Interviewing Ted Leo is a lot more complicated than you might think – what’s the point in asking someone questions when their life is already well-documented on the web? Being as outspoken as he is, Ted seemed willing to do more talking, and I did my best to catch it all on tape. During the process of transcription, however, it became clear to me that Mr. Leo’s a bit of a rambler, which is every interviewer’s worst nightmare and wettest dream rolled into one. Here’s an attempt to sort through the 30-minute long, September 2nd ramblings of one Ted Theodore (oh no, wait, that’s from a movie) Leo,
rock star and dissenting American.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I showed up at Richard’s that fateful night, but I did have high hopes of not hyperventilating. Ted Leo makes incredibly catchy mod-pop-punk music, akin to not much of anything at the moment, and it seems as though he’s got a lot to say. Much of it is packed into his songs, with lyrics often expanding past rhythmic borders and listeners’ vocabularies. Ted also keeps in touch with his fans via email and a
regular blog on his band’s website. He’s a real people person, I guess, and even though he shows up a couple of hours later than planned and has a guitar to re-string, he’s still willing to sit down with me for a real live interview. Why? “I consider it part of the job,” says Ted, guitar on his lap and goldeny glass of booze on the table in front of him. “But also, they are usually pretty good for me to do. Not necessarily to talk about yourself, but to talk about the process and your ideas helps you to order them. It helps you keep your head straight. When you hear yourself saying stupid things, which sometimes you do… Sometimes I’ll think that I have an idea about something, and over the course of a rambling interview answer —like this one—I’ll either reinforce it or change my mind. Artists tend often to think about what they do a little too much, and I think there is a real value to examining your life, if that’s not too grandiose, and interviews are a perfect opportunity to do that. Sometimes it ends up being the same old … basic stuff … but it’s good to do them, too, because then you can get real concise about it.” He did say, though, “I like to make special concessions for Canadian brethren and sistren.” Right on!
So the basic stuff you can look up on the net or get from me – Ted’s from New Jersey, his early teenage years were spent hanging out at hip hop shows, he then made the switch to hardcore, and got to playing pretty darn early. He was in Chisel; they toured and were semi-popular. He produced a record by the Secret Stars that was good for its day. And then he went solo and called himself the Pharmacists. “The truth is that [Chisel], when it got too late for us to change our name, realized what a stupid fucking band name that was, so we were sitting around, thinking about what we would change the name to, if we could change the name, and Pharmacists came up, and I vowed, at that moment, that I would have a band named Pharmacists, and that’s the truth. When I started playing under my own name, I wanted to avoid the singer-songwriter tag, and so, even when I was playing alone, I would play as ted leo-slash-pharmacists.” Ted had revolving musical help, but got some keepers when he found Dave Lerner and Chris Wilson. They’re nice dudes who let Ted do his bandleader thing. It’s like a one-man show, but with two other guys. The band is busy jet-setting all over the place, touring like madmen, and I got to see them in Europe this past spring, which was pretty hot. I asked Ted a bit about his Euro-travels, and he had stories to tell about road trips past and resent-er:
“I had a conversation with someone a few years earlier about racism in the States and we were talking about the legacy of slavery, which is certainly a legitimate thing to talk about, aside from the fact that it ended 140 years ago, or whatever, and when I brought up Germany under the third Reich, he actually
said, ‘No, that’s ancient history.’ I was just like, ‘Alright, I’m done with this conversation!’ I was actually surprised, in the past … alright, here’s the thing – that particular trip was like, 1997 – I was surprised at the amount of fl ak that I got from people for being American back then, because it has always been pretty obvious that I am a dissenting American. It’s pretty explicit in my song-writing. More and more, since the Bush presidency, basically, I won’t even break it down to the September 11th attacks or the war in Iraq, it’s just kind of the larger issue of the Bush presidency, I’ve actually found Europeans to be
more sympathetic … to me, but, by extension, to Americans like me. At this point, I think that they do understand, as everybody should about every country, that every people in every country are not as monolithic as everybody wants to make them out to be. Whereas in the past I felt there was an understandable but annoying conscious decision to ignore that fact, these days I fi nd that you get a little bit more benefi t of the doubt. If you’re a punk band, the people know you obviously didn’t vote for Bush.”
As we got to the hot topics fairly quickly, me and Teddy did. I’m sadly not so well-versed in these things, so I just let him go off. You don’t need to hear all about it, do you? If so, I’ll send you the tapes, man, to make of it what you will. Ted did rant a bit about American kids in Prague (who I think are lame, too! Yeah!), saying “I did fi nd, in Prague for example, that [American kids] completely took over the show, and it was really annoying. They’d be yelling songs, and I actually said ‘I’ll play any song you guys want to hear, if any one of you can ask for it in Czech.’ And of course, none of them could.
“I mean, even if you’re on a vacation, you don’t even learn a couple of words, like do a frigging web search and learn how to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’? Not to be too moralistic or whatever, but I was shocked, yes, I say shocked and appalled. It was really, really disturbing.
Now what we were talking about, with the Europeans possibly giving you the benefi t of the doubt because you are a punk band. Now what, In the name of God, makes someone think that we’re going to be cool with that? Can’t you do a little bit of extrapolating and think that maybe a band like us might appreciate a little humility in our American audience, you know what I mean?”
So Ted’s about humility and other intelligent things. He does, however, sometimes dabble in cheese, like when he busked the five worst pop songs ever (including tunes by Rick James and Bette Midler) for Blender, and when he covers a Kelly Clarkson song (which he THANK GOD did not do at our show). He’s got a sense of humour. I just didn’t really get it.
TED: The experiment was for me to busk the top fi ve and see which one scored the most change. It was really fun, actually. It was a week of constant ROTFL.
Blank look from ME.
TED: That was kind of a joke. ME: I missed it totally.
TED: That’s good! You’re not as much of a nerd as I am. It was a joke. I don’t actually speak like that.
ME: But you do, kind of.
TED: I don’t. It was a joke. Let’s move on. I shouldn’t drink while we’re doing interviews.
And that’s sort of how things wrapped themselves on up. I still think Ted’s rad, even if he schooled me repeatedly. He’s all about being a dissenting American, sticking put to stick it to the man. (“I can’t fathom the idea of deserting. I feel like I have a duty as a citizen to either go somewhere else, like not go AWAY from something, or stay and slug it out.”) He used big words because he can, (“I wouldn’t use it if I wasn’t pretty confi dent about how I was using it. Do you think I’ve misused something?”) and he puts on amazing rock shows, inspiring much awe in his fans, even the lame ones like myself. So there you
go. Ted Leo.