Patrick Stickles, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly, doesn’t really do interviews. He does monologues. You ask him a question and then he speaks, and he doesn’t stop. If you want to interject, you literally have to talk over him while he takes breath. It goes that way for 90 minutes today.
In my mind, I have a list of subjects I want to cover with the quixotic front man of New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus: manic depression, drug addiction, selective eating disorder, and anger issues, all of which he claims to suffer from. I want to ask why the band has been through 20 members in their ten years, question how come they’re named after Shakespeare’s most brutal play (14 murders, three rapes and six severed cocks), and find out about his occasional, late-night social media meltdowns (sample tweet: “I want to tear all my hair out of my fucking skull – is that funny to you?”). And, of course, I want to ask him about the music: about 2010’s The Monitor, an album widely considered the greatest punk record of the century so far; and about the latest (and forth) record, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a 93-minute, 29-song rock opera based on Stickles own battle with mental illness. If there’s time, I also wouldn’t mind discussing his monumental beard.
That’s all in my mind.
In reality, an early throw-away comment about newspaper cartoons leads to a ten-minute dissection of Calvin and Hobbes (“heart-wrenching stuff”), and I mentally cross off any hope we’ll get anywhere close to comparing facial fuzz notes.
Fact is, Stickles doesn’t do small talk or shorthand soundbites. He’s in earnest and at length—about everything. He’s the human equivalent of his music: expansive, ambitious, intelligent, raw, relentless; occasionally kind of furious, always, it feels, 4real.
And, of all the above subjects, well… we got through some of them at least…
Noisey: You’ve just had your fourth album out and are heading out on tour. I imagine you’re doing plenty of interviews at the moment…
Patrick Stickles: Am I? I guess so. The fact of the matter is when I speak to journalists I’m just really giving voice to the stuff that I would speak to myself about anyway, or I would irritate and torture my loved ones with by babbling about, so you’re giving me a hopefully positive outlet for my insatiable jabber.
Good to know. Let’s talk about the record then. It’s pretty unusual: a 93-minute, 29-track, semi-autobiographical rock opera about clinical depression. How do you even begin to create a piece like that?
Perhaps the question is a little vague but, as an artist, I should be able to deal with that and say a million things about the project. Let’s see, on a personal level—I’m not going to worry about sounding super-pretentious, I’m not going to make any apologies about that—on a personal level, art, for me, is my way of having the conversation with myself that I’m too cowardly to have. It’s trying to address situations I couldn’t face otherwise. So, with this rock opera, I said to myself, “OK, I have had this experience of suffering severe manic depression and I can now extrapolate them into this fictional narrative and I will understand better what I went through.” That was my idea in 2013, having just come out of this episode. I was struck by creative energy and, in my arrogance, I thought, “I have sown these seeds at great personal sacrifice, and now I will reap, I will synthesize, and synergize these experiences into a perfect piece of art.”
So, how did your depression manifest itself? How were you feeling?
Well, it was a big secret that I kept even from myself for a long time. It was an influential, powerful force in my life but I was basically ignorant of it. Hm, wait, that’s not a sound sentence. What am I saying?
Well, I assume what you mean is…
No, hang on, sometimes I say “what am I saying” but that’s just my little play folder that I sound off, and then I get back on track. See, manic depression… it’s difficult to articulate what it feels like. That’s why I wrote this rock opera. This is my point. Even with the people I love the most, the closest person in my life—my own mother or somebody—I could look in their eyes and tell them every little secret about it but very likely they wouldn’t understand because communication between two people is always flawed because of the chasm that separates us all.
So, the purpose of the record is to highlight how it feels to suffer from mental illness?
It’s three-fold. Which, yes, is to take the experiences I’ve had living with this condition—which is not the average thing but which is more common than people think—and give a layperson a greater understanding. The first six tracks are this deep exploration into the misery and despair—the living death of it—and, in my more self-aggrandising moments, I allow myself to fantasize that someone listens to this CD, and then says, “Oh, having been through this experience created by this artist with this pre-prepared epiphany at the end, I now better understand a mentally ill person in my life.” That would be one thing. The second thing is validating people who have had similar experiences to the one I describe, showing them they are not alone; trying to illuminate some truth about themselves. And thirdly, it is to illuminate these things to myself through my so-called poetry. Because when you’re writing it down, it can light something and you think, “Yes, that’s how it feels.”
I think van Gogh said something similar: that only when he painted could he make sense of his emotions. Is that how you see yourself? A tortured artist?
Everyone’s tortured in some particular way. But perhaps I feel pissed off with a lot of my life. I’m confused. I’m scared to be alone with my own consciousness. I’m scared to close my eyes most nights. So this poetry forces me into a situation, such as this interview, where I have to say, “This rock opera is about how it’s not OK to use your mental illness as an excuse to hurt your loved ones” or “this rock opera is about how it’s not OK to use your mental illness to be a drug addict anymore.” These are things I wasn’t able to look in the mirror and say. So, instead I take the cowardly way out. I write a rock opera about it—I get paid and get famous—and then I have to explain it over and over again, and maybe the message gets through to my own self. I may as well be talking in the mirror right now: “Stay off drugs, stop hurting people.”
You use interviews as counseling sessions?
It’s fucking cheaper.
In that case, tell me what you mean when you say you’ve hurt loved ones?
My greatest crime has been… basically I’ve always been very frustrated by the system. The whole world looks like a big rubber room to me a lot of the time so I have unresolved anger. So, I hurt people with my words. Maybe they did one thing or another, and I was bubbling with anger and disempowerment because of something in my life or even because of nothing—because these feelings are often as meaningless as the rest of the universe—so maybe even if someone fucking tries to help me, even if their intentions are good, sometimes they will appear to me to be an adversary. I mean, I’m not going to sit here and dish shit because I’ve got my own memoir to write someday. Then you can find out all the shit I did. But the bottom line is that I’ve been an asshole.
Is that why Titus Andronicus has been through so many band members?
Is it because I yell at people? I really hope this isn’t going to turn into some tabloid-y thing. Because we’re having a real conversation about living with mental illness. I don’t want to read, “Ohh, so and so quit the band because he yelled at them.”
Well, did that happen?
If you want to know, I’ve thought about it a lot and it’s not because I’ve punched someone in the face while off my meds or whatever. That never happened. I’ve been very fucking nice. But my mind operates on a certain logical frequency and that makes this band is a wild ride. It’s a small business operating on the largess of a person who is not logical. And it’s OK that I’m not logical because I’m the artist. But that’s a wild thing for some people to deal with. But then the fact of the matter is—maybe you don’t know because journalists stopped paying attention to us three years ago—the fact is that people don’t really quit the band anymore. We’ve maintained 80 percent the same membership for three years. I’m not getting pissed at you here but you’re getting me in the zone.
Let’s move on. I read this might be the last album?
Well, every one might be the last one. That’s the decision of the record-buying public. If they vote for there not to be another album, they can pass that legislation.
You said you turn 30 this year and that, at this age, rock ‘n’ roll isn’t a sustainable future…
Not the way we do it.
Would you be happy with four albums and done? Would you feel you’ve achieved what you wanted?
Would I be satisfied that it’s a complete quadrilogy and ready to move on to something else? Absolutely. And there are parts of the record that are designed to reflect that. But I don’t want that. I want to keep going. But I won’t sacrifice every bit of quality of life I have, and if this record doesn’t do a lot better than the previous one then we wouldn’t do a fifth. That’s a pessimistic outlook but that has to be my baseline because there are no guarantees in this world and, furthermore, there is no justice. But I won’t quit because I’m a coward. I’m not going to get a straight job somewhere. I’m an artist.
Let’s go back. Your second album, The Monitor, released 2010, is, to my mind, one of the finest records of the century so far. But I hear you don’t like people talking about it?
It’s not that I don’t like that you like it. I just don’t like that sometimes it forms the basis for an insult to the latest work. Like when people look at our new stuff and say, “Well, it’s good but not as good as The Monitor, obviously. Their best is in the past.” I mean, goddamit. It’s a major fucking albatross around my neck. I’m not an old man yet. I don’t want to feel like I peaked at fucking 23, and everything else is in the shadow of that album. I don’t want to live that way. What a way to live! And I’m not saying you’re doing that but I pick that up. But if you want to tell me you like it, tell me because I do like to hear that.
It’s one of my favorite records ever. But knowing that—knowing people feel that way—does it put a lot of pressure on you to follow it up?
I don’t feel pressure. It’s wonderful that you like it so much but I listen to it and I hear all the misconceptions I had at that age. Some of the choices that we made, like recording on a fucking click track—like we’re Katy Perry or something—that seems crazy to me now. The words are immature. If that was a 23-year-old kid’s band today and he gave me that CD, I’d be like, “Come back in seven years, kid, you ain’t got it figured out yet’. And then I’d go back to making something I thought was way fucking better. Like this record we’ve just done fucking shits on that one. How could it not? We’re older. This is what the artist always says—and the artist is super-deluded—but it’s right. This record is closer to what I hoped the band would do on an artistic level. The pressure now—the fucking anxiety—comes from knowing that all your personal efforts could be for nought if it’s decided it’s more convenient for the people trying to sell newspapers or internet ad space, if they decide that it’s a better narrative to say the whole things sucks; because of someone trying to make a better article to redirect someone to a fucking cat video—not that I don’t love cat videos. That’s what terrifies me. That there are people out there who would try and use this rock opera as a pawn in some perverted game that doesn’t have anything to do with art and has everything to do with feeding a 24-hour news cycle.
It sounds like conspiracy talk. Isn’t that just not taking responsibility for your own work potentially sucking?
No, because nothing sucks and nothing rocks. Everything is what you project onto it. You could write just as compelling an article that says I’m an idiot as you could that says I’m a genius. That’s your power as a journalist. But I just want people to receive it with an open heart, not poisoned by expectations planted by the media. Because I’m not certain everyone sat down to digest our third album with that open heart. I think a lot of people read some reviews and it gave them a thrill to think they were watching a once great band blow it. And so they put the CD on hoping we would fucking blow it. And we are a very flawed, human band so if you want to find something that sucks, it’s not hard. My singing is a great place to start. But I don’t want the record to be a means to an end that’s not relevant. You know, it’s my real life so I’m quite touchy about it. I don’t want to be abused or misunderstood. Listen, I think I need to go.
You need to go?
I have another [appointment] at 11 o’clock. Is there any tie-a-bow-round it questions you want to ask?
Well, I wanted to ask what your own favorite lyric is?
Hm, I guess it’s got to be from No Future Part One on the first album where I said, “There’s still one shoe that hasn’t dropped yet / And it’s hanging on by an acolyte.” The acolyte is the plastic piece on a shoelace, and I don’t know any other lyric that has that word so… that was about nine years ago. Gosh. I’ll try and top that soon.
One more to bring it full circle: a lot of your anxiety is caused by your depression, but, then, so too, you say, is much of your music. If you could not be a manic depressive and also not create art, would you take that change?
Well, it’s too late now. The entire infrastructure of my life has been built around this condition. But if I could go back to the womb somehow and strip out the manic depressive gene, would I do that? Yeah, I probably would. And maybe I’d just have a nice steady job and a nice family, and I dunno… is that better? I don’t think about such things. There’s no point. You can’t have a version of me that’s not mentally ill any more than you can have green sky. This is who I am. This was Mother Nature’s plan. So many times I have wept and asked the universe why I can’t be like everyone else. But that’s never going to happen so now I say there isn’t anything wrong with me. There’s something wrong with the world if it can’t make a place for a beautiful creature like me.
Colin Drury is available on Twitter for $200 an hour - @colin__drury