Photograph by Matthew Greeley
The images part, like the velvet curtain opening at a pantomime to reveal a new charade. This is rock opera, but not as you know it. Titus Andronicus’ fourth album, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, spares us absolutely nothing. As a musician and a conundrum, frontman Patrick Stickles envelops the stage, appearing as a frantic, wild-eyed storyteller escaping from a world plunged into darkness. With scores to settle and wrongs to right, your teeth will begin to throb and your heart start to crack as the whole thing explodes into a transcending, expansive ode to borrowing pain from the past to illuminate the modern tragedy of mental illness. In that sense, the album is seamless: What better crash course in Andronicus’ philosophy could there be than an ambitious 29-track, 94-minute, five-act rock opera?
You can breathe now.
Literature tells us that human suffering knows no bounds. We read Plath’s The Bell Jar, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bronte’s Villette and come face to face with Orpheus-like characters using art as a means to negate pain. I suppose music shuffles in and acts as the paradox within it all, satisfying that empty hole of despair while stimulating a desire for it. I wonder if that’s why people might be put off by albums of this nature and length — because they usher in a feeling that is so scarily familiar to us.
You can’t get through this without a quote from Irvin D. Yalom: “If we climb high enough, we will reach a height from which tragedy ceases to look tragic.” If he’s right, then talking candidly about manic depression — its stock once at a perceivably low decline — has never been in better health. And if Stickles is correct, and there is no space in society for him to lash out about bipolar disorder other than his music, then an uncaring world gets the art it deserves.
Stickles is self-deprecating with a gut-punching openness that comes across as thoughtful and more intelligent than anyone would imagine. Thanking me for all the time I spent listening to him, asking about my background, and chatting tangentially about drugs, anti-heroes, and Billy Joel … we’re invited into his emotional world almost immediately.
How are you feeling?
Oh, much better now, thanks. My day was basically cursed from the start. I did this weird thing — I must have been having a very anxious dream, because I woke myself up by tensing up my leg like I was falling. I just started to feel [long pause] bad?
What do you mean by bad?
I spend all day screaming and carrying on, and then at night I just want to watch Anthony Bourdain with my sweetheart, but I just can’t fall asleep too quickly. It’s really sad. I’ve been running around too much, and that’s the truth. Yesterday we had a pretty huge rehearsal, and now I feel beat up. We’re trying to get in shape. Our practices have been pretty lazy, jamming and playing goofy cover songs, but now it’s come to the time where we’re gonna have to play for like two hours straight, so I’m trying to dust off all those cobwebs. My body is not having it. It liked it when we were just sitting around, you know? Gosh, I hope this record’s a big success, so I can have pleasure in the future.
I’m not trying to blame anything, but surely age is the biggest culprit?
When I was 22 or 23, I could do this stuff all year round. When we were kids, we did 53 shows in 48 days once. We didn’t take any days off — well, we had to take one day off because our van broke down in Atlanta.
Your album arrived with all the lyrics written by hand. When a band connects to the end product, not just through sound, it feels so wholly considered and thoughtful.
That’s what I would hope you’d say. In the past years, my own secret note has been my heart. It’s a little more contrived than that. I just strive to forge some sort of personal connection with something that’s a mass-produced piece of art, because it’s real to me, you know? When I was writing this, I had a rule: to not type the lyrics on a computer. I wanted them to be harder to edit, so every time I would have to sit down and write out all the ones that I wanted to change. ‘Cause throughout my life, I’ve always wanted routine and stability. I don’t mean that I wanted it — I mean that my life’s been lacking in that. Also, I put myself into a corner because I told everyone about it before it was even written.
Did you do that on purpose to have something anchoring creativity?
I never told you about that part? Oh gosh. Well, basically, about two years ago, I blabbed to a newspaper about the stuff that we were gonna do on our next album, but we had only written eight or nine songs at that point. I had written them all in a one-month period, so it felt totally natural to promise close to 30 songs, and I figured if I could keep going with this, it’d be too easy. Anyway, I figured if I go and tell everybody about it, it would make it really impossible and embarrassing to back out. But going into recording, I had this major depressive episode.
Was that the worst attack you’ve had?
Yeah, I found out that’s part of being a manic depressive. At the age of 26 [long pause] … just being drained of a lot of energy, and a lot of ideas just didn’t get explored, and that’s fine — for example, the new record starts out with a 12-note chord.
Oh yes, “The Angry Hour”. I believe the wondrous Owen Palette arranged that?
Yeah? You like that one? That was an idea that I had for the third record, but when it came time to record, it was such a fucking struggle. I was like, “Fuck the 12-note chord!” I didn’t have the time or energy to think about it, and my fear was I knew I was gonna run out of gas back in the autumn of 2013. I knew I was going to get depressed again. I had been able to write by the grace of my mania. That’s one-half of being a manic depressive for me. It’s a seasonal thing where four-five months out of the year I’m really full of beans, and that’s when I do all the good stuff.
Does it usually hit you during summer? Act 3 on the new album feels like summer. It’s the centerpiece, the linchpin.
Yeah, you see? You get it. That’s perfect. I wish to be understood. That’s what the artist wants. The artist is lonely and demanding.
Isn’t that a human desire? Of course making art is inherently selfish — you burrow away, make music, and then you’re like “tadaa” and pray people are there. Everyone wants to be welcomed. I know you talk about your manic depression openly, too, for which I am grateful, but I am sorry that it happens to you.
That’s kind of you to say. It can be a dramatic thing, but I try and accept it as my life and the way that I am. As much as I am a troublemaker, at times it’s because society has failed to make a place for me and people like me.
In what regard are you a troublemaker?
I’m a troublemaker! I start trouble! When I get too mad, I say the wrong things, and it all comes from feelings of some kind of dis-empowerment and inability — not feeling like you’re understood. There’s nothing you can do about a system not having a place for you, and I can’t lash out at the system, but I can lash out at my loved ones and have a big impact on them, which I’m obviously not proud of. The lucky thing is hiding behind the fiction of this rock opera. By way of your article, I now have to explain it and tell you that it’s not OK to lash out at your loved ones, or don’t abuse drugs, and in telling you, I’m telling myself.
That’s what music is for — to find the words you normally don’t have the courage to say.
Exactly, that’s what I thought. I can say things in a song that I couldn’t say when speaking to someone, and not even because I’m thinking it, but because I won’t even allow myself to face any kind of straight up conscious in any way, so I address it through my art and by creating this so called fictional story.
So The Most Lamentable Tragedy is in part autobiographical?
Well, all the experiences that happened to the main character have pretty much happened to me, but it’s an allegory. The whole bit about meeting your identical twin never happened to me.
But you’ve obviously reflected and faced yourself in tough times.
Exactly, I’ve realized as an artist that I’m not really that concerned about the details or the facts, and I’m interested in the way things feel. A lot of the art that I like, not even in music, takes place in some kind of reality that is not real. By abandoning realism, you can exaggerate the things that are very real.
If it’s easier to put all your lessons behind the guise of a rock opera, then why the hell not?
It is about me — that is the truth. If I wanted to do a record on some other cause besides the de-stigmatization of mental illness, there’s tons of important causes in the paper. Maybe I could write a record about where you’re living right now, the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s more important than my little poor-me struggle in the grand scheme of things. But it’s not my experience of this world. That’s the only thing I’m qualified to discuss; everything else is speculating. The trick would be if I can steal some essential truth from my experience and communicate it. Then maybe somebody such as you could discern something relevant. Even though your suffering and mine are very different, like any two people in the world, nobody really understands each other you know?
But music has some sort of place in terms of figuring that out, though, and I think your lyrics are universally familiar.
That’s generous of you. I don’t know if I would use the word universal. That’s a pretty huge term.
Well, in your press release, you mention the arrangements having a certain bipolar quality to them — beautiful, brutal, polished, raw. The truth is, that is life — universally speaking — it’s up-down, push-pull, dark-light, irrespective of the face or vehicle the message arrives in.
That’s pretty gratifying to hear you say that, because that’s what I’d hoped, but people are caught up with their identities, and it stands in the way of relating to one another. Even when you and I started talking on the phone, I said your life appears to be so different from mine, and you’ve proven me wrong in my insecurities, and you’ve proven me right in self-aggrandizing. You’re making my wildest dreams come true!
We’ve only just begun! Do you think that once you’ve released a song, it exists separately from you?
I have to feel it only when I’m explaining it now. When I’m on stage, you can’t help but play. There’s no time to think about that bad thing that happened. We’ve been done with this record for less than two years, and all kinds of dramatic stuff happened. We broke up with one record company, got together with the new one — it was a crazy ride! I realize the act of making art is a confrontation with myself. It’s setting myself up to have to say these things over and over again — don’t do drugs, be nice to everybody — and now it’s frozen in time. I can’t open it and change the words like I can do it at the show.
Does that make you anxious at all?
It’s just a great relief. But I’m saying it’s bad to do drugs, although the whole time we’ve been talking, I have been smoking weed. That’s not a drug, though. Weed is from the earth. I’m talking about doing cocaine.
Are you clean now?
I don’t do any of that stuff anymore, but I did it plenty in the last few years. I smoke cigarettes — oh yeah, big time. And coffee, too. Shame, shame. I don’t drink. It’s no better for you than any of the other stuff ,and the worst shit of all is OxyContin and prescription pain pills — the shit my doctor gives me for my anxiety, especially during writing this album. I’m always thinking maybe the perfect life, the comfortable equilibrium, is only one chemical away. That’s kind of the fantasy I was fed as a kid.
You’re 29 now? I find myself on the cusp of 30-dom, too.
Yeah, that’s right. 1985, that’s the age right there.
Last year might have been the wobbliest, the year before even worse. Now we’re leading into a calm stream, perhaps off a cliff?
I like this “wobbly” you keep dropping. We don’t say it here, but I know exactly what you mean. I’ve had a lot of wobbly moments. The record is coming out on my 30th birthday, too.
Yeah, there are all these milestones: 10th year that you’ve been around, 29 tracks on the album…
That was intentional, because across our first three albums, there are 29 tracks. I also started writing TMLT when I turned 28 years old on the 28th of July. If you’re born on the 28th, the year that you turn 28 is your majestic year.
Well, I’m fucked. Mine is on the 1st.
But it’s twisted for me, too! None of this stuff matters, Twenty-eight, 29, 30, whatever — it’s all meaningless. The artist only translates the poetry of the universe written around us, the tapestry of life, the patterns, the symmetry — we only need to see it. So when I see 28, the fact that 7 x 4 is 28, and that’s the number of days in a lunar cycle, and if you don’t think it too crass to say, a woman’s menstrual cycle is about that long, and it’s the ultimate gift of life. It’s a very magical, miraculous thing, creating life. I hope that’s not rude to say, but it’s just another one of those things.
Why would it be rude to say? Because you’re a man speaking about menstrual cycles to a woman?
I don’t know. In America, people don’t want to talk about that stuff. They think that it should all just stay private and pretend that nobody poops and nobody has a menstrual cycle. It’s weird, but we’re all about the appearances. We’re uptight.
For someone who seems so open about his lack of control, this level of iteration and symbolism feels pretty precise.
It means whatever I say it means, you know what I’m saying? That’s punk. To me, there’s no greater purpose beyond what I can observe. I have to assume that the universe is kind of in a chaotic place; our systems of authority are arbitrary. They act like it’s coming from some higher power. For me they just decided they had the authority so I’m giving myself the same freedom because that’s the freedom that we all have. That’s what’s being a punk is all about for me. I’m trying to elevate my interior authority to the denigration of exterior authority.
You’re quoting a Joe Strummer line, aren’t you?
Of course. I was just going to say that.
You know how when you’re 16 and music is the biggest thing in your world? You listen to every lyric to uncover a clue from that artistic authority. Then you get older, and real life happens. Do you still get as excited about music?
It takes a certain discipline to keep in touch with the part of you that loves it in the first place. In certain ways the band lost sight of that for a few minutes here and there over the past decade. Now we have to be disciplined about being irreverent. When we practice, we go out of our way to just jam, switch instruments, and sing Billy Joel covers.
I don’t care what anyone says: When Billy Joel described “Vienna” being a metaphor of life’s crossroads, it stuck.
Me too. He’s one of my favorites, and a lot of people around here don’t take him seriously. We try to keep in touch with the joy of creating, letting it rip, bouncing off the walls, rather than thinking we’re 30 and suddenly professionals having to deliver the same perfect show every night. Of course I take it seriously, but you have to be serious about having fun. It’s a balancing act.
And anything you do as a group is naturally fraught with compromise.
Yeah, and I don’t like compromising about too many things. Nobody loves it; everybody would prefer to get their way.
Always weary of the ones who revel in compromise.
Change helps? You’ve had some as far as Titus’ membership goes, haven’t you?
The first five years were a lot more tumultuous than the last five years. A lot of the narrative and image of the band is this revolving-door amorphous art project. It’s not really as accurate anymore. Ever since we started making this rock opera, we’ve got the same five guys, so there’s a relationship amongst the players that couldn’t have existed in any other time in the band’s career. I should mention Eric, the drummer, has been in the band for eight years now! Eight out of 10 years. That’s pretty great.
Before you leave, what struck me about the record was how you refer to the protagonist as “Our Hero”. Why? I want to assume that the level of heroism he showed was just being human, oozing and raw.
Yes! The whole thing is that he isn’t very heroic. He is extremely flawed like a tragic hero — he’s a fucking idiot, basically. We lie, claim we understand how the world works, but the main character is as much of a hero as anybody if the whole universe is essentially meaningless. He’s a Don Quixote hero, and his courage is from persevering and moving forward in the face of defeat and failure.
During “Lonely Boy”, you say, “He woke up feeling like a loser, now he’s itching to win.” The self-fulfilling prophecy: If I say I’m a hero, maybe I will be one someday.
And you’ll pick whatever “fight” is convenient so you can get a reaction.
But that’s what you’ve created here.
That was my goal, and now you’ve shown me that it’s working. Well, this has turned out to be a great Wednesday after all. Maybe things aren’t as wobbly as I thought.