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A few months later Leo and the Pharmacists were on the road again, this time with my friend Arlie and his amazing band Juno. I contacted Ted Leo while on the road, asking to do an interview for an upcoming edition of Copper Press, and he said he'd be delighted. Why didn't they crash at my place again and we could do it the next day? Perfect. Once again Leo began his set with a few songs on his own before being augmented by the full band. Once again he immediately connected with the audience, their positions relative him and the stage quickly coming together. He drew the audience in, not only emotionally but physically as well, his soulful delivery making even his blaring guitar personal and intimate. His latest album, The Tyranny of Distance, was released on the Lookout! label earlier in 2001 and by the time of his stop at my place in the fall, it was in the middle of a national groundswell of support. Things were finally coming together for Leo, an artist that had gone from spotlight to obscurity and back again in the blink of an eye.
After the show we went for burritos and talked about how things had been and how they were going. While inside, the rear license plate was stolen from the Leo/Pharmacists tour wagon, a large dark-colored Dodge van. The van, belonging to Leo's father and acquiring heavy mileage by doing double duty as tour transport for both Ted and his brother Chris Leo and his band, the Lapse, was a bit dented and scraped, but was in otherwise top shape. It was depressing for everyone when the plates were stolen, for whatever reason. The next day, after Ted had done his laundry and accidentally washed my favorite pillow, we went to the police station to file a report. My pillow was old, and had cloth stuffing, so I had to have it refilled by my mom. I didn't mind at all, however, because after the interview for Copper Press I arranged the following interview for Lost At Sea. As you will see, by the time the interview was finished I had grown to appreciate Ted Leo and his music more than I already had. Yes, Ted Leo is a great guy.
LAS: So, Ted. Do you like doing interviews?
Ted Leo: Well, usually I don't mind. I like to think that there is a lot about our music, a lot that is going on that more often than not isn't necessarily easy for me to define. But doing interviews I get to think it out. It helps me get my ideas together.
Do you do a lot of email interviews? Because that is when you have plenty of time to prepare your answers and you're never really "on the spot".
Right. Yeah. And no one ever says, "This interview was done by email", so you end up looking like some great, off the cuff, really articulate guy.
So what do you think about the new record? How did that all come together?
I guess there are a few of the songs that I'd been playing by myself live for a month or two before recording, but none of it was really fleshed out in that I hadn't had the chance to try out different ideas. No extra guitars or strings or anything like that. It wasn't until I had a finished product in my hands, with the artwork and everything, that it hit me, and then I was really pleased.
Is the artwork something you consider a complete part of an album, equal to the music, or is it just packaging?
It's definitely not something that I would consider just packaging. Since I started doing solo records, obviously I've had complete control of the artwork and stuff, and I've actually somewhat consciously tried to have an extended aesthetic through all the releases that I've done. It didn't start out that way, but I've really had these stark, graphic images. It isn't something that I feel is necessarily necessary as part of a record, in that I think the artwork rarely detracts from a record but I think that it can really enhance a record. With that in mind, each of the three records that I've done under my own name, as well as some of the 7"s, the artwork is really very much a part of the piece. The colors and everything are part of it.
So last night you had your license plate stolen. Is that the only vandalism you've ever been subjected to?
Well, not in my life, no. I've had houses and cars broken into. But on tour, definitely, the license plate is the only thing. Wait, that's not true. I was on tour with Chisel, my old band, in Pittsburgh our van was broken into and all of our suitcases were stolen. Our gear was all inside the bar. But it was one of those things, because the next day we all went to this one Am Vets thrift shop in Pittsburgh and I've gotten some of the most amazing clothes. There are two suits that I got from there that are the best fitting $5 suits I've ever had.
Well, I guess you've gotten off pretty well, as many miles as you've logged, only having your license plate stolen. And the suits were a blessing in disguise then.
I've been going through this thing lately where I'll spend the entire day in such an inefficient manner that I only get a few things done the whole day, and it has really started to piss me off. I feel almost like I'm wasting my life, in terms of getting things done. I get so frustrated, and I wonder if other people feel that way. I wonder if other people are making efficient use of their lives.
That is the question. I mean, I always think about that, especially being someone who I think has a pretty wide area of interests, and being somewhat politically or activist minded. I start to think of the life of being "a musician" and that it pretty much consumes your life to the detriment of other things you might want to pursue. It is a very wasteful lifestyle. You're burning all this gas driving all over the country, using all of these petroleum products in what people will listen to the music on, using a lot of paper and plastics in the packaging. There are definite questions I have about it. It was a definite conceptual hurdle for me to get over, but a year or two ago I came to terms with the fact that I could do a lot of things, and I could be into a lot of other things, but I feel like I have a vocation to do this. This is what I do best and while me and / me and my band aren't huge, but there have been enough people that have responded in the way that is the reason that I got into punk rock in the first place. In that I appreciate you helping my life in some way response. So, yeah, I may not be doing all of this other stuff but that is how I'm contributing. Like, I do kind of believe in Dharma and that sort of thing. Like I have a friend who is a Union organizer in Las Vegas and he's great at it and he loves it. In theory I would like to do something like that, but I wouldn't be any good at it. This is what I'm good at.
What is the most memorable or poignant moment of your career.
You know, I specifically and clearly remember the first time someone came up to me and conveyed one of those you-changed-my-life moments to me. It was actually a Secret Stars show at Bard College in New York, and I'd just gone along for the ride. At the show this guy came up to me and he was talking about the Chisel record 8 AM All Day and it was my first experience with anyone who was like... like more than a fan in just a "hey, good show" kind of way. He went in depth about the problems in his live around the time the record came out and how much listening to it had helped him. I, like everyone, had gone through that with other records myself in the past, and continue to this day. So it was definitely like, if I had to quit all this tomorrow I would know that I had completed that circle, and that it would all be worth it.
Do you ever consider that kind of reaction when writing a song?
Normally when I consider reactions when I'm writing it is more along the lines of are people going to think this is stupid? Are people going to like this? Because I guess I'm enough of a music fan myself that if I hit on something that is questionable, and it seems questionable to me, that I'll know it won't work and I'll move on.
Is there anything specific that has gone through that process and then, after analysis, you've decided to leave out?
I can't think of anything specific off hand, but I guarantee it happens in the course of every song. Generally lyrics come to me in a burst. I'll have a lot of musical ideas that are waiting for lyrics and they'll all come at the same time, but even in that burst there isn't anything that I won't eventually go back and have to rework or cut out.
You're going to be on the road for over half of 2001. What do you do when you're not touring or recording?
Well, to be totally honest, the bulk of the four months of the past year that I haven't been recording or touring... To be completely honest I'm always writing. I'm never NOT thinking about music. Apart from actual vacation style leisure time, which I did try to take this year, I'm always working on music. I mean, I kind of made it a point to not have a job this year, because I was so busy with the record, and I guess I just spend my days doing whatever comes up. If someone needs help moving or whatever, I'll do that, but otherwise I'm thinking about music.
I love doing that, but I always end up racking up a huge debt.
Don't think I'm not racking up a huge debt, because believe me, I am.
What do you see this record doing? What do you think it can do?
I don't know. It's been out for two months and it's doing well, but it isn't totally blowing up. And I don't know how I would really want it to do, and I'm kind of taking each step as it comes. Like, MTV Road Rules wanted to use some songs from it, and I was like... uh, No. But then some punk BMX guy was making a video and wanted to use some songs from it and I thought that was okay. It's a bit strange because I'm still kind of defining my own boundaries with it. I don't have any sense of what will come down the pipe for me to deal with, and I also don't know how I'll deal with whatever comes down the pipe.
We obviously think that our ideals are our ideals, and that is that, but everything always changes. MTV is a pretty easy example to say NO to, but if something that wasn't so obviously tacky and yuppie. Like what if Burton Snowboards wanted to use some of your stuff?
I don't know. It's sticky sometimes. I've been pretty vocal in my past about not supporting or dealing with the corporate sector. And I'm pleased to report that I think after all these years, having changed as a person, that I still feel the same way. But I certainly didn't always feel that way myself. There was a time when Chisel was being courted by major labels, and I was seriously considering it. People can change and they can change their minds, and I'll just have to deal with it as it comes. There are a lot of gray areas, like a huge snowboard company or something.
But no Volkswagen commercials?
No Volkswagen commercials, probably I can say that. But the thing is with Volkswagen...
Their business isn't capitalizing on musicians.
Exactly. So, in that sense I can get my head around it. But even then, you're still allowing them to use your hipness and associate themselves with something that they have no association with. But at the same time, theoretically, I don't have any problem representing a product that I actually like. So if Adidas wants me to prop their (looks down) SL72 sneakers, I like them so why wouldn't I?
I'm not even sure if I want to bring this up, but what if the whole major label bid thing comes around again?
I think I pretty much have my mind made up about it. I'd be surprised if it came around again, just because...
Yeah, I was actually surprised to hear about the MTV thing coming around. Surely someone, somewhere at MTV doesn't have their head up their ass and would know that Ted Leo isn't going to be down with that.
You'd think. But then again it has been some time since my name has been in a position to be recognizable in the industry. Chisel broke up almost 5 years ago, and I'm sure there is a whole new crop of people running things now. As far as my stance on the major label thing goes, I'm much more acutely aware of my situation with trying to "make a living" right now. I'm older, I'm in debt, there are a lot of things that I'd like to do soon - in the next five years - that I'm going to need some money for. But one good thing about having done this as long as I have at the level that I have is that I'm not on my way down. I haven't had a big hit, signed and then fallen. I'm used to slugging it out in the trenches and I don't think there is any gold ring that a major label could offer me now. Unless maybe $100 million or something where I could actually use the money to counteract the evil I was causing by putting a record out on their label. (laughs). There's no temptation that could be thrown at me that I couldn't avoid at this point, assuming it would even happen, because it hasn't.
Man, doing interviews gets tired. It gets difficult, after hundreds of them, to not be asking the same questions as everyone, and there are some things you can't get away from. But is there anything that you've never been asked or never talked about with anyone that you were surprised about?
No one ever really asks me about Chisel, or why Chisel broke up or anything about that. In one sense it is kind of cool, because they're asking me about my current stuff, but it is also surprising. After Chisel broke up, I remember the first few interviews I did I was expecting that to come up and it just never did, which was kind of nice but also kind of weird. Another thing is the almost universal rejection of my first solo record. No one EVER asks me about that, which is also nice in a way I guess, but I almost wish it would come up so that I could defend it.
I think your first record sucked.
(laughs) Did you really?
Well, I wouldn't say sucked, exactly. It has its moments, but I've never wanted to listen to it enough to warrant buying a copy. I wouldn't say I liked it.
Yeah, see. People would have some really violent reactions to it. Do you want to get into it?
It just amazed me that people would take such personal offense to a record. I happen to think, personally that... For one thing, it is a record that is meant to be listened to from beginning to end, which is kind of hard to do sometimes. I also think that there are some very solid songs on there. It was something that I was doing myself, when I didn't have any money, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't have a sense of where I was going or what I was doing. Was I going to be in a new band? Was I going to be a solo performer? And that is what was going on in my life at the time. It is a collection of songs that I did myself, in my basement, and that I thought was cool enough to put out. Obviously everyone is entitled to their own opinions about whether it is cool or not, but people just flipped out, man.
But, especially with this new record, there will probably be a tendency for people to dig up the old record and it'll be interesting to see if there will be a ...
Like, a reconsideration.
Yeah. Maybe people will say, "Oh, that record was just grossly misunderstood." And then you'll be like, What the fuck?!
I totally had a lot of involved theory about why I did that record the way I did it, and people don't need to get into that. If they do, that's fine, but there are actual pop songs on that record, and I was surprised that no one picked those out of the stew. And then I was also surprised that no one asked me about it afterwards. I guess they just wanted to sweep it under the rug. SEE ALSO: www.tedleo.com
SEE ALSO: www.tgrec.com
SEE ALSO: www.secretstars.com
SEE ALSO: www.lookoutrecords.com
SEE ALSO: sneakers.pair.com/m-sl72.htm
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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