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Extended Q&A: Ted Leo, Part 2

By A.D. Amorosi on March 11, 2010


Extended Q&A: Ted Leo, Part 2

Here is the second part of our extended Q&A with Ted Leo. His new album, The Brutalist Bricks, was released earlier this week via Matador Records.

An extended Q&A with Ted Leo

What you do as TL and the Pharmacists is historic. But for a lot of us coming up in the dullards paradise of grunge, Chisel KICKED IT. What are your thoughts on what you guys recorded and the impact it made?

Ted Leo: Thanks! I mean, whaddaya wanna know? Chisel started out in late '89, while we were all out at school in Indiana, doing Minor Threat, Mission of Burma and Wire covers (among others), and when we first started writing our own stuff, we were mostly a melodic hardcore band, a la Snuff or something. But after a few years we were all out of school and moved to D.C., and like with CxA in the '80s, a lot of what was happening in the '90s wasn't really working for us, or was at least not what we wanted to be doing, and we started looking backward, too. When people would ask me "Why Mod?" and back then, my stock answer was that when I was 10-years old, my favorite songs were The Who's "A Quick One," and The Jam's "A Town Called Malice," and that was true when I was 10, and it was true when I was 23, and it was just our love of different kinds of music, and our history with this particular kind of music, that lead us down a different path than what most other people were doing at the time. Along with the Nation of Ulysses/Make-up, we had a love of, and fascination with, stuff from the ‘60s and its various revivals, and we fully embraced it. Also, Mods still existed, I'd been a skin, and I knew my history, so it didn't actually even seem all that crazy to us to reach a little further back - in fact, long before Chisel really took the identity on, I ran into Freddie Alva, who did Wardance Records, for the first time in a couple of years at a Garden Variety show at Brownies, and I guess for some reason, he'd had a question about this in his mind for a while, because the first thing he did was look at my clothes and go, "Wow - you really ARE kind of a Rude Boy, huh?" My heart is as Crust as they come, but my clothes have always tended toward something else, I guess.
Anyway, when it comes down to it, based on what were really listening to and the direction we wanted to take our music, it made sense to us, was FUN, and actually weirdly challenging, even in the early ’90s. Britpop hadn't really blown its wad all over the U.S. back then, so the reaction that our tight jeans and bowl cuts got on the streets was so insane you would seriously not believe it, especially considering how common it is everywhere today. In that weird weird time, I feel like a pink Mohawk was a more understandable cultural reference to most people. If I had a dime for every time I got called some homophobic slur from passing cars, I'd have... a few bucks. It also strangely WORKED in the music world, though - sometimes I think we felt a bit like outcasts, never really having a sure enough foot in any one world, but most of the time, we were pretty well accepted - we'd turn up at basement hardcore shows fully decked out in parkas and tight jeans amid the baggy shirts and shorts of the day, and get along fine with everyone, partly, I'd assume, because a lot of people knew us from our older bands, and partly because though we CLEARLY weren't playing hardcore, I think it WAS pretty clear that we were from the same world, had mostly same goals, and gave our music and performance as much energy and spit as any of the other bands on any given bill. Of course, by the same token, in the indie-rock world, people understood our musical references as well, and if we were the melodic mid-paced band on a punk bill, then I guess we were the spazzy energetic band on an indie rock bill - it was kind of nice to feel welcome in each area and not ostracized by both. But this is all talk of style - the most important thing is that we as a band, and I as an individual were expanding our songwriting palate and developing new skills and ideas. It was in this period that I think I really started to find my own voice as a writer, mashing up almost every influence I had in almost every song I wrote, and coming out with something that just might have been distinctive? I don't know - but it definitely felt authentic to who I was. As far as the impact that it made, I honestly have no idea. It's not something people ask me about nearly as much as CxA, and I've been pretty busy since Chisel's demise, so... you tell me!
Hearts of Oak was full of questions. Shake The Sheets couched itself in the possibilities. Living with The Living had but a wee more to say in regard to THE ANSWERS. Was that intentional? Am I off the mark? Do you see you Ted Leo albums with that sort of trajectory?
Wow - I'm aware of certain arcs of thought and music over the course of my records, but I've never heard it put quite like that. I think that makes sense, though it certainly wasn't intentional - in 2001, when I started writing stuff for Hearts of Oak, I can't imagine that I'd have been able to foresee the arc that I, personally, was on for the next six years, so there's no way I could have mapped out an ALBUM arc like that - but I guess if you can follow an arc, you can see how one "era" for lack of a better term, flows logically into the next. Having said that, while you might be able to get a general vibe from each album as you have, questioning is still the basis for almost everything I do. I don't have a lot of answers - I have some, but not a lot - and in a way, I'm just documenting the ongoing conversation (internal and external) that flows from these questions, so maybe it's actually just kind of the arc of a very very loooooooong conversation that you're feeling.
Speaking of trajectory, signing with Matador is a subtle shift from the sorts of labels you've been with, yet with nothing to do with big label. Am I there?
Yeah - exactly. With the (hopefully temporary) semi-demise of Touch&Go, I was looking for someone else to work with, and when Matador called, I was happy to answer. It's an independent label, no longer affiliated with a major; with a long track record of putting out some amazing music; it's run by great and enthusiastic people with punk histories more venerable than mine, who are willing to do everything they can to help you get ahead while also understanding and working with your boundaries, and I LIKE them all. It seemed like a perfect fit.
What the heck does  The Brutalist Bricks mean? I can think of a few things (other than that it comes from “Where Was My Brain?”)...
Eh... I mean... I shy away from completely piercing the veil on imagery that I use because, while I definitely know what it means to me, I prefer to leave it open for people to get what they will out of it; but Brutalism is a form of architecture, and in the context of how it's used in the song, which is why I felt it was appropriate to use as an album title (although Twitter helped me out with that, as well), it leads me to questioning theory vs. practice, urban planning, development, exploitation, to find, like with a word, the world of essence signified by a form, and to look beyond form to possibility.
There's some dramatically slicker stuff here, “Woke Up in Chelsea” in particular (despite the whole God hating, despair-driven lyrics). How and what did you decide on the sound(s) of this record? Was there a moment you loved that you wanted to emulate? That you were anxious to achieve?
Slick? Really? I wish we were speaking so I could ask you, "in what way?" But just to tackle "Woke up Near Chelsea" first, that song is not about despair - it's about getting OVER despair, blame, and discomfort, and putting your nose to the grindstone and doing it (with help, of course). Now, regarding the sound of the record, I think it sounds awesome, but I wouldn't exactly call it "slick." Phil Palazzolo, who we did the record with, is an old friend who I ran last spring - when we didn't even really have an album plan yet. We got to talking about music (as old friends do), and he got me really excited about the possibilities we had for making a record sound like I wanted it to sound, which is essentially, "classic punk" without being purposefully retro, if that makes any sense. Towards the end of July, he told me had some studio time open up in August, and after thinking about how great it was to just TALK music with him - someone who understood just about every reference I had - we got it together quickly and jumped in with him. As far as deciding what sounds to use, you know - I've made a lot of records at this point, so I know a lot about what I want to use and how to use it to get the sounds that I want, but one of the exciting prospects about working with Phil, was that I somehow felt he knew a lot MORE ways to do it, and probably a lot BETTER ways to do it, and maybe even some ways that would never even cross my mind - and I was right, and it was great. Mixing with him was really amazing as well, and almost, I think his greater strength - he's a genius with a few EQs and a weird old compressor that nobody thought even worked anymore, and that sort of thing, and I'm really happy with the results... But "slick?" I still don't get it!
What “Last Days” are you living (or whose) with all those legs in pain, etc?
No - it's just a story about catching someone saying that we're living in the Last Days - the Biblical Last Days or whatever - plug any version of anyone telling you that time is short in there and it means the same thing - and it's just saying, "Yo - okay - let's pretend it's true - then you and me, we have some shit to sort out, so let's sort it out, and live these last days to the fullest, doing all the things we should really be doing; and obviously, we're not ACTUALLY living in the Last Days, but whatever - it's a good model - let's go with it!" It's pretty simple, really.
What was with the Misfits cover thing on Halloween in Philly?
Our drummer, Chris, lives in Philly, and he's organizing a series of benefit shows at which he'll form a band to do a specific other band or era - it's a pretty awesome idea, and that was the first one. He asked me to sing, knowing it would be like fantasy camp for me, so naturally I said yes. The only bummer about it for me was that I was really fighting off the flu and was super exhausted, because it already ranks as one of the most fun things I've ever done, so I can only imagine how great it could have been if I'd have been operating at full steam (I actually had to take a 20 minute nap between sets!). But yeah - keep your eye out, because there'll be more. Black Flag is the next one, and though I'm not in it, I'll definitely be there...
What's the one song  and why that you can't live without on Bricks?
It's impossible to answer. We already left a few tracks off the album, so, of what's left, there's no filler for me. I'm sure other people might feel differently about that, but for me, the album is the album (and I'm still a believer in "the album").
Ted Leo's latest album,The Brutalist Bricks, was released this Tuesday on Matador Records.

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