Ted Leo in Conversation with Tom Scharpling
For those of you who don’t subscribe to his weekly podcast, I’ll say that Tom Scharpling is the host of The Best Show on WFMU, a three-hour radio program, which he describes as a mix of “mirth, music, and mayhem.” He also recently released his fourth compact disc of sketch comedy CD with his partner (and Superchunk drummer) Jon Wurster, titled The Art of Slap. The triple-disc set features eight new bits skirting the line between absurdity and hilarity, but the satire always manages to pay off at the end—even if you didn’t see it coming. Additionally, Scharpling is a writer and executive producer on the hit TV show Monk.Ted Leo (lovingly dubbed “the motherfucking man” by his faithful followers) is a thirty-six-year-old musician who has played with many legendary underground punk bands, including Citizens Arrest, Chisel, and the Sin-Eaters. Leo is best known under his own name, however, and has released five albums with his backing band the Pharmacists. The band’s latest release, Living with the Living, is their most expansive yet, featuring a reggae song (“The Unwanted Things”) as well as quite possibly the only punk song ever written about the Falklands (“A Bottle of Buckie”).
Leo is also a frequent caller to The Best Show on WFMU (in fact, the program recently hosted a contest where callers could submit lyrics for the new album). In that spirit, we thought it would be a good idea to sit the two men down for a conversation. It may not be as goofy as a prank call from a talking carp (which happens on Scharpling & Wurster’s new disc), but we hope it offers an enlightening glimpse into both men’s personalities—and if nothing else, makes you think twice before criticizing a guy who’s loading gear into his van in the rain.
TOM SCHARPLING: I want to start out by saying that Living with the Living is fully realized. Previously you would have songs that had reggae in them, but now you have an actual reggae song. Were you intending to stretch out on it a little bit?
TED LEO: I can’t say that it was a conscious decision to stretch out, but I do think that there was definitely an unspoken desire to do something different this time around.
TS: I think I watched a film called Unspoken Desire once.
TL: [Laughs.] Actually, I think stretch out is a really good way to put it. Speaking specifically of that reggae song as an example, I was just goofing around one day playing this bass line, and that eventually turned into “The Unwanted Things.” That was one of the easiest songs on the whole record for me to write because it came together without any pressure. The choice wasn’t whether or not to write a reggae song, but actually to use the reggae song. I might have tried to turn that reggae song into a punk song with reggae in it at another point in time, but at this point, I just wanted to say why not, it’s a reggae song.
TS: Just own it!
TS: Is it difficult to make sure you’re not just doing genre exercises, though?
TL: First of all, I don’t sing with a Jamaican accent. [Laughs.] I’m conscious of riding that line at times, but in that case I just felt like it was a solid enough song and I was singing it as myself. It doesn’t feel out of place.
TS: You’re just owning it. It’s what you’re into and it’s something you’ve proven you have an interest in—it’s not like you’re suddenly doing ragtime unannounced.
TL: Yeah, definitely. My last record, Shake the Sheets, came out in October of 2004 and when that two-year anniversary came around, it didn’t really seem like two years, you know? Being on the road as much as we have for the past four or five years, that time has really flown by—and for the first time in my life I wasn’t really excited to play some of those songs night after night.
TS: When you’re writing songs that have a point, how far do you have to get into each song when you’re just banging them out night after night? Is there a minimum that you need to do to feel like you sold the song properly?
TL: Absolutely. I don’t know if this is just cheesy or this is borderline self-aggrandizing or what, but I sometimes do feel that way if I’m working up a set list. Like, yeah, I guess we kind of do have to play “Me and Mia,” don’t we? [Laughs.] But the thing is, I don’t let a song go that I’m not pretty invested in—and that’s also part of the reason why it took two years for me to get this record out. I was trying to find the lyrics that could theoretically take me through the next two years of having me actually connect with that song every night, because I can’t get onstage and not believe in what I’m putting over if I’m attempting to get other people to come along, you know what I mean?
TS: So you have to sell it to yourself first?
TL: Yeah, and for me—obviously I wouldn’t say this is the case for anyone else—when I’m writing the set list a few hours before we go on stage, I might grumble about having to put “Me and Mia” on it, but when we’re up there playing the song, I know why I wrote it and what it’s about, and it hasn’t lost any kind of importance for me. I lock into it pretty quickly.
TS: Would that be like a weird vacuum if all of a sudden it wasn’t there for you? Like if it might as well have been written by somebody else?
TL: Yeah, I’ve found myself lucky that I haven’t actually experienced that vacuum, but I’d imagine that would be a real drag.
TS: It seems like your fans feel a special connection with you. I don’t know if people are coming up to, say, the Raconteurs and saying, “Oh, that song means so much to me.” What’s it like when you have someone come up to you and tell you how much a song means to him or her, and you realize he or she totally misinterpreted it?
TL: There’s been some good ones. Mostly it’s on the humorous side, like a word like “toast,” which I mean in terms of raising a glass, someone will send an email like “I don’t get it, why are they making toast?”
TS: What is it like for you to be accessible to the people who buy your records and see your shows? When you and I were coming up, if you wanted to talk to somebody you would either get him or her at a show or you would write him or her a letter, stick it in the mail, and hope that it got to him or her. But now it’s like this thing where you’re 24-7 accessible to your audience.
TL: Ultimately, I would say that it’s all pretty positive. I started playing under my own name in the summer of 1997. I didn’t have a computer back then, but over the next few years as I started making records and started getting more notice and touring more, it’s been the era in which this whole phenomenon of instant access happened. So in some ways, I think it’s been kind of instrumental, not only in a marketing way—I’ve never done that—but the spirit of that conversation is something that from pretty early on has surrounded every aspect of what we’ve done, whether that’s playing live or even down to how wordy a lot of our songs are. Having said that, I think it’s become such a part of younger people’s daily life to have this instant access to each other that it sometimes gets a little presumptuous. People feel like it’s OK, for example, to email you with some weird personal criticism they have.
TS: I guess that’s the downside of it.
TL: Yeah, definitely, you go to check your email and some guy says, “Hey, Ted, I’m a big fan, but I’ve got to tell you, what were you thinking when you wrote that song?” [Laughs.] It’s like, What the hell, man? What were you thinking when you thought you had the right to just call me out here? Why don’t you tell Mick Jagger how bad Steel Wheels was?
TS: It’s weird to think of what it would have been like if you think of Rollins-era Black Flag coming out now. Now he’s kind of in this elder statesman role to a degree, but when he was riding that chowderhead of frenzy of that final lineup of Black Flag, if someone told him he sucked, that would be enough to make a guy like that just quit.
TL: The other thing about this is that there are some boundaries that it’s healthy to maintain. I do remember one specific time when we had just played a big finale at the Bowery Ballroom at the end of a really long tour; we had never had that kind of success in New York before, so it was pretty exciting. So after the show, I’m dead tired carrying my huge amp to put in our beat-up van in the rain, and a guy comes up to me while I’m trying to shove it into the van and he goes, “Hey Ted, I gotta ask you, man”—he’s talking about Shake The Sheets—“with this new record, it feels like a step backwards. Why don’t you make Sandinista!?” And I actually put the amp down on the ground and was like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” and started yelling at this guy. Like, how is that allowed? I understood what the guy was saying and in another form of conversation I might have explained myself to him, but really at some point you do start to feel like a weird performing monkey.
TS: Like there’s a big target on your back.
TL: Right. But having said that, there are only a few examples and it doesn’t really happen that much. It’s more of a positive exchange and even now I try to actually address things on my website. Admittedly, I can’t write everyone directly these days, but if someone has an interesting point I can put it up there and respond to it in a more general way.
TS: What do you think your records would be like if touring wasn’t such a big component of what makes a band a band?
TL: That’s a really good question. You know what I think the answer to that is? It would be what it would be. I know that’s kind of a cop-out, but that’s one thing that’s an unintentional but beautiful consequence of me choosing to play under my own name. At a certain point in time I can do whatever the hell I want. It’s my name. [Laughs.]
TS: So all that other stuff about you having the target on your back is maybe the downside to it, but the upside is Ted Leo is whatever Ted Leo says he is.
TL: Yeah, although people have gotten used to us having a certain aesthetic. If we changed that drastically, people still wouldn’t be like “Oh, he’s just playing under his own name so he is what he is.” If Bob Dylan put out a techno record, people would be freaked out, you know?
TS: It’s interesting, because when Ted Leo and the Pharmacists started, the records weren’t meant to be played live.
TL: That’s true. And having just started doing that after being the guy from Chisel at that point, people were freaked out. [Laughs.] People were like, “Wait, it’s not mod-pop songwriting—what the hell is this guy doing?” People were violent about the first couple of solo releases.
TS: Do you miss that part of things?
TL: You know, I haven’t missed it actually. I started playing with a band again because I missed playing with a band and I missed kicking out louder punk-rock jams—and that’s kind of remained my first love in all of this. I’m also at a point right now where I think that I’ll probably wind up scratching those other itches with other projects.
TS: It’s interesting, as we get older—and everybody’s getting older at the same rate. To all you fifteen-year-olds, who are laughing at this stuff, keep in mind that it’s going to happen to you, too.