In Under The Influence, The A.V. Club asks a musician to pair three of their songs with a non-musical influence.
Ted Leo’s one of the hardest-working people in hardcore: His music career spans about three decades, including his work with Citizens Arrest, Chisel, and of course, The Pharmacists. In 2013, he teamed up with Aimee Mann to form the impossibly charming duo The Both—seriously, the stage banter is worth the price of admission for live shows—whose eponymous debut perfectly blends his energy with Mann’s restraint, pairing optimism with world-weariness.
The frontman’s known for his erudite lyrics and impassioned wailing—on the guitar and mic—as well as the DIY ethos that’s common among punk artists. Throughout the formation and reunions of these bands, Leo has kept on touring and writing, though he’s finally allowing himself to enjoy some perks while on the road. The A.V. Club talked to Leo about what fuels that dedication and why even dissenting punk musicians need a vacation.
Song: “Timorous Me,” The Tyranny Of Distance (2001)
Influence: Accepting death and loss
The A.V. Club: We might as well go chronologically, and start with “Timorous Me.” That was off the first full album but the second one overall, right?
Ted Leo: Well, the album I did before that is a full-length album, but it was solo. And then I did an EP with the band and then The Tyranny Of Distance. Yes.
AVC: What was going on outside of the band and studio at the time?
TL: Well, “Timorous Me” specifically is about death and loss. Attempting to not attempt too hard to over-ascribe meaning to things and yet to understand and acknowledge, to celebrate the way we all careen around in our lives, bumping into each other and bouncing off of each other. A couple of the people I mention in the song are people that I didn’t actually really know that well or only knew in passing interactions. It’s almost weirder sometimes when you don’t have a full life experience with someone’s ups and downs, knowing what they’ve been through. Sometimes a loss that just comes out of left field rings in a very weird way when you have actually sort of relied on this small moment with this or that person, as a moment that actually has defined something for you in your life. What was actually going on in The Tyranny Of Distance, I was… hang on a second… what year was it? [Laughs.]
TL: Yeah, I think it came out in 2001, so I was writing it in 2000, and I was turning 30, and I had two things come up where people that I’d known—one person that I’d known as a child but didn’t really know anymore had died. And a person who I had known had died, who I had only the briefest encounter with but we had mutual friends, had died. I had kind of been frustrated with my life in music and the very idea of being an artist and being a musician. I was trying to figure out how I wanted to continue, if I wanted to continue to do this, and hearing a little bit about how what I had done up to that point had affected this one person who had in a very random, weird accident died.
It was one of those crystallizing moments where you realize how some of these random interactions that I’ve been talking about can spin off into larger things for one or anybody involved. And then you’re faced with a whole host of questions, as you always are, when confronting a loss: “Was I there enough for this person? Even this person that I only just met? Should I have pursued this further?” And I guess, ultimately, the meditation of the song is that you can’t really have an answer for that, so you just have to sit with it. And you just have to try and eventually come around to understanding and accepting the positive things that may continue to flow from these brief interactions.
Song: “La Costa Brava,” Living With The Living (2007)
Influence: Balancing politics with hope
AVC: When we last spoke with you—God, almost 10 years ago—you talked about “La Costa Brava” and mentioned how you need to take time for yourself. There’s the need to write those kinds of protest songs, but then you need to recharge in between.
TL: Yeah, that’s something that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case with everybody. Some people never need to let up at all. The early 2000s for me were a very emotional time, politically. I’d been through Reagan and been through first Bush and Clinton, and it’s not like I had an easy time through those years. But I just thought it was particularly rough. I have to say the World Trade Center attack was very weird for me. The events that followed were worse. It was a really long swath of time.
By the time the second Bush presidency had gotten under way, I was definitely feeling it. I think I had already started writing about that on Shake The Sheets. The song “Shake The Sheets” itself is about burning out and it’s a self-pep talk, essentially. To go to the nonmusical side of this, I had my own band, which was a really solid unit at that point, and everybody was feeling it. I remember having this conversation with Chris [Wilson], who is still our drummer, and saying, “I, as a friend, a person that plays music with you, I need you around, in my life, functioning. I know it’s going to be a couple hundred dollars less in our pockets at the end of this. But I think we should get a hotel room. I would like to know that you got a good night’s sleep. And myself as well.”
A little bit later we got invited to play this festival in Spain, in this town called St. Feliu, that I mention in the song, and it was a hardcore festival. And I didn’t really know going into it how bad I really needed what turned out to be, like, the greatest vacation I’d ever had in my life. But finding ourselves in this amazingly picturesque little seaside town in Catalonia in Spain and amid this community that wasn’t a big festival like Lollapalooza or Coachella or anything like that… It was so recharging in the way that being on the road and hammering these sometimes dark thoughts out, these political songs you’re singing every night, it brought a lightness and hope. There’s a reason that one wants to go through these struggles, because one has a glimpse of what a calmer, friendlier, peaceful place can look like.
AVC: Is there a fundamental misunderstanding about what fuels that kind of work? Because the rest in between those beats is just as important as the outrage.
TL: Well, for me, I do feel like at the end of anger I have to have something that grounds it. But that’s just me. I’m driven to write about it. I’m sure that for everybody, honestly—everybody goes through phases. For some people, maybe they just don’t write about that side of things. Maybe they just want to write about the anger. And oftentimes, I just want to listen to those songs. [Laughs.] But also in that mixtape, I appreciate a love song.
Song: “One Polaroid A Day,” The Brutalist Bricks (2010)
Influence: The illusion of control
TL: That song is sort of about non-attachment, but it’s also kind of an open-ended question about our culture of documentation. Everything from what I think some rightfully complain about but also should probably complain a little less about. You know, constant cellphones at shows and everything being overly documented sometimes.
For a while when I was in this band Chisel in the ’90s, and when I started playing solo in the ’90s, I did a little experiment with myself where I’d take one Polaroid a day when I was on tour. I was trying to write more and it was a way to not be always looking around like, “Take a picture there. And there. And of that.” I had this idea that if I sort of anchored a day in an image I might be able to remember it, if not better, in a way that didn’t rely so much on these pictures. If I saw something earlier in the day, I’d take a picture of it, but I couldn’t take any more photos for the rest of the day. And if I hadn’t taken any photos, at the end of the day I had to find something to take a picture of. And I used to love Polaroid, but obviously the film is very expensive, so it was easy doing one a day.
It became a cool discipline for me. It is interesting the way that my own memories organize in a cloud around this one locus of an image as opposed to when you scroll through your photos on your phone these days and you see 45 versions of the same thing. I have almost a better memory of some of those stretches of time with the more throwaway documentation that happens now. Does that make sense?
AVC: It does. It’s like a mnemonic device. It’s an easy way to jump back to the past, to recall so much based on so little. It’s like on TV, when cops are trying to break down all the data that’s been encrypted or embedded in an image.
TL: Yes. It’s also detective work.
AVC: Did you ever find yourself looking back on a Polaroid and had no idea what happened that day based on that picture, or thought, “That was not the best way to sum up that day”?
TL: I think there are probably one or two pieces of graffiti here and there that look similar enough to each other where I’d say, “Is this Atlanta or Allentown, Pennsylvania?” But most of the time I can remember. It does work pretty well for me. Though there are also times when I would have taken a picture in the morning and seen something later in the day and gone, “Goddamn it… oh well.”
AVC: That’d be my biggest fear with doing something like that. I would never assume one of the first things I saw that day would sum up the day. But it’s an interesting gamble.
TL: Exactly. It’s cool to commit to a discipline like that, you know?
AVC: And how long did you do that for?
TL: Off and on for a couple years. I mean, not every day of my life.
AVC: They stopped making Polaroid film for a while anyway. They made some new version, but you couldn’t have kept up with it if you wanted. As far as the documentation culture of today, it’s not by any means a new thing or a new problem. It’s probably gotten worse, though. We’re trying to commit things to memory with photos and videos that we’re not really going to look over or rewatch.
TL: Yeah, I think it’s gotten worse and better. So in 2008, I started to see people not looking at where they were going because they were taking a selfie. By that point in time, I hadn’t been doing that Polaroid thing in years, and it just reminded me about the Polaroid experiment. I actually enjoy Instagram. I enjoy seeing what people who I have some connection to are doing around the globe. I’m even old-school Instagram. I’m here for your “What did you have to eat today?” I’m fine with that.
AVC: There’s a line in the song, “You want to control everything,” which reminded me of the way we present ourselves online. There are all these studies released about how nobody is as happy as they pretend to be online. Everybody is doing their own PR work and curation. Where were you going with it?
TL: I think that is definitely adjacent to where I was going with it. What I was thinking about was controlling narratives and certainly, as I mentioned before, in terms of how that was working in the media at the time with what was going on in that election year and etc., but also on a personal level.
When I first began the song, it was more about an idea of non-attachments. I think that line comes a little more out of that aspect of the song. The obsessive documentation is itself adjacent to hyper-consumption in our society. The desire to just have everything all the time and adjacent to that is—it might be a little hokey but—a certain loss of identity that then only gets sort of found or ascribed to these moments that are documented. If so much of your experience is devoted to the thought of documentation, you’re already sort of spinning out this narrative from this moment that you are attempting to control instead of just experiencing it. Yes, it’s very zen-dipity. I apologize.