"You Can't Go Home": Riding Shotgun With Titus Andronicus In New Jersey

“You’re getting a real behind-the-scenes look,” Patrick Stickles deadpanned as he steered a blue whale on wheels down Rock Road, the main drag of Glen Rock, New Jersey. It’s mid-afternoon on a dreary Monday. The lunch crowd (presumably made up of people who don’t commute to NYC) were sitting at scattered tables at scattered restaurants on either side of the drag. Storefronts looked abandoned rather than empty. The air was suburban-still—listless. We were en route to Rock Ridge Pharmacy, which Stickles noted I might remember from the song “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” from his band Titus Andronicus’ second effort The Monitor. Also: There was the Glen Rock Inn (from “Theme From Cheers”), and later, on my left, came Central School, the elementary school Stickles attended, as detailed in “My Time Outside The Womb” from Titus’ debut, The Airing of Grievances. Over in the passenger seat, I played the kid in the candy store trying to conceal a chocolate-stained grin. All my “Oh cool, yeah for sure”‘s were just camouflage masking the fact that that each landmark Patrick pointed out triggered a play button that sent the corresponding song through my brain. Because I’m one of those dudes: The kind that’s chiseled each riff, chant, hook, rallying cry, even dramatic reading from those first two Titus Andronicus records into, well, not really my brain at this point, more like into the fiber of my being. This trip was bringing on unprecedented levels of geeking out: Fifteen minutes sitting shotgun in the Titus Vandronicus, next to the musician responsible for some of the most thoughtful rock-and-roll songs of the past few years as he navigated through the band’s hometown, the place Stickles shouts out before every gig, “We’re Titus Andronicus from Glen Rock, New Jersey!” This was ridiculous. Absolute fandom manifest. Like, get the fuck out.

Of course, for Stickles, who’s 27, it was just another trip down the roads he’s traveled for years. And he can’t wait to get the fuck out, again. He’d been back in Glen Rock for about two months, moving back from Brooklyn, he told me, pretty much on his own, the days ticking down to tonight, October 23rd, when Titus Andronicus plays Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church. The concert is the first stop on a national tour behind the group’s third LP Local Business. It’s not that Stickles gave off a sense of hating or resenting his hometown. Far from it. But this was not, he said, where he belonged. “I feel pretty alienated from it at this point,” he said. “I was kind of forced into this position. I mean, there were things about it that I could’ve controlled, but this wasn’t exactly.” A pause, then, “I’m not leading the life right now that I would’ve chosen for myself. But that’s life.” Where the Garden State was a looming, driving presence in the first two LPs, a force that propels Stickles, a.k.a. “our hero” (as the narrator of many Titus tracks is referred to), away from itself and then back into its arms, Jersey has receded to a far more minor role on this third album. It shows up on the lyrics sheet twice by name, once as “one side of the river.”

The ten cuts that make up Local Business were written while he lived in Brooklyn. “I just wasn’t around so there wasn’t really much to say about New Jersey,” Stickles said. “And furthermore, I kind of flogged a dead horse about it over the course of those two records. I just sang about it as much as I possibly could.”

On the day of our interview, he was wearing a zipped-up black hoodie stuck with a So So Glos pin and gray pants, matching the color scheme of his Vans. His distinctive burly beard was long gone, but stubble showed. His right hand sat on the wheel, a lean left arm holding a cigarette out the cracked window. There wasn’t much for him to do here in Glen Rock, he said. Businesses have come and gone. It was a different town, but not really. Old friends and new were elsewhere. I knew what that was like, I told him; told him Lower Merion, the suburb I’m from, looked just like this place, same kinda main drag; told him—and maybe I shouldn’t have added this part—I can’t imagine going back. When Stickles responded, a slight air of exhaustion floated underneath the nicotine husk of his voice, a far, calmer cry from the yawps he puts to wax. Exhaustion from maybe the monotony of home, or because this interview was two of six for the day. “You can’t go home,” he said, almost absentminded. We drive towards his mother’s house.

***

The credits on 2008’s The Airing of Grievances and 2010’s The Monitor read almost like the program for a high-school orchestra concert. Local Business features just three guests—Owen Pallett on violin; Steven Harm, drummer Eric Harm’s father, on harmonica; and Elio DeLuca, who played on the other two albums, returns on keyboard—not counting longtime producer Kevin McMahon, who added guitar, percussion, and vocals during the overdub phase. But the whole LP was recorded pretty much exclusively by the latest incarnation of Titus’ line-up: Stickles, Harm, bassist Julian Veronesi, and guitarists Liam Betson and Adam Reich (the group’s newest member). Back in March, these five dudes honed Local Business on a short tour; then they headed to New Paltz, New York, to record, doing upwards of 100 takes for each track; and when they hit the road with Ceremony, it’ll be these same five dudes again.

Such line-up consistency is new for Titus Andronicus, but it’s one reason why Local Business is the band’s tightest, most concise and riff-rife record yet. Upon first few listens it noticeably lacks the Springsteen-ian bombast of the previous two, which—for those of us who attenuated our angst on chants of “It’s still us against them!” or “Your life is over!”—is initially kind of a bummer. But where those tracks often took sprawling seven-plus minute journeys towards some sort of cathartic annihilation, Local Business, with its stripped-down style and condensed arrangements, is much more immediate in feel. This shift in sound was in part a product of the line-up changes, Stickles noted, but Titus’ heavy load of road work over the past few years also led to an emphasis on playing live both on stage and in the studio.

“When we were recording, the guy we listened to the most was Neil Young, and a couple of us had just recently read his biography too,” said Stickles. “And Neil says, ‘If it’s not in the room, it’s not gonna be on the tape.’ That was a big thing for us. Just trying to create real-life moments that actually happened as opposed to trying to construct a fantasy moment like we did on the first two records.” Hear, for instance: Harm’s thunderous tom-tom rumbles towards the end of “My Eating Disorder” that cushion Stickles and Betson’s dueling guitars; Veronesi’s steady, supple bassline that sinks as “In A Big City” readies itself for rousing conclusion; the guitar two-steps that drive “Still Life With Hot Deuce On Silver Platter,” a lick so simple, potent, monstrous it drew screams of approval from a Stone Pony audience.

Stickles parked the Vandronicus and we headed inside the house. It’s his mother’s, small, quaint; a calm blue seemed to dominate the color scheme; all the lights were off and daylight came through the sliding porch door. It was in the basement here that Stickles hosted a handful of PatStocks, a concert he put on every year through high school that featured bands from Glen Rock and the neighboring Ridgewood. A lot of those kids play in bands these days, too—Liquor Store, Liam the Younger (Betson’s solo project), Ducktails, Julian Lynch, Vivian Girls, and Real Estate.

Seated in the living room, Stickles said that he never really expected to get to this point, to Local Business. He calls The Airing of Grievances “kids’ stuff,” made when the band was still kind of a hobby and by a line-up that has dispersed entirely, save for the frontman. No one thought a second LP would come, and even after it did, Stickles wasn’t thinking of a future beyond that. “Now to make a third one is like really wild,” he said. “Hopefully, we sound grateful, and that we’re not resting on our laurels and we take what opportunities we have seriously. The opportunity to rock. Hopefully, we rock hard.”

A kind of rawktimism—to use a term I made up ’cause I needed a way to express that sense of unconditional hope or universal goodness that sometime takes over in the face of all neuroses, crises, girl problems, et al., which I’ve always experienced most powerfully in the perfect combination of power chords or the moment of temporal transcendence in the burst of a hammer-on or pull-off—has always permeated Titus Andronicus’ music. With less fuzz and kitchen-sink clutter, the power of Local Business rests in the subtleties of each song’s sectional shifts (Titus has never been one for verse-chorus-verse structure), the idiosyncrasies of interweaving and -acting hooks and riffs, or the righteous onslaught of individual feats of fretboard funambulism from Stickles, Betson, and particularly Reich—as Stickles put it, “I love bitchin’ solos, what can I say?”

Solos are indeed crucial, and they’re at their most powerful when they accompany brutal, crippling examinations of life’s most brutal and crippling anxieties and fears. It’s a dysfunctional relationship—these solos and the recursive examinations they accompany. But rock-and-roll ecstasy has always paired nicely with anguished existential contemplation, and vice versa. Titus Andronicus obviously isn’t the first band (nor was rock the first genre) to marry the two, but this interplay is what defines their losers’ carols and barroom singalongs; it’s what carries the bagpipe dirge of “The Battle of Hampton Roads”; it is “Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to die!” And it reaches new heights on Local Business: The Side A closer “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe (3rd Round KO),” that’s literally just bitchin’ solos and the lyric, “I’m going insane!” Effectively blunt, for sure, but the record also carries bouts of shrewd introspection: The final moments of opener “Ecce Homo” as our hero stews in life’s impossible contradictions, drums pounding and guitars piling up on each other, building, building, building only to subside as if that grand realization just slipped away—till suddenly he’s overwhelmed by an uproar of guitar and the loneliest uncertainty: “But I know it’s a lot more than just being bored / I know it’s nothing more than just being bored.”

***

Some of the tracks on Local Business were not easy to write, Stickles told me. He labored over what to say on “In A Small Body,” while closer “I Tried To Quit Smoking,” a no-holds-bar admission of selfishness, was emotionally draining, as was “My Eating Disorder,” in which Stickles confronted his battle with selective eating disorder—which prevents him from eating certain foods—for the first time: “I find in art, if you’re afraid to talk about something, then that is usually a pretty good indicator that it is the thing you ought to be talking about. The fear of it kind of validates it as a worthwhile point of discussion.”

Asked how his lyrics have changed over time, he said, “I like to think I’ve gotten a little more self aware. Hopefully, it’s a little less of a two-dimensional ‘woe is me.'” Which Local Business is. The album dives and circles deep into multiple dimensions of ‘woe is me,’ fording into the kind of self-analysis that if you embark on it gets so in depth you start having anxieties about having anxieties—this inability to communicate all your weird neuroses, crises, girl problems, et al, cause, c’mon, all that’s nothing compared to the real mountains of shit other people deal with, and you fucking know it, because more than anything you don’t want to come across ungrateful.

“Yeah, I think about that stuff a lot,” Stickles said. “That’s one of the more invalidating features of our cultures—we have a tendency to look at people’s problems and brush them aside because what’s your pain compared to somebody else’s pain. But I don’t really believe in that stuff. I think that everybody’s pain is valid.”

For all of the doom and gloom, for every confrontation with a personal flaw or shortcoming, Titus Andronicus has always been a band out for validation—not just personal validation, but particularly now acting as a conduit for the validation of others. Countless interpretations of “local business” exist, but at its core the title seems to express the necessity of community, of inter-human relationships happening in an impossibly huge world that, even with so much interconnectivity, can still feel infinitely alienating. We exist within these communities, in all their forms from neighborhoods to friend groups, and therefore must exist for them—using our energies to better them, those around us, and ultimately ourselves. This is not easy. It requires selflessness from a species that’s inherently selfish, a deceptively difficult balancing act.

As an entity, Titus Andronicus isn’t static, probably never will be. Over the course of its three records, the band has relocated a few times, seen various line-up changes, and ventured out into the world while continuing to develop and evolve its own set of values and ideologies. But some things have stayed the same. The first “hit” Patrick Stickles wrote was “Rock and Roll Jesus” for his high-school band Seizing Elian (which you can hear at the 1:33:00 mark of this radio show) and at PatStock, that was the cut that sent everyone into hysterics. That was years ago, but when we talked about the song he said, “I don’t know, I think it’s kind of the same, it’s working on the same set of instincts. My values about what’s important in music haven’t really changed that drastically.”

“So what is most important in music for you?”

“Just to rock. Just to be intense. Both in music, like being very rocking; and intense, like thinking about extreme states of consciousness.”

“Rock music does seem to pair itself well with crippling existential anxiety,” I suggested.

“Yeah, yeah” he said. “More so than like doing your laundry or something I guess.” This might have been a bit of a dig, maybe not. It didn’t really matter to me, because as I fumbled around trying to think of my next question, Stickles grabbed the harmonica that’s been sitting on the coffee table in his mother’s living room in Glen Rock, New Jersey—the town he has no interest in being—and starts tooting out the “Final Jeopardy!” theme. So I asked about the elder Harm’s harmonica spot on Local Business and an explanation of the playing style cross-harping follows. “It’s more about the sucking,” said Stickles. He inhaled into the instrument, but didn’t quite get that heartbreaking moan. “It’s more bluesy, the blues guys do it.” And he goes at it once more and there hitting my ears is an approximate recreation of Harm’s solo on Local Business closer “I Tried To Quit Smoking.” That song. The gut-wrenching admission of selfishness—”Not a lot of happy thoughts about oneself,” as Stickles said earlier, “never fun but necessary sometimes”—into the album’s last stand: A transcendent rock-and-roll jam chock full of what else but bitchin’ solos.


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Jon Blistein spends about half his week typing stuff for RollingStone.com, while the other half is devoted to finding a balance between that whole freelance thing and finishing “Buffy The Vampire Slayer.” He’s also written for places like Billboard, The L Magazine, and OneThirtyBPM.com. Top photo by Jason Persse, band photo by Kyle Dean Reinford.