The past seven years haven't been easy for Ted Leo. Since releasing The Brutalist Bricks in 2010, the singer and guitarist suffered a series of staggering personal, professional and financial hardships. "There's been a lot of tragedy," says Leo. "But there's also been a lot of amazing stuff."
Always a model for a DIY ethos, Leo is releasing the album himself thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. It follows years being stuck in contract limbo with former label Matador Records. Once a prolific road warrior, the only new music Leo released during this period was the album he made with Aimee Mann as the Both. "I felt very stymied and in suspension in a way that was depressing," he says.
Recording himself in his home studio, this tumult of events became The Hanged Man, his most sonically diverse record to date. It touches on the 2011 death of his daughter, after his wife was forced into premature labour, as well as the sexual abuse he endured as a child. If everything goes according to plan, he figures he might just be able to crawl out of debt. "I had a lot of grieving to do, and a lot of growing."
What are you up to?
What I partially anticipated, but didn't quite know the intensity of, was running the full-time business of trying to get one's own record out on a rapidly advanced schedule, while prepping for massive amounts of touring and handling home renovations. And feeding the cat.
What are your current fixations?
I've lately been obsessed with your own Michel Pagliaro. He's Quebecois, and he's still active. But I think his heyday was the very early '70s, when he put out this record that was self-titled or called Rain Shower depending on where you got it, that's just an amazing, a few years ahead of its time prescient power pop record. Just great inventive pop songwriting. Apparently, that record is one of the greatest all-time selling records in Canada, but no one south of the boarder has heard of him, which is rare. Music between the U.S. and Canada is not so bifurcated. If music is big in one place, you at least hear about it in the other place.
Why do you live where you do?
Because my now wife had the foresight to buy a really dilapidated old building for a really miniscule amount of money [in Wakefield, RI] 20 years ago. We've been working on it ever since. Over that time I've come to love this place. It's not just a default, because she purchased this place, that we've turned it into a home. It's in southern Rhode Island, very close to the ocean. It's a cool, progressive state and it's also close to everything else in the Northeast that I might need to get to relatively quickly.
Name something you consider a mind-altering work of art:
I'm going to choose to interpret "mind-altering" in a small way. I grew up in the '70s and '80s and there was a lot of turmoil. The transition from Carter to Reagan, we were still very deep in the Cold War, and it was especially hot in Central America and whatever was happening ideologically in America or in the punk world, it was very hard to find anyone who was willing to talk about socialism or communism positively even among the dissenting population. And I think I have to credit opening my eyes to a system that isn't anathema by definition to Billy Bragg. In particular I would probably credit Talking to the Taxman about Poetry for really getting me to understand some things about what it means. And even further, his later album Worker's Playtime. Those are two really beautiful albums that through their depiction of the fullness of life and work and love and struggle and joy express something of the heart of the classic European strain of socialism that, by the '70s in the United States, we were supposed to be theoretically against.
What has been your most memorable or inspirational gig and why?
I think that's impossible to say. I'm not trying to be coy about that. I could put a number of gigs that I've seen or played in a class that would fit your question. But I don't think I could pull out just one. I really do mean this with all sincerity, but partly because, while I've had some terrible shows over the course of my life, some really frustrating, like "Why am I even on this planet?" kind of shows, I have to say — and again I swear I'm not trying to be hyperbolic — even in the midst of those shows I have moments where I transcend, where you achieve everything that you want to achieve. I'm saying that for myself, not necessarily for the audience. So I'd have to qualify it in terms of those moments. There's really not one single show that's stuck in my mind as the greatest ever. It's more the long arc of having these moments over the course of my life.
What have been your career highs and lows?
Let's just go to the most recent thing and call that a career high: the Kickstarter that I did, which came out of what I'll say is a career low for me, not knowing where I stood with a label that I was under contract to. All my creativity that was going towards a new record of my own was stifled and it felt bleak and I was perpetually running out of money, and relatively rudderless. But being finally let out of my contract with Matador in a really respectful and kindly way, by them in the final analysis, put a little wind in my sails to finally finish this thing. [That] led up to me doing the Kickstarter which by any measure of anything that I've done before — playing on massive festival stages, late-night TV, or playing the most appreciative house shows — there's no way I can't point to the way people came through for me in the Kickstarter that I did and say that's not a career high. I haven't entirely processed it until now, but that is another real affirmation that everything that I've done up until this point has had value.
What's the meanest thing ever said to you before, during or after a gig?
I will go to my grave remembering this kid at the Garage, this club in London. We'd just gotten off stage after playing "Stove By a Whale," this six-and-a-half minute, Celtic dirge-like song. This is in 2002 or something like that. This kid in full regalia, like not home cut, but "went to a salon to get the mod bowl cut, three buttoned Fred Perry buttoned up to the top, wearing a parka, mod to the nines" kid comes up to me and goes [affects a working class British accent] "Hey, you're Ted Leo, yeah?" And I'm like "Yeah, yeah, how are you doing?" and he goes, "Yeah, my friends told me I should check you out. Generic. Pop. Punk." And then he walked away. [Laughs] That is both the cruellest thing anyone has ever said to me and I have to admit, a moment that I can at least look back on, because it was so utterly ridiculous.
What should everyone shut up about?
Where to start? Well, I live in the America. I would like everyone to shut up about anything that doesn't acknowledge the utter destruction of normalcy in our politics right now. Anybody who continues to make apologies for the electorate that's gotten us where we are right now, or holds even a drop of water for the Republican party in this country, that's who I'd like to shut up. I'd like them to shut up and I'd like them to listen to other voices in this country for five fucking minutes.
What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?
If I'm to toot my own horn, I think I'm a pretty good listener. I know when to shut up and listen. I always seek to learn and be better. That's always a goal and it always puzzles me why people dig their heels in on something when it could actually be better if you just listened and learned. The flip side of that coin would be, I get a little overly enthusiastic about things sometimes and tend to babble on and actually talk too much. But when it's important I know when to close my mouth.
What's your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I think it would lean towards the doing nothing side of things, but more just having nothing on the agenda. You could choose to do something or not, as the spirit moves you.
What advice should you have taken, but did not?
I feel like I lost a few years when I could have been a little more nose to the grindstone about things and not indulge my wanderings so much. I was trying to do it all at once, and it did put me behind the eight ball on a number of fronts, from finishing school to keeping money in the bank to getting started more actively that I was working with.
What would make you kick someone out of your band and/or bed, and have you?
We don't even need to go into the politics and racism that would get someone kicked out. I think disregard for your fellow people's thoughts and feelings would be enough to get you kicked out of a band. Meanness, cruelty and a lack of humility would certainly be enough to get you kicked out of a band. I don't know how to transpose that to bed, but I'm sure there are plenty analogous situations.
What do you think of when you think of Canada?
I don't think of one thing. I've travelled in Canada quite a bit, played a lot of places and met a lot of people. It's a place that's at least as diverse as we are if not more so. I think of it as a place where I can get some better flavoured potato chips or similar candy bars that come in different wrappers.
What was the first LP/cassette/CD/eight track you ever bought with your own money?
I think it may have been a Tom Petty record. I'm not entirely sure. I know what the first record I asked to be bought for me was. That was "It Never Rains in Southern California" by Albert Hammond. I still have that seven-inch actually.
What was your most memorable day job?
I worked for CBS News when I was in DC for a while. That was in the '90s, when all forms of security around National Monuments and offices et cetera were much more relaxed. I would often be tasked with going up to Capitol Hill if something was happening and waiting for the video tape of the proceedings to be handed to me to run it back to headquarters for them to edit. That's just one thing that I did, but just to give you an example of how different things were then: I would park my car, a beat up, '62 Chevy Nova with holes in the chassis, right behind the Supreme Court, park on the street, and I would just walk up, show my CBS ID and hang out and wait for the tape. Or if I had to pick up something from the White House, literally just drive up to the gate, show them my ID and drive onto the grounds. That was a really cool, interesting and fun job to have for a while.
How do you spoil yourself?
I drink too much wine. That's because I really like it. I'm a drinking man's connoisseur, not a wine seller connoisseur.
If I wasn't playing music I would be…
A few years ago I would have said I would be teaching high school English, but at this point, if I wasn't playing music I would be running for office somewhere. I would probably start at the local level, which I guess probably also means I could still be teaching.
What do you fear most?
I fear the things — people and animals — that I love, suffering. I don't fear much for myself. When things that I love suffer, it blows back on me. So I guess in a way I am fearing for myself to a certain degree. But that's what I worry about. I've been through enough myself, enough scrapes with things. I like life, I don't want it to be taken away from me, but I more worry about it happening to other people.
What makes you want to take it off and get it on?
Go-go music. Washington, DC go-go music.
What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?
Back in 2007 or '08, I got stuck at Toronto Pearson [airport] because of weather. I was trying to fly back to the States. My bass player Marty and I were just sitting there. Everybody else had gotten out on an earlier flight. We got stuck. We were just sitting there and all of a sudden looked up and [the Kinks'] Ray Davies was just standing in front of us. I looked at him and said, "Damn, even Ray Davies got stuck." And he looked back at me and said, "Yeah mate." And then he walked off. It was a perfect, "we're all stuck in this together" kind of thing.
Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?
I think you'd want to pull from a number of different areas for a good conversation. I'd probably invite Curtis Mayfield from the music side of things. He seems to have been such a big-hearted, creative soul who was taken too young. I'd love to sit down with him and hear his stories and thoughts about life and music. I'd probably also want to invite someone like Cyrus the Great from the Persian Empire, or someone from that era of history whose influence abutted both East and West. We know a lot about the Persian's conflicts with the Greek world, but we don't know a lot about what went on on their Eastern borders. This is purely just personal curiosity. I don't think there's any massive gain to be had from that knowledge. And finally, let's invite Helen Mirren. She seems cool. Last night I made a good grilled cucumber and watermelon salad, so if this party was happening tonight I would do the same and gussy it up with some couscous for the main.
What does your mom wish you were doing instead?
I think at this point my mom knows that I'm doing what I want to be doing and is okay with that.
What song would you like to have played at your funeral?
Oh, I would entirely leave that up to the living. What do I care? Funerals are for the living. Maybe we can talk about it and figure out what works for everybody. I want whoever is organizing the funeral to play whatever is going to be good for them to hear.