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Extended Q&A: Ted Leo

By A.D. Amorosi on March 10, 2010


Extended Q&A: 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 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. Recently featured in the You Should Already Know section of FILTER's Winter issue, here is an exclusive and extended Q&A with Ted Leo.

Why do you think that after 18 years, people are still seemingly discovering you? It seems like every new fan takes to you like they would a MGMT or a Kid Cudi.

Ted Leo: Huh. I may be revealing my "unhipness" (or my "hipness?") by admitting that I'm not sure I understand the references to MGMT and Kid Cudi, but do you mean, just because they're newer artists? If that's the case, then I think there are a few logical answers and a few subjective/hopeful ones. 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. Second, at any given point in history you care to chose, I'd figure there might be two to three times as many people that have heard of us as there are that have bought our records, and if you do the math, you're still left with an infinitesimal percentage of the world's population - so there are always more people of EVERY age to discover your music, and since we're not piped into people's brains via classic rock radio or endless television commercials, you do have to still "discover" us, to a certain degree.

Now, I would also HOPE that the continuing appeal that we might have for both crusty old dudes like ourselves and young kids just getting into the music, is that A.) the music itself, as far afield as it may stray from time to time, is essentially still grounded in rock/punk rock as a form, so as long as THAT has some cross-generational appeal, I guess we have the potential to attract any listener who enjoys the music - young or old, new fan or old fan; and B.) I hope that we never paint ourselves as boring old men, just moaning about the trials of life because we can't be bothered to engage with it on the same level that younger kids do - we sing about the trials of life precisely because we all ARE engaged with it on many levels, and the things that get me going today are often the same things that got me going when I was 15, and if they're not exactly the same ISSUES (and unfortunately, they ARE all too often exactly the same), then the spirit the songs are by and large imbued with - of just trying to make sense of and survive "it all" is pretty universal. It's also important that you remember where you came from and that no one has a monopoly on ideas and emotions - you might have something new to teach someone, but there's always just as much to learn - from the stage, you have to assume that on almost every level, you're no different than anyone else in the room - which means while you're also allowed to hold them to as high a standard as you hold yourself, you need to treat them with respect and never talk down to, or look down at, them. I'd hope that that allows younger fans or newer fans to feel invited to join in with us and everyone who's already interested.

You grew up in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and graduated from Prep School in West Orange. How did you escape the curse of being a mook from NJ? What is your take on Jersey Shore?

Ah, whatever - there are mooks everywhere - they just look and talk different in different places. How fucking easy it is for Brooklynites recently transplanted from suburbs in other parts of the country or Manhattanites livin' the life we all dream about to look down at NJ and assume it's all one Axe Body Spray smelling mass of Guidos - totally classist and totally racist, on top of it all - I happen to be half Italian, and I've never been a Guido. You know, in the Jersey I grew up in, of COURSE those guys were all around, but so were plenty of Punks, B-Boys, Preppies, etc. Also, this stupid idea that Jersey is somehow this completely separate Goombah-land that has nothing in common with New York is crap and anybody who's actually from the area should know this. We share more than a lot of people want to admit. It's always been quicker for me to get to clubs in Manhattan, via bus, train, or car, than it might be for fully half of Brooklyn and Queens, and I and most of my friends took full advantage of that - I never felt disconnected from the city - we hear the same radio, we get the same TV stations, we eat the same food, speak the same language, have relatives and friends that live all over the metro area, from Bay Ridge to Bayonne, etc.

Regarding Jersey Shore, I actually just watched it for the first time last night. It's fuckin' hilarious - it's a shame and a train wreck, but I can't lie - it's hilarious. But a couple of thoughts I've had so far - one, I'd rather hang out with Guidos who just wanna "fist pump" and get laid than some rich, preppy, creep-o, date rape, daddy's boy - at least the Guidos are honest about their intentions; and two, all the indie rock nerds that the Rhapsody ads with the indie rock nerd talking down his nose about the guy he and his friends call "Heavy Metal" ('cause Heavy Metal is also for mooks, right?) who-gasp! -works a cash register and we all laugh at him behind his back and call him demeaning names, like "Heavy Metal," and then talking about how the song would be good for demolition work "like tossing around boulders with backhoes," thus evincing zero knowledge about demolition work, boulders, OR backhoes and THUS placing him squarely in the center of the half of the demographic that doesn't just get off on watching themselves on TV, and the BODman body spray and cologne ads are obviously targeting, would secretly run out in a SECOND and buy some BODman body spray or cologne if he thought it might actually get him laid. I'm not on a high horse here - I'm transfixed by this show, too, but you know what? Plop a camera down in some suburban high school or college football team's lives, or in a trailer park outside of Topeka, and you're gonna see a lot of the same shit - the accents and the amount of hair gel and a lot of the specific issues people deal with will be different, but you'll get the same snooty pleasure of watching people you think are dumber than you destroy themselves - enjoy!

Not too long ago I interviewed Howard Zinn and Matt Damon about their People Speak television documentary. They spoke of how the role of the public is to hold to the fire the feet of the people they elected Democrats/Barack Obama included. As a writer who doesn't eschew politically minded material and threw his hat in the ring for Obama, do you feel your hard work (in particular) regarding stuff like "Rapid Response" was justified?

First of all, of course I voted for Obama - I was obviously not gonna vote for McCain/Palin, and I don't have faith in the idea that making things worse to spur on a violent revolution is wise, so I voted for the candidate who was most likely to mitigate day-to-day suffering for the American people, and the least likely to keep us fighting wars in the interest of global Capitalism. And I will be honest with you - for a hot second, I thought he just might be progressive enough to effect a major shift in the landscape of what is essentially a corporate controlled government that thus plays out as Socialism for corporations and Fuck-You-ism for "the people." So shame on me, right? I agree completely with the fact that we have to hold our leaders accountable and keep pressuring them to deliver on the promises they have made us - I say it all the time and it seems like a "no duh" kind of thing to say, but perhaps it's worth bringing up again and again because we all fall back into complacency after the rush of an election - I'm not immune to just wanting to be left alone to take the edge off that nagging uncertainty deep in my core with a bottle of wine and an episode of Jersey Shore, you know?

But in so many ways, we're essentially still living in the 70s, 80s, 90s, politically - it never changes. Replace the auto industry's response to the gas crisis with their response to global warming, replace the S(avings)&L(oans) crisis with sub-prime lending and the housing collapse, replace the spread of Communism with the spread of Islamo-fascism (or whatever it's called today),The Evil Empire with the Axis of Evil, health care, abortion, wages, equal rights, religion, inflation, etc. We've been talking in circles for decades, and that suits certain parties just fine - corporations are subsidized to continue to pollute, to profit off of endless wars, and to generally screw anyone they can - and the wheels just keep spinning. And I don't think I'm being even remotely shrill or conspiratorial here - it's not even really a secret anymore - do we need ANOTHER series of inside documents like those revealed in the big tobacco cases, the big lending firm cases, seat belts, Enron, tainted food products, faulty protective gear for our SOLDIERS, etc.? Look - it's not an uncommon thing around the world that people are trying to put one over on someone else to make a buck, and when that becomes institutionalized, with the biggest employers, with the most lobbyists, and the greatest campaign contributions - when the "putting one over" becomes institutionalized in the corporate culture, and the bulk of our representatives in government are in the pockets of these corporations to one degree or another, and the scope - the reach - is global... Seems pretty hopeless. What were we talking about?

Anyway, as far as political action that I've taken or songs that I've written or things that I've said, I'm not entirely sure that any of it's meant to have a grand and far-reaching impact - the Rapid Response EP was meant to have an IMMEDIATE impact - it had nothing to do with Obama and the Democratic campaign - it was a direct response to what I saw unleashed on people exercising their right to protest - and a bunch of people just standing around - during the Republican convention in Minneapolis - groups infiltrated, people's private lives intruded on with covert surveillance, people detained or arrested without charge or with trumped up charges, credentialed journalists beaten for trying to do their jobs and report on the situation, kids just standing there, apparently pissing cops in riot gear off by simply holding out a flower, and getting pepper sprayed and violently taken into custody for it - it was just a chance to use what little power we have to raise some money to help some of these people out in the immediate. In the long-term, I guess, as an artist, you want to offer people something to take with them when they leave the show or turn the iPod off - whether that's renewed energy to go out and do the things that THEY do, or just a sense of camaraderie that's sometimes lacking in all our lives, or some stimulation to think about something in a new way - there's no way to map out the effect that art can have in this sense, but we all know it's happened to us through our favorite songs or books or whatever, so I guess if I was looking to see how to justify my energy expenditures along those lines, I'd have to take an exit poll at a show sometime and see what the people themselves have to say about it! But also, I have to say, that I don't really feel there's a need to justify it - music is it's own justification - art itself is it's own justification - and most artists would do it with or without any conscious sense of justification - it's just what you feel you have to do, you know?

Is there a weight put upon the writer whose material is known for its political lean? As if you always have to speak out when maybe you'd rather have a Sunday as you so simply but elegantly put it?

Well first of all, I wish I could express my blushing through e-mail, because "elegant" is not something I've ever been called before, and I do sincerely appreciate it! But to answer your question, I think - sure - there's a certain pressure - I'm aware of reviews of every single one of my records (though I do try not to read them) that are negative because the reviewer didn't get what he or she felt he or she needed or wanted (or was entitled to?) from that particular record, and what can I say to that, other than, ‘’Go make your own?’ I think it'd be pretty silly to try and suggest that any record I've ever made is lacking in content, especially political content, but I get it - sometimes you just wanna hear someone shout a screed about the things you wanna shout about, but I need to write the way I need to write according to when I'M ready to shout a screed or bury the lead in some ridiculously involved and referential metaphor - that's just the way it goes. I can't deny that I want people to be on the same page as me and meet me at least half-way by maybe digging a little deeper into my lyrics and thinking about why I've made the choices I've made if they're not immediately pleased by them, but just as it's not my job to please everyone all of the time, there's also no rule that says you always have to like and understand me from the inside out, either, so...whaddaya gonna do? You keep others in mind, you do what you think is best, and you let the chips fall where they may.

Do you feel as if the wry and literate lyrical twists your best work takes (especially something like "The Sons of Cain" and ˝Bartolemeo and the Buzzing of Bees˝) shows off that Notre Dame English degree? Or do you think your best lyrics BREAK the rules you learned?

Well... I mean... I'm certainly never thinking about rules of any kind while writing, and I don't think the particular schooling I really got into taught me rules so much as opened up ways of looking at and thinking about life (and art) (and life and art). I do really love language and languages - I love a turn of a phrase and the way one well placed word can stand in for centuries of accumulated reference points and all the potential discussions that flow from them - so I'm always pleased when I can come up with a lyric that works like both a hook, because maybe it's interesting or clever (to me, at least!), and a doorway into a whole other world of references that buoy up the meaning of the song for me - "a scum of poetry floating on a sea of footnotes" - so... thanks for noticing?

And just to set the record straight about Notre Dame - it's not like I graduated with honors or anything - I gradually found my guitar as I got more and more disillusioned with the stifling nature of life and academia at that particular school at that particular point in my particular life, I also was trapped with too much energy and not enough wherewithal and self control to know how to properly channel it out there, and I wound up getting kicked out, going home and working for a while, fighting my way back in, and finishing up quietly after a fall semester. (oh, and having my diploma arrive completely destroyed by water damage in the mail, I never sent away for a new one.)

When did you come to understand that your literate references attracted rather than repelled or confounded?

Ha - it's nice of you assume that it works that way! I mean, it seems like you're kind of making it out to be something stilted - something that I CHOSE to do - I don't think of anything in my writing, including the references therein, as especially "literate" - I mean - it's just my brain - what I wanna write about is what I wanna write about, and the words that come out and work, come out and work! There are plenty of times when a word that intellectually works perfectly for me doesn't work in the SONG, whether it's rhyme, meter, or just "vibe" or whatever, and you have to let it go - to take a couple of the things that people have spoken to me about in the past, it's not like I crammed the word "ossify" into a song to be flashy - it's a word that means exactly what I wanted to say, that also rhymes correctly and works with the meter - why WOULDN'T you use it? And if it's a problem that you're not familiar with Beau Geste, well maybe it doesn't bother you, and if it doesn't decrease your appreciation of the song to find a reference that might be somewhat obscure to you, then it doesn't bother me either! But hey - Wikipedia's a couple of key strokes away, so if you wanna dig into it - great! At the same time, sure, "ossify" isn't exactly common parlance in most of our everyday exchanges, but it's not like it's a totally insane archaic thing that I dredged out of the OED, nor is Beau Geste this weird name that only the deepest scholars of French Algeria would know about (the movie was pretty big in its time...). Shit - I'm getting all defensive now, and I know that that's not really what you're trying to make me do, so forgive me, but I guess the point I'm trying to make is just that I think being obscure for the sake of being obscure is stupid and annoying, BUT when something works for you, I don't care HOW obscure it is - use it!

How do you feel you did by the name and honor of American hardcore at your start? Do you ever listen to your early records or bands, like Citizens Arrest?

It's really interesting, actually - the night before last, I did a solo show at a pub in London with Wat Tyler, and it was a huge reunion of sorts for people around my age, who all really started doing their own things about the same time we started doing Citizens Arrest, and the early ABC-NoRio scene got going; and one very sloppily drunk dude asked me, somewhat challengingly, "Oi - shlerioushly, thouwgh, mate - 'ow offin d'you naime drawp Ci'izens Arrest?" And I thought about it for a second, and I was like, "Wait... never!" I'm MORE than happy to sit and talk at length about it with anyone who's interested, but ALL of us were so far removed from any idea of the THOUGHT that there'd even be a future to have an impact on, that I guarantee you NONE of us would even to this day think to go around dropping names (plus - the CxA guys are great people and not jerks and therefore probably wouldn't go around dropping names anyway, but...).

The main point, in the beginning, and I think we were all on the same page with this, was to reject the jockish/moshier elements that had taken over hardcore in the late 80s, and bring it back to the lyrically challenging, simple, fast stuff that we "grew up on," which, at that time was only a few years old, but seemed like ages ago to us. The fact that Darryl christened the band from a Negative FX song should give you some indication of where we thought we were going with that. In the short time that I actually was with the band, we started getting tighter, and faster, and harder, and it's here that the band took off into what would become this thing that, despite being so short lived, I started to hear, ten years later, was so influential to so many people. I made the possibly dubious decision to go to college far away from home, and it just proved too hard to keep things going from that distance, so I bowed out, Darryl took over vocals, and Pat joined on drums. And this is the thing - I can scream, but I'm a better singer - and Darryl can play drums, but he's a better front man, so when the right elements fell into place, it was like an explosion. But you have to understand - for all of us - CxA, Rorschach, Born Against, Animal Crackers, early Chisel, etc. - we were living it day to day, so this incredible music that all of our friends were making all around us was special, yes, but also didn't seem so crazy and new because we were all friends, and we knew what we were all thinking and working on as we were thinking about it and working on it.

Does that make sense? Nobody looked up from what they were doing and felt the future in it, I think. That said, I'm super proud to have been a part of it - I still love those bands, and I still love those people, and it IS an honor to be appreciated among all of these true visionaries, all the more so, because I know that thinking about legacy was the farthest thing from any of our minds.

 Extended Q&A with Ted Leo will be continued tomorrow


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