From Bruce’s “Born to Run” to My Chemical Romance’s “I’m Not OK,” has any one state produced more restless, angst-filled tales of suburban kids yearning to break free than New Jersey? Maybe because it is, after all, one mega-suburb, Jersey has been responsible for so many desperate paeans to dead-end lives that perhaps the Garden State ought to be redubbed the Troubled State. Now, into that tortured musical tradition, add a bunch of buddies who like to get their punk on and a singer who wears his emotions and literary inspirations on his sleeve (and has mastered a gut-wrenching wail that at times is positively Oberstian), and you begin to approach the musical thrill ride that is Titus Andronicus.
“It’s existential revolt. We’ve accepted that our lives don’t have any meaning, so we’re going to impose meaning on them, in the funnest way possible, which is being in a rock-and-roll band,” said Patrick Stickles, the aforementioned frontman with the smarts and the scream — and a trace of the snark as well. Bear in mind that this is a guy who peppers his song titles and lyrics with references to Camus, Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, Hunter S. Thompson (“Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, New Jersey”) and the 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel (read more about their Bruegel connection in the MTV Newsroom blog). Lit majors figure heavily into the band’s college-educated ranks, and yet, just as the angst isn’t indulgent, the intellect is not arch. Titus Andronicus is first and foremost noisy, punk fun.
While hipster nation sat up and took notice of them only in the last few months — thanks in large part to an 8.5 rating from Pitchfork for their loud, audacious debut The Airing of Grievances, the band formed in 2005 as a “Nirvana-esque” three-piece, with Stickles and bassist Ian Graetzer at its core. Fifteen members have come and gone since then — there have been as many as 11 at a time — and the lineup currently numbers six, with the recent return of Andrew Cedermark, their fourth guitarist. More is generally more in the world of Titus: more guitars, more lyrics, more gigs — especially in their native Tri-State area, where they’ve been known to play five shows a week. If you live in New York or New Jersey and you haven’t seen Titus yet, well, you haven’t been trying.
The band hails from Glen Rock, New Jersey — the sort of pretty town that makes us city dwellers think, at least fleetingly, “What’s so bad about the ’burbs?” I caught up with them on the patio of Graetzer’s parents’ house, a place, Stickles noted, that has its perks: “Mrs. Graetzer’s famous iced tea. She’s always got the jar of pretzels and Oreos filled up for us, and all the Mountain Dew we can drink.”
While most of the bandmembers still call Jersey home, they are looking forward, very soon, to a nomadic existence, when they launch their most extensive U.S. tour. “I don’t even want to have an apartment; we should just be playing shows,” Graetzer said. “Live out of that van and keep going.”
Graetzer’s internship at Troubleman Unlimited Records led to the band’s deal with the Bayonne, New Jersey, indie. That in turn led to the album, recorded last year in New Paltz, New York, with producer and longtime band “mentor” Kevin McMahon. Graetzer said Troubleman Unlimited owner Mike Simonetti loved everything about Titus except their name, regularly berating the bassist to change it.
As Shakespeare asked, what’s in a name? For those of you not up on your Bard, “Titus Andronicus” is, let’s just say, a somewhat less-beloved play than “Romeo & Juliet.” One of Shakespeare’s earlier works, it is beyond gruesome, replete with rape, murder, dismemberment and cannibalism: Think an Elizabethan “Saw.” And as far as Stickles was concerned, it was the perfect name.
“The bowtie set reads a lot of Shakespeare and stuff like that, so it’s real cerebral and fancy-pants stuff,” he explained. “But ’Titus Andronicus’ has kind of like that ’Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ thing going on, you know? And that’s basically the line we like to straddle with this band … the cerebral and the visceral, all the fonts of human desire.”
There’s a more low-brow cultural reference on Titus’ record as well. “Seinfeld” fans will recognize the album title, The Airing of Grievances, as being a key component of the “Festivus” holiday on the long-running sitcom, and Stickles makes no apologies for that. “We should be talking about Seinfeld and Larry David in the same breath as Shakespeare, because it’s the best television that there is. It’s as good as it gets.”
As for Stickles’ own grievances, “Patrick has the weight of the world on his shoulders,” guitarist Dan Tews said. And he airs them all over the album, nowhere more so than on the song “Titus Andronicus,” a nihilistic anthem about youthful dreams being dashed by cruel bill-paying reality. The track — which climaxes with Stickles’ rousing snarl-along chant ’Your life is over!’ — is not just a highlight of the album but, for my money, one of the great tunes of the year.
If all this angst has led some to slap Titus Andronicus, who cite Minor Threat, Galaxie 500 and Neutral Milk Hotel among their influences, with the dreaded “emo” tag, Stickles can live with it. “We’re from New Jersey, it’s inevitable,” he reasoned. “And better that we get criticized for having our hearts on our sleeve too much than being praised for being all disaffected and cool, like so many bands I can think of. You know, it’s important to talk about feelings.”
Titus Andronicus set off on a five week U.S. tour on July 11. Listen to tracks from The Airing of Grievances at Rhapsody.com.