Published Jul 21, 2015"By the way, all my tears are on the record," Titus Andronicus frontman Patrick Stickles tells Exclaim! over the phone from his NYC home. "Tell everybody that I cried. It's okay to cry. There are a lot of people out there, young kids, they're scared to cry. A lot of boys don't want anyone to see them cry. It's all right. Everybody does it."
Stickles is stabilizing himself after a bit of a breakdown, but he's all right, reassuring that he's just feeling a bit "wild" today. It's impossible to separate Stickles the artist from Stickles the human being, part of the reason for such a passionate response to a simple question: "Have you already started working on the next thing?"
Stickles admits he hasn't, and explains that, until recently, he was steeling himself for his upcoming five-act rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy (out July 28 on Merge) to flop. He's entertained the idea of moving to the desert to "get a job at, like, a pizza shop, and if I worked really hard, maybe in 10 or 15 years, maybe I could have my own pizza shop." But the response to the album so far has been so positive that he's scared: for the future, for his own mental health, about "losing control," and of his responsibility to his fans, to "the kids," as an artist — a duty he takes incredibly seriously.
"I'm sorry I got so emotional," Stickles says. "It's hard for me to look back on all the time I wasted, through weakness and fear. No more! Discipline for the kids, keep going every day, that's what it takes to be the artist, that's what Lil Wayne said. You gotta do it every day, even if it's not fun. It's your job. You wanted to be the artist, now you got it, and every day is a gift. And if I don't give you my whole heart right now, then I don't deserve to be the fuckin' artist, and I should go fuckin' move to the desert."
The ridiculously high standards Stickles holds himself to are simultaneously what elevates his art and viciously breaks him. This is a theme on the 90-plus-minute behemoth TMLT, an allegorical tale inspired by Stickles' experience with manic depression. To explain the story incredibly briefly, our hero, in the depths of despair, meets his doppelganger — the same in every way, but opposite in disposition — which sends him on a "transformative odyssey," and to the "shocking revelation that the very thing that sustains him may be the very thing to destroy him."
It's not an album you can appreciate without spending the time and energy to understand its nuances, and Stickles spends the first 45 minutes of the conversation explaining nearly every second of it: each song's place in the "solar system" of the record; why it had to be five acts; the minutiae of the incredible narrative. He's (rightly) terrified of the whole thing being misunderstood, so he's painstakingly documented it. There are notes explaining each song, overviews of the story, handwritten (and Genius-annotated) lyrics, and even a brand new 14-minute film starring writer/director Stickles (shaved and unshaved), bringing the second act to life. It's massive, complicated, and difficult, but such is often the price of great art.
"This is trying to say something about humanity," Stickles says. "I can only speak from the experiences of one human. But I'm not trying to jerk off into the abyss. I want to reach people and find kids like me, and let them know that they're not quite so alone. Pay back the debt that I owe to Lars von Trier, Paul Westerberg, Tim Armstrong."
Some quick background: in March 2012, Stickles had "a catastrophic failure of my ability to function in society." Exiled to his parents' New Jersey basement, beat up and in bad shape, he "pretty much lost the will to write music for about a year," but found the strength around the time of the band's tour for the underrated Local Business, and got his own place in the city again. To combat his manic depression, a doctor put him on drugs he does "not recommend to anybody" (specifically Bupropion and Abilify), and he "was fucked up that whole year."
"I didn't think I wanted to write songs at all," Stickles says. "My vote was to see through the band's present obligations and then find something else to do. Blow my fuckin' brains out, perhaps. But I knew if there was ever gonna be another album, it had to be about this."
The myth and the scope of TMLT threaten to undermine the album as an artistic artifact. It is Titus Andronicus's magnum opus, without a doubt (remember this is the same band that unleashed the American Civil War-inspired epic The Monitor). It spans punk, hardcore, rock'n'roll, post-rock, folk, traditionals, and aural dream sequences. TMLT is a difficult masterpiece, profoundly personal but also universal in its raw humanity and accessibility. It begs repeated listens, research, and a time investment that's unheard of in this digital age. It presents a huge but simple demand of the listener: to think, to understand, to spend the energy required to truly experience the artist's vision as it should be experienced. And it's worth it, thanks in part to Stickles' relentless dedication and uncompromising attitude.
"The decisions we make are not just made arbitrarily," Stickles says. "They're made over a lot of fuckin' sleepless nights. A lot of fuckin' years, a lot of it was sittin' on our ass. People say 'where's Titus Andronicus? They're probably fuckin' strung out, they're probably jerkin' off, Patrick Stickles is probably in some institution upstate or somethin',' but we're not, we're working. We're trying to figure this shit out."
Since their inception 10 years ago, one of the ultimate ambitions of Titus Andronicus has always been to be number one. Stickles frequently claims there are no bands that come close to punching at the same fighting weight (except Fucked Up, about whom he gushes endlessly). Nearing the end of our call, out of tears and with his game face back on, he conjures a bit of hubris and the courage to stare down the gods of rock'n'roll once more.
"Time to be the greatest of all time!," Stickles exclaims. "Or at least try. All you can do is try. The myth of Sisyphus, right? Like my boy Albert Camus says, that's the nobility of our species. We don't concede, we try. We fail and fail, and we try."
With The Most Lamentable Tragedy, though, Titus Andronicus may just bring that rolling boulder to a standstill.