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By Andy Argyrakis
Interview with Ted Leo
Leo and his Pharmacists
still alive and kicking
July 25, 2007
Considering Ted Leo and the Pharmacists toured at least four, maybe five times (the front man can't exactly remember) behind its 2004 disc Shake the Sheets (Lookout!) the guys are understandably exhausted. And that's not to mention the outings behind three prior records, or Ted's time in the East Coast post-hardcore scene (circa late 1980s into the 90s) with Citizen's Arrest, Animal Crackers and Chisel. But rather than popping pills to keep the wheels of alternative intensity turning, Leo and company turned to a rich list of rock n' roll luminaries for inspiration and realized they're a hell of a lucky bunch to do what they love for a living.
"Yeah, I get absolutely tired sometimes, to be totally honest, and the main reason lately has been the amount of touring on the previous record," says Leo via phone from his New Jersey home. "As hard as it is, to complain about playing music every night of your life because of the physical grind would make me feel bad. It gets down to the simple fact that what you do with your life is make music, which is something a lot of people only dream about."
Rather than sounding strained on the new Living With the Living (which bows on Touch and Go because of Lookout!'s recent financial troubles), the troupe is riding high on energy that's been transferred from the artistic osmosis of listening to loads of The Kinks, The Clash, Billy Bragg, The Jam and even bits of Squeeze. Plus there's plenty of the band's typically rabble-rousing indie rock traits, including lo-fi guitars loaded with jarring distortion, gritty garage-derived percussion and Leo's signature snarl.
"Some of these songs are well over a year and a half old at this point and you dip in and out with different love affairs," Leo explains. The newest songs were finished at the end of last summer and I was actually listening to a lot of Daft Punk around that time. But now I'm listening a lot to the most recent Phoenix record and on the other side of the spectrum I've been getting back into old English punk like Conflict and Rudimentary Peni. And then there's some stuff I haven't listened to in a long time, but they are already engrained musical sensibilities. There's some Squeeze and Kinks and basically the whole mod era up through the soul meets new wave thing."
"Army Bound" best sums up his latter examples, while "The World Stops Turning" and "The Sons of Cain" ooze with punk-ish power. "A Bottle of Buckie" turns from the U.K. to Ireland to touch upon electric pub rock (a la The Pogues), while "The Unwanted Things" and "The Lost Brigade" showcase a softer side of Leo's pipes, which shift to somewhat soulful falsettos. There's also "Colleen," a tune that could quite possibly be the band's first breakthrough pop hit, along with the politically charged "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb."
"We'd been playing about four of the songs pretty consistently and the other eleven were written much closer to the actual recording- two were actually written in the studio," he recalls. "All of them had been played at least once, so it wasn't so much about gauging audience reaction in some cases, but getting the feeling that this group of songs fit into an album in the classic sense."
Such observations also ring true in the lyrical department, which despite not packing a unifying theme throughout the disc, all come from an incredibly honest place that again ring true to Leo's consistency as a storyteller. Tracing politics to personal matters, the leader is never afraid to speak his mind, nor does he hold back any emotion- no matter how fragile it may be. "Sometimes I'm talking about policy issues, personal loss or dealing with that as an effect of larger governmental and societal policies," Leo confirms. "To me, the policy and personal link up in loss. There are a number of different losses- like the loss of a loved one which 'The Sons of Cain' is about. The main thing I want people to come away with- whether it be the live show or record- is feeling a little bit reenergized in the knowledge that there is a community here all going through the same thing. We should all take some strength in that."
Though the listener can certainly relate on many levels throughout the current collection, Leo has a few touchy issues on his mind that relates directly to the band's situation. With the record having just hit streets and the non-stop attention he's received since the release of the last project, there's the somewhere warranted fear of saturating the marketplace. However, Leo's quick to throw a further curve ball while calling into question the very profession he's lived out for the past twenty years. "To be totally frank, I'm feeling kind of over exposed at this point," he admits. "I'm feeling it a bit from the press who's sick of writing about me and [it could come from fans] reading about me. Sometimes I also get into a frame of mind where I get so frustrated with the entertainment industry and I don't want to be a part of it. I wonder if there's some other more productive and less wasteful thing I could be doing. Not too sound too much like a fucking martyr, but the older I get, there are much more direct ways to be on the ground. Maybe I could minister to people in some other capacity- maybe teaching or going into the peace corps for a couple of years. The longer I go driving around the country in vans and making petroleum product CDs while providing the soundtrack to drunken revelry, it calls up a lot of questions."
But what about the fact that Living With the Living and past projects center around pro-activity and escapism for fans from life's daily problems? How about just the idea of being a medium for folks to have a fun time at a show and possibly even think about a social or political issue they never previously considered, even in the midst of inebriation? "I think that's true and I definitely recognize that because it's certainly what I value," Leo concurs. "Music does that for me more than almost everything else in my life. If that's the case, then I guess [making music for a living] can be okay. These are the questions that come and go in waves. Sometimes I'm much more ready to kind of raise the flag and get out there, through I do go through these phases. It's probably healthy though!"
But Leo quickly transitions from mulling about life's far reaching questions to more immediate tasks at hand. As was the case in support of the last CD, he'll be hitting the road hard, while continuing to inundate all aspects of the media thanks to Touch and Go's aggressive album promotion. "My life is pretty planned through the spring of 2008," he offers with a chuckle. "At 37 this year, that's not as great a feeling as it used to be because it does sound tiring, but the second I step on stage, it all goes away and becomes worth it all over again."
Check out more of Ted Leo and his Pharmacists at www.tedleo.com.