Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: Political Robot Takes a Vacation

Though their musical styles are a few generations removed, Ted Leo and the Tin Man have a lot in common.  Sure, the Tin Man never had a heart (not a physical one, anyway), but Leo’s political punk robot heart has been broken for so long, he might do well to ask the man behind the curtain for a replacement.  Almost twenty years of hardcore and poli-pop punk can take its toll on a man’s spirit, and Leo’s been pounding out machine gun radio riffs and screaming on behalf of the forgotten and dismissed since breaking into the New York hardcore scene in the late eighties.  But while Leo’s tenure has been hard on him, it’s also taught him a few hard lessons, the most important of which may be that everything you learn on the journey really only starts to make sense near the end of it.

Not that Leo’s trip down his own yellow brick road is anywhere near its end, but his newest, Living with the Living is evidence that he’s at least at a point where he can look back and realize that a little time off (at least from carrying the counter-culture torch) might be just what he needs.  While Leo’s fifth album with the Pharmacists is far from a concept album, the ideas conjured by the title are all over it.  Sure, “Army Bound,” “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb.” and “C.I.A.” continue the band’s tradition of political tongue-lashings and revolutionary rabble-rousing, but the overwhelming feeling of the record is that of a deep breath, accompanied by a couple sips of a drink on some faraway Spanish beach.  “Who Do You Love?” states the question most directly, asking what or whom we’re actually working for—the cause or those affected by it?—and realizing that a readjustment of priorities may be in order.

Before his most recent tour, Leo took a few minutes to sit and chat about his newest record, the 2008 election, and just what it means to be living with the living.

The new album sounds a little less poppy—definitely than the last album, and I’d almost say more than anything you’ve done with the Pharmacists before.  Is that something you were going for or is it just a mood that came out?

It’s definitely nothing that we were specifically going for.  I’ve never, you know, tried to be poppy or not poppy on any record.  It just depends on how the songs come out.  A couple other people have said that about this record, and I don’t necessarily agree, to be honest with you.  At least the first four or five songs go into some pretty poppy territory, you know?  There are certainly more songs that stray away from what you might consider the pinnacle of pop songwriting, but it’s also a longer record, with more songs than my last few, so…

Is that because you had more material to pull from, or were you not as worried about filtering songs out?

 I’ll put it to you this way: We were in the middle of recording, and I wasn’t even sure I was gonna finish the record, and yet, by the time we were done with it, I ended up with a longer one than any I’d previously done.  I think that part of the reason I decided to keep everything we had completed on there was because it was actually a really hard process for me to finish all of these songs.  All of them are pretty important in their way.  By the time we did get into the studio and started tracking everything, it was hard for me to imagine the album without every one of those songs on it.  Initially, we started having conversations like “Well, we could take a couple of these aside and use them for the next record or extra tracks or whatever, but it just didn’t feel right, so we ended up throwing them all on.

When you’re not performing or recording or doing your music thing, what do you spend most of your free time doing?

Um, usually working on the plan for the next time that I’m actually touring and recording.  The weird thing about this past couple of months is that I’ve never really had to deal with the level of interest in what I’m doing as much as I [do now].  It’s been kind of crazy, and the amount of press and questions is something that I’m really not that familiar and even all that comfortable with.  It actually adds to the half of a day of band business that I normally wind up doing anyway, which is practically a full time job.  It’s kind of bizarre.  I suppose if we were operating at another level we might have more people around to handle it, but it’s still pretty much just me and the band.

How do you feel about that?  Obviously, there’s some success there.  Do you resent the additional responsibilities that that success has placed on you?

No, no.  I certainly don’t resent it.  You’ve gotta understand that it comes with the territory.  That stuff can get frustrating sometimes, but I think that it would really be not just ungrateful, but bitchy on my part to resent it.  Naturally, you want people to buy your records and you want people to be psyched about what you’re doing, so when people want to talk to you or make demands or offers that are beyond what you’re used to, you have to make the choice as to whether or not you’re gonna roll with it or take a step back from it.  But you can’t really resent it.  It comes from a good place, so….

Do you like being on tour or would you rather be at home?

Good question.  At this point in my life, I feel home all the time.  Touring never gets old in some ways.  It’s the greatest thing that you could be doing.  But it’s also in some ways the hardest thing that at any one point in time you could be doing, and then I’d much rather be home.  It’s a very manic way to live, you know what I mean?

A lot of folks probably got into you with either Hearts of Oak or Shaking the Sheets.  What would you recommend for someone who’s only familiar with the Pharmacists stuff?  What are you most proud of?  Which of your children do you love the most?

That’s a really tough question, too.  You know, I don’t really listen to my old records once they’re done.  I’ve frickin’ played the songs almost every night for so long, I sometimes forget what my own records even sound like.  I’m not trying to avoid the question, and this is totally honest:  Each record that I’ve made has really been the exact record that I wanted it to be at that time, so I have to look at each of them in their context.  It sounds and is exactly how I wanted to be.  Shake the Sheets was exactly how I wanted it to be, but then the new one is exactly how I wanted it to be, so it’s really hard to choose between them, because I don’t really have the perspective of not having insight into what my motivations were.  I would almost trust someone who doesn’t exist in my head to tell me what the strongest piece is because I’m too close to it all.  And we do spend so much time playing all the songs all the time, that I don’t have the distance from them, even from stuff that I did like six years ago.

Going back to the poppy question…I see what you’re saying, but then there are also a lot of songs on Living with the Living that are very aggressive, like “Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.” and “C.I.A.”  But then songs like “La Costa Brava,” “Colleen” and “A Bottle of Buckie” seem to be a little more personal.  The lyrics are more direct and less obviously political than a lot of your recent stuff.

The only reason for that is that I try to live a real life.  I’m not just a political robot.  There comes a time when I want to write about other aspects of life.  It’s not like I had any sort of actual agenda in writing a song, it’s just that you can’t always be looking into the bottom of the pit for negative inspiration.  You have to actually live life every now and then and deal with that on some level.

Speaking of politics…what are you thinking as far as the ’08 election?  Are you pulling for anybody?

To be totally honest with you, I’m not pulling for anybody yet.  First of all, I do have to admit that I already know that whoever I vote for is going to be someone that I’m not gonna be 100% behind.  I’m gonna be voting for the best out of a field of people, none of whom are going to be thoroughly inspirational to me.  So, first because of that, and second because it is so early in the process.  I don’t even know who’s…you know, the Hillary/Obama thing has already become a soap opera and there’s no way to even understand what the candidates are talking about yet.  So, it’s definitely, definitely early for me to have any decision on that. 

You’re so passionate about politics and world affairs; could you ever see yourself holding office or anything like that?

 No.  No.  Way.  That’s a job that I definitely don’t want.  For one thing, for better or for worse, I accept that my role is as an artist.  At the outside chance, I could conceivably see myself getting into a more journalistic role at some point, but I would have to remain in [that area].  I don’t think that I could really hold office.  Not to mention the fact that you have to play too many games with too many devils to get to any actual level of prominence where you can actually do anything in politics.  And I don’t think that a) I’d be personally comfortable with it and b) …your past is blown open for critique and discussion, so I don’t think I’d be a viable candidate for anyone except punks and hippies anyway.  You know, it would be kind of a pointless endeavor and probably an embarrassment.

Well, even if you never held office, you’re obviously a pretty progressive-minded person and not one to compromise.  Do you feel like everyone needs to be as passionately progressive-minded in order for any significant change to be made? 

No.  I don’t think so.  No.  Life is fucking hard enough as it is.  Working a 9 to 5 can be all that someone can handle sometimes.  I certainly understand that because I’ve done it and I respect it and I don’t think that eveyrbody has to be so passionately engaged.  But, I do think that people have to be more engaged than they generally are.  I think there’s a happy medium that as a population we could probably reach where everyone doesn’t have to be blogging and writing songs and running for office and watching C-Span 24 hours a day and stuff, but that does have a little bit more informed engagement with the process and the ongoing policy debates, and there’s probably some middle ground where everyone could meet, and I think everybody should try a little harder to get [there]. 

 Do you think that artists such as yourself have a responsibility to be vocal?  Do you have a problem with people who have an opportunity to voice concerns but don’t?

[Big breath]  You know, in theory, I don’t have a probably with it, but in reality I sometimes do.  I don’t think that any form of art should be beholden to rules about how it engages with the world around it, and that extends to being explicitly and overtly political about it, but when you put your question the way you did, I do see that as some sort of disservice to society.  Because things are…at a very…what am I trying to say?  Here’s the thing.  I think that if someone is…

So in other words, if they care, they should do something about it. 

Yeah.  And here’s the flipside of the coin to that.  If they don’t care, then I don’t understand why.  Like why don’t you care?  It’s a real thorny issue because I really do believe—even for myself—that if I chose to write a record tomorrow that didn’t actually deal with anything real in the world, I feel like I should be allowed to do that as an artist.  But I don’t know if that’s because I already have a record of addressing things or if that’s because I really just think that artists should be able to do whatever they want.  It’s kind of like I have to get a look at each person individually and get a look at what their motivations are.  It just doesn’t do for everybody all the time.

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