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Why Titus Andronicus Made a Sitcom Mocking Album Rollouts

We spoke to frontman Patrick Stickles about his new album, and making a punk version of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.

by Graham Isador
May 31 2019, 2:32pm

Photo courtesy of Merge Records

I found Titus Andronicus through their song “My Eating Disorder” in the midst of my own relapse with food issues. My weight had fluctuated again and rather than addressing the behaviours that had gotten me to that point I started fucking around with starvation, falling back into familiar habits I'd established in my teens. I stumbled across the song in a google search for art about eating. The indie punk track coupled with the shout-sing vocals instantly grabbed my angry young man sensibilities, but it was the lyrical content that really drew me in. Patrick Stickles has been brutally honest about his struggles with food and mental health, and brought a literary quality to the writing that was unlike anything I had heard before. Titus Andronicus would became one of my favourite acts.

Last year the band released their fifth record, the divisive A Productive Cough. The album saw a significantly different sound for the group—i.e. no monster riffs—and a shift towards lyrics that felt less personal than the words Stickles had built his reputation on. While, obviously, I didn't want the singer to continue to struggle with food, addictions, and anxiety, there was a part of me that still wanted to hear about those issues in his art. I think a lot of fans felt that way.

Later next month Titus Andronicus will release a new album, An Obelisk. The record is a return to the band’s old sound and it’s some of my favourite work they’ve ever done. It also got me thinking about whether or not Stickles feels trapped by the the identity he's created through his music’s extreme vulnerability. That question is at the heart of STACKS, a 36-minute sitcom pilot the band has released, where Stickles plays a slightly-fictionalized version of himself (basically a younger, but equally resigned, Marc Maron). The idea of Stickles literally playing the character of Stickles opens up all sorts of bigger issues of authenticity, self-reflection, and creation, all while taking the piss out of album rollouts. Recently I had the chance to have a wide-ranging chat with the brutally honest singer.

VICE: In STACKS you’re playing with a lot of assumptions people have about both the band and you as a person. Do you ever feel trapped by those assumptions?
Patrick Stickles: I suppose I’m trapped within my persona to a certain degree. But the part of my persona that I’m perpetually struggling, striving, and searching for some path towards lasting happiness isn’t something I’m trying to escape from. That continues to be my reality more or less. I want my work to be judged on the merits of its content rather than the narratives that have been cast on me. I think there is a difference between the substance of my work and the way it gets presented in certain channels. I guess that’s why I wanted to create [ STACKS]. Though maybe that’ll only make it more confusing. Obviously the character that I play isn’t exactly the real me. Can we ever really show our real selves through the art, the content, the assets, we create? Is that really us?

Was the decision to make STACKS an attempt to control some of those perceptions?
The movie was both the centerpiece for the marketing campaign for the new album and a comment on the marketing campaign itself. It’s a heightened reality. I made myself a lot more defensive and stand off(ish), and rude than I am in real life....but it allowed me to address the boilerplate questions about the album on my terms first.

What is your relationship with promoting your art? In the film you seem really resentful of it.
I don’t know if resentful is the right word. A guy like me can’t help but hate my job. No matter what job I have I’m going to hate it because I’m obligated to do it. It’s an obstacle to me doing whatever I want on any given day. I got interested in making music and making different sorts of arts because it was something from deep within my heart. It’s how I liked to spend my time back when I was a student. I loved it so much that I wanted to see if I could be an artist for my livelihood. Consequently making music and art went from being something I wanted to do to being something I had to do. That can’t help but take a little bit of the shine off of it. It always takes away a little bit of the joyful element.

I was drawn to your work because of your ability to share your personal struggles. I think a lot of people expect it from you at this point. Is there a pressure to that?
I don’t know if pressure is exactly the word. Let’s pretend I achieved total satisfaction, and went into a period of uninterrupted bliss. Even if that did happen I probably wouldn’t turn around and make the Titus Andronicus album about what it’s like to be really happy and satisfied. Not because I don’t think people would want to hear that, but at moments where I’m feeling really happy and satisfied I’m not usually feeling very inspired to create art. If there is something in my life that is making me really happy I’m going to go and enjoy that thing. I’m not going to pick up the guitar or the pen and articulate my feelings about how nice it is the sun is shining. I’m not going to write about petting my cat...well, I do make songs about the cat around the house. But I’m not going to release those.

But if your art is about the struggle then you can’t make art without it. I know I’m projecting, but that seems terrifying to me. I feel like it would keep you from getting happier.
Now that you mention it maybe I am in a tough spot. Aren’t we all projecting onto the world around us though? I don’t mean to sound morose or ungrateful for my many blessings but life is always going to be a struggle. To live is to struggle. If someday I found out that I didn’t have to struggle for some fantasy reason… not having anything to write a song about would be the least of my worries. But then I wouldn’t have a job anymore so I could write a song about that. Does anybody really have a life without struggle?

I don’t know. I spend all my day on Instagram looking at people who seem to.
Right, but that’s also a kind of performative happiness that fights against their own insecurities.

I wonder if depression can feel performative in the same way.
That’s interesting. We do often run to situations that aren’t always conducive to our happiness but they’re comfortable in how familiar they are. When we’re unhappy or deeply sorrowful we may not always take the steps to correct that situation because it’s a well-established pattern of behaviour. Or at least that’s so for me.

I also feel like it’s something people expect from you at this point. The questions you’ve been asked during this press tour are all about your demons.
When I do these sort of interviews I end up talking about things that can make people a little uncomfortable. They can even make me uncomfortable, even though I like to pretend I’m some kind of superhero with that stuff. It’s a scary thing to surrender your ownership of. When I put something out there I hope people take it for what it is and ideally get something positive out of it. Whether that’s validation, affirmation, or whatever. But certain other people think it’s within their rights to dismiss it, drag me, or dunk on me. Being vulnerable is really scary. Sometimes you end up making yourself a little bit more vulnerable than you intended and dealing with that is an emotional laborious process.

The first track I heard from your band talked about your eating disorder. It’s something I’ve written about myself and the aftermath of that—reading people’s responses—was really hard.
Coming out with my own food issues was really one of my first experiences of going out of my way to make myself uncomfortable. In the late 90s [comedian] Tom Green did this episode of his show, or maybe it was an interview, where he talked about having cancer. He said one of his artistic values was that if there was something that made him squirm and it was the last thing he wanted to talk about, then he would will himself to talk about it as publicly as possible in an open forum. That really stuck with me. Years after, when I started talking about my food issue in a public forum, which was even before the song “My Eating Disorder” came out, that was a scarring thing to do. But I told myself I was never going to grow if I didn’t confront this. Not necessarily resolve it, but to validate it, and say it was a thing.

What do you get out of sharing those struggles with your art?
One of the bigger reasons I decided to put those things out there is to attract people who have also had those experiences. It validates them and it validates me. There were certainly times where I thought I was the only one going through something and finding out I wasn’t was helpful. When I talked about being an avoider of food there were people who were able to admit they had similar habits. It wasn’t just their own weird thing anymore. Then there are other people who couldn’t wait to dunk on me. They said it was stupid and I shouldn’t complain, because other people had real problems. And that hurt because there is a part of me that believes that’s true. Maybe you’ve felt similar at times.

I think that comes back to the narratives people project on you. But also the narratives you project to the world and the ones you internalize.
It’s also weird how that becomes monetized. I’ve been thinking about that a lot when promoting the album. I want this to go well so it means that I’ve been calling on my only marketable skill, which is keeping it more real than the common person. There are times when I’ve thought I’ve had a superhuman ability for keeping it too real. Practicing venerability, radical or otherwise, is a muscle you’ve got to exercise. The emotional exhaustion I’ve felt after an intense week in the campaign is making me realize that I haven’t exercised that muscle enough.

How do you mean?
It freaks me out to know that this part of me [between the album and the interviews] that’s really close to my heart doesn’t completely belong to me anymore. It kind of belongs to the world now. And that’s a scary thing to realize. It’s a tiny thing to open up your heart to one person you hope treats you with kindness. It’s another thing to open it to the whole world…especially now with Twitter and stuff.

Do you think it’s worth it?
I mean I think so. At least it’s what I do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Graham Isador is a writer in Toronto. @presgang

Titus Andronicus is on Twitter @TitusAndronicus