Musicscan: Why do you go with the name Ted Leo & The Pharmacists and not just Ted Leo or The Pharmacists? Do you consider yourself a solo artist?
Ted Leo: The reason that I keep it Ted Leo & The Pharmacists is that is maybe a little better understood in the States, but I have built a name for myself over the years playing alone and when I started playing with other people as a band it would really just be as a backing band. People would join me somewhat randomly on the songs that I was already playing solo. Eventually that got us to where we are today. It started as this kind of back up and pick up thing. ItÂ’s not like we started a new band with all new songs. Now we are tighter as a unit, but it is still a continuum from the Ted Leo solo years to Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. We just keep it like that. The band would not be the same if I started to play with other people. However, I still do write all the music myself, so it makes a certain amount of sense to just keep it Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. Though what I just said is not really being fair to Dave and Chris. I write all the songs and I usually demo them in full form, but I never tell them what to do. They bring their talent and ideas to the songs and make them to what they are. I donÂ’t mean to disrespect them at all.
Musicscan: Could you go into how your songwriting process works with the example of Â“Counting Down The HoursÂ”? How do the music and the lyrics and everything come together?
Ted Leo: You picked a tough one. I have to take a couple of steps back. It is definitely obvious to people in America and maybe elsewhere as well that the whole Â“Shake The SheetsÂ” album is very much concerned with the state of affairs living in America mainly in 2004, but it continues on to the present day, and trying to suss a number of things: how do you go about your daily life as a citizen, loathing what is being done by your government, how do you go about your life as an artist trying to make a living, but feeling compelled to address things in a more serious way than mass culture wants to hear, how do you wake up in the morning and go to work or school or whatever it is that you do, knowing that there are people being blown up a couple of time zones away? Â“Counting Down The HoursÂ” actually started out from this very personal perspective of just me walking down the street in my hometown thinking a lot about this, but I wound up feeling that that was a little bourgeois and selfish. Lyrically it is actually about someone who is about to get shipped off to a war that they donÂ’t believe in. Musically, it was a song that came to me a lot more easily than a lot of other songs do. I was walking my dog who has since died I am sorry to say and over the course of a twenty minute walk, I had developed the whole song musically in my head. It does not really break any new ground, but it is this classic punk and soul mix like The Clash or The Jam.
Musicscan: Your brother told me a couple of weeks ago that you are very successful in the States and he said that he plays together with you in front of 500 people and when he plays on his own he plays in front of 50 people. Do you consider yourself successful? What does success mean to you?
Ted Leo: In the States right now, we do very well for an independent band. In some of the bigger cities where I am better known like Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Los Angeles we can easily do over 1000 people. We havenÂ’t really done anything different. I write the songs that I want to write when I want to write them and put them out when we feel like we should put them out. We tour all the time and I think that itÂ’s touring in the US and Canada more than anything that connected to people. People seem to have really appreciated the level of work that we have put in and for a number of years it has been a slow and steady built and since Â“Hearts Of OakÂ”, it has been a bit a quicker growth. But here is how I judge it as a success: Despite the fact that in the States we are selling sometimes more records and are bringing more people to clubs than bands that you would think are bigger actually are, you donÂ’t think we are bigger. This might not make sense, but you hear a lot of bands and you see them all over the place and that is great. Certainly my media profile in the States is bigger now than it was, especially since the last record. There has been a lot of coverage, but it is not this big blanket of coverage that a lot of other people that you consider successful get. You might say Â“oh, Spin did a piece, but Rolling Stone doesnÂ’t or Alternative Press has a review, but Magnet doesnÂ’t.Â” ItÂ’s interesting to me, because we are not what you would call hip or cool necessarily (laughs). Nobody goes to their school wearing a Ted Leo & The Pharmacists shirt and people go Â“oh cool.Â” The fact that we can fill these clubs and sell these amounts of records and get this kind of press without being hip or cool actually is gratifying, because it makes me believe that people are there because they like the music and they want to be there. That is maybe not the rockÂ’nÂ’roll dream, but it kind of is the punkrock dream. I canÂ’t complain about that at all.
Musicscan: You mentioned a little earlier that records and thus music is almost always sold as a commodity, but your lyrics are also quite political. Do you think that music can be political or that it can have a political effect on people even though they are packaged and sold as a commodity?
Ted Leo: First of all, I donÂ’t necessarily think that a commodity in its essence is bad thing. Dissemination of ideas in the modern age is achieved through passing these commodities which are really documents. You should really look at it like a document, a document of a set of music or maybe itÂ’s a book or whatever. It becomes a commodity, because there is an investment in money in the beginning to produce it that has to be made back and also because if it is the personÂ’s job, then they maybe deserve a compensation for it, which results in buying and selling etc. I donÂ’t think that this necessarily has to undercut the political nature of the content. That is where I draw the line between major labels and independent labels. I am going to backtrack here again. Take U2 for example, they are not overtly political in their lyrics anymore, but they have always had this vaguely political edge and Bono as a person gets involved in all these causes. Sometimes it seems cheesy, but I actually believe that he believes in what he is doing so I canÂ’t fault him for that. His route of achieving what he wanted to achieve was through being a pop star, through getting the fame and the cloud that would allow him to do the things that he thinks are right to do in the world. To get back to your question, I look at it on a much smaller level. I donÂ’t believe that any one of my songs is going to stop a war or change a government. I donÂ’t think Donald Rumsfeld is going to hear my record and go Â“you know what, this guy is right, I am a real asshole. I should change the way I have been doing thingsÂ” (laughs). But that doesnÂ’t mean I donÂ’t think it is important to sing about it, because we exist in a community that needs to support each other in our ideas and if it is not going to make a massive impact like a meteor striking America, it can make a small impact like a pebble in a pond whereby one person feels inspired, reenergized or empowered by your song and then they carry that energy on to what they do and they transfer that to someone else. In that long range view of things music can have an effect. It is not going to have an immediate massive effect, but it can have an effect in keeping energy behind the people who are trying to make those changes that we all want. You know what, even if that is not achieved, even if it just helps the people whose minds and hearts are in the right place to live their lives in such adverse conditions, I am happy with that.
Musicscan: What experiences as an American have you made in Europe this time around? Did you experience maybe not hostility, but certain anti-American sentiments?
Ted Leo: Not on this trip. I actually did more in the 90s when I was here. I almost think that things have gotten so bad now that people in the punk world know that if you are here and you are an American you are a certain type of person and you didnÂ’t vote for George Bush. They are not going to hassle you about it. In the past I definitely felt like I was on trial for my countryÂ’s sins throughout history, which is partly valid. I think we all should be. We live off the fruits of our fathersÂ’ sins.
Musicscan: Do you get confronted with typical European stereotypes of Americans?
Ted Leo: Nobody expects us to be like that. In certain touristy spots of certain cities you hear your home accents and you hear people acting like dumb Americans and you throw on a quick British accent or pretend you can actually speak Swedish for a minute (laughs). There is a tourist class in the world that are ugly all over. It is not just ugly Americans, but there are ugly Germans, ugly Italians, ugly Spaniards. There is a class of tourists that isnÂ’t interested in seeing anything beyond the guidebook and that is really unfortunate. It just happens to be that there are more Americans.
Musicscan: Now on a more personal note, I believe you married a couple of months ago. How has that changed your life and how do you two manage everything despite you being on the road all the time?
Ted Leo: It is tough, but it hasnÂ’t really changed my life. I think that getting married was more an indication of my life having changed. We got married, because we had grown to that point and we felt like that was something that we wanted to do. We both actually used to be very much against marriage as an institution, but at a certain point I felt like we hit this glass ceiling in our relationship where we thought it would be good for us to make a public statement to our friends and families about this and go through a ritual together about it. So we decided to do it. It has been harder to tour since then, but I donÂ’t think it is because Â“oh I am married now, what am I going to do.Â” The choice to get married was an indication where we were already at. The woman that I am married to is also an artist who has toured and we understand each other. We had been together for eight years, before we decided to marry.
Musicscan: I donÂ’t want to make you any older than you are, but at times it seems like you must be playing to kids probably less than half your age. Can you still associate with the people you are playing to and with the scene that you are in and where you also release your records, of course?
Ted Leo: Yes, definitely. One of the greatest things that have happened with me and my band in the States is that for a long time we were playing to people mostly our own age which a few years ago was like late twenties, but what has grown is the range of ages coming to the shows. There are a lot of younger kids and many older people like people who used to be into music and then they fell out of it for a while and now they have kids. Yet at the same time there are these 14 or 16 or 12 year olds maybe even with their parents who also feel some connection with it. I will tell you why this pleases me so much. Music today has become so unfortunately segmented into very self-centered, self-serving genres. So in the pop punk world it is like late high-school, early college. All we care about is these post-adolescent cry fests or whatever. In the indie world it is all like Â“oh I just graduated from college and I am trying to get a jobÂ”, it just feels so insanely segmented. When I grew up with music, The Clash were old to me when I was 14, but they still spoke to me, but they didnÂ’t speak to me just about my immediate concerns. They taught me about bigger concerns and I think bands like that were a high tide that raised the ships up their level. I donÂ’t sing about high-school locker room drama. So the fact that young people are getting into the music makes me feel very, very good, because it is the paradigm that I grew up with and that I have in my mind always been working with. You donÂ’t just have to sing about these tiny, immediate, selfish things to have that specific demographic pay attention to you or to get something from you. That more than anything has been the biggest and best aspect of the way that we have grown. I know what was kind of long, but I hope it makes sense.
Musicscan: Was there a time when you realized that you wanted to commit to music full-time?
Ted Leo: No, I donÂ’t remember the time, because I donÂ’t think there was a time (laughs). Honestly, I was in bands and I was in school at the same time and then I finished school, but I was still in a band and now I am still in a band (laughs). There was never any real decision, it just kept going.
Musicscan: On your website you write quite a lot of news for your fans and you also add fairly personal things. How important is the communication aspect for you of being in a band or making music in general?
Ted Leo: It is really important. I love it, but unfortunately with me being on tour so much, I donÂ’t get to update it as much as I would like. I donÂ’t know if it is because I have been playing really tiny clubs playing to ten people for a long time, but I feel like there is an element to our shows where it feels very conversational. There is a lot of chatting and people are always yelling stuff, whether it is heckling or saying hi or requesting songs and I have a lot of nervous energy on stage that makes me talk a lot. It has become something that I actually really like about our shows and it has carried over to the realm of e-mail and the website and stuff and I really like that. I try to stay on top of that.
Musicscan: Do you read pieces or stories about yourself? Do you care about how you are portrayed in the media? Do you think you can influence how you are portrayed in the media at all?
Ted Leo: Sometimes. I go through different moods with it. Sometimes I am interested in it and I want to pay attention to it and other times I feel like it is better that I donÂ’t. ThatÂ’s a tough question. One of my biggest problems is when people will take what you said and put it into their own words but still put it in quotes, so it actually looks like something that you didnÂ’t say. The problem with that is that is skews the meaning one way or another and it is not really fair. That sounds like a minor concern, but that is something very tangible that takes control away from you in terms of projecting yourself in the way that you want to be projected or from the sense of what you are actually talking about. Ultimately, the power rests in the hands of the journalist, they can walk away from an interview and put a preface or an afterword to it that says you suck or you are an asshole and you canÂ’t do anything about it. But as an artist and even as a person I feel like it helps me to talk about this stuff. I mean you start to hear your own inconsistencies or you start to reinforce your ideas while reading it. I would never stop doing them.
Musicscan: Would you say you are a control freak musically in the studio?
Ted Leo: No, I am not a control freak at all. This would mean I donÂ’t listen to other peopleÂ’s ideas and that is totally not the case. I take control in the studio and I try to be very efficient about it and I have a lot of my own ideas ready to go before I get there, but I am always open to hearing other ideas and working with them. I take control, but I donÂ’t think I am a control freak (laughs).
Musicscan: What impact did Chris Shaw have on the record? I imagine he had more of an engineer status as opposed to a producer function.
Ted Leo: The funny thing is that we went into it with him in this producer status. We understood each other really well. He listened to my demos, he liked them and he didnÂ’t ask me to change anything and when he did make suggestions about handling a certain chord differently or getting a different sound or tweaking an amp in a certain way. It made perfect sense to me, because we understood each other very well. Where he really proved his talent was in the mixing. Mixing is something that I actually love to do and every record before Â“Shake The SheetsÂ” I spent every second of everyday at the board doing the mixing with whoever was the engineer. Chris actually requested that we do it a little differently and I let him spend an hour in order to come up with a mix and then weÂ’d discuss it and decide to change things. That is when I really saw his genius because he would lock into exactly my idea about something and there was never a point when I had to say that we needed to change anything dramatically.
Musicscan: You have been in bands for more than 18 years now. Do you ever think what you might be doing in about 10 or 20 years? Do you feel some sort of anxiety about the future?
Ted Leo: I think about it all the time. It is an anxiety that I have learned to deal with. I will be 35 this year and so my time for sleeping on floors and just touring physically is running out. I say that because I feel it, not because my head tells me that it should be like that. I am thinking just about not touring as much anymore. I can still make records, I could make records forever. I am thinking about just doing some writing, writing some songs and sending them out there and see if other people want to use them. Of course, I also have to think about the fact that if I stop touring as much as I have been, I will have no money (laughs). So maybe I will go back to school and start to teach. These are all things that are very much on the close horizon. But at the same time, what am I going to do about this show tonight. I have to relax, I have a show tonight and that is the main concern.