Throughout a career as a “local business” providing “entertainment solutions,” New Jersey punk/indie band Titus Andronicus have packed word-heavy messages into unexpected places.
On 2010’s “The Monitor,” the band set long Civil War narratives to the unlikely backing of high-energy punk rock – sometimes with bagpipes.
The five-piece does it with the conviction of true believers, as evidenced by a recent piece frontman Patrick Stickles wrote for Spin.com. The well-read, opinionated native of Glen Rock, N.J., attended a Replacements reunion concert, and turned in a 9,000-word essay on the band’s place in history, retold as an allegory for false classic rock idols, the subsequent rise of punk, and the questions raised by cash-out reunion tours.
So in that context, perhaps it doesn’t sound too outlandish if their next album is what Stickles laid out in a phone interview.
When asked about a rock opera briefly mentioned in a previous article, Stickles indicated that Titus’ follow-up to 2012’s stripped-down “Local Business” will be even more ambitious than “The Monitor.”
Ambitious as in a fictional, multi-act rock opera including 30-odd songs and at least one film.
The plot, he said, is inspired in part by Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” and “Touched with Fire,” psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison’s book on how manic depression relates to the artistic temperament.
“Basically we meet a guy, a fella, and he’s a very depressed, sad guy, and he doesn’t have much hope about life,” Stickles said.
The character went through some sort of trauma he doesn’t fully understand that left him less outgoing, less ambitious than he once was.
A “mysterious, shadowy” figure appears, a “doppelgänger of our hero,” who reveals that the main character used to be part of an ancient race of humans.
“This superhuman race has this curse upon it, and the reason that they’re able to do all these great things is the same reason that they ultimately are doomed to destroy themselves. They’re a self-destructive race that’s dispersed amongst the regular population,” he said.
And so the source of all his power is the same thing that put him in the “bad state” at the beginning of the story.
After a love interest enters his life, the hero has to decide whether to reveal his true nature, and whether he wants to live like a regular person.
“So that’s the question, what’s he going to do? Is he going to become a human, or live out his true destiny? The true destiny is more painful, you understand? But it’s got bigger rewards but there are consequences,” Stickles said.
“It’s all a way of questioning, would you want to live your life in the middle ... or would you accept the lows because they’re the price of the highs? Mostly it’s a metaphor for manic depression, is the thing,” he said.
Regarding the music backing the as-yet-unrecorded rock opera, he said for now it’s likely to be faster, and the guitars will be more distorted.
“Maybe that equates to it being punker, but I don’t know,” he said, adding that they’ve been performing a few of the songs on their current tour.
It will be accompanied by at least one film.
“The movie is a visual representation of the album. Think of it as 33 music videos for 33 songs. But they’re not going to be that fancy. It’s not going to be like a Puff Daddy video,” he said.
He cited the sort of one-off videos that up-and-coming rappers post online.
“These rappers now they exist within and respect the natural limitations and structure of the Internet. With the way they make their one-shot videos? The rules about what kind of content is acceptable are changing along with the democratization of art as enabled by the Internet, you know?” he said.
Of the big themes the rock opera will tackle, Stickles said an album is like any other artistic medium. Whether it’s a book, movie or painting, it’s still a vessel to communicate ideas, he said.
“It’s all just trying to validate the listener, you know? It’s all just the artist saying, ‘This is how I feel, you feel this way, too? Hey, me, too. We’re friends now.’ That’s all that it is. It doesn’t matter that it’s a guitar and not a paintbrush. We all live on the Earth, we have experiences and we want to communicate our inner world to the outer world and some people are drawn to a camera or a paintbrush, and some people are drawn to a guitar. I use a guitar. For now, anyway. Someday it’ll just be convenient to do a book and I’ll just do a book instead,” he said.
Music is just a wider means of communicating ideas to people who need them, he said, much in the way punk bands like Rancid did for him when he was a teenager.
“You send your art out into the world like a message in a bottle and hope that the person who needs it finds it. And then we they find it, you hope that they come and find you, cause you’re like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ You know? And we’re dispersed out here. ... We’re not necessarily always born next door to somebody that feels the same way that we do about the world in some weird way,” he said.
He cited the example of his song, “My Eating Disorder,” about a selective eating condition he suffers from.
“ ... I never knew anyone growing up that had the eating disorder, right? It was a completely isolated experience, right? But then I grew up one day, and I wrote a song about it and I sent it out in the world like, there go my feelings about this, there goes what it feels like to be alive with this problem,” he said.
The song reached a fan with the exact same problem, and she tracked down Stickles.
“ ... And I never would’ve found her if I didn’t put this song out in the world as though to say, I’m here, I’m experiencing this, if you’re experiencing this, too, come and find me and we can share our strain?” he said.