The dichotomy of Titus Andronicus
This Jersey band isn't just a bunch of dumb punks
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Titus Andronicus’ debut, The Airing Of Grievances, tackles both sides of the brains vs. brawn debate, juggling literary topics and high art while crashing forward with the fury of a noisy post-punk outfit. In a musical era when soft-spoken singer-songwriters are frequently seen as the vanguard for intelligent songwriting, New Jersey-based Titus refutes that loudly enough to make ears ring. In advance of the band’s show Friday, Sept. 11, at the Larimer Lounge, singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles chatted with The A.V. Club about misconceptions and perceptions, and how to turn all that on its head.
The A.V Club: The Airing Of Grievances straddles punk’s aggressive side and highbrow themes you’d expect from an indie band. Did you consciously set out to unify those styles?
Patrick Stickles: We never wanted to make a choice between playing punk music and playing indie-rock music, since those two terms never seemed to be mutually exclusive as they might be to some of these bands. It all comes from the same sort of place, ideologically speaking, as far as just wanting to do whatever you want and trying your best with all the rough edges intact. That sort of thing, that spontaneous work-of-human-hands feel is present in all the best punk music and all the best indie music. I think the best strains of both of those sorts of music draw from the same place. We try to draw from that place, too.
AVC: A lot of today’s indie-rock acts seem to have overlooked the obvious connections between the early indie scene and punk.
PS: There’s a lot of these bands out now, I won’t name any names, but these NPR bands who people think of as being indie-rock. Back in the ’80s, people would have thought that was much closer to The Doobie Brothers than Sonic Youth or whoever. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s interesting to see how it branched off into this much more sophisticated thing that we think of as being indie-rock. Really, it has nothing to do with the place indie-rock originally came from, as near as I can tell.
AVC: There’s been a lot said about how your music references everything from high culture, like your Shakespearian band name, to popular culture, like the Seinfeld reference in your album’s title. But Shakespeare was a populist first and foremost—why do you think people find your highbrow-populist hybrid so surprising?
PS: That’s a really funny thing, isn’t it? As much as we think of [Shakespeare] as being high art, his primary function was filling seats. He did have a lot of populist leanings, but I don’t know if he was the most popular in his day. I don’t know if that’s the case of the lens of history being tilted in a certain way in his favor. He definitely did have serious populist leanings. Nowadays, you think of his work as being the pinnacle of sophisticated art. That really isn’t what it was supposed to be. It does give a lot of hope to a humble punk rocker.
We’ve had all these things imposed upon us, all these indoctrinations they say are mutually exclusive, like you can’t be a punk and be smart. People think punk is supposed to be brainless. That’s just a completely arbitrary ruling, you know? If you’re a dude who likes to rock, you’re not a dude who likes to think. To me, it never seems like that would be the case. It’s just the ongoing tug-of-war between the mind and the body. To separate those two, it’s just a little bit of a denial of our nature, isn’t it?
AVC: Does pop culture address both sides of that?
PS: We can take multitudes, as Walt Whitman might say. I guess we feel a lot of pressure to compartmentalize ourselves. I think that’s quite unnecessary and probably unhealthy. You’re really only doing a disservice to yourself by doing that. You’re depriving yourself of the various channels through which you can derive enjoyment or enlightenment or whatever. To say, “Because I’m a punk, I can’t appreciate James Joyce”—I’m really the only one who suffers because of that.
AVC: Is Titus Andronicus helping break down that compartmentalization?
PS: I’d have to get pretty high up on a horse to say that! If we did, I’d be happy about that. I can’t claim that we did. If the kids see that we like certain stuff, but we’re punks like them and they are moved to check out something that they might not have been otherwise, that would be a wonderful thing.