Ted Leo shakes up Skully's
Veteran indie-punk songwriter visits Columbus with his Pharmacists in tow
Special to Metromix
Ted Leo is in a good place.
As a kind of contemporary folk hero of punk rock, he's spent a decade or two amassing loads of goodwill—a journey that started with serving in '90s punk act Chisel and peaking with the release of 2004's rousing "Shake the Sheets" by Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. His keen takes on sociopolitical issues and crack-shot songwriting skills have placedd him in an enviable zone: Leo is intelligently provocative enough to spark a civil debate, but his music still boasts a vigorous blue collar grit that could have landed it among pub rock if it originated in England in the 1970s.
On top of that, the guitarist/vocalist has weathered spells of poor luck while doggedly sticking to the independent subculture he's grown up in. (Leo's been on Lookout! Records and Touch and Go Records—two former titans of the underground—and seen both collapse; today, he's on Matador Records, another independent label.)
One last detail working in his favor is his knack for cover songs by fearlessly launching into compositions by Bruce Springsteen, Stiff Little Fingers, Daft Punk, Misfits, Tears for Fears and even Kelly Clarkson.
Currently supporting the crackling "The Brutalist Bricks," Ted Leo & The Pharmacists will stop by Skully's this Saturday evening for a show alongside Tin Armor and The Kyle Sowashes. We spoke with Leo about a life spent in music.
In the past, you've made it publicly known that you have little fondness for major labels. Have your comments about majors ever affected you going to one as you bounced between labels?
I've met with major labels a couple of times. A few years ago, when Shake the Sheets came out, we were really getting a lot of notice from press. It's funny because around that time, people would always ask me, 'Are you getting approached by a lot of major labels?' and it was literally not one. No major labels have approached me in a really long time. [Laughs] My ego likes to think that someone actually read something that I said, but it's probably also that we are far enough under the radar or not writing enough love songs to pique their attention.
You've mentioned before that your fanbase drives your work, and your work would have a different vibe if you moved to a major anyway.
Yeah, that's what it really came down to. The last time I did speak to a major label, it really was an amazing offer and great people. I believe that they believed what they were telling me about what they wanted and what they were going to offer me. In a lot of ways, it seemed like it could have been everything a songwriter could want in a label home. But then you have to look at the other [side]. Aside from the fact that you have story after story of people getting promised things not working out, do you take that risk? There really is a question. I know a lot of people would be really happy for me if I signed to a major label. They like the music and maybe they like me and don't care if I was on a major label or not. But some people care. I have my own misgivings about it, so I understand. Beyond that, I question how much farther being on a major label is going to expand my audience than being on a good indie label. I don't know that it's going to be a better deal for me. It just never really adds up.
You have some explicitly political songs like “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb,” but others like “Me & Mia” that function on a more personal level. Is your writing process between the two types of song different?
In writing a political song, it's largely because I'm trying to figure out how or why I am thinking the way I am about a particular issue, asking questions about it [and] maybe posing some ideas I have. But I am not in academia, I am not in politics, I don't approach these things in a think-tank kind of way. I approach them in how they affect me on a personal and even emotional level. For me, writing a political song is writing about my life as well. By the same token, oftentimes if I set out with an idea that is more inter-personal, it's more often than not the case that politics creep in there as well. Everything we do is affected by our surroundings and micro and macro contexts in which we interact with each other.
What kind of reactions are you looking for from someone who hears one of your political songs?
I don't have a specific agenda on how I want people to react. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I sing these songs because I have to sing these songs. It's as much for me as for everybody else. For one thing, they are songs. They are not tracts. If the least that happens is that somebody dislikes the music, that's fine with me. I'd hope that people would be interested in engaging with whatever I end up putting out there in some thoughtful way, whether it's agreeing or disagreeing with [me]. But again, if nobody was there, I would still be writing these songs. At the end of the day, I hope that there is some sort of community vibe fostered under the banner of the idea that we're all going through the majority of whatever crap it is that I'm singing about. We're all asking the same questions in many different ways. We're all living in the same world.
As someone who has played some variation of punk for over two decades, what is the biggest change you've noticed since starting your life in music?
My sensibility is the biggest thing. At the risk of sounding like a crusty old fogey, when I was first getting into punk, it was an era when you had to find it for yourself. There was no hipster culture, no indie and punk scene that rose beyond what everyone still understands as the underground. It felt very tight-knit, but it was very eye-opening in a way. I'd walk around a town that I grew up in and have guys in Camaros yell 'Faggot!' because of how I was dressed. I would do shows in New York and New Jersey and there would be plenty of people who I shared all these things with, but at home, I'd open up Maximum Rocknroll and read about similar things going on in Japan or Turkey and feel like, 'Wow, I'm part of something that's global and underground.' It sounds kind of weird, but that's really affirming and connecting. That's why so many older punks get so protective about it: it was so special back then. It felt like your thing. That's not a healthy thing to cling to in terms of being so protective—music is music and if it's available for everybody, so much the better—[but] that's been the biggest change.
In the '90s, [punk] exploded in a way that was kind of negative when major labels and every other kind of commerce possibility realized that this stuff wasn't unsellable. It was a lot of plundering and repackaging and reselling. Once the Internet boom happened, it exploded in a much more positive way, which has allowed people to actually connect with each other. The biggest farce about the Internet is that it isolates people. Obviously, if you sit at home playing Halo all day, you are somewhat isolated, but maybe you are playing with someone in Japan or Turkey online. The way that it has allowed music to spread and connect to people has been such a huge thing. The access everybody has to content and culture didn't exist 20, 25 years ago.
How do you think music is going to change in the future?
I honestly don't know. It's really bizarre. On one hand, you can say how blown-wide-open everything is right now—how all paradigms that the music world has used are just disintegrating and up in the air and nobody knows how it's going to fall. But at the same time, that's kind of not the case. Everyone is using those same paradigms. Record labels are disappearing, but record labels still exist. Everybody's downloading stuff, but everybody also goes to the studio and still makes records and CDs and what-not. There's a lot of flux and transition but also a lot of relying on traditional things. I am absolutely interested in what's happening and what's going to happen. I am scared by a lot of it, but I am also excited by a lot of it. I think about it a lot, but also at the end of the day, all I want to do is write songs, make records, and go out on tour to play those songs to people. As long as that doesn't change, I'm totally happy.
Latest in Entertainment