The Cave of Ted Leo's Brain
Published Feb 20, 2010Ted Leo is weeks away from releasing his new album, but he's already back in the studio. "I do have a batch of new stuff, but this is for a friend of mine who has a radio show here [in New Jersey]. It was his birthday yesterday and I was supposed to go by the studio but the weather has been insane, so I was trying to write him a brand new song for the evening."
It's not surprising coming from Leo, a wide-eyed punk veteran whose humane passion and relentless touring have earned him a reputation as one of the most affable and hardest-working figures in indie rock. After a string of bad label luck ― economic woes forced both Lookout! and Touch and Go to tighten operations substantially ― Leo and band-mates the Pharmacists readied their fourth full-length The Brutalist Bricks without a sure landing spot. "A number of labels reached out, and Matador was one of them. It wasn't a super easy decision, but you wake up one day and go, 'Wait a minute, it's Matador! Why would I say no to that?'"
A streamlined blend of his distinctive post-hardcore thrash and ragged '80s indie jangle, Brutalist Bricks is as rife as ever with Leo's had-enough political vitriol, and, as heard in the acoustic-tinged pop of "Even Heroes Have to Die," there's some personal and professional prodding, too. "I'm certainly partially consumed with the validity of attempting to be an adult who makes a living being an artist. Thinking about the past, assessing the value of what you've done so far and trying to plot a course for the future is heavy on my mind right now," Leo says before quickly pointing out that, typically, even the most private-sounding songs are often rooted in a deeper social rhetoric.
"'Bartolomeo and the Buzzing Of Bees' is about coming around to not accepting the status quo. You get into it, bash your head against the wall, get tired of it and you give up for a while, and then you come back to it. It's about making a decision to really be engaged." When asked to divulge his secret to such untainted optimism even as he lives so consciously in a sometimes-downer world, there's no hesitation. "It's really through the process of writing and continually performing this stuff that I feel like I'm somewhat able to, at the very least, maintain some sort of Zen acceptance of the positive things I can find around me in the moment, if not some actual hope for a better future. I hope that doesn't sound too cheesy."
Even the album's title, pulled from the song "Where Was My Brain?," is a loaded choice. "Brutalist architecture is, in one sense, an architectural theory that's really interesting academically, but it's called Brutalism for a reason. When you build entire cities in this style, like Brasília, it's actually pretty oppressive." Instinctively quelling any hint of cynicism, Leo continues, "But it's also an architecture that's built around showing the internal, load-bearing workings of something on its outside. It kind of reflects the positive side too, of looking a little deeper to get a little further..." He trails off, catches himself, and laughs. "Sorry, I'm getting too far into the cave of my brain here."