Ted Leo: The Extra Long, Occasionally Meandering, Entirely Unexpurgated Interview
This weekend, Ted Leo returns to the Voice's annual Siren Music Festival for the record-setting third time, after performing in 2003 and DJing back in 2008. In anticipation, we called him up to talk about the rumors of his impending retirement, the challenges of getting older in a dying record industry, and what exactly his plans for the future might be. That story is here. But it's not every day that you get a punk icon of Leo's longevity and stature on the phone, so we figured: why not run the entire conversation? Our sprawling dialogue--about Twitter etiquette, pirating old Black Flag records, and the depredations of evil Italian promoters--is below. Read on if you like the guy.
Yup, that's an Amebix t-shirt. Photo by Mark Hewko
The last time you spoke to the Voice, you basically said what you're doing now is unsustainable. Do you still feel this way?
Even more so, yeah. I mean, that was only a couple months ago. Over the course of touring in the spring and getting an even better handle of how record sales with our latest record are going, it's definitely unsustainable. That's just the unfortunate reality of it.
So record sales are grim?
Well, it's all relative, but I mean, [exhales] not enough to keep us in action at the level of activity that we've been acting at for the last decade or so. As everybody ages and aren't quite so willing to live hand to mouth anymore, you just can't keep doing it.
Going forward, do you have a sense of what the reality is going to look like in terms of the way your life will change?
I imagine we'll have to tour less, because we'll have to be working in other ways more. Beyond that, this is all in process. I'm gearing up for transitions, but what those transitions are have yet to really manifest themselves or be decided on. I mean, certainly there's just no way we can keep hammering along like we have been as everybody pushes on into their forties.
Was the relative lack of success of the last record the dividing line?
I don't know, honestly. I certainly didn't think of it that way. There's no dividing line, there's no black and white: it's just a series of decisions based on priorities and logistics and energy. I've seen this coming for a while I think, but at the same time I feel like our big goal has always just been to--I shouldn't even say always--but when the Hearts of Oak record came out in 2003, that record actually surprised everybody. It surprised us. It surprised Lookout! in terms of how it sold and how well people responded to it. And all of a sudden, existing as a band that could be a self-sustaining prospect became a potentially viable option for us. And it was always out of reach, but so close that it always made sense to keep trying for it, you know?
Just to clarify, we're talking about the business side of things. Of course we play music because we love playing music and, at the end of the day, that's the be all and end all. We're not going to stop. But everybody's getting to the point where you have to factor in other things. It always seemed so possible that it was always worth continuing to try for--now it seems pretty impossible. And I've seen it trending in that direction in the same way everyone else has in the last few years. So it's just a question of reevaluation, not so much what you do, but the way you do things.
And, you know, I doubt that I will personally ever stop making music, but I certainly have to realize that I can't keep physically, mentally, or financially doing these tours of Europe, where we're playing to five people every night and losing thousands of dollars and seeing these kinds of diminishing returns. In the states, at least as far as record sales go, shows are still great and that's more than anything what keeps us going--not so much financially, but definitely mentally, physically, and energy-wise. People always talk about [goes into dumb-man voice], "Well, most bands make their money on the road with merch anyway." I mean, I don't know, I've never really found that to be entirely true. I suppose if you're selling t-shirts for 30 bucks and people are actually buying them, that tips the favor in you making most of your money on merch. But we don't do that either.
You seem to be one of the few people coming out and saying right now that record sales really do still matter. I can't entirely tell if you're joking or not, but I do see you calling out people on Twitter for pirating your album.
Well you know what, I'm half joking when I do that. I recognize of course that that's going to go on. But what I find it absolutely ridiculous is that someone would approach the artist and say to them, "Hey where can I..." You know, it's available everywhere, it's 10 fucking dollars. You know how much people spend on beer and stupid shoes and American Apparel clothes every week? 10 dollars, it's 10 goddamn dollars. Dock yourself two beers this week and you've got our album.
Or at least please do me the courtesy of not coming up to my face and telling me you don't want to spend 10 dollars on the record. I get it, we all share music. I do it myself, I share it with my friends--I learn about things by sharing things. Actually, just a couple years ago, I finally bought Black Flag's Damaged on vinyl , because I had a tape of it since the record came out that I made from a friend and I never bought the record. So I get it, we all do it. But I didn't go up to Henry Rollins' face and say "Hey, uh, I really liked the record, I had this tape of it for five years, I never bought it." Because it's rude! That's kind of why I'm snarky on Twitter. I just think that's rude. At least give me the courtesy of pretending that you bought it.
Yeah, and from what you're saying it does matter.
This is what I was saying in the previous interview. It didn't matter when we weren't selling any records--and again, all things are relative--it didn't matter when we had no expectations of selling more than a couple thousand records. And I imagine--though I've never been there--it probably wouldn't matter as much if we were selling hundreds of thousands of records. But when you're selling in the tens of thousands of records, and half of your potential audience of, say, 40,000 sales are not buying it, then it actually, literally does make a difference between being able to fund your tours and pay your rent while you're on tour, and not. So that's all I'm talking about: there's this weird middle zone that I think a lot of bands are in.
And again, I am absolutely not against free music. I would love to figure out a way in which it would make sense for everyone involved to share things much more widely and legally than they're shared. I'm also a pretty generous guy. I'm not afraid to say that. I give stuff away all the time. I give stuff away at shows; I give stuff away on the web. It's just sometimes, I do get a little miffed that the decision to give something away is taken out of my hands.
What about the personal side of it? You kind of alluded to this a little bit earlier: It's tough to be a grown man on one side or the other of 40 and on the road as much as you are.
It's always been a very manic existence. Being a touring musician who spends more of his life on the road than not, it's a life of extremes. At all hours of every day it can simultaneously be the greatest thing that anyone could possibly be doing--especially when you're actually on stage playing music to people, there's really no other life that I would want to have--and at the same time, the grind of it all can be some of the absolute worst experiences that one can have. This is not a "Woe is me" thing: I'm just learning and thinking about all this. We're essentially touring the same way that we were when we were in our early twenties. Now that we are in our late thirties, the negative things that used to not carry as much weight as the positive things become harder and harder to take. They start to both approach that evening out line. They're both approaching zero and that's terrible--you don't want zero-sum game when you're playing music. You want it to stay on the positive side of things and it still does, of course. But with every really degrading tour experience, it becomes more and more like "Ugh, really? I'm still doing this?" But the flip side is that then you have a great experience and that propels you to the next day.