy!”

The biggest door into that world for me was Tom Scharpling. He’s one of my true and greatest friends. And he’s been a comedy writer for years, in addition to his show. It’s largely through him that I’ve been exposed to many of these people. I became good friends with Julie [Klausner] over the years, for example. And now we work together on her show.

Have those relationships opened you up to new fans or different musical opportunities? Has it affected your touring, either positively or negatively?

It’s been an interesting synergy, if I can use a word like that. I know that the stream kind of runs in both directions. I’ve brought people to “Best Show” and “How Was Your Week?” and certainly it’s worked, possibly more, in the other direction. But I don’t think it’s been any drastic change in fan base. The Venn diagram makes sense because, as I said, we’re all mutual fans. As for touring, I’m able to do a lot of that work because [the Pharmacists] have been touring less over the last couple years anyway. I do a lot of guest spots on New York comedy shows, and it’s actually being home that allows me to do that kind of thing rather than those opportunities preventing me from touring.

You’re an active Twitter user, too. And even a decade ago, you were one of the only musicians who regularly posted to your own website. Are these fan-outreach tools for you, or do you just like to share what’s on your mind?

It’s true. I’ve had a website since ’99 or something, which was kind of early on in the game for musicians online. When it was just email and a little bit of blogging on my website, I could keep up with both. I would basically take one night a week, grab a bottle of whiskey, and just answer all my emails. And they would get a little more… abstract as the bottle emptied. But that was just part of the process for me. Then I took to MySpace pretty intensely before it got super overwhelming. Then Facebook… I’ve been off Facebook since 2008 because it just became too overwhelming. You can’t get angry about that [interest from fans], but I took a kind of Wild West approach to the web. I made all my accounts public and I just couldn’t keep up. For me, Twitter was this amazing savior, a way to keep everything at a level where people understand it’s not for the deeper stuff. It’s great for throwing thoughts out and making quick answers to things, and it’s actually freed my inbox a little. It’s no longer a matter of having 45,000 messages on email, plus MySpace, plus Facebook. What suffers is that I don’t blog much anymore.

Is that a punk-rock thing? Keeping yourself approachable?

Part of it is ideological, but really, I enjoy it. I’ve rarely been in a position to even think about things differently. Most of my touring life has been spent in the smaller-club world where you’re not hiding from anyone. You’re at the bar with the audience who’s there to see you, and you’re selling your own merch. The idea that you could exist some other way as an artist—I know that it exists but I don’t have personal experience with that. Plus, I like talking.

It’s going to be a little different with Aimee. Most of the venues are seated places. But I’m playing solo, and I’m not really changing what I do. At the height of our own powers as a band, back in ’06 or ’07, we would play bigger clubs. And we’ve done bigger shows opening for other people in the past. I enjoy going in to these more challenging situations and seeing how it feels, how I react. Among Aimee’s crowd, I hope that there will be some people who may not be up on what I do, and might enjoy it. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more of an overlap that I’d expect.

A recent “How Was Your Week” video in which Julie Klausner, Ted Leo and Chris Spooner visit the Brooklyn Brainery.

With all this comedy and social media stuff involved, are there any older musicians you look up to as career models? Anyone who you think points the way forward for you from now on?

If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have said yes. But most of the models I held up are unfortunately exploded for the current aging indie musician. The simple fact of the matter is that we were just nose to the grindstone, making what we love and touring our asses off, before all of a sudden we started actually selling enough records to be in the black. And all of a sudden we had a career in music.

That lasted for, I don’t know… about two years, which is more than a lot of people get, but then the bottom just fell out as far as selling records. And on the weird level that we were at, we were actually being floated by record sales. The touring was never the thing that was putting us over the top. I don’t feel good selling t-shirts for $20, and we try to keep our ticket prices decent.

[For a while] we were selling just enough to make some decent royalties from our records. And that’s pretty much the model I was working with. It was literally as simple as The Minutemen or Fugazi: get in the van, work hard, make something people want, and it’ll pay off. And the thing is, it actually did pay off, until quote-unquote, “everything changed.” The nature of the beast now is essentially running on fumes, in terms of business since then.

So how does the future look? How are you adapting?

I… [excruciatingly long pause] I honestly don’t see myself moving forward as a really active musician in the way that I have been. We’re doing another record with Matador, hopefully that’ll be out in the spring and we’ll see how that goes. But I gotta get out of debt and I don’t think that another record is going to do that. [laughs]

The fallacy of “Oh, you just gotta tour…” For one thing, if I can get on my high horse for a moment, no one can tell me that you have to tour. I have spent the bulk of every year of the last 20 years on the road. And second, tour hard toward what end? There are so many young bands—and old bands—and everybody’s touring. Public interest is driven ever more rapidly these days, to the point where it’s like quarterly at this point what goes on the blogs and what they’re supporting. I really hope there is a way for somebody great—and I know a lot of great bands—to build an actual career out of doing what they do. It’s definitely not going to be me, at this point in my life. [laughs] I have a hard time seeing how many other people are going to do it without being, you know, multimillionaire rock stars.

The Tom Scharpling-directed video for Ted Leo & The Pharmacists’ “Bottled In Cork.”

It’s weird hearing this. You follow a guy for years, see him play live and survive label changes and everything, and you just assume he’s going strong. I mean, if you don’t have a “career” at this point, what would one be?

I don’t mean to be doom and gloom about it, because I have a body of work I can be proud of and I am truly, truly thankful for the fact that people remain invested, as you said. All I’ve ever wanted was a stable level where you know you’re going to be able to make ends meet. That’s what I mean by having a “career.” I mean a job. It’s a weird small business that we’re all running in a way, and while I don’t ever intend to stop making music, it’s just going to have to be more of a sideline.

I feel really weird complaining about this. The only thing that sucks is coming to this realization so late in my life. [laughs] Ten years ago, I felt that the career was already over. In a way, the Pharmacists is a weird sequel to what I already thought I was done with. When I started playing under my own name it was just, “Ho-hum, I’ll go play some songs.” And then it just took off. I am circumspect about it all. I’m sure you can hear in my voice that I’m not weeping about this.

That’s why I say it’s sort of exploded. Even the people who do every ad that’s thrown their way, I know what kind of money gets paid out for that kind of thing and it’s not as if that’ll make you rich. People get tired of seeing your face on the wall at Brooklyn Union every weekend.

I assume you read that piece on Grizzly Bear in New York a few weeks ago. It’s pretty much about exactly what you’re saying. Those guys have it about as good as an “indie” band can have it right now, and they’re still recording in a band member’s grandma’s house.

That’s what I’m doing right now. The budget for my next record is such that it just doesn’t make sense to try and put that into a studio and watch the clock. So it gave me some initiative to buy some microphones and try doing it myself at home.

But along with all this career stuff… this particular tour, when I look at what it actually is, I’m going out with Aimee for three weeks and playing these warm kinds of venues. And when I get back home I’m spending a week playing alternative spaces and living rooms. And the fact that I can be welcomed in both of those—that’s the stuff. That makes me feel really, really good. The fact that I can go on Twitter and say, “Hey, we’re putting on a basement show” and people get psyched and actually come to it. And to do it right after I leave this other tour is awesome. The kind of respect and appreciation that that shows is, at the end of the day, at least in retrospect, a successful career. When you’re in the weeds, slogging it out, you don’t always have that kind of perspective.

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John Lingan’s writing has appeared in The Quarterly Conversation, The Morning News, Slate, and other places. Follow him @busybeinglingan. Photo by Incase; thumbnail photo by Matias Corral.