It’s been roughly seven months since Titus Andronicus released its most recent record, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, so I don’t ask frontman Patrick Stickles to dwell on it. If there was ever an artist whose music and public persona might suggest cynicism about the protracted album cycle, it would be Stickles. After a press tour that unofficially began two years before the album’s release, little about the band’s fourth record has gone unsaid.
We’re speaking a week before his band kicks off a tour with The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, which they’re dubbing the No Faith/No Future/No Problem tour. Their first notable collaboration came on Titus Andronicus’ 2010 breakthrough, The Monitor. Finn’s presence on that record — as Walt Whitman, at the end of “A Pot in Which to Piss” — was a spiritual passing of the raucous rock ’n’ roll torch that The Hold Steady held through the mid-2000s.
In conversation, Stickles is as referential and voluble as he is on record. When the subject of touring comes up, he mentions an Ian MacKaye line (one of a few times he paraphrases another artist in our talk): “The record is the menu, and the show is the meal.” However, he’s careful not to diminish The Most Lamentable Tragedy, his band’s behemoth, 29-track, 93-minute double LP.
TMLT is simultaneously the most ambitious Titus Andronicus project and a distillation of the band’s entire career, with callbacks to previous work in song titles and refrains. It basks in excess, with some of the band’s trademark sprawling suites that push the 10-minute mark, choral interludes and glorious, lush arrangements. Some critics were quick to tag the record as messy and unwieldy, but it’s striking just how closely the finished product adheres to the general outline Stickles projected in 2013 interviews.
He first told the Missoulian that his forthcoming record would be a rock opera with more than 30 songs, following a depressed character who encounters a mysterious doppelganger. The lookalike reveals that the protagonist was once part of an ancient race of humans, giving him a rare, destructive power that complicates his love arc later in the story. Although the particulars changed slightly over the years, we mostly got the metaphor for manic depression that he initially promised. “The big reason why I was eager to tell everyone about it … was so I wouldn't go and chicken out,” Stickles says.
The results are astonishing, and they require several listens to unveil every sonic nuance. Stickles realized this, and has since shared two remixes — for “Mr. E Mann” and “Fired Up” — to underscore some of the album’s nontraditional instrumentation. Owen Pallett, who first contributed string arrangements to 2012’s Local Business, is all over TMLT, appearing on nearly a quarter of the album. These remixes unearth his sweeping work, which can sometimes get lost in the final product. “When he turned in his tracks, I felt guilty that they were going to end up getting largely buried under a bunch of abrasive rock instruments. So the remixes were a good opportunity to showcase that,” Stickles says.
Before we get into anything overtly about his music, Stickles and I talk about this year’s Grammys (he didn’t watch, but enjoyed retweeting jokes about them); Twitter at large (on hot takes and tweet sprees: “that’s just not as important or appealing to me as it once was”); and Kanye West’s new album (“Maybe it’s doing something to demystify the creative process, to show that these records don’t just fall out of the artist’s head fully formed”). But he has the most to say when I prod him on the state of rock ’n’ roll — anchored by a Twitter conversation (spurred on but not started by music critic Steven Hyden back in February) that described rock as “the cultural equivalent of the Civil War reenactment.”
Whether or not the original tweet was about The Monitor, Titus Andronicus’ 2010 rock epic that quite directly employs a Civil War backdrop, Stickles believes this line of thinking ignores the ways in which the genre can still grow and expand.
“It’s certainly not the dominant youth culture anymore, and it’s maybe in danger of becoming a slightly academic art form, more like jazz or something. But I think maybe that’s OK,” Stickles says. “And maybe that’s going to afford rock artists the opportunity to reclaim some of the more subversive elements of the art form that may have been present in the past, in a time when there wasn’t some kind of carrot dangling in front of the artist that they could use rock ’n’ roll to get a million-dollar payday.”
I suggest that Titus Andronicus isn’t making a concerted effort to go platinum, and Stickles assures me that the members would love to — they just don’t plan to compromise their artistic intentions to get there. “I know that we’re not going to ever please everybody,” he says, “but maybe we can please certain people enough that they’ll give us efficient support to keep going.”