Since forming Ted Leo & the Pharmacists back in 1999, frontman and key songwriter Ted Leo has ventured all over the musical map. The often politically minded punk group, which first started out as a solo endeavor for Leo, has delved into reggae, dub step, new wave, Celtic traditionalism, and, at times, even straightforward pop (see 2004’s breakaway hit, “Me and Mia”). And despite a slew of lineup changes and label troubles—they’ve watched two crumble in the past four years—The Pharmacists still press on.
Most recently, the D.C.-based four-piece released Brutalist Bricks, the band’s fifth studio album, and first with guitarist James Canty in over seven years. I caught up with Leo the day after the album’s release to talk writing, politics, and finally letting loose.
Can you tell me a bit about the album’s title, Brutalist Bricks? It’s not really linked to any larger album concept in any major significant way. It really just comes from the one line in the song “Where is My Brain?” that says, “Modern architecture gave me a kick / Until I lived among the brutalist bricks.” That song in particular is just about questioning one’s assumptions and encouraging one’s self to push beyond those ideas that look good on paper, but when they play out in reality and human bodies are involved, they don’t always work out as well as the pretty little equation said they would. In that particular song it is somewhat lighthearted and a little bit tongue in cheek, but at the same time that theme flows through a number of songs on the record. That idea of always pushing yourself to go one step further, in a positive way, or when you feel like you’ve arrived at an idea, looking a little further and keep exploring, is something that comes up on the record in a number of ways.
Your last album, Living with the Living, was a really labor-intensive project. How did putting together this record compare? Making this record was a very different process from every other record I’ve ever made. It probably had more in common with The Tyranny of Distance, the first record I did for Lookout!, than anything since. Back when we made Tyranny of Distance there was no pressure for me to do anything. The world was not beating down my door for the next record that I was making. I was able to work at it in spurts of inspiration and piece something together, not in a shoddy, piecemeal way, but in a way that felt a lot more free. Bizarrely, if there’s anything positive that came out of the demise of Touch and Go Records last year, it was that we were left back in that state of existence. By the time Touch and Go fell apart, it had already been two years since the last record came out, and, once again, there really wasn’t anybody screaming for us to get the next record out. I mean, everything was fine; we were playing shows, everyone was happy making music, but it was just really nice to be writing music again off of that cycle. I always enjoy working on records and being in the studio, but the looseness and air that this project had within itself, I think brought a level of joy and fun for all of us in the band that we just hadn’t experienced in a long time.
You’ve been pretty outwardly political in your songwriting over the years. How did politics weigh in this time around? Already I’ve noticed people saying that this record is not as political, or a little more hopeful. I would argue both points, but only because I think there was a lot of darkness on the past two records, but there was also a lot of hope. … If it has anything to do with the end of the Bush era, it’s not because of the beginning of the Obama era. It’s not because I think that things are super great. It’s only because I got over being so depressed. I got sick of banging my head against the wall.
Where does that leave you? I’ve never been under any illusions that music is going to change the world in any sort of immediate fundamental sense. No politician is ever going to hear a song and go, “Oh! Ted Leo thinks the Iraq war is stupid. We should think about that.” But I’m also always conscious of the fact that person by person is exactly how the world changes. Having been affected by music myself, I hope that I can just carry on in the tradition of musicians who have been able to work that way. If there’s a little more lightness in this record, it does reflect my mood, but it’s less about being really happy that Bush is gone [and more about] coming to some sort of decision that I can’t live my life in a state of hostile, depressed desperation anymore. I have to stop and smell the roses every now and then.
Ted Leo & the Pharmacists play SOhO (1221 State St.) this Wednesday, March 24, at 9 p.m. with openers Sally Crewe & the Sudden Moves and Titus Andronicus. For tickets and info, call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com.