A Q&A With Amy Klein Of Titus Andronicus

A Q&A With Amy Klein Of Titus Andronicus

by Kevin Lincoln

A literate, anthem-prone punk band from New Jersey, Titus Andronicus put out their fantastic second album, The Monitor, in 2010. Shortly after its release, multi-instrumentalist Amy Klein joined the group to play guitar and violin; she also brought along a fierce and charismatic personality that plays a big role in making Titus’ live shows some of the most riveting in contemporary music.

Between shows for another project of hers, Hilly Eye, I sat down with Klein at Cafe Lafayette in Brooklyn to discuss climbing on top of speakers, Patti Smith, Joanna Newsom, why everyone should read

Rat Girl, and Girls Rock Camp, where she volunteers as a counselor.

The two solo albums you recorded before are chamber-music type stuff, and Titus Andronicus is pretty much punk rock, and Hilly Eye is hard but not hard in the same way that Titus is hard. Is it just natural for you to write songs in a lot of different registers?

Well, I’ve always wanted to be in a rock band, and I’ve always loved punk music and noise music. And I’ve always appreciated the power dynamics of music, particularly when it comes to gender roles, when you can have a woman who is making unconventional noise and has a very powerful dominant persona on stage — I think that’s amazing, I’ve always wanted to do that. I started doing that in college. I had a band in high school but I wasn’t in control of the songwriting, and I started developing my style when I was in college as far as rock music. And then, somewhere along the line, I got really obsessed with Joanna Newsom, and I decided that it would be fun to write folk songs. I would perform them at coffeehouses in college, stuff like that.

You’ve been playing a lot of Hilly Eye shows this week, right?

Actually, tonight is the last show we have scheduled for a while. It’s in Philadelphia, but we’ve mostly been playing around the city. I had one show with a new band, which is, like, songs that I recorded by myself and then my friends heard them and were like, “Oh, we want to play these songs,” and now we have a band. It sounded really good, I was happy with it! Our tentative name is “Amy Klein and the Blue Star Band.”

What are the origins of that name?

That comes from Just Kids. Have you read that book?

Patti Smith, right? No, I haven’t.

It’s really good. It’s about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. When they first met, they were both into William Blake, who I’m also very into. And William Blake did all his own illustrations for his poetry — he was also a visual artist — and I guess they both had something that they found in his work, because Patti was more of a poet, and Robert was more of a visual artist, like a painter, when they were young. There was a line in one of [Blake’s] poems about a blue star that was a symbol of innocence, and then it had a really beautiful illustration, too. So that was like their code-word, and whenever in the future they’d write each other letters or postcards they’d sign it blue star, or they’d have an allusion to a blue star. In the book, it’s a symbol of the way that they were when they had just moved to New York, and their youth and their friendship. I thought it was cool, and I also like the sound of it — it sounds a little bit country, like Big Star. Some of the songs that I have are a little Neil Young-inspired, they have a little country in them.

You have some serious diversity in the type of music you put out.
I like lots of different music, it’s true. I did college radio, and one of the great things about my college radio station is that they forced you to listen to a lot of different records, and you had to report back. Before you could get your own radio show, you had to prove that you were worthy of it. It’s true! They would give you listening assignments, to a different genre every week, and you had to write an essay about your listening experience to the particular genre. Then you would have a lecture and have to talk with people about it.

Was this a class, or just the radio —

No, this was just the radio station! It was pretty serious.

No kidding.

Pretty serious stuff. And not everybody made it on. I think ultimately it was more about proving your commitment; whether or not you had brilliant things to say about the music, that didn’t really matter. It was more that you had to show that you were really dedicated to listening to a lot of music and learning about music. So I feel like, yeah, in college I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music and I still love a lot of different kinds of music. I think most people are that way.

Where’d you go to school?

I went to Harvard. That probably explains why the radio station was like a class.

I went to a Titus Andronicus show in April 2010, and you sang a cover of “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, which was so cool. Does the band do that frequently? Because that was the only time I’ve seen you do that.

We don’t do it all the time. We usually have played it in D.C. because that’s where the song was written, and it has an association with the D.C. punk scene and Positive Force and all that. This year we started doing “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” because Poly Styrene died, so we’ve done that, and that’s the other one where I get to sing a cover. It’s a similar sound, it’s super confrontational [laughs], and I get to scream a little bit. It’s really fun. I really like to sing.

I think a lot of times what makes a performer really fascinating and what makes a performer seem powerful is if you see someone overcoming fear or overcoming weakness.

It had such a good energy to it. I remember you got on top of one of the speakers and it was so punk rock.

Sometimes you gotta do it. You’ve got to get on top of a speaker! What would they be there for if not to climb them once in a while? …

For me, it’s like… How do I explain it? I sometimes feel like I have two sides to myself, where I have a very sensitive and emotive side, which may be more suited to lyricism and poetry. And then I have a very type-A dominant side, which is what comes out when I do punk. Hopefully, where I’m headed as an artist is being able to combine them. I do think there is a lot of overlap, though. I think a lot of times what makes a performer really fascinating and what makes a performer seem powerful is if you see someone overcoming fear or overcoming weakness. That’s a lot more interesting, to see vulnerability mixed with great fervor and passion, which I think is what a lot of people love about Patrick [Stickles, Titus Andronicus member], how vulnerable his songs make him appear. He’s totally baring his insecurities, and yet in doing so he’s a very compelling and powerful figure.

It seems like getting on stage would inspire fear in a lot of different ways: It’s fear of people watching, but it’s also fear of what you’re doing, and what it means for you to be doing it.

Yeah, I read this really interesting book called Rat Girl. It’s by Kristin Hersh, who was the leader of the band Throwing Muses, which was — they got signed in, I think, ’85 or ’86 to 4AD, which is now a big record label but back in the day didn’t even sign American bands, they were a British label. So, [Throwing Muses] were this bunch of teenagers who must’ve been signed when they were like 17 or 18 years old, living in Providence and then Boston, who wrote really, really strange, original experimental music that could loosely be called alternative rock. So this memoir is, basically, about the singer and guitarist Kristin Hersh and a particular year when she was 18. It happened to be the year when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she started experiencing mania and hearing things. Actually, after she had a bike accident, she hit her head and … she started hearing voices, which to her were complete songs. We think of people hearing voices, but she would actually hear songs, like melody and lyrics and all the arrangements, and that was her mental illness: hearing songs. The book is all about her coming to terms with being an artist and also coming to terms with the fact that she had severe mental illness. There are parts in it where she can’t sing, and she’s in the studio and she can’t record, she can’t do it because she’s afraid of all this evil that’s buzzing around in her head.

The most fascinating thing about that is that, obviously when you hear voices, it sounds like the voices are not you. But if they’re inside your own head, and they’re songs, they are you — they’re coming from you — so it’s she’s writing the songs subconsciously and then they’re coming out, but it can’t feel like her songs, I would think.

At the end of the book she maintains that she doesn’t write her own songs, that they just come to her from music, which is outside her. I watched this interview with her on YouTube — now she has three kids, she’s in her 40s — and she still says, “Oh, I don’t write songs, I’m just this receptor, and they come to me.”

I think a lot of artists feel that way. It’s about the unconscious, and from the Surrealists onward people were really interested in not letting your conscious self get in the way of your creative potential. I think that’s really true as far as writing songs. This is something I learned in college. I was a poetry major too and one of the best lessons I learned was, you don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a poem about this table.” [indicates table]. Because, we can probably think of three things to say about this table: it’s sitting on the ground, it’s hard and it’s flat.

And it shakes a little bit.

Yeah, ok, so we’ve got four! And then you’re like, “Shit, I ran out of things to say about this table!” But there’s no chance you’re going to have a good poem out of that. But if you sit down and you say, “I’m just going to free-associate for a while. I’ll start thinking about this table but maybe it reminds me of a tree which grows in a forest, and that reminds me of going to summer camp when I was a kid,” you know? Then you can go back and edit it and see that, oh, this poem is really about the passage of time from when I was a kid to now, or something like that, and you can cut out the parts that don’t fit. That’s a much more constructive way to create something than to sit down and think really hard about the table in front of you.

So the Kristin Hersh book was really interesting, because she was someone who was hugely talented, and was hugely different from everybody. She grew up on a commune with hippie parents and went to college when she was a teenager, she skipped a lot of high school. She had almost no friends, except for her bands. And then, like, she started hearing voices and seeing hallucinations and writing songs that really sounded like nothing else. She must’ve had a lot of fear and a lot of self-doubt, and the book doesn’t shy away from any of that stuff, which is really interesting. She’s such a good narrator, because she lets you know exactly how hard it was and how crazy it was to be such a genius. … She still makes music, and she talks about feeling possessed by something when she’s really in the zone when she’s performing or when she’s writing. She talks about feeling like she’s possessed by, she calls it “evil” — for real, yeah.

That’s a tough way to think about not only how you’re living, but the art that you’re making.

Totally. When you listen to the songs, you can sometimes hear that they sound strange — some of them do sound really creepy — but a lot of it doesn’t sound evil, a lot of it sounds joyful. I’ve been thinking about that recently when I perform. It really is true that, whether you think it’s evil or passion or some kind of emotional high, when you’re playing music the right way you should feel outside of yourself, you should feel possessed by what it is that you’re doing. Any musician can feel when you’re in the zone and when you’re not. It’s like being an athlete: sometimes you’re just not feeling it, sometimes you really are. But the fun and the magic really happens when you are feeling it, whatever you want to call it.

I was just reading the piece you wrote on your blog about seeing the Lady Gaga Rolling Stone cover and realizing that female musicians are always shown as static objects in these magazines, and how important it is that women be shown actually playing instruments and performing. It seems like performing would lead to a different kind of productivity than just, say, writing by yourself.

Performance is social, inherently, and it’s also political, because you have one person (or a small group of people) with a microphone who is telling a very large group of people what to think and how to feel. That’s very dangerous. I think it’s also something that we associate with masculinity: to get up there and tell people how to think. That’s a traditionally male thing. You even see it in stand-up comedy: it’s really hard for women to break into stand-up because you’re telling people when to laugh, and you’re in control of lots of peoples’ minds and instincts and reflexes. It’s the same reason why we think of political figures as male. So yeah, I think performance is political, and it’s really cool and important when women do it and do it well, because you can change a lot of peoples’ minds about what women are capable of.

People also respond to women in pop culture because pop culture is really cool and fun — like it’s fun to respond to it — and politics is not always so much fun. When someone sits from on high or stands at a pedestal and tells you, “WOMEN ARE EQUAL TO MEN,” you may not internalize it as much as if you see some really cool performer like Kathleen Hanna making it really fun and sexy and cool to be feminist.

There aren’t that many places where girls get told it’s okay to mess up and be loud and express yourself and be crazy and do whatever the hell you want.

This seems like a good point to bring up your work with Rock Camp for Girls.

Rock Camp for Girls is awesome, I’ve been volunteering there for six years. It’s a place where girls can go and learn instruments and learn how to be in a band. The thing is, there’s no musical experience necessary, although a lot of the girls have played music before. The idea is, 100% D.I.Y., anyone can do it, totally punk, anyone-can-start-a-band mentality. And the thing is that it actually works. Hundreds and hundreds of girls around the world, maybe thousands at this point, form a band, and five days later they’re playing an original song to hundreds of screaming fans. It’s all because there’s a really dedicated staff of female musicians who volunteer and give 200% support at all times.

Whatever a girl does is awesome, you can do it, you rock. It’s the most positive environment, and it really works. By day three there are all kinds of boundaries being broken. Lots of girls of different ages, different races, different economic levels, whatever, are working together and making awesome music, and it’s really a unique place, because there aren’t that many places where, say, a girl who gets free lunch at school is going to be collaborating, becoming best friends with a girl who lives in a fancy apartment on the Upper West Side. There aren’t that many places where 15-year-old girls are actively encouraging and supporting 8-year-old girls.

There aren’t that many places where girls get told it’s okay to mess up and be loud and express yourself and be crazy and do whatever the hell you want. When I think about it, there aren’t too many places like that for guys either. Such is the society we live in that we like to tell kids what to do and give them very regimented ideas of what’s acceptable. And when we teach kids about music, we usually tell them to play a certain way, and we usually tell them music’s about talent, not about spirit or heart. So yeah, it’s a really unique environment, and the goal is to build self-esteem and encourage girls to see each other as collaborators and friends throughout their lives, so whether or not they ever play music again, hopefully they take personal experience and personal growth away from the camp. It really works — every time I see the showcase concert at the end, I cry [laughs], it’s really beautiful, and most of the other volunteers are really emotional as well. If you give girls instruments and give them support and tell them they can play and they can express themselves and be powerful and loud, you’re going to see a lot of awesome music coming out of that.

They also have Ladies Rock Camp, which is cool. It’s only for a weekend, it’s like the condensed version. If anyone, for the record, wants to do it, you can go to either Ladies Camp or Girls Camp — Girls Camp you can be 8 through 18, and after that you go to Ladies Camp.

When you guys got up on stage at 4Knots, I remember you said something about the Screaming Females, and I thought that was really cool — trying to build camaraderie and promote bands that you like.

Screaming Females are amazing, and Marissa Paternoster has got to be the best guitar shredder I’ve ever heard. Not even joking. I don’t know how she plays so many notes, and they all sound so good. She also has really good guitar tone — like, she could play one note and it would still sound so good, with all the vibrato [imitates vibrato]. They’re also from New Jersey, and I think they’re a really great band. Maybe they’re a little more underground than Titus at this point, but they shouldn’t be, because they’re really awesome.

How did you decide you wanted violin in Titus? How long have you been playing violin?

That’s actually the first instrument I played. I started playing violin when I was three. I took classical violin lessons for a while. I think, for the first Titus album [The Airing of Grievances], I wasn’t in the band but Patrick wanted violin on it, and he asked me to do the violin parts so I went and recorded them. Then, I wasn’t a member of the band until after The Monitor, so there was a lot of violin on The Monitor but I didn’t play it.

How did you end up in the band? Did you know Patrick?

I was in a band called the Sinister Turns when I was in college. My friend was in that band and she introduced me to Patrick. He sometimes played with us, he recorded on our EP, and then he asked me to do the violin for the Titus album. I wasn’t in the band until almost two years ago — I had a job in an office. I ran into Patrick at a show, I hadn’t seen him for like, many years, and he was like, “Do you want to be in Titus Andronicus?” I thought he was joking or something, so I was like, “Uhh, sounds fun?” Turns out he was serious, so I said, “Ok, I guess I’ll be quitting my job and going on tour!” It was pretty random, actually. I think the violin adds something, though, because particularly during the quieter, more mellow sections, it adds a touch of sweetness, and there’s some country feel and some Irish feel to a lot of the songs.

More than most other punk bands, Titus Andronicus has that sweet quality to them. A lot of it comes from how open and genuine Patrick is. Just him singing about his antidepressants and “the robot inside me,” that sort of thing, and the violin really works well with that.

There’s a lot of dynamic range in the songs, particularly the longer ones, they build a lot. We focus on things like dynamics and contrast and things like that. The tendency with punk is to go in hard, go in fast and then get out, so at this time it’s like, well, maybe we’re not really a punk band, you know? Maybe we’re doing something different.

Kevin Lincoln wishes he could play guitar; instead, he writes about culture and sports for GQ.com and other places. You can follow him on Twitter.

Interview condensed, edited and lightly reordered.

Photos by Bek Andersen.