Patrick Stickles on the external and internal motivations that fueled the band's ferocious new LP
On Titus Andronicus’ most recent album, An Obelisk (Merge Records), Patrick Stickles and Co. open by levying broad societal critiques. “It seems the Earth is speeding swiftly toward a grave catastrophe,” the singer cautions on the ferocious, frenzied “(I Blame) Society.” Gradually, though, the perspective narrows, with the narrator looking inward and questioning the role he has played in the overall state of the world. (It’s no accident that an obelisk is widest at its base, narrowing to a fine point as it traces skyward.)
“If you look at the tracklist, you notice we vacillate between those two concepts,” Stickles said by phone from a tour stop in Denver (the band hits Ace of Cups for a concert on Sunday, Oct. 6). “Certain songs are monologues, which is where the narrator addresses the outside world and his complaints about the many flaws and shortcomings he finds there. And that’s a public-facing thing, and he’s up on his soapbox on those songs. Then, the other songs, I think of those as being soliloquies, where the narrator is alone, and in his solitude he finds himself looking inward and discovering all the flaws and shortcomings. And I think that’s the only way to do it. If you’re going to make complaints about society — and I’ve got plenty of them — you have to acknowledge your own flaws and your complicity in the system you claim to be opposing.”
Among the complaints leveled on An Obelisk, Stickles, via his narrator, addresses: the shallow state of popular rock ’n’ roll (“Just Like a Ringing Bell”), mass shootings (“(I Blame) Society”), the growing threat of police violence (“On the Street”) and the global scale of modern suffering (“Tumult Around the World”).Things that irk us include: being called *THE* Alive (we're not OSU, folks), Other Paper stans who refuse to acknowledge that we've done some good work now and then, and Facebook restricting posts to the point that we're lucky to reach 1,000 of the 43,000+ who follow us on the platform. Sign up for our daily newsletter
In conversation, these grow to include white supremacy, misogynistic rape culture and a capitalist system designed to maintain a status quo where “there’s enough poor people to clean our toilets and then go off and die in the desert when we decide it will help the bottom line." Stickles also had strong words for the current occupant of the White House, though he was hesitant to give him too much air. “I don't want to spend too much time talking about him, but I imagine some of these other [presidential] candidates would be less eager to lock children in cages, or fire up their little assault-rifle-toting militias like this guy is doing now,” Stickles said.
For the frontman, these ills are merely symptomatic of a species and culture that has always trended toward violence.
“You’ll notice every time there’s some so-called ‘technological progress,’ people will find a way to turn it into an atrocity of some sort,” Stickles said. “Look at World War I, where we invented these assault rifles, machine guns, whatever, but we would still line up in a row on the battlefield and shoot each other, and next thing you know fucking 16 million people have died. Or we finally figure out the atom — what a great discovery! — and then we make a bomb out of it and God knows how many Japanese people died. … Even now, we have this thing called Instagram. 'This is fun, posting these selfies and thirst traps and whatnot!' Then all of a sudden some crazy man is like, ‘These girls are posting sexy pictures on their profiles. I’m going to find one and chop her head off and post it on the platform.’
"It’s madness, and as much as we’re progressing in our ability to do a number of different things, we’re not progressing in terms of our morality and our ethics.”
Within Titus Andronicus, and particularly on An Obelisk, recorded in Chicago alongside musician and producer Bob Mould, Stickles funnels these mounting frustrations into taut, violent rippers that hit like the musical equivalent of that scene in “Fight Club” where Brad Pitt nearly punches his way through Jared Leto's face in his efforts to “destroy something beautiful.” And while the process of exorcising these long-simmering thoughts doesn’t leave the singer feeling any more hopeful about the state of things — “Hope is a dangerous thing for a man like me to have,” Stickles offered cryptically — on a more micro scale he believes it can at least dole out some small joys in a world desperate for them.
“I don’t flatter myself and think that Titus Andronicus is going to prove to be an effective agent of systemic change,” he said. “My goals are much more modest, and it’s basically to put gas in the tank for my listeners, and to make their days and lives slightly more tenable and tolerable. Ultimately, we’re all in the same boat, us 99 percenters, and we’re all going through this modern nightmare together. … What’s today, Tuesday? A lot of people at the concert tonight will have had a bad Tuesday, but if I can get them rocking for a couple hours, maybe they’ll have a slightly better Wednesday.”