Normally frantic rockers settle into a single room for 'A Productive Cough'
For more than a decade, Patrick Stickles has cut his teeth in Titus Andronicus, a ferocious, balled fist of a rock band whose albums regularly attracted descriptions like “epic” and “sprawling.” But with A Productive Cough (Merge Records), released earlier this year, the band pulled back slightly, capturing a collection of punk-gospel songs awash in Celtic balladry, doo-wop and rambling folk-rock — musical textures that had surfaced on albums in the past but never taken a leading role.
“The music of Titus Andronicus is like a house, and in this house there are many rooms. On certain records Titus Andronicus likes to run from room to room and visit as many styles and ideas as possible, particularly on our 2015 rock-opera album (The Most Lamentable Tragedy), where we tried to do all different manner of songs, running from room to room frantically,” said Stickles, who joins his bandmates in concert at Skully's Music-Diner on Wednesday, Oct. 17. “This Productive Cough album was more like choosing one particular room that might be a little dustier, and settling in and getting comfortable in there, focusing on that one particular element.”
If the band allowed itself a bit more comfort this time out, Stickles has taken an alternate approach since the album's release, breaking up the usual run of full-band tours by playing long stretches as a duo with pianist Alex Molini, in addition to a string of solo, acoustic shows overseas. It was, Stickles said, “an exercise in taking away a lot of the armor I wear onstage, so to speak.”
“I like to pretend I'm a pretty fearless performer, but the truth is I'm as ruled by fear as the next guy,” Stickles said. “I've been onstage a lot in my time, but I'd always had a lot of support and protection from a loud rock band. Now, having gone through that experience and fortified my courage, it gives me a new perspective. … When you take away the band and do it yourself you have to be a little more present and actually think, ‘How can I get everything about it across that makes it the song it is without much support? What is the emotional content of this song? What do these words mean?'”
Collectively, Titus Andronicus' catalog could be described as a continual search for meaning, Stickles embracing his personal struggles as a jumping-off point to explore his connections to the greater world and the people who populate it, be it his love-hate relationship with his hometown (The Monitor), or his struggles with bipolar disorder (The Most Lamentable Tragedy). Even “A Letter Home,” a winding, multipart, 16-plus-minute song that caps the just-released Home Alone on Halloween EP, was born of personal pain and gradually develops into a more general plea for humanity, kindness and mercy. “Won't you give the kid a little hug,” Stickles sings in his raspy, cigarette-scarred voice. “Forgiveness is the only drug.”
“I had a family member who was about to die. She had cancer. Everybody was talking about, ‘Oh, my god. It's so sad this person we love so much is going to die.' And, indeed, it was really sad, and she did die. But as that moment of death was becoming more and more imminent, I said, ‘Yes, it really is rough. And it's sad this person we love is going to die. But everybody in the world has to die. Cheating death and somehow achieving immortality is not the name of the game,'” Stickles said. “But it seems to me if you're at the moment when you're going to die … and you're surrounded by love, that's about as good as you can do. That's the closest thing to winning the game.”