Q&A: Ted Leo On Middle-Class Indie-Rock Life, His Dissatisfaction With Your Karaoke Preparation, and Five-Dollar Words
Ted Leo and The Pharmacists have had a tough couple of years. Their previous two record labels, legendary indies Lookout and Touch & Go, both famously (and surprisingly) went out of business without warning, and his personal and creative lives haven't run much smoother. His wife had health issues, he scrapped a completed record and, in a piece about how the economic downturn was affecting musicians, told Spin writer David Peisner that "I guess it's time to find another job." And though he admits he's "been through a lot," Ted's not a complainer, he's a giver. His melodies are dependably Lennon-McCartney worthy, his words are humane and true, and his live shows leave no quarter. And while there might be, theoretically, artists that are more innovative or fashion forward, those artists sure as hell aren't busting their ass to learn your favorite punk classics and roller-skating jams for an all-night karaoke party.
Leo met with us at one of Jersey's finest Irish bars, and as soon as this interview (and his whiskey) ended, he switched tables to begin planning that night's WFMU pledge drive with DJ/Sound Of The City fave Tom Scharpling and prankster/drummer Jon Wurster. (He's been a fan of the station since his high school days, and a regular guest on the Best Show for several years.) But first, Leo chatted about the making of the excellent new album The Brutalist Bricks, business blues, and "just fucking loving" music.
Two years ago, Spin did an article about how the recession was affecting musicians. You talked about how maybe it was time for you to retire and put the music thing to bed. I have to admit that when I read it, I was mad as a motherfucker. I was like, "Oh no, Ted's a goddamn American hero. He can't quit now." So I'm glad that didn't happen. But how close were you to calling it quits?
I've never been close to calling it quits. I think that the point was maybe a little bit overstated on my part. The point I was trying to make was that the reality of the financial situation, being a musician full time as I've been, is really that touch and go. No pun intended. I've been doing this over 20 years and I'm unable to tour in the kind of comfort that I think allows rock stars to do, like, year-long world wide tours, you know, and it's a grind. It's a great thing to do, there's no question that in one sense it's the best job you can possibly have. But in another sense, it's gotta have a time-stamp on it. I'm already about to enter the first tour on this new record just dead. I'm exhausted from all the work I've been doing, it's just not healthy. And it's not sustainable at that level. And when things are going well, financially, it's more standable than not.
But it's really like a razor's edge that we walk, everyday. This is not meant disparagingly in any way--it's the nature of the beast--but you know the public can be fickle, and we already don't sell that many records. If that took even a minor dip, it would have to be a hobby band for us again, instead of a life. I think that was more the point I was trying to make. And it's not like I've ever been at the point where I was close to quitting. But I'm always at a point, which depending on circumstances, within a year it could go one way or another.
Do you think you could walk away from it, or would you just have to get a part-time job?
I don't think I would ever stop playing music, but I would not be able to do it at the level of activity and engagement and energy and involvement that I have become accustomed to doing it. Oddly enough, I kind of made my peace with this ten years ago. All of the success that I've had as, quote-unquote, Ted Leo And The Pharmacists really already came after a point at which I'd kind of given up on the idea of that kind of success. So, in one sense it's enabled me to wing it and just be like, "Alright, well as long as it keeps working out, I'll going to keep doing it." I think I've grown to really love doing it more than I ever had, so it would certainly be hard to even scale back. It's not something I want to do. But at the same time, I think I can be zen about it. The ideal would be to able to recognize things with enough time that I could scale things back on my own terms, as opposed to like, you know, rolling a big new album out and having it completely and utterly flop. Then having to go, "Uh-oh, well okay I guess other circumstances dictate that, it's time to hang it up."
Do things even really flop anymore, because it's hard to tell with the way sales are. Nothing sells very much. What would a flop be--bad reviews or something?
No, a flop would be... at the level that I'm at, it's like this weird middle-class of musicians. So when you're selling, say, a relatively small number--less than 5,000 or something--you're not living your life around your music at that point. And I can say that from experience, because I spent the first 15 years of my music-playing life doing much less than that. But it starts to become this potentially self-sustainable thing when you get into the next bracket, which is a sales bracket in which you're not like putting money in the bank, you're not buying new cars or houses or anything, but you're covering the expenses of doing what you do. So it becomes a non-losing proposition at that point, which opens up the door for the possibility of it becoming an actual viable job and life. And then just like with the other actual wage earners in other areas of America, it's not until you really leapfrog into the 99th percentile that you actually start earning serious money. For the rest of the lower-middle class of people who are where I'm at, record sales actually still matter quite a bit, because again it's the difference between it being a self-sustaining thing or not. And when you're pushing 40 that matters more than when you're pushing 20 or even 30.
I've seen pictures of you wearing a T-shirt that says "Uninsured American," and I imagine nearing your 40, that must weigh heavily on your mind.
Yeah. I've been through a lot in the last couple of years--without getting too deeply into it--with my wife and health problems, getting caught without insurance, having to buy it and going almost broke paying for it. Luckily, her actually getting taken on full-time for a job she was previously freelance at finally allowed us to get health insurance. But I wouldn't be able to afford it on my own.
If you had to scale back, what do you think you'd do for a living? I could picture you being a really good high school teacher.
That's kind of what I was thinking, actually. Glad to hear you say that. Yeah, that's probably where I would gravitate, I'd imagine.
You seem like the type of guy who could probably release an album a year if you wanted, given your songwriting abilities. But you took a while for this one. You toured these songs a while, I had heard some of these new ones in concert a year or two ago.
If we didn't tour as much as we did, I could write quicker and put out an album more frequently, for one thing. I don't know, the weird nature of the last couple of years, between Touch & Go falling apart, and we had actually started a record for Touch & Go the year before last, and we wound up scrapping it. It was decent, we could've put it out, it just didn't feel right to me, you know?
For better or for worse--I think for better in this particular case because I think that the album we made this past year was the right album that we needed to make--I think maybe sometimes I exert a little too much attachment to, and thus kind of like wish for control over, recording and songs. Sometimes, maybe you just need to throw down and wash your hands and walk away and throw it out there and see what happens. But at the same time, I don't know. Again, ultimately I don't really know what the point would be of putting something out you weren't 100 percent behind, so the fact that we actually threw away almost an entire record factored into the length of time between the last record and this one, obviously.
Was it, like, demoed, or had you actually recorded it?
No, we actually went into the studio and recorded it. A lot of the same songs, but something didn't feel right. It just wasn't right.
It's like, "Yeah, it's good but...[shrugs]"
We were excited about it going into it. I think we could tell even in the studio--I don't know, it's really hard to describe, I've never been in this position before. There was just tenseness and an unfinished aspect to it all, that I think left all of us feeling like we could do better.