Everyone calls Dave Grohl the nicest man in rock, but they've evidently never met Ted Leo. Perhaps 'nice' is the wrong word though: the New Jersey musician is one of the most energetic, engaging, passionate and genuine artists to emerge in the indie/punk scene for quite some time. Touring like a relentless music machine and armed with a back catalogue of organic rock and roll influenced by everything from Thin Lizzy to Crass, Ted Leo and his Pharmacists are easily amongst the most exciting bands still making music.
It was with this in mind that SPB sat down to chat with Ted on a rainy evening in Leeds. Midway through their European tour (to make up dates from a cancelled visit last summer), the band were in good spirits and seemed glad to be back in the UK. Matt met Ted and chatted about a bunch of topics, including politics, war, arrogance and English degrees.
Scene Point Blank: Hey Ted! To open up with, how's the U.K. tour been so far?
Ted Leo: Good, man, it's been hectic a little bit, but great, actually. We started in Ireland, which I think is always a good thing for us to do from now on, because we haven't been over there that much. It's surprising because we haven't been over there that much, but our shows there wind up being really fun and it puts me in a good mood for the rest of the trip, you know? Compared to the last trip which we had to cancel, the last U.K. section... that was just fantastic because we're actually doing it. Every day has been a little bit of a rush, some minor snafus that on another tour might be bothering everybody a little bit more, but since we're actually surviving and able to make it to the shows and play them on this trip, I think everybody's doing really well actually.
Scene Point Blank: Any news? Are we going to hear any new songs?
Ted Leo: Yeah, we've got some new stuff that we're working on. We've got a lot of music; I just have to get around to writing some lyrics first for it. We've been playing a couple of new songs on this trip, which are on the kind of... poppier side of the spectrum, I think that we're shooting to record a record in the beginning of June. And I think the way things are going writing-wise... it's really simple, a lot of it very short and almost... Pink Flag, Wire-y... I mean, the songs aren't that short, but they're that kind of... we're just settling back into just writing some short punk songs, and it feels really good. The stuff we've been playing on this trip is a little more... developed and on the poppier side of things.
Scene Point Blank: I know that when you wrote Shake the Sheets, your intention was to write some more stripped-down, shorter songs in response to the longer ones on Hearts of Oak. On Living With the Living we have all these long songs once more? is this the same thing again but in reverse?
Ted Leo: I guess in some ways it kind of is. I think the difference between what I'm writing now and Shake the Sheets is that... for as long as I've been writing songs, I've been trying to cram all of the things that interest me and move me into every song, so even the really short songs are like... oh, it's kind of a hardcore song, or it's a punk song, or it's kind of an indie song... like Badfinger-y pop songs, or there's reggae elements or folky elements. And with Shake the Sheets I was trying to strip everything down and write a more concise record, but I still tried to do everything that I could with every song, you know? I think that making Living With the Living, even though I went back to writing some longer songs and letting things flow a little bit more, I also started to not try and cram every influence into every song. For instance, there's a reggae song on there that instead of making it a punk/reggae song, I was like "You know what? I just wanna write a reggae song, so I'm just going to let it be a reggae song", you know? It was the same thing with "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb", I just kind of want this to be a hardcore song, so that's what it's going to be. Yes, having done a long record with really long songs, I do think I am going through that same process of wanting to go the opposite direction in the next record, but I'm also taking a step forward from that record, and not trying to do everything with every song again, just make everything a little simpler.
Scene Point Blank: When I first heard "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb", it was totally unexpected, like a mixture of The Dismemberment Plan and Stephen Colbert (Ted laughs). Was it a little scary releasing something like that before the record was out?
Ted Leo: Well, I'm going to say no, because while I understand how it differs from everything else, it's just like... a little more screamier, a little less melodic. I don't think it's extremely different from a lot of stuff that we've done before. It's just a little more aggressive. Also for me, I'm twenty years into making music now, and I started out in like, blastbeat hardcore bands, so it doesn't feel strange for me to do stuff like that, it feels like... liberating, like I'm not being strange, you know? It's like, "Oh yeah, that's still in me, I'll let it out!" you know? But also, I don't know if you know the specific history of that song, but in the period between Shake the Sheets and Living With the Living I wrote the music for a musical that was about U.S. involvement in Central America in the 50's and the overthrow of the government in Guatemala, and the banana trade, and all this stuff. The director kind of dropped off the map and the project never happened, but I had all this music and that was one of the songs that grew out of that project. By the time I decided to put it on Living With the Living I had already lived with that song for a year or something, so it was actually the oldest song on the record.
Scene Point Blank: How was it working with Brendan Canty on the new record? Did that bring anything different to the mix?
Ted Leo: Yeah. Well, I also did The Tyranny of Distance with Brendan, back in whenever that was, 2000/2001, something like that. Actually, I did the EP before that with Brendan too, Treble in Trouble. He's been a really good friend of mine for years and we, I think, see eye-to-eye about music in ways that I don't with a lot of other people. We have a language that he can finish a lot of my sentences, like if I'm having trouble describing a sound I want to get, or experiment I want to try, whatever. Not only does he usually know what I'm going for, but he also is a really fun guy to work with in terms of experimenting himself. Like, he's just up for anything. So yeah, it felt very comfortable. We did a tracking for three or four days with the whole band, and then Dave and Chris were done so it was Brendan and I for ten days, living together and just getting... maybe a little too drunk every night (laughs), just finishing everything, and it felt really comfortable, it was nice.
Scene Point Blank: One thing I always wonder about bands with an obvious frontman is how they start out like that. Like? do you ever feel arrogant being Ted Leo with your backup Pharmacists?
Ted Leo: Yeah, sometimes I do feel a little bit arrogant actually, to be honest with you. It's something that I try to find the right balance with, because I don't want to come off as arrogant, I don't want to be arrogant. This project, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, grew out of me playing solo, for many years in the States. From the time when I quit this band called Chisel which I was in '97, really until we started touring on the Tyranny of Distance, which would have been summer 2001, I was mostly just playing alone. Everything I'd built to that point was just me and my guitar, except for the fact that I had a lot of songs that I thought were better served with a band, so I would record everything myself and I'd play with backing tapes and stuff. And then I did the Tyranny of Distance record with Lookout! and it was just like... this should be done live with a band. So I started playing with Chris and Dave, who only just left us this last August, and James Canty, who's back playing with us again now. It was a really interesting dynamic for a long time because we were all geographically separated too, so songwriting just kind of naturally lent itself to me writing alone and then us getting together, learning the songs and stuff. But also, I just got really lucky, falling in with musicians where we all enjoyed playing with each other and we all became really great friends. So, I don't think it's ever hit a point where I come in with my songs... it's not like I give people a score that they have to play to. If I have a suggestion about an idea that I want somebody to do, I can suggest it, and by the same token, there've been plenty of times when the opposite has happened, like Chris would say, "Yeah, you know, what if I did this and it would kind of change the song in this direction, what if that happened?" And I'm like, "Yeah, it's a great idea". We've been riding this sometimes awkward but sometimes cool middle way of doing things for a while. Now, we're all actually back around New York, and in the writing of this new stuff, I think one of the reasons it's taken on this more simply organic sound for us is that we're actually playing together a lot more, so the songs are still generally starting with me having an idea, but I've been kind of purposely bringing unfinished ideas to the table so we can work on them together, which used to not really be able to happen by virtue of the fact that we all lived in different cities on the East Coast.
Scene Point Blank: You mentioned Dave leaving? how has that affected the band?
Ted Leo: Well, it was time, you know. Dave didn't want to be on tour anymore, and he was very unhappy it seemed. Our schedule was so rigorous that I wasn't about to confront him about it. It was rough timing-wise, because he told me he wanted to quit the band right before we had this tour in August in the States booked, and he didn't even want to do that. I was like, "We need you", so he did that with us, and that gave us a little bit of time to get ready for the fall, and Marty, who's playing with us now, has also been a friend for years, been in tons of bands, toured with tons of bands, so we kind of got lucky again in finding a guy who we're all friends with, work well with, who could slide right in. The only problem is that we've been touring so much, so we can play a pretty long set, but we can't pull from our entire back catalogue. Like, with Dave, if anybody yelled anything out in the audience, we could go, "Alright, let's do it!", but we haven't quite got to that part with Marty yet, but we're working on it.