Since debuting in 2008, New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus has built up a sterling reputation as a live band, bringing their gloriously shambolic, Springsteen-tinge take on punk rock to mid-sized theaters and tiny DIY collectives throughout the nation. Their latest album, “The Monitor,” which mixes up extended allusions to the Civil War with decidedly personal stories about being young and angry in modern Jersey. The band’s newer songs average about seven minutes in length, but never get boring. Now, having wrapped up their North American “Monitour,” the five piece is coming to Eclectic on Friday, November 12. We called up frontman Patrick Stickles for a quick chat that touched on hip hop, misconceptions about New Jersey, and the American presidency.
The Argus: So you’ve just wrapped up a few big national tours. How did that go?
Patrick Stickles: It’s been great fun. There’s been a lot of good times and a lot of nice people and a lot of adventure. It’s been a pretty great year for our organization.
A: Did you learn anything about America?
PS: Maybe not too much that was new, per se. But we like to be out there, gathering more data.
A: Your last album, “The Monitor,” has been described as a concept album about the Civil War. Is that a fair characterization?
PS: Yeah, that’s pretty fair.
A: It’s a pretty brilliant idea. I’m curious how you got the idea to make a rock and roll album about American history?
PS: Well, I was really inspired by the film The Civil War, by the documentarian Ken Burns. I was watching that movie just by chance and got really interested in that period of history, and saw some parallels between those times and our modern times that were worth exploring. And thusly was our album born.
A: Is that how you got the idea for the spoken-word element, like all the letters and speeches that get read between songs?
PS: Yeah, pretty much. It’s also sort of an homage to some of our favorite hip-hop artists, the Wu-Tang Clang for example. The kung-fu movie dialogue on their records kind of gave us the idea that the spoken-word interludes would be a good way to set the scene.
A: I love that Lincoln speech at the beginning of the album, with the quote “we must live forever or die by suicide.” Do you think Lincoln was our first punk president?
PS: Maybe. There were certainly some things about his character that were pretty punk. He was a great guy, a great man, a giant of history, but he was also very fallible and struggled with human weakness, especially with his depression, his “blue devils,” like he used to call them, so that’s pretty punk. But I don’t know—the earlier ones might have been pretty punk too.
A: Like who, for example?
PS: I feel kind of like a presidents of the United States of America policeman out here, trying to look through the first 15 and see who might be punker. I don’t know; none of them look that punk, they all look like powdered wig type cats.
A: Maybe Andrew Jackson—he dueled a lot.
PS: I don’t know, I don’t really like that guy too much. I don’t want to say anything nice about him. He was more like America’s first Hitler.
A: Yeah, he didn’t treat the Cherokee too well.
PS: No he didn’t. Now they’ve got that new musical about him, Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. Maybe one of the angles for your article should be that if we never made our rock opera about the Civil War, nobody would have ever thought to make an Andrew Jackson musical.
A: So shifting gears a little bit, Titus Andronicus is always strongly identified as a New Jersey band, and that also seems true of other bands from New Jersey, from superstars like Springsteen down to pretty under the radar bands like Real Estate or the Screaming Females, they’re always identified as being from New Jersey. What is it about the Garden State that defines people so strongly?
PS: I would say that New Jersey’s great gift to its residents is a feeling that you’ve got a lot to prove. People look at New Jersey and think that it’s pretty much a toilet, that it’s the armpit of America, a garbage dump, a horrible, smelly place. People from New Jersey maybe feel like they’ve already been written off by the world at large, so they have that underdog spirit, and they go out and work harder than anyone else, and that might not happen for a band from New York.
A: How do you think that New Jersey gets that reputation? A lot of it’s a really nice place.
PS: Well, I think there are a lot of factors. We’re between two big cities, New York and Philadelphia, and people think that we’re just parasites on them. But the truth is, they couldn’t survive without New Jersey. Actually, they should be rezoned to be in New Jersey: both those cities have abandoned their own states and hooked on to New Jersey. But another thing that’s spoiled our reputation is that a lot of people spend most of their time in New Jersey on the Turnpike, which is unfair because the parts on that highway are actually pretty gross and they do actually smell bad. But that’s not the whole story. The other thing is the media image from things like Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of New Jersey. Those shows are all part of the great conspiracy against New Jersey.
A: So you and your brother musicians have to resist that?
PS: Yeah, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. For me it feels good to have some civic pride.
A: I agree. I think New Jersey might be our most underrated state.
PS: Well, thank you. Next time I see someone from New Jersey, I’ll tell them that.
A: Yeah, I’m from Arizona, so I have to believe in sticking up for your state despite it all.
PS: Well, your state needs someone to stick up for it, but it has also got a lot of charm. We’ve had a lot of fun with the great musical punks there. There was a memorable concert there, largely for the big pillow fight that broke out during the show. One moment the kids were just happily watching the band, and the next moment all the cushions in the room were flying anywhere. That’s just one of the great things that can happen when you open your heart to that great state of Arizona.
A: Okay, for readers who might be on the fence about coming to your sure-to-be excellent show, what can you tell us to expect from the Titus Andronicus live experience?
PS: Well, I would encourage anyone to come to the show with no expectations—then it’s gonna be pure positive. But that’s not really a very good answer. I would say to turn out and see five people trying their best at having a fun evening. And hopefully the kids will find an inclusive environment in which to rock out, or express themselves in any way they want, and just watch quietly if they want. I hope that people come with open minds and open hearts, and we will greet them with open arms.