There were only a few times during my talk with Patrick Stickles, singer and songwriter for Titus Andronicus, that our conversation felt like an interview. Instead, it really felt more lit an upper-level lit seminar. This is what we talked about: Camus, Faulkner, reader response literary theory, and whether a text has any inherent meaning. The depth of our conversation reflects not just Stickles' concern with the songwriting process but the anxiety of being a writer and his concern with whether the audience (and by audience, I mean the people hearing or reading his words) understands his authorial intent. It takes Stickles months to finish a song, and indication of the care he takes to craft that message. The result is an album like The Monitor, a concept album loosely based on the Civil War and civil war: it's about both the historical event and Stickles' existential angst.
Titus Andronicus recently finished a tour with Free Energy, whose leader singer Paul Sprangers I also interviewed. Both bands were named one of the best new bands of 2010 Rolling Stone magazine. So read my interview with Patrick Stickles after the video. You'll learn more about his favorite authors, his "Frankenstein approach" to songwriting, why he needs a car to write, and why some of his songs are so long.
What was your first experience as a writer?
Back when I was a kid, I used to make comic books. Writing them and drawing them, to the extent that a little guy does.
Are you an illustrator as well? I've interviewed a lot of writers who got their start in the visual arts, and I'm always curious as to the similarities between the two creative processes.
I've been drawing for a long time, but I'd hardly describe myself as an illustrator. It's more an occasional hobby to keep the hands busy. It's good for keeping the creative muscles stretched out, because I can't be playing the guitar all the time. But if you make it a point to include creativity in your life, say, a little drawing in two minutes, that could be a useful thing.
Who do you like to read?
I really like Albert Camus. He's probably my favorite author if I had to pick one. His books have been an important aspect in my development. William Faulkner is another one. I haven't read as much fiction since I've been out of college. That's what I studied in school, so maybe I got a little burnt out on it. The last couple years I've been more into history.
I think that The Sound and the Fury is one of the best books in the canon of American literature.
Light in August is probably my favorite. It taught me a lot about narrative structure and the importance of detail in a story.
How does Faulkner's writing inform your songwriting?
Well, the structural element of it, but that's not really songwriting. It's more about album sequencing when I think about that element. Maybe his fearlessness; he asks a lot of the reader. His lack of shyness; he didn't seem to half-write any of his books. He ended up with some books that were a little unwieldy for the casual reader; it would be a tall order to just pick up one of books and start reading.
He's not exactly beach reading.
Definitely not. I've tried to bring a couple with me in the van on tour, and they always end up going unread because they are so demanding. But I am happy that they are there.
You mentioned Camus. How does his writing inform your songwriting?
Definitely his ideas about existentialism and the pursuit of freedom in an absurd universe. All those ideas were his gift to me and the rest of his progeny. Not really anything to do with his prose, because he is a little dry.
How disciplined are you as a writer?
It's different for the music and the words. Nowadays, I do set aside a certain time every day to play my guitar, but it's a lot harder to keep the same schedule about lyrics. With lyrics, it's more about waiting for the moment to present itself.
Does that waiting every produce anxiety that you might not get anything done?
I worry the whole time, from the end of the last moment to the next one; every moment like that probably feels like it's the last one. So I do feel anxiety, but all I can do is keep my head up and push through.
So when you sit down to write, do the lyrics or music come first?
I have never written a song in a day. The least amount of time I've ever spent on a song is probably a few months. Usually while that is happening there are a number of other songs floating around in the periphery of my mind. Typically I'll work on growing my stockpile of riffs and ideas, while concurrently making a similar pile of words, couplets, images, one liners, and zingers. Then once I have enough of each, it's about putting the right peg in the right hole. Kind of a Frankenstein approach.
So you start with the lyrics?
Not necessarily. Typically these lyrics happen around the same time, but when I come up with them, it's not always because I have a place or a melody for it. Then I have to be the matchmaker later.
Where do those zingers or one liners come from?
Just from walking around, observing the universe. Maybe I perceive a stimulus, and I respond with some sort of zinger. I'll make a note of it and hope it will be useful later.
How do you record those zingers so you don't forget them?
The notepad feature on my mp3 player, or the voice memo feature on my cell phone. If I'm at the house, I'll record it into the 4 track.
So are the zingers and lyrics two separate entities that mesh later on, or do the lyrics arise from the zingers?
It's not like I have a grand purpose accumulating ideas. The greater purpose presents itself during the process, and from there I'll get an indication of the best way to fill in the blanks.
I am struck, as are many others, by the depth of your lyrics. Do you feel, as many authors do, that there's an urgency to sharing your ideas with the world? Or are you a blank slate who doesn't see the ideas until the zingers come to you?
I think that there are certainly some themes I am interested in, pretty much for as long as I've been playing. I've stuck with the same set of themes over the years, and maybe as I get older and wiser some new perspectives will come up. But because I have established certain thematic parameters for myself, maybe that tips me off that I should think about or make not of whatever idea pops into my head.
Is having thematic parameters a good thing, or is it too limiting?
It's a little bit limiting in terms of trying to be a disciplined writer, because it can be more emotionally demanding and something that I don't think is productive to pretend about. I think it's unavoidable, just because to me the urge to create is often in opposition to some kind of failure of the world around you to please you.
Say in twenty years a college student is writing a paper in a lit class about the themes in your lyrics. What would be their thesis statement?
It's hard to say, because part of being a public figure or an artist is surrendering control over the way your words are interpreted. So because we put this stuff out there, it's our way of giving up the right to say what we really mean.
That's the essence of reader response theory. There is no inherent meaning in a text. It's what the reader makes of it, and authorial intention is irrelevant. Does that bother you?
Yeah, it bothers me to the extent that the whole universe is like that, the fact that there is a lack of inherent meaning to almost anything. So for me to get pissed off that my lyrics are subjected to that as well is only as productive as getting pissed off at the whole absurd universe. Which happens to be our number one theme.
Let's get back to your process. Is there anything you need for a productive creative session?
I do find it helpful to be driving a car when I write my lyrics. I wrote most of the lyrics to The Monitor driving a car. But I don't have a car anymore.
So what are you going to do next?
Laughs. I don't know. Instrumental, I guess.
What about the car made it so helpful?
I don't know. Maybe the mystery and the promise of freedom on the open road. Maybe it has something to do with watching the highway. Driving is a pretty non-demanding stimuli, something that you do automatically, so maybe it puts me in a trance like state, where I am concentrating, but not really.
So on a practical level, how did you transcribe your lyrics while driving?
I'd repeat the lines over and over until I could pull over and write them down. Because of that impracticality, I've lost a lot of things that I thought would be good to say.
Is there a time of day you like to write?
Now I can't do much with music at night because my roommates are asleep. So now maybe I'll listen to what I recorded earlier. But that just has to do with the outside world--to which I remain tragically beholden.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
When I was younger and had trouble writing, I assumed that I was never going to write another song again. But having gone through that a few times, it's become pretty clear that I am going to write again. So I remind myself of that and remind myself that I don't have to do it every day, that it's ok if it has to happen on its own schedule.
So you walk away?
As much as we are the masters of our brain, they are they masters of us. So sometimes you have to say fuck it; if you get too worked up, you'll go crazy.
How do you know when a song is done?
That is an ongoing question. I have a hard time knowing when something is finished. That's why so many of the songs on our album are so long. You gotta just do it until it's over.
Are you a perfectionist? Because we can revise too much and lose the meaning of what we first began.
I don't know that I revise that much, it's more like wondering when the picture is complete. If I say something that I like, I'll continue to say it, but it's harder to know when I've said enough.