The first time I saw Titus Andronicus was in 2008, when the New Jersey punk band made their San Francisco debut at the Hemlock Tavern.
Patrick Stickles, the brilliant and mercurial songwriter for the band, looked sallow and gaunt at the show, bedraggled perhaps from the group’s first-ever jaunt across the country. Yet when Titus Andronicus launched into its first song, he exploded with a burst of energy, glaring intensely at the audience as the band’s army of guitars created a din of scrawling, dissonant noise that reverberated heavily off the walls of the tiny room in the back of the Polk Street bar.
[jump] After a brief break in that set, a weary fan suggested that Stickles adjust his mic levels so that his vocals could be heard above the cacophony of guitar squeal. Stickles, a punk loyalist through and through, politely declined the man’s request.
“Sorry dude,” he said. “But we love our guitars.”
Eight years later, Stickles and company still have a deep and abiding love for guitar music. It’s a philosophical devotion that puts the band at odds with an ever-changing music world and has Stickles questioning the longevity of Titus Andronicus.
“I don’t have a crystal ball, but a future where screaming over an electric guitar is the coolest thing again seems like a very remote possibility at this point,” said Stickles, whose band will play at The Fillmore on May 24. “It’s been speculated so many times over the years whether rock ‘n’ roll is passé or a dead art form, but now, more than ever, it seems like it’s definitely no longer dominant in youth culture.”
Stickles’ endearing affection for the six-string instrument is on full display in his group’s latest release, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, a sprawling and grandiose 29-song rock-opera that candidly (and often brutally) examines his ongoing battle with manic depression.
Stickles laid out the epic foundation for the album years before its creation as a way of motivating him during a particularly rough stretch of mental health issues. Following the aftermath of its release, Stickles conceded in several interviews that the triple-LP might be the band’s last, although he clarified to the Weekly that that could have been the case for all four of Titus Andronicus’ albums.
“The artist is the sort of elected official,” said Stickles, whose band will release a live album, S+@DIUM ROCK: Five Nights at the Opera, on July 29. “We got constituents and it’s the people, the fans, that keep the artist in office. As long as they keep coming back and keep turning up at the gig and buying records, then I suppose we’ll continue, but that could go away at any time. It’s the will of the people that will determine how long this Titus Andronicus rock band is gonna last.”
Despite its unwieldy length (93 minutes) and a wildly disparate sonic landscape (ranging from punk paeans to buying dope to atonal elegies on the life of a farmhand), The Most Lamentable Tragedy was universally-lauded and ended up on many critics’ best-of lists for 2015. Perhaps equally important, the album provided a therapeutic outlet for Stickles to confront his personal demons.
“I consider myself very fortunate that I get the opportunity to talk about my own experiences and my own struggles, because a lot of people don’t have that luxury,” Stickles said. “People are afraid to talk about their mental health or they don’t have a support system in their life that allows them to deal with these things. Hopefully, I can go out into the world and reach people that are maybe dealing with similar issues.”
While Stickles gave the band and himself some wiggle room, he sounded pretty positive that a fifth album would be coming from Titus Andronicus, albeit one that is less dramatic in scope than The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Despite what he sees as an evolving music scene that is moving further-away from his anchor points, Stickles remained righteously committed to the cause.
“It will be good for my heart to get back on the road and see the audiences and interface with people who are still loyal to the whole guitars and screaming routine,” Stickles said. “It helps because I can be a bit of a doomsayer. At any case, we’re going to continue to do our thing, at least for a good while longer.”
Titus Andronicus play at The Fillmore with La Sera on Tuesday, May 24. More details about the show are available here.