Patrick Stickles is not a nihilist, although you'd be forgiven for thinking that he is. After all, the Titus Andronicus frontman declares on the opening to track to the band's third album Local Business that "everything is inherently worthless." For Stickles, it's simply that the world has no meaning before we supply it with our thoughts and values. If everyone acknowledged this, the singer says, then maybe we'd be slower to impose our meaning on others.
"We live in an arbitrary universe where stuff can spontaneously pop up and happen but people get so addicted to the security of the meaning they put into things," says Stickles. "They demand a fight to defend something that's yet another arbitrary thing because they decided to pretend they live in a more meaningful universe than you do."
Welcome to the world of Patrick Stickles, one of indie rock's most literate frontmen, and leader of one of the best new bands to emerge in the last five years. Being Catholic and from New Jersey made him a fan of Bruce Springsteen, and this heritage is imprinted on his songwriting. It's just who he is. Not surprisingly, Stickles connects with the late Lou Reed, another poet — like the Boss — for the misbegotten. "Lou was born to be an alienated guy like so many people. He was able to find a community later that would validate him. But as an artist he reaches out to people who are dispersed in places like Long Island, and he makes them feel less alone, like he did for me in suburban New Jersey, a stifling and dismal place just like his boyhood Long Island," says Stickles, a few days before Reed's passing.
There's a confessional streak that runs through much of Titus Andronicus' music, ranging from self-deprecating quips to existential angst to songs like "Upon Viewing Oregon's Landscape with The Flood of Detritus," which is based on Stickles' experience seeing someone hit by a car outside an Oregon club. It's also self-referential, a sort of a sequel to the band's earlier "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'," a beautiful Flemish landscape painting with the titular event consigned to a small corner, a comment on the triviality of our tragedies in the scope of the world.
The music on Titus' debut, 2008's Airing of Grievances, and the Civil War-themed second album, The Monitor, is a chunky blast of tuneful throb and distorted guitars. The band has digested the ringing abandon of Hüsker Dü, the ne'er-do-well charm of the Replacements, and the spiky chug of the Pixies spitting hardy candy nails with anthemic attitude.
With the critical adoration that greeted The Monitor, the band turned in a new direction for Local Business, recording most the album live on the studio floor. "It's trying to be honest and up front in a way," says Stickles. "It was really real. It actually happened a lot of the time. There were a couple of things that didn't happen in the moment. But the first two [albums] were 100 percent staged, creating the illusion of a moment that was never close to a reality."
Local Business is a more unvarnished, straight-up rock 'n' roll album that returns Titus Andronicus to its bar-band roots — but only up to a point. "People grow up and have different ideas of what is cool," says Stickles. "The first record that we made was a bonehead and immature, a youthful brash and arrogant attempt at something the second record kind of achieved. So I really look at the third album as the first record in a lot of ways, and the next one will achieve more of the things that I want to do."
At times on Local Business, the chunky power-chord swagger recalls underrated rock icons Thin Lizzy, whose catalog features plenty of urgent catchy populace rock.
"I would like the band to be more of a modern-day version of Thin Lizzy in a lot of ways, yet I didn't necessarily do all the work of setting up our audience for that," laughs Stickles. "When you listen to our first couple albums, you might not necessarily think this band would be better if they were more like Thin Lizzy, but I feel this is true and other people in the band feel it too, so you have to trust us a little bit."