Feature / Interviews
Ted Leo

Words: Matt • October 16, 2010

Scene Point Blank: A slightly personal question for me, I know you studied for an English degree? I'm just about to graduate from mine, and I'm worried that it's going to be no use to me in everyday life. Obviously your lyrics are full of literary references, but how does it benefit you as a musician?

Ted Leo: Hmm... that's a really good question (laughs). I mean, in my opinion, the greatest thing that I got from my course of study, the things that I focused on going back to before university, was just learning how to think, how to think critically. Specifically, in terms of the English degree, I love language. I just think it's an amazing creation and tool. I love being able to put things into words; sometimes I use too many words because I love words. I don't regret having gone through that course of study. I regret a lot of things about school, and where I went and the things I went through, but not about the course of study that I chose.

Scene Point Blank: I saw online recently that you've been booked to open up for Pearl Jam. How do you feel about something as huge as that?

Ted Leo: Honestly, I'm hugely conflicted about the whole thing. I mean, from all accounts that I hear, Pearl Jam are really nice guys, they very actively try to take out indie and punk bands with them. At the same time, it's a world that I've actively chosen to not be a part of for most of my life, so... you know, I won't deny that it's flattering to be asked, and I figure... what the hell, I mean, everybody that I've spoken to who's ever been involved with them in any capacity, even a passing acquaintance, speaks very highly of them as people, so how bad could it be? It'll challenge our comfort zones. And in terms of going from like, playing to what will probably be a half-empty room at the Cockpit tonight to playing to sold out Madison Square Garden, it's always like that for us anyway. I mean in the States, an average tour for us is... thousands of people in the Northeast/New York, to fifty people in Fargo, North Dakota. It's just the nature of the beast. Again, not to make too much of this, but having grown up playing basements, it doesn't feel all that weird; a show is a show. It's harder to shift to the big shows than it is to downshift. It'll be interesting, but I figure... how bad could it be? We've played at festivals before... it'll be weird, but hopefully it'll be cool as well.

Scene Point Blank: Yeah. I spoke to Against Me! and they talked about opening for Green Day and playing shows for people who go to one concert a year who just didn't get what they were about. I hope that doesn't happen for you.

Ted Leo: I wonder about that, yeah. The thing about Pearl Jam, at least, I think they've developed a reputation for cultivating who their opening acts are, like Sleater-Kinney, Buzzcocks, all these kind of bands... so their fans have become interested in who they choose to bring out, it's always someone that most of their fans aren't familiar with.

Scene Point Blank: When Living With the Living came out, there was a bonus EP, Mo' Livin'. Was that always the plan or was it more intended as a tribute for the fans who went out first to get it?

Ted Leo: That's exactly what it was. It was a complete afterthought, but it was a thing that once we were done with the record, we know it's going to be passed around to half of our audience, so for the people that do go out and buy it, it's the one cover and four other songs, so I was like, "We're going to bang out a bunch of new songs and give an extra EP with it." And if anyone bought the vinyl they got a free download of it.

Scene Point Blank: I have to say? when the album leaked, I was really torn between wanting to hear it but wanting to wait for it to come out. I had it downloaded on my computer but couldn't bring myself to open it?

Ted Leo: You don't have to do that in the future. (Laughs)

Scene Point Blank: In terms of music downloading, where do you stand on it? I know it's a clichéd question.

Ted Leo: But it's a good question to keep asking, it's such a shifting landscape. I mean my own feelings are continually evolving on it. I'm continually conflicted. It's so hard to say how one is benefiting from it, how one is being hurt from it, what are the positive or negative aspects of it. I can say this: this last year in particular, I have found it somewhat frustrating that our live audience has grown greatly, but our record sales have stagnated. You have to chalk that up to downloading, but at the same time, at least your live audience is growing. It's one of these back-and-forth things. Unfortunately for a band like us, I feel like we kind of live in this weird nether region where we've finally, just in the last three years, finally gotten to a point where everybody can pay most of their bills. Everybody still works when they can when they're at home, but it's become almost a living, to do this. Just as we're all getting just old enough that the curtain is starting to close a little bit (Laughs), how much longer can we keep doing it? And just at that moment is when we really feel a true pinch. We're not selling so many records that we can just write it off, the things that we lose from downloading. It's not like when Napster first came on the scene and I was playing to literally two-ten people most nights, turning around a loan, and just to know that somebody was sharing my stuff on the Internet, I was chuffed! "Oh my god! Yeah! That's mah stuff man! Somebody cares! They're sharin' it with somebody else, that's great!" And in some ways I still feel that way, I just wish there was some other method for surviving. And the answer is, you go get another job, but then the other flipside to that is that we can't tour as much as we do. There's this constant back and forth of pros and cons, and honestly, I've given up trying to sort it out. At this point I'm like... I just need to keep writing songs; that's what I need to keep doing. However it all shakes out, I'll just keep rolling.

Scene Point Blank: What about the sorts of methods used by Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails recently?

Ted Leo: Well I think it's unfair. Honestly, I'm kind of pissed off at Radiohead for doing that because they're fucking multi-millionaires. So fuck them, you know, they can do whatever the fuck they want. It makes it harder for everybody else to try to figure out a workable idea. It's like a red herring or a cul-de-sac to me to go down that road. Now, if the whole world becomes 'you release your music for free' and playing live becomes the way that you get compensated for it, then so be it. But it's not at that stage right now, and the overhead for actually making a record with a label and putting it out still requires an investment, and nobody wants to lose money. Nobody wants to fucking wind up in the gutter in a year or two. The Radiohead thing also was like a weird scam in my mind because they knew that they were going to be releasing the hard copies of the record eventually. It's bizarre man.

Scene Point Blank: It annoys me that they get all the credit when bands like Bomb the Music Industry! have been doing it for years?

Ted Leo: And so was Public Enemy; Public Enemy's been doing it for years as well. And that's a whole different model, that's just like 'you know what, we're just giving our shit away on the Internet. You wanna come to the shows... and we're self-releasing our record, etcetera etcetera.' We're not quite in a position to be able to accommodate either model properly, like having big label support or doing things completely gratis. It'll shake out as it will and we'll roll with it.

Scene Point Blank: I recently watched the Naudet brothers' documentary ?9/11' and was struck by a scene where a firefighter commented that he wanted to ?go out and kill' or words to that effect. In light of that, do you think the 21st century is the era of the ?righteous war', where those provoking it really believe they're doing right and good?

Ted Leo: I think that if George W. Bush had not been President, it would not be. I was there... I was loading ships on the docks in Jersey City with relief material to bring over there for the week afterward. People I went to high school with died that day... my only point being that I was there. And I'm telling you right now man, the spirit in the region, the New York region... until George W. Bush came on the scene and it became a national event, the spirit was in no way, shape or form aggressive or antagonistic or war mongering. Everyone was just taking a deep breath. It was extremely circumspect. The memorials that popped up around the city in the immediate aftermath of the event were explicitly... explicitly calling for... not war. It had a very anti-militaristic, anti-violent sentiment. And that pervaded the whole region, I'm telling you right now. Of course there are people who're going to be like, "I'm ready to kill, I wanna kill," but the overarching sentiment was not about war. It became a national thing; the media fans the flame, that's the way it goes. Our President had an agenda that went back to long before he was in office. It's not a fuckin' conspiracy theory, this is documented fact that the Iraq agenda was on the table by this organization called the Project for the New American Century, PNAC... which had been pushing this for years. They found their man in office, and they changed the entire zeitgeist of the world. If he had not been in office, their man wouldn't have been there. Fox News wouldn't have been able to do what it did; it wouldn't have been able to practice its jingoistic, yellow journalism like they did in the Spanish-American war, like they fuckin' did in every war. So my answer is simply that: it's still very early in this century, and my hopes are that America itself is not so far gone down that road that this next election will continue the pattern and make it worse. I don't understand how he ever won, but I really don't understand how he won the second election, and the second election, in fairness to the American people, he won by the smallest margin of any sitting American President ever. So there's still half of the fucking country that hates the man's guts, and probably more that are just too chicken to vote against him while we're in the middle of some military action. So my hope is that the answer to your question is no. The other component though... is that honestly, it's not a popular thing to say, but you've got to take religion outta the picture. And this is not directed solely at Al-Qaeda and Islamists' sentiments, this is absolutely about Christianity and pretty much anyone who feels they have a mandate from some divine power to... I don't wanna say 'enforce their will', that's kind of a trite statement, but it feels that they have the moral high ground, and can therefore justify things like killing and they're a religion. That's going to be... ironically, the end of evolution will be religion. (Laughs) I feel like it's really got to be... put in its proper place, if we're not to have a century of war.

Scene Point Blank: You answered that better than I asked it. Anyway, Myspace is responsible for a huge surge in the careers of lots of new bands, like The Arctic Monkeys in the U.K., but a lot of them are missing out on the years of work before playing arena tours. How do you think that'll affect the future of music?

Ted Leo: That's a good question too, and also one I don't think I have the answer for. I think it's brilliant that bands can do what The Arctic Monkeys did, which is outside of the system...

Scene Point Blank:...except it's owned by Rupert Murdoch?

Ted Leo: Yeah, you're in Rupert Murdoch's system, but outside of the record system, and I respect that, man, I think it's cool that kids can do that these days. Having said that, I will pull the 'crusty old man' card out a little bit and say that as old-fashioned as this, I value hard work, (in old Irish dude accent) "Oi tink it builds character." (Laughs) I think there's something to be said for slugging out for more than a tour and a van, before you get a trailer, and more than a tour and a trailer before you get a bus. There's something to be said for that, but at the same time, certain people handle that transition well and others won't... what are you going to do? I'm too old to worry about that. (Laughs)

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Matt • October 16, 2010

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