A chat with rock’s new antihero

Matt Siblo

Where were you this Halloween? Trick or treating? Watching scary movies curled up on a couch somewhere? Or perhaps standing in a vomit filled basement somewhere staring at the precocious sorority girl whose pride has eluded her this evening as she sloppily does her best Britney Spears impression? If you answered yes to any of these questions, I bet you’re kicking yourself for missing the best Halloween party Villanova has ever seen. The Connelly Center nearly imploded from all the rock and roll that was dished out by Daylight Savings, Weird War and, most certainly, Ted Leo and his Pharmacists. I was lucky enough to sit down with Ted for a while and have him answer a couple of questions.

Matt Siblo: First off, you’ve obviously been around for quite some time. How do you feel that the scene has changed since you first started out? And as you continue to keep playing, what are the major differences you’ve noticed in crowds and shows that you’ve played?

Ted Leo: In terms of the scene, that’s really hard to say because there really is no such thing as the scene I feel. There are certainly scenes but I think maybe 20 years ago, maybe even 15 years ago there may have been the scene because everything was so much smaller and so underground back then. If you walked down the street and were on tour across the country … hell, even 10 years ago if you walked down the street and saw someone who was vaguely alternative looking, you knew you were probably going to see that person at the show that night.

If you’d see someone skateboarding, you knew that it would be cool to just strike up a conversation with that person. These days, it’s just totally not the case anymore. I think I even came into that, at the tail end of it. So it’s kind of hard to say but that’s probably the biggest difference. It’s just so much more easily available as a lifestyle that it’s effectively exploded the notion of a larger scale of the scene. That’s not to say there aren’t connections, and you do obviously meet like-minded people everywhere, but I feel like your own personal scene or connections are the scene at this point.

MS: With the explosion of the underground music scene in the past couple of years, there is a feeling that in the coming years everything will be heading back underground where it came from. Do you ever foresee that happening again?

TL: I’ll say this. I think that a lot of my success over the past year has been … I think it’s a little bit easier for people in the mainstream media to write about me because I think people are starting to get sick again of the schlock that their handed all the time, ya know? Because there isn’t a real good reason why a band mine would have exploded now. I’ve been making records for almost like 15 years I mean they keep on getting better but it’s not like we did anything different this year than we did last year. So, in terms of independent music starting to get a little bit more of a look from people … I don’t want to sound too optimistic about it but it seems that there is a backlash at this point.

I’m really curious to see how the new Strokes record does. Is everyone who bought the last one going to buy this one? Or are people going to wake up and say,”Why do I need another Strokes record?” So I guess it remains to be seen. I have to say though; I think I personally have benefited from a bit of backlash. That’s not to say I’m just being used as backlash but people in the mainstream media are actually looking for examples of a real alternative right now. And hopefully that’s part of it.

MS: Recently you were included on the New York “Yes” compilation which features you guys along with a lot of great artists, but it also sees you with a lot of bands that are more driven by hype such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes, Interpol, etc. Did you have any reservations about being placed on the record?

TL: I mean yes and no. The people who put it out are friends of mine, and it was a benefit. I didn’t really have any time to give them anything new and they were cool with me just giving them an LP track. And to be totally honest with you, I thought about it a lot. Some of the bands on there, we do have a lot in common with bands like Radio 4 and the Roger Sisters. Other bands on there … I don’t give a flying (you know!) if they fall off the face of the earth tommorow. Bands like Interpol, the Strokes) … (I mean I don’t know them at all and I have absolutely nothing against them, but at the same time I have absolutely nothing in common with them besides the fact that we all play guitar based music. And that’s the engine that drives the hype machine around New York and it really is a question of do you want to be a part of that or not?

And then [laughs] I have to admit, I actually started thinking, ‘Why the hell not, man? I’ve been in bands in New York for years and it’s about time people started associating us with that!’ [laughs] So then I just thought “Yeah! We’ll be on it!”

MS: How would you describe the video process for “Where have all the rude boys gone?” Was it bizarre to see yourself on MTV2?

TL: I mean a little bit, yeah. These guys, who I have since become friends with, work in television and they were fans who said they had access to all this gear if I ever wanted to do a video and that we could totally do it all on the cheap. I had some ideas, but they were all a little … over budget. [laughs]

So the director came up with this simple old-style performance video with some vague story-line about zombies. I was like, “Yeah that’s cool whatever.” We just ran with it … it was totally fun. Again it was one of those things, kind of like good timing. We didn’t really have to do anything with it. We just made it, submitted it and MTV just picked it up. At this point, it doesn’t really freak me out to see myself on TV. Well, it’s not like I really see myself on TV. But I mean I see my picture around and I think just seeing my picture enough has gotten me over that sort of thing actually happening.

MS: What would you say your future plans are for 2004?

TL: I really hurt my vocal chords last spring and I’ve never fully recovered and it’s been particuarly hard in the past few weeks, which is awesome because I’m just starting a tour.

So I have to take a little bit of a break but I don’t know how much, I can actually take. I haven’t had more than three weeks off in the past four years, so I have to take at least a month off at some point. Then hopefully we’ll be recording a new record in the spring and it will be out in the summer.