On the road with American punk rock band Titus Andronicus
Patrick Stickles fought depression throughout his life, nearly committed suicide in 2012, and didn’t come out the other side to watch a Titus Andronicus show turn “pro-slavery.” But in Athens, on the rooftop of the Georgia Theatre around 1 a.m. on a Thursday morning, in the middle of the song “A More Perfect Union,” he looked out from the two-foot high stage and saw the stars and bars of the Confederate flag being waved in his face.
Whether an attempt at tone-deaf irony or something a bit nastier, Stickles knew his show had taken a nasty turn. “This is a pro-freedom, pro-Union song,” said Stickles, of the epic opening track to 2010’s The Monitor, a concept album spun around themes of the American Civil War. “I’m singing and then all these miniature flags start waving in my face and I got so mad I was ready to murder someone.”
Seething, he finished the song, stopped the show, and lectured the audience. “I hear what these southern people say: ‘It’s heritage not hate. We’ve got our own culture.’ Well, let me tell you something, that culture was founded around putting the black man in chains, period. And that attitude is why people were slaves for centuries. When you hold up that flag, that’s what you’re saying.”
Past sins and the racial guilt of the land may always haunt the southern United States, but for this boy from Glen Rock, New Jersey, historical ambiguity wasn’t an option. Stickles delivered a monologue on the origins of the Civil War in the heart of Dixie. The crowd embraced the message and seemed to rally behind him. For Titus Andronicus, punk rock bleeds with patriotism.
“That’s my purpose. I take the negativity, and the bad stuff in the universe and I perform alchemy on it and I turn it into positivity and love,” said Stickles. “I do it with my depression and I turn it into mania. We’re trying to build that at a Titus show. We take poison and we turn it into medicine.”
From their beginnings back in 2005, principled theatrics have beat at the heart of this merry-band of pranksters operating under the moniker of Titus Andronicus (or simply Titus, for their affectionate fans). Their first album, 2008’s An Airing of Grievances, was driven by Stickles’ straining rasp. The album incorporated monologues from Camus and the band’s Shakespearean namesake and was a brooding, pulsing take on growing up frustrated in New Jersey.
2010’s The Monitor was the breakthrough. The album was lush and layered, packed with references and punk rock anthems. The tour tried to turn each church hall or club floor into something grandiose. The American flag would come out, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” would soar at a crescendo in the set, and the moshers in the pits received an American history lesson, delivered over screaming guitars. The Monitor album seemed spawned from an alternate history where Springsteen grew a beard and embraced the punk gospel of joyful nihilism.
But as Titus topped bills, Stickles was about to hit the bottom. The band’s rapid ascent left him worn out and on the verge of suicide. When it came time to record the band’s third LP, Local Business, Stickles struggled just to make it through the year. He survived. Shaved his beard, fell in love, quit drinking and found a new passion for rock music.
The recent show in Athens served as a reminder of the cultural differences present even traveling in America. Stickles and Titus had been jerked around by a few members of staff at the Georgia Theatre before the flag incident. He came to our conversation on Thursday, the very next day, fired up about the incident, ready to talk about the story of his recovery, confronting the lingering traces of racism on tour, classism in indie rock, the poison of a culture driven by irony, and why he’s more excited than ever about living.
So this is what happens in a civilized country.
And not just in a civilized country, but in the so-called liberal oasis of the South. People talk about Athens like it’s the southern Portland. Liberal? Maybe, in some sort of ironic hipster way. For starters, you need to understand that Titus Andronicus plays for almost two hours these days. And they wanted put us on-stage at 12:45 am!
That’s indicative of the rampant classism that exists in the indie rock community. The show got out at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. People have jobs, they have children and they deserve the release and the catharsis of a rock and roll concert more than anybody. They need it, but they can’t afford to have it when it is set up like this.
We’ve all been in that position.
It’s turning indie rock into a luxury placing of the upper class, the trust fund kids. It says the Athens scene isn’t for the working person. It’s for the college student who doesn’t give a fuck about missing his 9 a.m. class because he isn’t going to use his degree anyway. I’m not interested in that. We’re interested in making music for people with real lives, who care about things and are willing to work hard and be productive members of society.
How did the episode with the flags end?
At the end of the show, we’re doing “I Love Rock & Roll” by Joan Jett then our boys the So So Glos come out and they start, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” And when my boy Alex gets on-stage he’s like, “get the lighter, let’s burn this shit.” And I was like, “I’m way ahead of you dude.” So we take out our lighters and we’re melting them (I’m in my athletic shorts by this point, because I think of myself as the modern day Henry Rollins). And I’m taking the flag and chewing it and spitting it out. I’ve got my cigarette in my mouth and I’m burning holes, trying to think of anything I can do to disrespect the flag. All the people who had been waving flags, because they thought we’d be into it or were ironic, they looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. I don’t know if I want to go back to Athens for awhile.
Tell me about cynicism and the modern hipster. Everything is ironic.
Like Odd Future. People that turn caring into a crime. The only acceptable way to be happy about something is when you’re laughing at something that sucks? I can’t stand that. Back in high school, I’d get in the car with kids who had mix CDs full of stuff they could laugh at. They’d listen to “Final Countdown” by Europe ten times in a row. That was their relationship with music. I don’t want to be that guy. That sucks. What are you alive for if you hate everything so much that all you can do is laugh at it?
Are people scared to care, to say what they actually believe?
They are totally chicken shit about it. They’ve been invalidated their whole life by this morally bankrupt society that tells them there is nothing to care about, nothing to dream about, nothing to aspire towards. Fall in line, get into the grinder. All they taught you at school was to be a good worker, like Billy Bragg said. I want something better than that for myself, for the band and for the kids at the show.
What do you want the kids to believe?
I want them to believe in themselves. We exist in the void. We are way, way deep in the abyss and the big, mean, meaningless universe and nothing matters. But, guess what? In the horror and black emptiness of that abyss, what can find the freedom to care. When nothing means everything, everything means everything, if you make the choice it does. That’s all I’m trying to impart to the kids, that’s what saved my life, saved me from being a Catholic from the age of 16.
You shaved the beard, stopped drinking.
And I did ten pushups in the gas station before I called you!
So, what happened?
Titus Andronicus achieved a previously unimagined level of success. We went around the world and had experiences people at our level of ability shouldn’t have. I’m a type-2 manic depressive. Feeling high off these achievements put me in a place where I was an extreme maniac for six months and basically destroyed my life. At a certain point, I hit a wall and ran out of serotonin and couldn’t get out of bed for six months. This is when we were supposed to be making Local Business.
Every day we worked on Local Business and every day we did the tour to support it, I couldn’t wait for the process to be over and I could fulfill my commitment to the other guys so I could leave rock and roll behind and take my life.
That was your plan?
That was my plan for most of 2012. I didn’t tell anybody about it, because I couldn’t stand the thought of putting out the album and reading the reviews that would say “Stickles was in a deep depression in the making of this record and it shows.”
How did you get out?
A couple of things. I found someone I could give my love to, and she could give love in return. I found a place to live autonomously. I leaned on support systems I had, the guys in Titus, the people at Shea Stadium, my family. This stuff is cyclical, the only reason I got through it was by knowing the feelings I was experiencing were totally temporary. However bad a feeling is, it doesn’t last forever and when you accept that, you can endure the hard times more easily. You appreciate how precious the good things are. I got out of it and I’m ready to make record number four. I’ve got five songs almost done.
It’s good to hear you’re not in that place anymore. No one wants to wake up and hear that Patrick Stickles is gone.
I was positive that even if I wasn’t going to kill myself — which I thought about every morning of every single day of 2012 — I was absolutely positive that I was going to quit rock and roll and there wasn’t going to be another rock and roll tour. Happily I didn’t pull the trigger before I got better. I’m taking care of myself now and I really want to live. I’m about to cry. I wanted to die and now I’m going to have the best life. I thought this was a travel magazine (laughing), when are we going to talk about travel?
What has Titus taken from or given to the world?
We’ve been around the world, played 46 states, and we’re planning a trip to Alaska. Everywhere you go, you find kids who are living for this shit. You can find a scene in any town in America or in the world. One of the best shows we played was in a town called Evereux in France. We showed up at this thing that was the YMCA and ended up playing an hour and a half and did two encores and we knew like ten songs. We had to bust out Weezer covers. Wherever you go, kids are hungry for relief.
One of the best things about a touring band is just going around America and looking out the window. Me and my girl drove from Atlanta to Nashville and it was heaven. All the green and the rolling hills and it broke your heart.
Any last thoughts on Athens?
The truth is I hate to show any of our fans disrespect because without them, we are nothing. But I need a certain amount of respect. Fugazi said that the most powerful weapon they held was the power to say “no,” and I’m not scared to say “no”
Nathan Martin, formerly a reporter in Mississippi and an editor at the Washington Post Express, cracked a rib at his last Titus show and knows his wife cringes each time he puts The Monitor on the record player.