In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Some musicians are uncomfortable with the idea of playing favorites with their work. Titus Andronicus ringleader Patrick Stickles, on the other hand, seems downright tickled by the task.
"We all love to rank things nowadays, don’t we? Especially if it’s definitive," Stickles says of putting his band's five albums in order of personal preference. "I'd love it if we could call it something like: Least best to most best."
While most Titus Andronicus fans likely have clear-cut favorites out of the band’s catalog, one thing that’s abundantly clear is that Stickles has a drastically different view of his work. He's often dismissive about some of his most beloved material and is an ardent defender of the unexpected turns that still have fans scratching their heads.
Lately, though, Stickles has kept too busy to spend much time analyzing. Barely a year after the release of Titus Andronicus' fifth album, A Productive Cough, he's ready with a follow-up, An Obelisk, to be released June 21 via Merge Records. The prolific output, he says, is just the function of being a full-time touring band.
"Titus Andronicus needs to stay out on the road, playing concerts to support ourselves. We've got to keep the calendar full as far as concerts go," he says. "I learned the hard way that you can only stretch out these album cycles so far."
It’s hard to predict how the Titus faithful will receive An Obelisk. It doesn’t swing as big as the 92-minute rock opera that was the band’s 2015 album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, but it's certainly more cohesive than their scrappy 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances. An Obelisk falls somewhere in the middle, with its strongest asset being that it's unafraid to lean on Stickles' undeniable skills at crafting fast, down-and-dirty punk songs (with an assist from producer Bob Mould of legendary Hüsker Dü fame). It feels like, after years of expanding the space in which they reside, Titus Andronicus is allowing themselves the simple pleasure of rocking out in it. Stickles is proud of the album, but again, his opinions often differ wildly from the popular consensus, so who knows?
To celebrate the release of An Obelisk, we had Stickles look back on the Titus Andronicus oeuvre. He had no qualms about ripping into his own work, so squeamish fans are advised to proceed with caution.
Noisey: I remember reading that you tried to make this album straight to tape, no overdubs, just trying to get as close to the live experience as possible. Is that something you think gets lost about Titus Andronicus?
Patrick Stickles: Well, one of the flaws of this record that's doomed to the number five spot is this live-in-the-studio concept we had going into it, because I wanted the record to be more like what people were gonna see on stage. Our previous two records had violins and bagpipes and all this shit we couldn't possibly afford to cart around America, so I wanted to be more faithful to real life. This was when I was getting into Neil Young, who is a vehemently anti-overdub guy. But unfortunately, to my eternal regret, we didn’t really follow through with that.
Because there are overdubs on it. And my boy Owen Pallett's on there. If you wanna make a 100-percent raw rock album with no extra ornamentation, Owen Pallett is the last guy you wanna call. There's pianos and shit on there. It’s not the completely legitimate representation of the live sound on stage I intended it to be. I think we realized that a bit more fully on this record An Obelisk that we're about to put out.
What would you do differently about this album if you could?
Well, for starters, I wouldn’t record it during a completely debilitating, severely depressive episode.
That’s my main gripe with it. At the time we recorded it, I was coming into a burgeoning understanding of my own bipolarity. And to achieve that, I had to hit the wall in a big way at the conclusion of my first severe manic episode. Right about the time we were about to go into the studio, I hit that wall and I was a total mess and basically useless. But it’s always been my feeling that the show must go on. So when I look back on it, I am grateful that we already had studio time booked and people were counting on us to deliver this record. I just couldn’t bring myself to let everybody down, even if that would’ve been the more prudent thing as far as my well-being goes. But I also think if I didn’t have all that stuff in the calendar and these previously established obligations, maybe I never would've made it out. So thank god for that, but it's difficult for me to listen to and not think about that time.
Also, my singing on it is a total disaster. It's some of the worst singing that you could hear. I listen to and I’m like, "Holy Christ, I was really holding on for dear life at that point." It's not fun to listen to.
What was affecting your voice, specifically?
Just my misery, the fact that my heart was completely empty. I was just not into it and I wanted to be in bed. Just gagging on every syllable.
Sometimes I look back at bad periods in my life and they scare me into not going back to them. Do you see Local Business that way?
Yeah, even though in the years that followed I would make a lot of the same dumb choices that would put me into similar situations. But I am grateful for the worst periods of my life, this one being the absolute worst. Definitively ranked, the worst period of my life.
You have The Monitor at number four and I’m trying to be objective here, Patrick, but are you fucking serious?
Yeah, I have my reasons.
Obviously you have a different view of this album than your fanbase.
Than anyone in the world, yeah. I should say: I know how this looks. It's difficult for me to be objective about these things because these are like my little babies. Also, I'm aware that this particular record is the reason I’m talking to you now. It's the reason why I have a career at all. It gave me everything that I have. That gives me a certain amount of gratitude for it but also a certain amount of resentment for it.
Because that’s something I did when I was 24 and they're gonna write it in my obituary. That's annoying. It’s a little bit of an albatross. It's not that I think it sucks. There's things I like about it. There's some songs on it that I still like to play today. But it's got flaws on it that are apparent to me that might not be apparent to the casual listener. Shall I name them?
Can we first unpack what you just said? What does it say about how you’re wired that you did what you wanted to do—you made a successful album that got acclaim, brought you fans, increased your audience—and you resent it?
Well, like I said, I do have a certain amount of gratitude, but it's annoying because from the record after that onward, every review has said, "Well, we were all kinda hoping they'd do the second record again and they didn't, so temper your expectations accordingly." I think it's an obstacle for people appreciating the subsequent records on their own merits. And it's kind of ironic because the big theme of the record is the way people tend to define themselves and their view of the world in opposition to something else. They define themselves by a negative association with something they want to be in opposition to. How funny that all my subsequent records are falling to that same fate when I was trying to warn everyone against that.
On your releases after this, were any of your choices a deliberate reaction to people loving The Monitor so much? Were you inclined to test your new fans or maybe even irritate them?
No, I don't want to irritate them, necessarily. I do want a contract with my audience where they've kinda got to trust me a little bit and come along with me. That's not designed to be irritating. I do feel like some of the cornier decisions on [The Monitor] were part of the reason it was attractive to people, and I have to try to remove some of the cornier, wacker devices from our musical vocabulary.
Well, on the first track, "A More Perfect Union," our most famous song—greatest hits, side one, track one—sometimes I think the reason it’s the most famous one is that it’s got that "whoa-oh-oh" thing in it. I probably would not do something like that now. I suppose there are little wordless things on the new one, but as far as this Lumineers, fuckin' grocery store, festival-kind of thing, that really grinds my gears. When I hear that kind of shit in the grocery store, I’m like "Oh my god, this is so annoying. I did this once."
You have A Productive Cough next and—
But I didn't even say why it’s bad! C'mon, let me tarnish my legacy here!
Go for it.
OK, for starters, my singing is another disaster.
Oh, come on.
Sometimes I hear it and I’m like, "Ugh, oh my god." Also, we did it to a click track. We made that decision because some of the song structures were pretty ambitious for kids like us at that age. So maybe that was the right choice at that time but when I hear it now, it sounds very rigid and mechanical to me. Every measure, it’s like, "Hey, do you think we’ll hit the downbeat right? Oh, wouldn't you know it, we hit it right down to the millisecond."
So your problem with it is that it sounds too good. Am I understanding that right?
No, the problem is that it doesn't sound good enough. It would've sounded better if it sounded like a real rock band, not a bunch of guys playing along with a computer.
Would you ever try to make a live version of this album? Next year, when you hit the ten-year anniversary, you could do one of those album anniversary tours bands do.
Yeah, I've heard of these. Well, let me tell you something right now, Dan. If you ever hear about me doing something like that, you can be pretty well assured that I must be pretty hard up for money. I can hardly think of anything less artistically stimulating.
OK, now I will move on to Productive Cough.
But you didn’t even let me say the part about the lyrics! The lyrics are full of references and allusions and shit.
That's wack. That's college kid shit. I should've come up with my own ideas.
I think a concept record that is both about mental health and the Civil War is a pretty daring experiment that I think you pulled off exceptionally well and I wish you would just take credit for something you did right on this fucking record.
I like the artwork.
When I first heard this album, parts of it made me think you were legitimately trying to test your fanbase, which, don't get me wrong, I can appreciate. But am I off the mark on that?
It's not that I wanted to test them, exactly. If anything, I was trying to test myself and my abilities. I was just trying to illuminate what my central, essential purpose as an artist was, which is to be a communicator and a validator. I got this notion in my head that this was my purpose and there are a variety of tools in the box that I might pull out in an effort to achieve and actualize that purpose. One of those tools was the creation of fast, punk-adjacent rock songs, which I still love to do. Our new record is only songs like that. The fact that the music rocks, that's a means to an end; it's not the end unto itself. The end is communication, validation, and nurturing my relationship with the listener. So I'm not looking for trouble, exactly, I just wanted to illustrate that there's lots of ways for me to achieve my goals.
What do you think you achieve with the nine-minute Bob Dylan cover?
Right, this one seems to be quite the sticking point for people. This is one of the moments where you thought I was trying to be annoying. I believe Vice.com might've said "odd and alienating," one of your colleagues.
I liked it. I just thought it was an odd choice that, on an album with only seven songs, one of them is a long Bob Dylan cover.
Well, you'll notice that the pronouns are switched from the second person to the first person. In Bob Dylan's version, he’s talking about you, you, you. And my version is me, me, me.
Yeah, "(I'm) Like a Rolling Stone."
Right. What’s Bob Dylan’s purpose on that song? He's pointing at somebody and saying, "Yo, you think you’re cool but you’re actually a total poser." Therefore, on my version, it's me pointing at myself and saying, "You, Patrick, at times thought you were cool, but you have often been a poser and a fraud as well." Particularly coming after "Crass Tattoo" which is a song about trying to hold onto your punk values as you get older.
What do you like and dislike about A Productive Cough?
I don't like how it drove my career right into the gutter. I didn't like the piddling little 4,000 copies it sold. But I think the level of musicianship on it is high—probably the highest of any of our records. I had 21 musicians on that record and every one of them was a killer, you know? I had the liberty to let them rip and do what they wanted to. I love that it's the record that’s got the biggest role for my cousin, this guy named Matt Miller who you see on the cover of the album with me. I love that my cats are on there—the recorded debut of my cats. I also love how it’s going to be vindicated by history.
You think so?
I don't know, maybe not. But I’ve got to say, you don’t get to be one of the all-time greats unless you have at least a couple records that convince everybody that you totally lost it and you don't know what you’re doing. Lou Reed didn’t write "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" over and over again for 40 years, did he? That’s what I'm shooting for. I need to not concern myself with the popular pace and be true to my own compass.
Have you ever read The Advanced Genius Theory?
Oh my god, abso-fucking-lutely. That's where I learned about this stuff. It's pretty fucking presumptuous to say that I could insert myself on to its Mount Rushmore cover that’s got Lou Reed and Tolstoy and Andy Warhol in it. But that's the extent of my ambitions, even if it's well beyond the extent of my talent.
I assume what you appreciated about that book was the notion was that every genius has to alienate their original fanbase at one point.
Right, but you don't necessarily have to do that on purpose. But sometimes that's the consequence of doing what you really feel in your heart the need to do. Also, if I say that I want to live and die by the popular taste, people can only do that for so long. I fully intend to be an old man on stage. I want them to take me off the stage in a body bag.
That's funny because I read an interview where you'd just turned 30 and wondered how much gas you had left in the tank.
So imagine how I feel now that I'm kicking damn near 34.
Do you feel locked into music at this point?
Oh no, I'll just go call upon any of my other marketable skills—yeah, right. My degree is in English. The next job for me will be cleaning a toilet, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is my career and I gotta ride it out ‘til the wheels fall off.
We're talking so much about the limitations of being in your 30s, but do you look back at your early band days when you made The Airing of Grievances as having more possibilities ahead of you?
Yes, absolutely. That's what I love about it the most and why it ranks so high on my list, because obviously it's got major flaws. It'll always be really precious to me because we did it for the right reasons. Maybe there was a faint glimmer of hope that it would do something. But as far as I knew, this was me and my buddies doing our fun thing for the weekend, and a year from then I was gonna be in graduate school and doing my real life. It was really borne out of the love and joy of rocking out. Once you try to make that into your job, you can never really get that back all the way. The Airing of Grievances didn't exactly set the world on fire, but it did put us in a position where we could do the rocking out thing full-time.
You said after The Monitor, everyone started comparing your output against that. It must've been nice to have no previous work to compare your albums against.
Yeah, I never thought about it but now that you mention it, that's definitely true. There were no expectations, no professional obligations, nothing but the love. It was childish in that way but maybe pure and beautiful, too.
If you could go back and talk to 2008 Patrick, what advice would you give that person?
I’d say, "Hey, kid, maybe this graduate school thing is not such a bad idea. You've got some pretty fancy ones you could go to." No, I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't want to advise the young me because that would poison him.
Next, in your number one spot—
But we didn't even talk about the flaws! I've gotta keep it real. I'm trying to keep it a whole dollar with you. It sounds horrible. It sounds so rough. We had no fucking idea what we were doing. But that’s as much of a feature as it is a bug. My singing is not as bad as the two records that followed because I did it through a bunch of amplifiers so it turns into distortion on an album that could scarcely be any more distorted. A lot of the best songs are totally transparent rip-offs.
The way I’d write songs in those days would be that I’d remember a song that I loved and somehow convince myself that I just made it up. But that's what songwriters do, right? But I forgive all that. There's a lot of songs on that record I like to play.
At long last, The Most Lamentable Tragedy.
The best one!
What earns it the top spot?
I'm trying to think of how to say this with the proper amount of humility. It's just the most fully realized, it has the most singular purpose, it makes its purpose the plainest. It's a record that didn't exist at a time when I could have really used a record like it. But because nobody had made it yet, I had to make it. It was the product of a very difficult time in my life. The plan for the rock opera was my survival plan. The plan ended up being that I'm going to tell the world that I have an outlandishly ambitious idea that I'm going to realize, perhaps against my better judgment, and I did that because I knew that there would come a time when I would hit another wall and I needed to have something on the calendar or I might never get over it.
At what point do you know you have a rock opera on your hands? Were you writing songs and starting to see a line between them or did you start from scratch?
I can remember when I decided to do it. It was early summer, 2013, and Titus Andronicus had just played Primavera [Sound] in Barcelona. The morning after we'd done it, we were getting ready to go to the airport, I was standing out in front of the hotel and wrote in my head "Lookalike," which is the first song of the second act. I was thinking, wow, things are so much different than they were a year ago. It's almost like I'm a different person. Then I was like, gee whiz, isn't it true that through my bipolarity, I have kind of lived this double-life where I’ve been the most miserable, defeated guy in the world and also the most perpetually ecstatic arrogant guy in the world? Then I wrote this little one-minute song about it, and I was like, "Well, I guess I’m gonna write a rock opera now." Then when we got home from that tour, and that summer I wrote 13 of the songs and it was the most productive time of my life. Then by autumn I was telling everyone about it and taking pre-orders for it, which not everybody told me that was a great idea but I did it anyway.
When you write about being bipolar and depression and anxiety, I imagine your fans connect with that material in a very personal way.
Is that a heavy load to bear?
No way. It's the greatest blessing of my entire life and it's the main reason why I continue to do it. This is the crux of my public service, such as it is. Most of the time, when people talk to me about the effect of my service on their own life, they don't want me to do anything for them because as far as I'm concerned I already did. This record in particular is the one that gets talked about the most when I'm having significant interactions with a member of my audience.
Your fans also seem to be the type to care about physical media. Did you consider the packaging of this having to be a double LP?
A triple LP, actually. Well, kind of. The third disc spins at 45 [RPM] but that's because the songs on that disc are a dream sequence. The hope was that people would neglect to change the speed after they were done listening to the discs at 33 ⅓ so they’d get exposed to it playing too slow. But the packaging is definitely beautiful and all credit goes to my buddy Nolen Strals who did the artwork for that and several other records for us, including the new one.
Does it lose some of its intent when you stream it online?
I don't want to sound like an old man or nothing, but yeah, the piece of art is the totality of it. That's the statement. You can miss a lot of things if you decontextualize the component pieces. For example, the most popular song is called "Dimed Out," which is a maniac's anthem. If people only heard that song, they'd be like, "Damn, this guy really likes to party." But if you take it in the context of that album and find out what the consequences were for the narrator, you’d see that maybe staying up all night and getting fucked up on drugs is not a good idea.
Since you keep not letting me finish without discussing the flaws, are there flaws on this record that irk you?
No. There’s none.