Ted Leo, tightly jeaned champion of the “Northeast guitar,” has ignited the indie scene with his spirited, politically conscious rock for the past two decades. With five albums under their belts, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists are currently “shaking the sheets” and shaking asses across America on their latest tour. scene sat down with Ted to discuss the wonders of duct tape, the challenges of music (and poetry) writing and his infatuation with a surprising celebrity.
scene: We don’t know if you know this, but Toad’s has quite the reputation in New Haven. Any first impressions?
Ted Leo: I’ve been here before. You know, to be honest with you, it’s not all that dissimilar from other rock clubs. But I did notice the distinct smell of stale beer. But I’m used to that as well.
scene: Where’s your favorite place to play?
Ted Leo: New Haven’s always been really good to me. All of Connecticut, actually. And you know, I think, anywhere between Boston and D.C. — because I’ve lived basically everywhere between Boston and D.C. — is like a hometown show to me.
scene: When you’re onstage, which rock stars are you channeling?
Ted Leo: In terms of people I’ve seen who have inspired me, Guy Picciotto from Fugazi. H.R. who was the singer of Bad Brains. Lots of kind of old hardcore bands. And then, of course there’s the Clash-Jam axis like Joe Strummer and Paul Weller. But then there’s also a lot of kind of older, like blue-eyed soul guys, even like early Rod Stewart, Steve Marriott from Small Faces, even Paul McCartney to a certain extent. So I’m saying I can use my brain and see those influences. But when you ask who do I channel, I honestly feel like I’m just very much myself onstage. I’m pretty comfortable. The way I behave and talk onstage is how it goes on in the man.
scene: What’s been your greatest tour related embarrassment?
Ted Leo: First night of this tour, my pants ripped in front. Luckily I was wearing underwear … I almost didn’t. That would have been really bad, but yeah, they ripped in front in the middle of a song and I just kind of made sure that my guitar was in front and I was trying not to laugh. And they ripped big, they ripped from the crotch almost down to the knee and I had to grab some duct tape really quick and tape it up. Yeah, that was pretty embarrassing.
scene: allmusic.com has described your music as “cathartic”, “rambunctious,” “boisterous,” and “sophisticated.” What do you think about those adjectives and would you add any to that list?
Ted Leo: I like all of those and I would add “unsophisticated” as well. Seriously, because like at the end of the day, honestly, I kind of just want rock and often times that’s where my songs start from and then I can embellish them with sophistication.
scene: Many of your songs are concerned with politics. What’s on your mind these days, and are you writing about it?
Ted Leo: To be totally honest with you, this is my big problem right now. Originally I had a plan to be using this tour to play new music. I was hoping to have an album’s worth of material by now, but I only have four new songs. It’s not music [that’s the problem] — I’m like pissing riffs away right now. It’s good in one sense, but I have nothing to say. I couldn’t write a word to save my life right now. And it’s not for lack of things to sing about … Let’s just take my last two records, I’ve played most of the songs every night for the last four years and I go all the way with each one of them every night, and now I find myself in a political and cultural climate that is exactly the same as when I wrote the last record, and the record before that.
scene: If not a little bit more f–d.
Ted Leo: It might be a little bit more f–d, but I’ve already screamed about things being as f–d as they can be. I’m not comfortable just writing “la la songs.” I mean I love to listen to “la la songs” that are devoid of substance, but I’m not comfortable writing that stuff. I used to be able to just sit down, say “ok what’s this song going to be about” and crank it out. Now I have to really wait. I feel like I’ve covered so much of this ground, so many times. Now I just have to wait for some new angle to strike me.
scene: The message in your songs is often very critical, the music itself is usually upbeat. What is your thinking when you write a song? Are you thinking about the sentiment or the riffs and melody first?
Ted Leo: I can’t think of a single instance. There probably have been, but I can’t think of a single instance when I wrote lyrics first, because one thing that I’m definitely not is a poet.
scene: So we won’t be seeing a book of Ted Leo’s poetry a couple of years from now?
Ted Leo: Yeah … you would not want to read that. But it’s true, the sentiment is kind of dictated by the music a little bit. But I mean a) I like to sing, b) I like a certain amount of melody, and c) going back to your earlier question about antecedents and influences, the well that I go to is really like soul music and reggae. They write political things that are imbued with an exuberance and a joy of life despite it all … Because I don’t need to pound into my audience’s head that things are heavy, that “Shit is f–d,” like you said.
It’s not like we’re not everywhere you look. We’re not pop stars. We’re not really on MTV and we’re not on the radio. We’re not all over in magazines. You have to want to be there if you are at one of our shows, and that tells me that there’s a certain common understanding that we have. This is my assumption … I don’t know if that’s true. Musically, the point is less about emphasizing the “f–dupedness” than about emphasizing the fact that we are all here.
scene: Do you think that your sound or things you write about are associated with places you have lived?
Ted Leo: I actually consider myself a Northeast artist. A friend of mine was talking about somebody he thought should play guitar in my band, and he said “Like you, he plays Northeast guitar,” and I was like “Northeast guitar … yeah … I like that!” I’m not really sure what that means, but it seems to fit. I would consider myself a Northeasterner. The different places I have lived definitely influenced my music. Just look at D.C., the air is suffused with federal government business there, you know, and it’s on everybody’s mind and everybody’s lips all the time. Naturally, that’s going to affect what you’re writing about. Either you’re going to consciously ignore that or you’re going to consciously dive into it. That’s just one example.
scene: Lots of people at Yale like to get down to your music. We like to call it the “Ted Leo Dance Party.” Whose music do you like to get down to?
Ted Leo: [long pause] The Style Council is great for aerobics.
scene: You doing a lot of aerobics?
Ted Leo: No, but it strikes me that they would be good for that. It’d probably just wind up being like classic reggae. That’s what I groove to.
scene: If you weren’t a musician what would you be? And do you have any hobbies? Like knitting?
Ted Leo: My B and C plans have always been teaching in some capacity and probably law school.
scene: What would you be a teacher of?
Ted Leo: Probably high school English I think.
scene: Any hobbies? If not aerobics?
Ted Leo: I watch a lot of Law and Order.
scene: Which one? SVU, Criminal Intent…
Ted Leo: I watch all of them. I mainly a fan of the classic. I was upset when Trial by Jury was cancelled. Plus Bebe Neuwirth … raawwwwrrr [makes claw scratching motion]
scene: Ok … last question. Is this the worse interview you’ve ever had … or isn’t it?
Ted Leo: Trust me when I tell you: no.
scene: Alright, victory!