“It Certainly Can’t Continue at the Pace It’s Going”: An Existential Q&A with Ted Leo
Ted Leo never stops moving. Years of what seems like endless touring have proved he's one of the hardest-working forces in the business. On stage and in the studio, his songs are catchy as hell, urgent as ever, and often fraught with political angst—The Brutalist Bricks, his most recent release, only furthers his fiercely maintained legacy. Leo and his band the Pharmacists have earned every dime they've made through buckets of sweat and mountains of sincerity. Leo took some time to talk to about his songcraft, his love of D.C., and his dearly beloved Twitter account.
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists perform at the 9:30 Club tomorrow with Screaming Females and Obits.
Washington City Paper: How's the tour?
Ted Leo: Good. We're in Carrboro tonight, near [Chapel Hill, NC].
WCP: You've been touring pretty much nonstop now for how long?
TL: I've been in bands for well over 20 years, but really only been touring full-time since the mid-'90s.
WCP: Does it wear on you?
TL: Yeah, all the time. I'm always worn out these days.
WCP: Will the rocking ever stop?
TL: That's one of those existential questions that I almost literally struggle with on a daily basis. It certainly can't continue at the pace it's going for much longer, realistically.
WCP: I imagine you'll keep everyone posted via Twitter.
TL: I'm not sure that'd be the appropriate format for that, but yeah, I'm sure I'd use Twitter in some way for any sort of grand announcement I would make.
WCP: Has Twitter changed things or is it just a novelty?
TL: I would put it at more than a novelty, but I'd say no, it hasn't affected anything in my career. I think it's a way to continue the conversation you would be having through other formats with people. I don't use any of the other social media things these days like MySpace or Facebook. Twitter is just fun for me and it's another layer of contact I can have.
WCP: Do you think spreading your love of Jersey Shore helps people to understand you more as a whole?
TL: Well, I have mixed feelings about Jersey Shore, and I think that only accounts for only about 1 percent of my tweets.
WCP: Let's talk about your new record. Did you have any game plan when you went in to record it, or is this just the newest batch of songs?
TL: Yeah, I wanted to come out with a record. I didn't just go into the studio to throw ideas around and see what sticks, I definitely went in to make a record, but I didn't have an actual plan as far as what would happen to that record at the time.
WCP: Do you approach things differently when the band is a 4-piece as opposed to a 3-piece?
TL: Yeah, just simply because I won't be playing every guitar part. It's a lot less work for me.
WCP: You've always blended elements of pop and punk and hardcore in your songs. Do you intentionally balance all of that, or does it just come out how it comes out?
TL: Generally, I'd say it comes out how it comes out. However, that's not to say there's no thought or craft that goes into both individual songs and the larger context of the record. If I have an initial concept for something and the song strays from it in one way or another and it works for me, I'll let it happen that way. If I have more allegiance to my initial concept, I might try and wrangle it back though. Specifically, a song like "One Polaroid A Day." When we play it live, it's pretty different than it is on the record. It was already tending that way before we made the record, but I very much wanted the definitive version of it to be the way it is on the record. I wanted to sing it an octave down. Anything we do live tends to lean toward its punkier elements, but I consciously wanted that to not happen with that song. The four of us playing anything in a room will tend toward punk, so I had to make a conscious effort to push for a more soulful sound.
WCP: What about the record as a whole?
TL: In that case, definitely not. The only thing I would say is as far as production value, I knew I wanted to work with Phil [Palazzolo] who we made the record with. We had been having conversations earlier in the summer and it seemed like he'd be able to get me to the place I wanted to go with it. It's like a classic '70s record without sounding retro. It's got that analog sound without sounding like it's purposely retro.
WCP: How do you approach the political side fo your songwriting—is that something you consciously incorporate or does it just bleed in naturally?
TL: That fused to my whole aesthetic at the beginning of any song. I have a hard time approaching personal subjects without looking at them in the context of larger issues and vice-versa. I have a hard time looking at issues of policy without putting them into the context of how they affect actual people. It's through stories and personal experience that I wind up exploring politics. While certainly there are times that I sit down and think I want to write about something specific, it's also that I usually write about what's on my mind, and that's on my mind.
WCP: Does that at all stem from being part of a D.C. band like Chisel?
TL: No, it's just who I am. It just comes from growing up caring about those things and being involved in the punk world in general, rather than from any specific band or time.
WCP: You're going to be playing 9:30 Club this week, which will mark the millionth or so time you've rocked the nation's capitol. You're technically a Jersey kid, but do you feel like part of the DC.. scene too?
TL: Without a doubt. I spent a lot of the formative years of my early adult life there, and some of the closest people in my life are D.C. people who have moved or who are still in D.C. James [Canty] who's in the band now is obviously a D.C. guy, and it remains a home of mine.