Arts Desk

Ted Leo on The Tyranny of Distance, Ten(ish) Years Later

In May 2001, Lookout! Records released The Tyranny of Distance, the sophomore album by Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Until then, the project had been a solo project by Leo, a D.C. scene veteran and former frontman of mod-punk act Chisel. Leo had just entered his 30s when he began making Tyranny at National Recording Studio in Mount Vernon Square, and the kind of low-grade existentialism that comes with that birthday runs throughout the album. At the same time, it’s a confident, even joyous sounding collection of punk songs that hints at the more eclectic direction Leo’s music would eventually take.Tyranny was a breakthrough for Leo, who then established a full-time backing band that went on to become one of indie rock’s most reliable acts. Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Tyranny, and Ted Leo & The Pharmacists played the record in full at a few shows. On Friday and Sunday, the band returns to D.C. (with a film crew in tow) for a stint at the Black Cat, where it’ll play Tyranny in its entirety for the final time.

Where did you get the idea to do this Tyranny of Distance 10-year anniversary shows?

I don't know if there was any one thing that prompted it. The last year was kind of a convergence of a lot of things happening. Starting in May of last year was the 10th anniversary of the record's release. Every year I try to do a free outdoor show in New York, and this past summer also coincided with this 10th anniversary of the first time we played at South Street Seaport in New York, which is a thing we've done a lot over the last 10 years. It's also the year that Lookout!, the label that released it, once and for all finally shut the entire company down.

So a lot of those things coming together sort of made us think about the idea of playing this album. It really started more out of me just kind of doing a bunch of blog posts about it, about memories I had from the year it was released and whatnot. Through prior e-mails that I got from people and tweets and whatnot, it reinforced for me what a pivotal or important album Tyranny of a Distance was in some people's lives, but also just in the kind of vision of what our career has been like. We've obviously done a lot of albums since then, but Tyranny, I think, as it did for me, it kind of holds the same place that it does for a lot of our listeners and fans.

It was an interesting transition into adulthood without giving up the ideals and spirit of youth. Musically, it was kind of a trudge into what you might very well say was our last punk direction, but in a real kind of affirmative, positive way. Like, "We can make whatever kind of music we want, we can look out our other influences, make the music that we want to make, that moves us, that builds up our lives, think about things that we think about." In that sense, I think that it winds up being like the more important album to our fans as well, even [more] than some of the ones that they listened to more later, that sold more records, because it has this kind of millennial, transitionary feeling to it.

All of that kind of came together to say, "Well, you know, maybe we should do something to mark this occasion." Because we were doing this 10th anniversary South Street Seaport show, that seemed to roll into it. Initially we were just gonna do it that once, it was like, "There's two 10 year anniversaries converging, let's play the record."

So we did, and it was fun. People started wondering if we were gonna tour on it, which we are not gonna do and we were never gonna do, I don't think that's properly style, but we did take the opportunity at a couple of other festivals that we played over the year to do it. And it was done, and we finished touring, the past two-and-a-half-years of touring on our last record, and kind of didn't think about it again until we realized that a couple of us actually have to be in D.C. at the end of April for a friend's birthday. So we're like, "We should play a show." So we contacted the Black Cat about it and they had the 29th open, and then we thought, “Hey, wait a minute, we're not really playing very much this spring at all, other than these April shows, we're playing a couple of festivals at the end of May. We're all gonna be there, this is gonna be the last show in D.C. for at least half a year or something, so maybe this is a good time to sort of put the coda on the 10th anniversary year, just like finish it out in D.C., where it was made.” And then of course, as luck would have it, Brendan Canty, who recorded the record, now has his film company, TrixieFilm, and the idea of having him film the performance of the record that he recorded, it became this whole other level. There's so many lines converging on this point to not do it, so we're doing it.

With Lookout! done, are you going to do some big package with the live DVD and rerelease the original recording, or will this just come out as a DVD in the not-too-distant future?

Um, probably none of the above. I'll tell you this, I'm actually currently in the process of talking to a bunch of different people about administering—cause all the Lookout! records have reverted to me now, so I have total ownership and discretion of what happens with them. My first step is to get them back up on the digital services. I'm talking to a couple different people about figuring out what's going to be the best way for me to do that, there are a lot of options right now, as you know, to do that. So I don't really think there's any big rush, like the world's not beating down my door for reissues of all these Lookout! records, but I will get them up on digital as soon as I can.

What happens with the rest of the stock, I don't really know, I have a lot of leftover Lookout! stock that I have to do something with, and eventually if I feel like it's right I may put together a reissue package, but that's not really a priority for me. I think it would be a little bit cynical for me to do that right now, and I am a lot of things, but I try not to be cynical in my approach to this stuff.

As far as the filming goes, we don't really have any concrete plans for that either. My initial thought is that we may just do a Louie C.K. kind of quick turnaround, just throw it up on the Web for like a $5 download or something once I get it edited, but if when we're done with it it seems like it deserves a full packaged release then we'll think about that as well. But for right now it's just a way to document it with the knowledge that we'll think about what the best thing to do with it is and then eventually, probably do it.

You talk about how Tyranny is this sort of positive-sounding record, and on your blog you mentioned how when you were writing it, it was a time of transition and that the whole album sounds a little bit like an Irish wake. How do these two sides balance out on the album?

Well there's balance in an Irish wake. An Irish wake is all about that balance, it's the very raucous and life-affirming affair in the midst of a funeral for the passing of a friend or a loved one, so it's that same theme. Celebrating life in the face of death. That is the balance.

This was around the time that you were really sort of solidifying your backup band, and you'd been playing a lot of shows solo. What was it like turning a solo project into a full-band affair?

It was actually the tour that we did on Tyranny when it first came out that the band as it is came together. As you mentioned, I'd been playing mostly solo at that point, and in the year or so leading up to making Tyranny I'd started writing songs that were more suited for a band, and I started to miss having a band behind me again.

So I started playing shows and doing small tours, five-day things here or there, on weekends, with a lot of different people. Eventually for the first long two-month thing that we were doing upon the release of Tyranny, the band that is essentially still together with a different bass player. Chris [Wilson], my drummer, and I have been playing together since that tour. James Canty had dropped out of the band for a short period when his own band, French Toast, was a lot more active, but he's also been in the band the majority of the last 10 years. The real difference is that about—where are we at, the summer of 2012? So, it's five years ago now, the bass player, Marty [Key], joined, and our old bass player, Dave [Lerner], who started on that Tyranny tour with us, left.

Tyranny was actually still me as very much like a solo record. There are a number of songs on it where it's still just me playing everything, from drums to vocals to all that. And that was kind of the point of that record. At that point in time the idea of that record for me was I would go into the studio in a place where I would have a lot of close friends who are amazing musicians, and it would be a solo record but that would also be kind of an expression of the community that I was involved in at the time. That's why there's like 20 different people jumping in for different things on the record, and that was cool, that was great. But when it came time to tour on it, it did kind of require a real band. Luckily I've been playing with most of the same people for 10 years, so the bonds we forged on that first trip through the hellacious world of what touring was like back then has remained strong.

Have you ever had a similar studio experience where you just sort of go in and hang out with these people that are more friends than bandmates?

No. Actually, we became so much more of a performing unit pretty quickly once we started touring on Tyranny that not only would it probably not have been fair to not include the touring band at that point, but I considered them my band...I would be writing, I'd be thinking about drums and stuff, thinking about it in terms of "Chris, what he's gonna play?" I write the songs, but we're definitely a band.

You mention the album speaks to this millennial changeover, and you were in a time of transition going from Chisel to eventually Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. And a lot of people like to describe the D.C. punk scene at the time as being in a time of transition. What was it like being in that community at that time?

Chisel broke up in ‘97, and I actually had done so much in the ensuing four years that already seemed like ancient history to me in a lot of ways. I'd been playing solo nonstop. I was in my own band called the Sin Eaters for a little while, I played with Spinanes for a little while. I was just on the road all the time, and I moved up to Brooklyn for that entire four years and actually just moved back to D.C. for about a year encompassing the time that we made that record, Tyranny.

It was really interesting, especially coming back after having been away for four years. Bands had changed, had broken up, a lot of people were still around, but everything seemed kind of exploded. The '90s was a very kind of solid time—people had their projects, there was a lot going on—but it was a time of relative, kind of weird stability within the music scene. Whereas when I came back in the early part of the last decade, that changed completely, in a really interesting way, though...[There] were just a lot of, just kind of projects happening. There was more taking advantage of kind of the last five minutes of like weird little loft spaces and things that you could do down where National Studio was [in what later was widely known as Gold Leaf Studios, which shuttered this year], down by Union Station.

There's no interesting weird loft spaces down there anymore. And nobody was really taking advantage of that kind of stuff in the ‘90s, but right around 2000 there was a lot more. The 18th Street Lounge guys were throwing more parties of DJs and bands together and it was a weird new energy for a little while there, that I think made it very conducive to making a record that had a very open-door studio policy. It felt like kind of capturing the zeitgeist instead of going into the studio very focused. with a set amount of time, a set budget, a set number of songs and just trying to crank ‘em out as quick as you can, which is how most people usually make records because it's the only way you can.

You mention this weird, very experimental time in D.C. back then. Did any of that end up affecting the music that you wrote? A lot of people call Tyranny a punk record, but it's got a pretty diverse range of sounds.

Yeah, if I can say so, I feel like what you just said about it being called a punk record with a very diverse range of sounds, I feel like that's kind of my greatest triumph, completing that. That's what I've always wanted to do, I don't like feeling hamstrung by the constraints of musical purists, though I appreciate purity in music. I want to be able to write what I want to write, and taking the influences that I want to take, and understand them and how they play out in my own music in the way that I want to understand them in my own music.

And yes, I very much do think that vibe in D.C. at the time if not, contributing to it, was at the very least, like I said, was very conducive. Working at National was great—that was Trans Am's studio, and those guys are nothing if not boundary-pushing weirdos when it comes to the idea of punk rock. They hold no sacred cows and appreciate what they appreciate about everything, have no fears without wrangling that into their vision of what they want to do with their music.

So working with Seb [Thompson], the drummer from Trans Am, who played a little bit on the record and also did the engineering with Brendan, and with Brendan of course, who had been in every kind of band, from the straight hardcore of Deadline back in the day to the weird pop stuff that his bands like Brief Weeds and to Rites of Spring, etc., etc. These were my people, people who are very much punk to the core but also loved what they loved and have no problem saying, "Screw you, if I wanna use an acoustic guitar on this I'm gonna use an acoustic guitar on this."

Going beyond that, we also actually share a lot of the same non-hardcore influences. Like, I'm a devote of McCartney's Ram album, I'll go to the grave defending that record against anybody who wants to come at me, and luckily so is Brendan. We understood each other on this level while we were making Tyranny. So, yeah, again, just a lot of those kind of really nice lines converging on that particular place in time.

Talking about loving what you love, the album title comes from Split Enz' "Six Months in a Leaky Boat," which you’ve covered. What about that band and that song in particular do you love?

I don't love everything that Split Enz has ever done, but when they connect with a really sharp, amazing pop song, it usually really connects sharply and deeply with me, and "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" is one of those songs. I just think it's just one of those fantastic—first of all, I'm very nautically oriented as it is, I love the ocean, it holds a fascination for me, and so there's that aspect. But other than that, it's just that song, it's got this kind of great non-cheesy expression of, not even triumph, not even triumphantalism, but just kind of a celebratory embracing of the idea that one must only go forward with life. Like, you may not succeed in everything that's going on that you're shipping off toward, you may not find what you're looking for when you get to port. There's lines from the song—actually when I say them they will sound cheesy—"There's a world to explore/tales to tell back on shore," etc., stuff like that. It's just a great song to remind oneself that one must keep going.

When you first wrote about the Tyranny 10-year show in New York, you mentioned it's not a nostalgic thing, even though these anniversary shows have been all the rage. Was nostalgia, or having to deal with nostalgia...

Here's the thing. I think that there's a difference in my mind at least. We probably would not even have done this if these two anniversary convergences of the Seaport show and the Tyranny thing hadn't happened at the same time. I wasn't even cognizant of the Tyranny anniversary; my booking agent was actually, "Hey, you know, it's been 10 years since we did that first tour?" I was like, "Oh wow, yeah."

It's just not the way we think, and when I said nostalgia, what I mean, in all honesty, is a lame fucking cash grab by being able to charge more money for people who didn't see it the first time around to come attempt to relive some thing that they didn't experience in the first place. That's not what this is about. This is about kind of welcoming everyone who has appreciated this record on the eve of its 10th anniversary and saying thank you, and in the course of the normal thing that we do, most of which have been free the times that we've played the record, acknowledge this ourselves and kind of say thank you.

Along those lines also, we are charging for these shows, we kind of need to because we aren't playing for the rest of the spring and we do all have to pay rent and whatnot. But it was kind of like we have the Friday show also because of how quickly the Sunday show sold out, and that's really nice. We threw this whole idea up as quickly as we did; like, it was just a couple of days from when I first contacted the Black Cat about it. So we had it all lined up, were able to announce it and start selling tickets and whatnot. It was pretty awesome and humbling how quickly it did sell out and that makes me feel good, because it makes me feel like it was the right thing to do, to take it back to D.C. to do the final anniversary shows there. It feels good.

Ted Leo & the Pharmacists perform at 9 p.m. Friday with Mary Christ and The Tender Trill and 8 p.m. Sunday with Noon:30 and Sun Wolf. Both shows are at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW, and both concerts are sold out.

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