In March of this year, Titus Andronicus released The Monitor, a hugely ambitious album that uses the U.S. Civil War as a metaphor to explore our urge to define ourselves in relation to a perceived enemy. On a recent afternoon outside Brooklyn Bowl, the band was kind enough to answer some questions about the album, about being from New Jersey, and especially about Lady Gaga.
The L: So, now that the new record's been out for a few months, you've gotten the Best New Music tag from Pitchfork, you've toured two continents—how has the time following The Monitor been different than the time following your debut?
Eric Harm (drums): Well, we had two headlining tours in America for our last record. The first one was weird, 'cause we were still on a really small record label. For the second one, the record had been out for a long time.
Patrick Stickles (vocals, guitar): It was pretty much a dead issue at that point.
Eric: For this one, the record came out, we toured, and it was a considerably stronger tour. A lot more people came out. A lot of people were interested in the record at the time. We played some very good spaces, and we even sold out a few shows.
The L: Was there a sense going into this record that there was a moment for you guys to seize?
Patrick: I feel like we've pretty much done the same stuff, you know? The world is just catching up to us now. We haven't really modified our approach that much. It's the same thing—just driving around in the old van, trying to do our best, trying to stick by our code of conduct about how we think bands ought to operate.
The L: I wanted to talk about the degree to which you guys identify and are identified by others as a New Jersey band despite living in Brooklyn. Over the years, I've noticed in a lot of people a sense of pride in being from Jersey that rivals the pride Texans seem to have.
Eric: I would like to make a funny contrast in the way that Texans approach their state pride and the way New Jerseyites approach their state pride. Texans are like, "Don't mess with Texas!" and in Jersey, we have t-shirts that say, "New Jersey: Where the Weak are Killed and Eaten."
Patrick: Very self-deprecating sense of pride from New Jersey. It is true, though, it is like Texas in that Texas is one of those states where people from other parts of the country have a pretty strong idea of what it's like there, that the people from there don't agree with. Maybe that's New Jersey too, you know, people think they know everything about Jersey from seeing Jersey Couture.
Amy Klein (guitar, violin): New Jersey, like punk, is all about the pride of the underdog. Being from Jersey, you're automatically degraded—you might start life from a lower position than some of your peers, but you're also proud of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. And even if you don't make it up very far at all, you're proud of being the lowest of the low.
Ian Graetzer (bass): I think that's every state in America. People in Kentucky probably think Cincinnati people suck. Pretty much every state you're not from, probably thinks you're shit.
Patrick: What is it about humans that makes us want to have so much of this polarization? It could be a good thing to explore in the context of an indie rock record or something. That would be cool. To try and come up with an extended metaphor or something to discuss that.
The L: Well, let's talk about that. This idea of hating where you come from, but at the same time being drawn to it and feeling a strong kinship with it. That idea is obviously all over The Monitor—but there's also the notion that you can run away from a certain type of douchebag only to realize that the exact same type of douchebag exists everywhere.
Eric: It's true what you say, that the same assholes are everywhere. I hear people say all the time, "They're not the sort of assholes like Jersey assholes," but in Jersey, you probably don't have the same sort of assholes as Florida assholes or California assholes or Texas assholes. Everyone has their own sort of assholes, but they're all assholes, right? There's a great quote from the show Daria that says, "Life is miserable no matter where you go, so don't be confused by a change of location."
Patrick: Or, why don't we flip it a little bit. Wherever you go, anything in life is what you make of it: Whether that be a new location, a new career, a new love affair, any of this stuff. Ultimately you're gonna be responsible for how much you get out of it, good or ill. That's one of our morals—taking responsibility and not trying to avoid responsibility by saying, "Conditions x, y, and z aren't in place, so I can't do these other things."
The L: The other thing is this whole idea of "us against them" on the record. And the definition of who we are, and who they are, seems to change a lot throughout.
Patrick: Wow, how true. A fact rarely observed. Nice work.
The L: On "Four Score and Seven," you mention not knowing who your friends are. That strikes me as the trickiest part of the record: thinking you're supposed to be able to turn to a certain group of people or a certain place to feel that oneness and then wondering if, fuck, maybe you don't even feel that.
Patrick: I mean, I guess that goes back to our moral of accountability—how we can't really be dependent on any group that we choose to get involved with, whatever side of whatever conflict we may be thinking of. Is it a good idea to be dependent on them to get whatever accomplished, even just a feeling of serenity and fellowship? Can we count on other people for that at all?
Amy: Have you seen the Lady Gaga video for "Alejandro"?
The L: Yes.
Amy: Ok, so I was just watching it a lot today...
The L: A lot?
Amy: Yes. Then I went on this internet site where college professors write their theories about Lady Gaga and her videos. They had these post-structuralist professors analyzing every detail. They said that the reason she has the army of gay guys appear so militarized, with her set apart from them, wearing white while they wear black, is to show that as soon as you belong to any group, you automatically create the other, which is the opposite of that group. That, I think, is a really relevant idea for our society, and the political things that are going on.
The L: That can be made political, sure, but even on an individual basis—like, I grew up on Long Island, and obviously I hated it at the time. It's white and boring and not interesting, so you define yourself in opposition to that, which is, I think, as important as defining yourself in concert with something.
Patrick: But dangerous, though. Because then we start waking to the post-modern nightmare of not having anything to define ourselves by positively, where we get too obsessed with the things that we're not, the things our values are in opposition toâ€¦ can we start to lose sight of what our values actually are?
The L: In a way, I do think it's important to have something to rail against, as a character builder. Maybe it's more important when you're young...
Amy: No, it's always important. There's always a lot of injustice in the world, it doesn't go away when you get older. And you just have to not give up your youthful idealism that makes you think you can fight it.
Patrick: But how do we maintain that and continue to define our identities positively? Ian: We don't.
Patrick: And yet we must.
The L: To the record for a second, though. The last line: "Please don't ever leave." I've always taken that to be you stating the importance of the opposite.
Patrick: Because I'm scared to go into a future where I don't have a legion of enemies in opposition to whom I can define myself easily and have a sense of self-understanding. Our hero on the record has come to realize at that point that he's spent all this time saying, "You do this and this, you're a jerk"—the implication being, you know, "You're a jerk, therefore I'm great." Our hero is saying, "All these things about me are bad, but it doesn't matter, because look what this other guy's doing, so I'm pretty much off the hook. And as long as this guy's around, I don't really need to be responsible for myself, for defining my own personality. I can just look at what the bad guy's doing and say 'I'll just do the opposite of that.' Then what am I really doing? I'm just getting caught in all kinds of po-mo paradoxes... getting blurred into a house of mirrors." So the question is, how do we continue to fight injustices, like Amy says, which is obviously super important.
Amy: You make art about it, just like Lady Gaga!
Patrick: That's not what she did. What about your other hero, your best hero, Joanna Newsom, who says that Lady Gaga is just fluff. That's probably true, isn't it?
Amy: Let me tell you. I tend to agree with everything that Joanna Newsom says all the time. But then Lady Gaga made this statement about how this video was for all her gay friends. And she didn't have to do that, she didn't have to include Catholic imagery that would make half her audience mad because she's having simulated sex in front of a cross.
Patrick: Didn't Madonna do that 20 years ago? She's just following precedent so closely.
Eric: Couldn't she just be trying to sell a ton of records?
Patrick: She can sell records to everybody now, whereas Ke$ha will only sell to teenagers, because people are convinced Lady Gaga's a conceptual prankster. She's just the same as Ke$ha really, although her songs are awesome.
The L: Well, I agree: I think that's the problem with the idea of the post-modern pop star. Gaga's the most obvious example, but even someone like Katy Perry—their whole thing has always been being in on the joke, knowing that and placing themselves above it, or apart from it. So we're supposed to then think everything they do is ok, because they're in on the joke, and we don't expect them to then do anything smart. We're letting it be enough that they just declare that they're in on the joke. I think we're not holding our pop stars accountable enough.
Patrick: Very fair assessment.
Amy: I didn't like her until I watched the video today, and then I realized that without having to do anything because she has a lot of money, she decided to make a political statement with her video. It's political in terms of gender and sexuality. She decided to say something political with her music, which very, very few pop stars really do.
The L: I understand that, but then aren't we holding her to very low standards? Like, "Just say something, and then you're awesome"? But, alright, let's talk about Titus Andronicus for, like, two more minutes: The song "Theme from Cheers" is sort of confusing for me...
Patrick: I grow more confused about it all the time.
The L: How so?
Patrick: I worry that it encourages kids to drink. That wasn't really the point.
The L: What was the point?
Patrick: The point was the same as the other songs. I can't talk for everybody, but for me...
The L: You mean for our hero...
Patrick: Yes, for our hero, in the context of the album, getting drunk is just an excuse. Why do people do it? They do it 'cause they wanna get wild, lose their inhibitions, do whatever, just live it up, and then the next day, if they did something fucked up, they can just say, "Oh, I was drunk," meaning, "It wasn't really my responsibility." But of course it was. Ultimately it's each one of us that puts the beer in our hand, or the tenth or eleventh beer, and we have to be responsible for the choices that we make while we're engaging in that stuff.
The L: In the song, it seems like there are conflicting takes on aging, on what it means to grow up. The first half seems to view aging as an inherently negative thing—the end of good times, etc. But then by the end, it's more about embracing it. And it's sort of nice, but it's also probably the saddest part of the record, wondering if all the shit you thought when you were younger is meaningless, questioning every single thing that got you to where you are.
Patrick: Well, that can be quite a haunting thing, you know? Have we made all the right decisions in our lives?
The L: Well, so what's next for our hero? I think this person has put a couple conflicting takes on how life can go out there.
Patrick: Well, life is very confusing, isn't it?
The L: So, you can take it however you want—as a question about the band, or about your own approach to life—but what's next?
Patrick: Well, the record hopefully suggests that our hero will come to start defining himself positively, maybe start to understand the fluidity of human relations, the elasticity of our many relationships as individuals and as communities. Will he? Hopefully. It's a tough thing to do. Over the course of the story, we didn't really learn how to productively do that. Maybe that will be the next step. Maybe the next step is to put it into action.
The L: So, the line, "Let it be on a stretcher if I get carried away..." Carried away from what?
Patrick: I'm just saying if I'm gonna get wild, I'm gonna get so wild that I'm gonna have to go to the hospital. I'm saying if this is how it's gonna be, let's do it to the max. And unfortunately, for our hero at that point in the story, that means engaging in destructive behavior.
The L: As an old man.
Patrick: Well, he doesn't see much of a way out for him. He doesn't see the load getting much lighter as he gets older, and perhaps it might get heavier. So, our hero fails to see at this point in the story a different avenue by which he may pursue happiness or the alleviation of his angst. So he imagines himself in the position of the older man at the bar where the song takes place, and says, "Perhaps when I'm old, I'll still be miserable, but it will still be acceptable for me to get shit-hammered." Hopefully that won't actually turn out to be the fate of our hero. Although, our hero might always be able to enjoy a nice port at Christmas or something.