Patrick Stickles is a voracious reader of music biographies. But while typical fans pore over books about Lou Reed and Bob Mould to find out more about the artists’ lives and work, the musician behind Titus Andronicus uses them as roadmaps to help find his way as a working musician.
“It’s not hard to figure out how a 22-year-old kid can pick up a guitar and just stumble upon however many classic anthems,” Stickles says. “But to me it’s a little more slippery question of how that 22-year-old can grow into a 32-year-old or a 42-year-old and continue to do great work the way a guy like Lou did throughout his life.”
So Stickles turns to the creators of conceptual classics like Zen Arcade and Berlin to help chart his course. He shares their love of challenging sounds and ambitious projects. Since forming Titus Andronicus in New Jersey in 2005, Stickles has pushed the band past their rabble-rousing punk roots and into expansive concept albums and rock operas.
“When I get full of beans and I’ve got all this energy and ambition, I lay out these grand plans for myself,” Stickles says. While he’s changed and broadened the scope of the band’s sound over the years, one constant has held firm throughout his body of work: an unflinching honesty about his struggles with manic depression.
“I make the plans because I know that when the time comes and I hit the wall and get depressed, I’m going to need a good reason to keep getting out of bed every morning,” he says. “Because if I don’t have work to do, if I don’t have obligations to meet and people depending on me, then I just might not get out of bed.”
Besides influencing the lyrics on albums like 2015’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy, Stickles says that being bipolar also affects his working practice.
“I know that when it comes time to execute some of these plans I’m not necessarily going to be feeling quite as ambitious,” Stickles says. “But I need to honor the part of myself that made those plans and remember that even when I start to lose interest in everything that there is a part of me that needs to be doing this stuff."
The Titus Andronicus frontman’s latest plan? Simplify. On A Productive Cough, the group’s latest LP, they’ve embraced the ramshackle folky sounds that older songs like The Monitor’s “A Theme From Cheers” hinted at. Titus Andronicus have gone from squatting in DIY punk crashpads to shacking up in The Band’s Big Pink.
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“I like to use the metaphor that Titus Andronicus, over the course of our career, has built a large house with many rooms, and each of these rooms represents a certain aesthetic component of our music,” Stickles says of the new direction. “On previous albums, we tried to run about wildly from room to room and do lots of different things; on this album we picked one special room, pulled up a comfortable chair, and got ensconced.”
Constantly redefining the band’s status quo is how he keeps going — the way Reed did. It’s also how Stickles keeps himself from feeling overwhelmed by his mental health issues.
“… I try to paint myself into a bit of a corner as a contingency plan for when the dark times come… because they always do.”