Titus Andronicus Pursued Rock Perfection — and Learned to Love ‘The Monitor’ — to Find ‘The Will to Live’

·16 min read
titus-andronicus-WCB-9 - Credit: Ray Concepcion*
titus-andronicus-WCB-9 - Credit: Ray Concepcion*

Patrick Stickles has returned to the bar’s backyard with a Guinness, finished marveling at the absurdity of a Pringles commercial in which a man dies with a chip can stuck on his hand, and is meditating on the interconnectivity of all life on Earth — bound by the will to live — when a dog looks his way.

“He’s looking right at me, so I gotta be telling the truth,” exclaims the frontman for New Jersey/Brooklyn punk stalwarts Titus Andronicus. “Come on, you can’t do better than this!”

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The orange pup trots over for a pet. Stickles obliges, saying, “I was just talking, buddy, about how we’re all in this together, and when you recognize that, you should try and be kind and compassionate to all that lives.”

That desire is the central theme of Titus Andronicus’ seventh album, The Will to Live, out Sept. 30 via Merge. It’s another ambitious effort from a band known for ambitious efforts — a concept album about a literal and metaphorical journey through hell, culminating in a realization about what links every human, animal, plant, and microscopic organism. For Stickles, the will to live is “a blessing and a curse,” a kind of existential faith. The album’s ultimate hope — like on so many Titus Andronicus albums — is that this faith might lead to a more empathetic existence.

“That’s the punchline of most of my records,” Stickles quips. “I kind of make the same record over and over. The stories are not that different. But hopefully the way you avoid redundancy is you refine it, and make your message more focused and coherent with the perspective that comes with age.”

Stickles, 37, still sports the robust beard he wore when Titus broke through with their 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances, with a few more streaks of gray. Titus Andronicus are in many ways the same hard-charging, hard-rocking, hard-touring act they’ve always been. It’s just that the “fire of youth” that guided the band’s early successes has morphed into the controlled burn of adulthood.

Stickles’ community is no longer the Brooklyn DIY scene of the 2010s — he frequently worked the door at the now-shuttered Shea Stadium — but his family, friends, and bandmates. He sports a wedding band, talks about his 10-year-old nephew discovering Blink-182, his father-in-law gifting him Johnny Winter records. Long open about his bipolarity, he’s found a reliable mental health regimen, and the current lineup of Titus Andronicus is the most consistent it’s ever been.

“I’m in a much different place, for the better, in almost every respect,” Stickles says. “You would hope that in any job — this isn’t always true in rock music — that you would get better as you get older. That’s my hope. But, musically speaking, we’re still going for a thrilling, high stakes, action-packed kind of thing, and I want the emotional content of the lyrics to be substantial.”

Stickles started conceptualizing The Will to Live after Titus Andronicus’ 2019 album, An Obelisk, intrigued by a theme he saw in two songs he had, “69 Stones” and “Bridge and Tunnel”: “The natural world and the way human beings interact with it.” Canadian producer/engineer Howard Bilerman (U.S. Girls, Leonard Cohen) was eager to work with Titus, and the aim was to hit the studio in 2020. But then, as we all know, the natural world, and the way human beings interact with it, got upended.

On top of the pandemic, Stickles endured a series of personal crises. A health scare left his father in a medically-induced coma for 50 days. His cousin, and founding Titus Andronicus keyboard player, Matt “Money” Miller, died unexpectedly in March 2021. Stickles finished most of The Will to Live after Miller’s death, and his excavations of loss and grief add a potent dimension to the album’s narrative.

“That was a very challenging and painful experience,” he says. “But it did affirm how we’re all part of a larger organism. It does help me feel that my cousin — may he rest in peace — or any other people that we’ve lost, they’re not really gone, because the larger organism continues to exist. And someday when I’m gone, I will live on as well, because the organism will continue.”

Though The Will to Live is lyrically rich with a kind of punk transcendentalism, the album sounds anything but natural. The sonic concept Stickles coined and fixated on was “Ultimate Rock” — gigantic, groundbreaking rock music unafraid of mass appeal. Citing Who’s Next, Boston’s self-titled, Metallica’s “Black Album,” and Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Stickles explains, “These are grandiose visions of rock that are Wagnerian in scope — really big, saturated, dense, powerful sounds that are a total fantasy. Not quite so naturalistic, you know?”

Stickles’ was so devoted to Ultimate Rock that when he learned Def Leppard used a Rockman x100 amplifier on Hysteria — and that Boston’s Tom Scholz had created the device — he bought one and used it liberally on The Will to Live. Rock & roll grandeur isn’t new for Titus Andronicus, but where many of their albums contain the scrappy aura of the 180-year-old barn studio in which they were recorded (“Titus Andronicus, the band that was literally raised in a barn — that’s why we have no manners”), The Will to Live is stuffed with hi-fi ear candy. There were so many overdubs, the album folder grew to half a terabyte.

This combination puts The Will to Live up there with Titus’ mightiest efforts, 2015’s mega rock opera The Most Lamentable Tragedy, and 2010’s Civil War-inspired epic, The Monitor. Stickles even welcomed The Monitor — a record he’s long had a testy relationship with — as an influence after discovering a new appreciation for it following last year’s belated 10th anniversary celebration.

Ever verbose, erudite, and self-deprecating, Stickles spoke with Rolling Stone about nature, faith, grief, Bob Dylan’s Christian phase, learning to love The Monitor (kind of), getting older, and embracing the will to live.

What was it like working with Howard Bilerman on this album?
He kept us focused, feeling good, and he reined in a few of my more gonzo ideas. I kind of imagined the album was going to have a bunch of different sound effects and weird theatrical things, and he was like, “Don’t do this.” He was probably right about that. He reined it in so that it could be taken seriously, but otherwise indulged me and my Ultimate Rock fantasies.

When we were first talking about making the record, he said, “You should try and write a record that’s like the band’s greatest hits compilation, but all new songs.” And I thought, “That’s a fine idea, who wouldn’t like to listen to that?” So exploring different kinds of music that Titus Andronicus has done before, but making the best version.

Is hamming it up, or humor, important to your idea of Ultimate Rock? 
It’s definitely supposed to be fun. Rock music can take itself perfectly seriously while still acknowledging it’s show business. I don’t know if I want to make them laugh, but I’d be happy for them to giggle with glee. I don’t want to see somebody on stage that’s embarrassed to be up there, like some indie rockers sometimes are — not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s how they feel. But I love show business, and I love making grand gestures. You want people to get a kick out of it, but you can do that and still take yourself seriously. Like the Canadian rock band Partner, their tagline is “Funny, but not a joke.” [Partner’s Josée Caron contributed guitar and vocals to The Will to Live.]

Was there an aha moment behind this idea of “the will to live”?
I can’t point to a singular epiphany, it’s just something I’ve noticed over the years. If my belief in that makes me, hopefully, a kinder and more compassionate person, then why not? I suppose that’s true of any faith: If it makes you a better person, what’s the harm? People have different ideas about faith and the great mysteries of life. Sometimes that compels them to do wicked things — there’s plenty we’ve seen the evangelical Christians do lately that is not kind and compassionate — but there are plenty of people whose faith motivates them to do wonderful things.

Did the death of your cousin Matt cause you to doubt this at all?
No, it was the opposite if anything. It was an affirmative experience. I’m not happy it happened, obviously, but it was enlightening. And it reminded me of another thing we talk about on the album, which is the paradox of life where, the wider you open your heart to love, joy, and the good things, the more vulnerable you make yourself to the worst things. My cousin’s death was a horrible, painful thing for the whole family. But his life and the time we shared was wonderful. Those memories nourish me very much. Never for a minute would I consider trading away the great years we had if it meant sparing me from the pain of his loss. That’s the deal.

You grew up Catholic, and there’s a lot of religious imagery on this album. Is that something you turned to during these difficult moments?
Not in the sense of, “This person I love is dead and it would be nice if they went to heaven.” I had my particular beliefs about the interconnectivity of life and the subservience to the higher will — whatever it is — but things happen that you can’t control. You can get mad about it if you want; I don’t think that’s a good use of my time or energy. These were the things I wanted to convey, and it seemed like using [religious] themes and imagery would show how seriously I was taking it. It’s just powerful stuff — when you hear somebody talking like that, you know, “This guy means business.” He might be a fool, but he’s serious.

It doesn’t sound like you went through much doubt, but “An Anomaly” feels like it’s about a crisis of faith.
The titular anomaly is that the natural world is quite a violent place. If these dogs didn’t have guardians providing them food, what would they do? They would go kill a rabbit or something. They don’t mean any harm, it’s not evil. That’s just the way it is. In the same way that, dare I say, the Covid-19 virus is not an evil thing. That’s not to say I’m a fan of it, we shouldn’t try to protect it. But it’s a living organism, it has the will to live, and it’s going to do whatever it takes to prosper.

Much of the time the will to live is translated into the physical world in some form of violence or brutality. This is true of humans, but at a certain point, humans stopped being part of the natural world — they weren’t in the food chain anymore. So this violence ceases to have utility. But it seems to me that those impulses haven’t gone away, even though we don’t need them anymore. That’s translated into more advanced, effective, and atrocious forms of violence, up to and including the atom bomb. That’s fairly anomalous, isn’t it? There’s nothing natural about the atom bomb, or a self replicating nanobot that will eat the Earth. That’s evil in a way that a dog eating a rabbit is not. If the Devil is real, that’s it.

You wrote a short essay for Stereogum last year about Bob Dylan’s Christian phase, and in it you said the Dylan you were identifying with was the one “stumbling into middle age with the Lord in one hand and the Devil in the other, thirsty for a shot of love.” That feels very relevant to this album.  
I guess at that time, he felt called to share this message. Whether or not people needed to hear it, who can say. But his faith was devout, and his belief was fervent, and I think that’s a good quality for an artist. I’m not claiming I have the answers either by any means, and it’s a process that’s never over. You need to constantly evaluate and reevaluate these things, and hope to grow in perspective. Maybe a few years down the road, I’ll feel totally different — as Bob Dylan did when he appeared to forswear his Christianity. He’s a mysterious guy. But he was really serious, and really going for it. And I’m serious, and I intend to go for it.

Tell me about revisiting The Monitor for the anniversary documentary and tour? 
Well, when we made the crass, economically-motivated decision to do the 10-year anniversary tour — which became the 11-year anniversary tour — that wasn’t artistically motivated. But as it came time to do it, this was when concerts were kind of a new thing again, and I thought, “Damn, all the people in the audience have surely had a tough time, like we all did, so for once in my lousy life, why don’t I just give the people what they want?” I owe them a lot, and they stuck with me, especially during the pandemic with my Patreon — it was only through their generosity that I was able to endure without having to sell all the amplifiers and whatnot. I’m not nostalgic by nature. I’m much more interested in whatever the next thing is. But I was like, I’ll do it, and indeed, they did love it. And I did enjoy that, particularly after being away from the stage for so long.

Learning the songs again, and making that documentary, allowed me to have more tender feelings than usual about my younger self, who I generally look upon as a moron and the guy that got me into this mess in the first place. But watching this old footage and getting reacquainted with material. I started thinking, “You know what, this isn’t so bad! I can be the littlest bit proud of myself, just for a minute.” You don’t want to be too proud, obviously, because that’s not attractive. But I can feel good about having done this. It doesn’t mean that I want to do it again, outside the capacity of a cash-in-the-legacy tour — 15-year anniversary coming up pretty soon, you know?

And all this had some influence on The Will to Live, right? 
Right after we finished the tour, we went to the studio. So I did go into the making of the new record, saying, “Yes, that record that everybody likes, there are good things about it. What can I do to make a record that, 10 years from now, people would be as excited about?” That’s what we attempted. I did have too much of a chip on my shoulder about [The Monitor]. And I’m a lucky guy. If not for that record, we wouldn’t be sitting here now, and I wouldn’t be making records — and I love to make records and do the whole rock musician thing. Sort of. For the most part. I don’t love every part of it. But I’m a lucky guy, and I should look at my younger self and the things I’ve done with more gratitude. Instead of, you know, saying what a little dumbass he was.

There was that Vice interview where you ragged on The Monitor, but I thought what you said was relatable even as a listener. I’m not always fond of the 22-year-old I was when I fell in love with that album. 
Anybody that doesn’t look back at their past and cringe a little bit is not a trustworthy person. It’s like the other thing I mentioned in that Stereogum piece — Highway 61 is awesome, but I don’t really relate to that version of Bob Dylan. He’s a little snot-nosed kid as far as I’m concerned. He’s very smart, very cool. But the great thing about an artist like that is, I will have a version of Bob Dylan that I can relate to for my entire life. When I think about moving forward in my life in a productive, healthy, and constructive way, I’m more interested in what the 40-year-old Shot of Love Dylan can say than the 24-year-old Dylan. He put out a great record when he was 80, so someday, God willing, Rough and Rowdy Ways will be my favorite.

Music can make that kind of reflection difficult, because finding a certain album at a certain time carries the risk of freezing that moment in amber.
I’ve been guilty, when I think about how I feel about records I made in the past, of evaluating them on either how much I enjoyed that period of my life, or what the performance of that record in the industry did for the life I lead now. That’s a little unfair. And obviously, when I said that I don’t like the second record, it’s not because I just listened to it and decided it was no good. I was annoyed and had a chip on my shoulder. But evaluating it on a musical level was a nice experience.

Are there any artists or albums you have a relationship with that might be similar to the way The Monitor is treated in your catalog?
Jeez, I don’t know. Oasis, perhaps. I love their first three records and the B-side compilation from that era, but I probably never listen the ones after that all the way through. I’m not the kind of fan that I would want. The thing that I’m asking of my audience is to stick with me, and hopefully we cultivate a relationship like I have, as a listener, with Bob Dylan. I selfishly want that for myself. But those first three Oasis albums are awesome, particularly Be Here Now — a lot of people don’t like that one, but it was their attempt at creating Ultimate Rock. It was a big swing, and I’m more interested in people that take big swings and fail than people that set out to do a pedestrian thing and succeed.

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