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It’s been more than 20 years since Ted Leo first played in Citizens Arrest, and he’s barely slowed down since. Touring endlessly throughout the ’90s with Chisel and during the aughts as Ted Leo And The Pharmacists, the last couple of decades have been jam-packed for Leo. In that time, he’s gone from playing empty pizza places to playing some of the biggest festivals in the country.
Recently, The Pharmacists celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their breakout album—The Tyranny Of Distance—by playing it in full at a free concert in New York City. Before Leo kicks off WMSE’s Radio Summer Camp tonight at Turner Hall, he took some time to talk about revisiting old projects, the importance of staying independent, and why it’s fun to play in a Misfits tribute band.
The A.V. Club: How did the Tyranny Of Distance show go?
Ted Leo: It was awesome, actually. It was really, really great. My only regret about it is that ... it had been, like, more than two months since we played a band show. I’d been doing a lot of solo shows during that time, and I just realized how out of shape I am. [Laughs.] But, other than that it was fun.
AVC: What made you decide to revisit the album in this way? Was it a nostalgia thing?
TL: No, there really wasn’t anything nostalgic about it. It wasn’t something I would have done if other people hadn’t reminded me a number of times that it was the 10th anniversary of it. I tend not to dwell too much on that kind of stuff, only because I’ve got enough going on in the present, and for the foreseeable future, that it takes up the bulk of my energy. We very rarely give in to those kind of slightly self-indulgent moves that artists do from time to time, you know?
This seemed kind of appropriate. The 10th anniversary of Tyranny Of Distance being released coincided with the 10th anniversary of me playing at the outdoor shows at the South Street Seaport here in New York. So, it was just one of those things where the more it got talked about, the more it seemed like something we wouldn’t just be doing for ourselves; people seemed excited about it. We just looked at it as something fun to do and something to kind of mark the occasion and make it more than just a rock show.
AVC: You’ve been posting blogs about what it was like in the early days touring as a solo artist, and talking about all the crazy places you’ve played over the years. Do you prefer the smaller, intimate shows to the bigger festivals, or is it important to do both?
TL: I would be lying if I said that I wished I lived entirely in that romantic world where everything was possibility and you were a knight on a quest to get more than five people at your shows. [Laughs.] Because that sucks, ultimately. It’s got its romantic charm, certainly, both while you’re doing it and in retrospect. But let’s be honest: It’s nice to play somewhere that actually has a dressing room, and a clean bathroom, and where you at least get some drinks for free, and where people are going to come see you, and you’re going to get paid a little bit of money. [Laughs.]
So, naturally, I wouldn’t necessarily want to go back to those days, but I do think that … an interesting thing about the position that myself and my band have been in for a lot of the last 10 years is that we’ve never really broken through to any kind of level of success that has taken us all that far beyond those days. There are a lot of places—most of the bigger cities in the country, for example—[where] we are able to play the bigger clubs and whatnot. But [in] most of the smaller cities, there is no guarantee that you’re going to get much of a crowd at all. It both allows us to still kind of experience the things that I do appreciate about those types of smaller shows, but it also probably keeps us honest to a certain degree. It keeps us from getting blasé about the good things, about playing the bigger shows, as well.
AVC: When you recently played Chicago, you played one night at the Pritzker Pavilion, which holds 11,000 people, and the next night at the Fireside Bowl, which has a capacity of 175. It’s obvious that you can exist in both of those realms, but how do these types of shows change the way you and the band approach the show?
TL: Well, that’s a tough one. It’s a toss-up on how you approach those things. I think there’s probably one strain of thought that would say you play to your strengths: You play your hits, with the point being that you’re going to gain new fans, or whatever. At the same time, you don’t generally get asked to do these things unless a certain amount of people want you to be there, and they don’t necessarily want to see you do just your hits, you know what I mean? The way that we would arrange our set and perform in these two different capacities probably depends on how much time we’re actually given onstage. Over the years I think we have learned, in a real practical way, that performing on a big, outdoor stage is a lot different than performing somewhere the size of the Fireside. The kind of sweaty, frenetic, crazy, punk-rock energy that makes a Fireside show so great doesn’t always necessarily translate on an outdoor, giant sound system and big stage, so you might want to actually focus on just playing better, you know? [Laughs.] That’s one difference that I can think of.
One other thing is that—to give you an example—we did a few shows with Pearl Jam a few years ago. We had a bunch of new songs that wound up later being on the last record, The Brutalist Bricks. We never had more than a half hour to play every night, so pulling from five albums, however many albums’ worth of stuff, it’s tough to put together an eight- or nine-song set list that you’re really happy with, because you always feel like you’re leaving something out. Eventually we realized that, “Well, wait a minute. Anybody who’s actually in this room to see us at this point is either already a fan and so they came up early specifically to see us, and that probably means they’ve seen us a bunch of times before based on how much we usually tour. Or, it’s somebody who has never seen us and has no idea who we are. So why don’t we just play all our new songs?” [Laughs.] You know, because for the people who have seen us a million times, that’ll be something for them, and the people who haven’t, they won’t know the difference. Sometimes, in a weird way, those kind of big-stage shows can actually kind of give you the ability to blow off expectations more than you think you do.
AVC: You’ve been playing music for more than 20 years now, with a bunch of different bands. What are some places that you have fond memories of from back in the day?
TL: When I first started playing solo, for a while, it was almost like I had residencies at The Middle East in Boston, Brownies in New York—which is no longer there—and the Black Cat in D.C. Those three clubs—probably more than any other in the entire country—are largely responsible for me continuing to play music past that point. They liked me, you know? [Laughs.] They would give me shows all the time. The Middle East has an upstairs, which is smaller, and a downstairs, which is bigger, and, while we can’t really play the upstairs anymore, I certainly love going back there. The same with the Black Cat in D.C.: They have a small stage and a large stage, and we can’t really play the small stage anymore, but going to that club is always great.
AVC: Looking back, are you happy to say that you always stayed independent and somewhat DIY? You’re still able to play those big outdoor shows, but you didn’t have to leave behind the small spaces either.
TL: Yeah, absolutely! That’s been one of the things that I always feel has been interesting, and something that I appreciate about our rise to the level of big clubs, is that it really did kind of happen pretty organically. I think you’d be hard-pressed to say that we ever rode any kind of big hype wave or whatever.
Like, I’m from Jersey, but I’m from that New York area and have been a part of the New York music scene since I was a kid. So every summer for the last 10 years, I’ve made it a point that we play a big, free outdoor space here. And in talking about that regarding this 10th anniversary, people have been like, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were from the area!” And I’m like, “Yeah, because we didn’t make a big fucking deal about it like every other band that moved here from elsewhere.” We weren’t like The Strokes, and we didn’t have to pretend like we were from the fuckin’ streets of New York. It’s been really interesting how the organic growth that we were actually able to achieve over the years by constant touring has meant that there was never this moment when there was some big jump because of some big hype event or something. At each step of the way we’ve been probably too gun-shy about moving up to the next-sized stage in a given town over the years. [Laughs.] It’s like, “Yeah, okay, we filled up that place last time, but let’s make sure we do it again this time before we go to that next room.” I think that has helped ... I mean, at the risk of using a cliché idea—retaining that connection with the audience. It really has the whole time—at least from my perspective—been not really casual listeners. It’s been an actual growth of an audience who cares.
AVC: In a similar way, there are recent examples of bands that have stayed independent and been able to achieve mainstream success. Do you think this is something that could happen for you, or could become a more common trend?
TL: I used to think that, because that seemed to be the trajectory that we were on, but I don’t see that really happening for myself at this point. I know that sounds kind of dire, but I’m 20-plus years of touring really, really hard. As much as I still love to do it in most ways, I just can’t do it anymore to that same extent. As many people still come see our shows, but I’m selling a fraction of the amount of records I was selling five years ago. It’s just kind of a losing equation any way you lay it out. There are certainly those things that seem to be poking through more, but I would really hesitate before I said it was going to happen for us. [Laughs.] I don’t feel like I have the time or the energy to keep casting out nets like that to see what comes back.
AVC: So the days of nonstop touring are in the past?
TL: Yeah, exactly—and they have been for the last few years.
AVC: How does Matador feel about you scaling back touring? Does the label have any qualms about you not being on the road as much?
TL: No, not at all. Not to be self-aggrandizing here, but I think my version of scaling back is probably at least on par with what’s average for a lot of other bands. [Laughs.] They know that they’ll get some touring out of the records that they put out, and plenty of shows in between tours and stuff. I don’t think they’re particularly worried about that. I think that they know that I’ll do what needs to be done if I am putting out a record.
AVC: You’re on the same label as Fucked Up, a hardcore band that has found some mainstream acceptance. You come from a similar scene. Did you ever think hardcore bands would be this culturally accepted, and do you think it will happen for more extreme acts?
TL: Yeah, sure, I mean, if it wants to. I think that [in] the mainstream world, the idea that anybody at a mainstream record label needs to be afraid of trying to sell something is kind of ridiculous. The cynical view that I have of it is that they can sell anything they want to the American public. If they market it the right way and put the right amount of money behind it, it’ll be sold. It’s more a question of artists making more extreme music wanting to go that route, and meeting somewhere in the middle with the mass media coming to them.
AVC: At the end of October you’re going down to Gainesville, Florida to play The Fest, and your Misfits cover band TV Casualty is playing as well. How important for you is it to just be able to get together with friends and do something fun like that?
TL: I don’t know, you know? I suppose it’s pretty important. In some ways, that’s what the Citizens Arrest thing was about too. It’s not like there was any label doing a big retrospective; we just wanted to play again. And we were able to, so we did. [Laughs.] I guess the ability to just do things like that when you want to is certainly something. I can’t imagine a situation in which I wouldn’t be able to, but I think it would be horrible if I wasn’t able to for some reason.
AVC: What were some of the factors that led to the Citizens Arrest reunion? Did everyone just reconnect?
TL: Yeah, it was. Citizens Arrest proper was only around for three years. For the first year and a half I was in the band, and the second year and a half I wasn’t. Right after that, I did another band with two of the guys from Citizens Arrest called Hell No. That was around for another three years or so. Then it was just one of those things; everybody went their different ways. It had a lot to do with the Rorschach reunion a couple years ago. It was really the first time that 50 of us friends from ABC No Rio in the early ’90s were all in the same place at the same time. It took another year and a half before we started talking about actually playing together again, but it got us back in touch. Being back in touch, we remembered how fun it was to play those songs.
AVC: Do you think places like ABC No Rio still hold the same importance as they did back in ’80s, or has the Internet replaced that in some ways?
TL: Well, first of all, I think that, yes, those places can still exist, and they definitely do. Every now and then when I’m on tour I’m still lucky to encounter them.
As far as the Internet, it’s really tough to say. It’s tough for me to say specifically, because I approach that question from probably a different angle than young people who are using it as a tool to connect in the same way we would gather in person to connect. I imagine that in some ways the Internet has probably killed a certain amount of what was awesome about true discovery in person when you’re young. Having to do some actual work to figure out what these things were all about and find these hidden subcultures and caves of secret knowledge and whatnot. [Laughs.] At the same time, it’s also hard to argue with the idea that there are millions of people who—there are definitely still spaces like that out there. Recently, there was this book called In Every Town; it’s like a primer on all-ages spaces, and that’s actually a great resource to find where these kinds of places still exist. Especially when I do solo tours I can still get to play some of them. As far as the Internet goes, I don’t think there’s any question that it has killed some of the magic of having to seek all this stuff out in person, but at the same time it’s hard to diminish the greatness of universal access to cool shit. [Laughs]
AVC: We’ve talked a lot about your past, but what do you have planned for the future?
TL: I’m writing stuff, and I’ll hopefully have a new record out by this time next year, and we’ll see what happens!