When I called Patrick Stickles, frontman of New Jersey-bred Titus Andronicus, to talk about the band's upcoming show at BSP in Kingston, he immediately put me on hold. "I'm sorry," he says when back on the line. "I had to take a picture for my ongoing series 'Dead on the Street.'" Stickles explains that while most people have trained their eyes not to see deformed, decomposing road-kill, he seeks it out. "It reminds me that I too am a walking carcass—that my destiny isn't substantively different." This realization isn't meant to be oppressive. In fact, to Stickles, it's a freeing conceit. "I am a rat," he declares. "I am a punk."
This initial interruption set the tone for the rest of our talk, which consists mostly of Stickles's poetic-meets-political-meets-philosophical stream of consciousness. It occurs to me halfway through that I probably won't get to ask most of the questions I've prepared—about the band name's homage to Shakespeare's extravagantly brutal revenge tragedy; about the 2010 Civil War-inspired powerhouse The Monitor, which intersects gut-punching, fist-pounding punk rock with lofty political orations; about 2012's Local Business, which celebrates the DIY aesthetic while bemoaning its affectation in popular culture; about the band's 30-song rock opera that's slated to be released in 2014.
Unexpectedly, Stickles does touch upon one topic that I'd thought better of asking about: New Jersey's patron saint of rock 'n' roll Bruce Springsteen. (Stickles once warned in an interview, "The constant comparisons between us and Springsteen in the press seems to be a case of lazy journalism.") Nevertheless, The Monitor brings the comparison front and center. The album-opener, "A More Perfect Union," not only incorporates E Street Band riffs, but also plays tricks with lines by The Boss himself (and Billy Bragg): "No, I never wanted to change the world, but I'm looking for a new New Jersey / Because tramps like us, baby, we were born to die." The references aren't just for kicks. As seems to be de rigueur with the brainy Stickles, the allusions have a thoughtful purpose in line with his artistic vision. "I want[ed] to do something similar in terms of its cinematic grandeur and scope and the kind of rugged poetry of it all. I want[ed] to align that with punk somehow."
While Titus Andronicus effectively captures Springsteen's blue-collar mythos in its ability to unearth the epic in the everyman, there's something much more unsettling about the band's ultimate message. Local Business opener "Ecce Homo" expresses their bent toward matter-of-fact nihilism: "Okay, I think by now we've established / Everything is inherently worthless." But cynicism isn't the band's endgame. As with Stickles's road-side reminder that we're all going to end up dead someday, there's an enlightening freedom that comes with recognizing that the world is filled with hollow systems. Stickles sees a void—in fact, in the song "Four Score and Seven" he's urinating into it—but he's also raising up a beer and saying "Fuck you" to it. And, most importantly, he's filling that void with music that rocks.
Putting on a Titus Andronicus album or going to a live show is not all that different from standing around a soapbox listening to Abraham Lincoln rally the Union. The emphatic, ceremonial pounding that runs through many of the songs like a pulse are countered by Stickles's unwieldy, firecracker sing-speak, exploding and then fizzling out to an ember, waiting to combust again. The band dredges up the gritty darkness of the world, and then helps us to transcend it—one galvanizing punk-rock anthem at a time.
Titus Andronicus plays BSP in Kingston on June 11. (845) 481-5158; Bspkingston.com.