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You Should Already Know: Ted Leo

By A.D. Amorosi on April 19, 2010


You Should Already Know: Ted Leo

After spending time in the New York hardcore scene of the late ’80s and then the Mod revival of Washington, D.C.’s wee 1990s with Chisel, Ted Leo is finally on the cusp. If you’re releasing your first album in two years (The Brutalist Bricks), jumping labels in the process (from Touch & Go to Matador) and rehashing the band with which you’ve long done your best work (The Pharmacists), the cusp is the best place to be.  Yet at 39 years of age, suddenly getting discovered by younger punks might seem an odd thing.

“First of all, the simple fact is that people are always being born and discovering all music as new—that’s just the nature of... nature,” says Leo with a laugh. “Then again, I’d hope that the continuing appeal we might have for crusty old dudes like ourselves and young kids just getting into us is that as far afield as it may stray from time to time, it’s essentially grounded in punk rock as a form.”

And as long as that brand of bruised and often politicized punk has cross-generational appeal, Leo is as in as he’s always been. Leo says he sings about the trials of life—war, race, love, work, decision—precisely because the same things that got him going when he was 15 still get his goat now. “If they’re not exactly the same issues—and unfortunately, they are all too often exactly the same—then the spirit the songs are largely imbued with, of just trying to make sense of and survive it all, is pretty universal. Either way I hope we never paint ourselves as boring old men, moaning about the trials of life because we can’t be bothered to engage with it on the same level as younger kids do.”

While growing up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and graduating from a West Orange prep school kept him from being one of the mooks on Jersey Shore (“I happen to be half Italian, but I’ve never been a Guido”), majoring in English and graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame is what possibly gave his brusque and weighty political leaning lyrics their elegance and literary aplomb.

That poetry has found itself in various forms since its move from the wounded Townshend-ish Mod-isms of Chisel. Ted Leo and The Pharmacists’ Hearts of Oak (2003) was full of questions. Shake the Sheets (2004) couched itself in the possibilities. Living with the Living (2007) had more to say in regard to the big answers. That’s a trajectory whose arc he admits to, even if he didn’t foresee it from the start. “I’m just documenting the ongoing conversation—internal and external—flows from these questions,” says Leo regarding his past albums’ triumphs.

Then Leo hits The Brutalist Bricks.  As much as new song “Woke Up in Chelsea” is about getting over blame and “Mourning in America” about the rancor of despair, “Bartolemeo and the Buzzing of Bees” is about the love of language and turns of a phrase. “I love the way one well-placed word can stand in for centuries of accumulated reference points and all the potential discussions that flow from them,” says Leo. “I’m always pleased when I come up with a lyric that works as a hook, because maybe it’s both interesting and a doorway into a whole other world of references that buoy the meaning of the song for me—a scum of poetry floating on a sea of footnotes.” F