Titus Andronicus takes its name from William Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, a work so gratuitous it borders on satire. The band’s latest album, 2015’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy, takes its title from an apocryphal, error-ridden version of that text published in the 17th century (The Most Lamentable Tragedie of Titus Andronicus).
Building your artistic identity around a Shakespeare play — even one of his lesser ones — is an ambitious move. But Titus Andronicus has never been a band that shies away from ambition. For example, the band’s excellent second album, 2010’s The Monitor, is a concept album that draws loose parallels between the American Civil War and frontman Patrick Stickles’ childhood in New Jersey. Or take The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the band’s fourth LP, a 90-minute rock opera that examines Stickles’ ongoing struggle with manic depression through a variety of high-concept lenses, including callbacks to earlier entries in the band’s discography and several dream sequences focused on past-life regressions.
It’s heady, challenging stuff, but it skirts pretentiousness through sheer energy; songs like the blistering single “Dimed Out” are barroom-ready screamalongs. It’s music, Stickles says, designed for multiple approaches, lending itself equally to raucous parties or furrowed-brow listening sessions.
Weld: As a rock opera, The Most Lamentable Tragedy ties its songs together with an overarching narrative. The songs don’t have that context at your live show. Does that make it more difficult for the songs to connect?
Patrick Stickles: I don’t think it’s too difficult because from the beginning of the whole rock opera project, one of my goals was always to make sure that the material could function on a couple of levels. If you wanted to invest the time to take it in in all its glory, then hopefully the component pieces would add up to something that was greater than the sum of their parts, so to speak, for people that choose to make that kind of investment, which I of course would like to encourage. But at the same time, each song has to have a certain ability to stand on its own. Even though the record is a long and impenetrable piece, I think that the individual songs are fairly concise and direct compared to a lot of other sorts of songs that we’ve done in the past.
This is because making records is an important part of the job and everything, but probably a bigger part of the job is getting out there and getting up on stage and entertaining the kids. We’re a rock band, so entertaining the kids and getting them dancing, all that stuff is really the most important part of the live concert setting. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have other ambitions or other things that we would like to artistically achieve, but those things should ideally not come at the expense of the engaging, visceral party experience of the concert.
[But] even though they’re all part of one cohesive story, the themes that are discussed in those songs aren’t too far removed from the sorts of things that we talked about on our first three records. It wasn’t a big left turn in terms of the themes that we were discussing. It’s just the framework in which they were presented. I think it’s just a continuation of the preexisting body of work, building on the things that came before.
Weld: Rock operas are typically considered to be a format associated with classic rock, but recently, albums like F****d Up’s David Comes to Life—
Stickles: A very important album.
Weld: And one thing that makes it particularly notable is that it brought the rock opera format into the realm of hardcore punk, which is kind of the space in which The Most Lamentable Tragedy resides as well.
Stickles: A rock album or a rock song, or like any piece of art, really, is just a vessel to communicate your ideas, right? The things I wanted to say in this rock opera could have been in a book or a movie or a painting or anything else. But I have to work in the rock and roll field. But through the freedom that the punk idiom offers, I see that a record can be anything that you want it to be.
The first generation of punks were very contrary and reactive to the dominant culture of their time. That meant records and songs that were very short and to the point, that weren’t very gussied up or anything. But in the time that we live in now, you can see that punk isn’t necessarily about short songs or short albums or refraining from soloing or anything like that. It’s just about knowing that you’re free to follow your own internal compass and make the decisions that you want to make based on what your idea is of what’s good, rather than some idea of what’s good that’s been handed down to you by some exterior authority. From there, I knew that there were certain things that I wanted to communicate and just followed it from there.
Weld: It’s that kind of freedom, I’m assuming, that allowed you to push the boundaries of the studio album format with a five-act, 90-minute record.
Stickles: Well, those boundaries are pretty elastic. If you look at the history of music, there’s plenty of albums that are a lot longer than The Most Lamentable Tragedy is… But it does seem to me that in modern times, people don’t seem to have the attention span that they did in the days of Use Your Illusion or The Wall or whatever. People jump all around from one diversion to another. Or they might use music as just background or sonic wallpaper while they’re doing the dishes or frying an egg or something. That’s all fine, but this record was an attempt to make a piece of art that spit in the face of those sorts of tendencies.
We tried to make that plain from the outset, before you even listened to it, that it would not be for the faint of heart. If you were going to get into it, you had to get into it all the way. You can’t just put it on as background music and expect to get everything out of it. I wanted people to really sit down and take the whole thing in as one piece, hopefully keeping the lyric sheet close at hand while they’re doing so. Maybe that’s asking a lot, but it seems to me that if you don’t ask for those things, maybe people aren’t going to give them to you.
My feeling is that if you try to make something that’s going to appeal to everybody, either you’ll horribly fail. Or, even if you do appeal to everybody, a lot of the time, that appeal with be fleeting. You could be the hot thing for a week and then be forgotten in the next. But it’s my hope that, if you put out something that’s a little more uncompromising and really comes from the heart — it really does what it wants to do and doesn’t care too much about what everybody in the world thinks — then the people who are open to receiving it and predisposed to getting into it will hopefully like it all the more for that reason and thusly be inclined to give the artist an outsized show of support. We’re not trying to be the cool thing for everybody; we’re trying to be the special and important thing for a few people that really need it.
Weld: You’ve also provided a lot of extra material — extensive annotations to your lyrics on the website Genius, for instance — for people who are really wanting to dive in much further into the album’s meaning. That’s a lot more self-explication than most artists usually provide.
Stickles: All that stuff, all that explication and all those explanations — people can really take it or leave it. If somebody wants to just pick their three favorite songs and put it in their little online playlist and bop along to them, that’s their business, and I’m happy to have them bopping along. But it doesn’t seem to me like it would hurt those people or interfere with anybody’s enjoyment of it if they had the option and know what I meant when we were doing all this stuff. I’m not too big on that [idea] that art has to necessarily be some mystical thing that could be about anything in the world depending on your perspective of it.
Obviously, once you put a piece of art into the hands of the listener, it’s their prerogative how they want to take it and what it means to them. You can’t really exert too much control over that. But I think that there might be an opportunity to get to get something more out of it if you have a greater understanding of the intentions behind it. I guess you could say that that’s a preemptive apology for our artistic failings, that it’s just uniquely obvious from the outset, but I think it’s okay if a piece of art takes a little more time and attention to give everything that it has to give.
Like, I’m a big fan of DVD commentary tracks. Back in school, we read James Joyce’s Ulysses and it seemed quite fun to me to sit down with it and with an equally large book of annotations next to it and try and decipher it. That’s a hearty meal right there. It’s not so bad if you don’t get everything out of a piece of art in the 45 minutes or whatever it takes to listen to it.
Weld: One thing about this album that’s particularly striking is how you use past-life regression as a device to explore manic depression. What inspired that?
Stickles: Generally, people that struggle with a kind of mental health issue, have some precedent for that in their family histories. If you go and talk to a psychiatrist, that’s usually the first thing that they’ll ask. But that information is not always so accessible to the sufferer because those sorts of things are not usually people’s favorite things to talk about. A lot of times, that stuff gets swept under the rug because it doesn’t fit into people’s general idea of a happy life.
But even those things get buried to a certain degree, they’re not on the surface, they’re not regularly or openly discussed, they continue to do their work beneath the surface. The past is never really gone. It lives within us, and with a lot of these mental health issues, they live in our very DNA. Often, we will repeat the histories of our ancestors in our own lives. That was basically what I was trying to get at with the whole past life dream sequence thing.
With so much of the album, it’s just saying that these are not isolated incidents. The people that deal with these issues are not aberrations or anomalies. They’re part of a long continuum. The more that we accept that and acknowledge it, the easier it will be for people in the future to deal with these issues.
Weld: This album really serves as the culmination of your discography to date; there are plenty of callbacks to earlier songs, and you wrap up the “No Future” series of tracks that started with 2008’s The Airing of Grievances. What does that mean for the future of Titus Andronicus?
Stickles: I would like to continue, and as long as we have the support of the people to make that happen, I think we will in some capacity. I’m not really too interested in going out and getting another job. But it’s just the way it is. The artist gets to keep working as long as the various patrons decide that they’re allowed to. The artist is an elected official that way. The audience is our constituency. As long as we continue to satisfy their needs and they continue to cast their vote with the purchase of the record or a concert ticket or a T-shirt, we’ll keep going.
But the last record was an attempt to tie up a lot of things, maybe, and build a little bit of a wall, you might say. It would be impossible or at least extremely foolish to turn around now and for me to say, well, now that we’ve done this triple LP, the only logical next step is to do a quintuple LP or something like that, or do something that’s more overblown and ambitious and sprawling, another bigger, better version of the thing that’s come before. That probably would be quite boring for everybody.
So even if I’m not exactly sure what shape the next thing is going to take, I do know for sure that it can’t just be some expansion of what has happened previously. It’s got to move in some kind of other direction, away from bigger and louder and more boisterous. So we’ll see. But I can promise you it won’t be that. There will be no three-hour anything next time.
Titus Andronicus perform at Saturn on Saturday, September 17. A Giant Dog opens. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.