Ted Leo talks karaoke, politics, and joining the Matador roster

Categories: Q&A
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It's been almost exactly three years since Ted Leo and the Pharmacists released their last album, Living with the Living.  Such a period of silence is unheard of from a man whose tireless commitment to recording and performing has become a defining part of his music.  Throughout a career that spans nearly 20 years to his early days with D.C. trio, Chisel, the regularity of Leo's output has often matched his energetic hardcore hooks and his seemingly relentless touring schedules.

Last week, Leo -- now 39 -- returned with his sixth solo album, The Brutalist Bricks, his first with indie heavyweight Matador Records. Fortunately, even a cursory listen to the new effort reveals Leo has lost none of his old dedication and that has his songwriting hasn't suffered a bit from the break.  The songs are tight and focused, his assessments of the current political landscape as vitriolic and urgent as ever, suggesting the time away has done the singer nothing but good.

Ahead of tonight's show at First Ave, Gimme Noise caught up with Leo to find out what he's been up to. The most obvious place to begin was with the karaoke record release party he and the band played last Tuesday in Brooklyn.

So what was the deal with this karaoke party you threw last week?

Man, what can I say? It was a blast. You know, there are so many dumb, normal rock shows, and we all go to them.  And it was like, when you have the opportunity to plan something from the ground up, we just decided to run with it.  So we had pinatas and vegan food, and a comedian, Max Silvestri. Max did a half-hour comedy routine, then we played the whole album back to front. We had 30 other songs ready plus our own ones, people signed up for it and made requests and sang along. The idea was, we're really happy with the record, let's blow off some steam and say thank you to people.

This is your first album with Matador. Has it been any different working with them compared to previous labels?

I wouldn't say anything's been fundamentally different.  If anything, there's just a few more people you're actually talking to at the office - that and the fact that it seemed to surprise a lot of people that we decided to go with Matador. But it also makes a lot of sense.  It's definitely a bigger label, but not by a big factor.  It's another one of those places where I've known the people long before and already had personal relationships with them.  I guess the biggest difference is hoping they won't fold.

You've always been one to wear your politics on your sleeve, and The Brutalist Bricks isn't any exception. Did the current political climate have much influence on these songs?

It didn't really affect the album all that much. Most the songs were written before the election, and the ones that came after aren't that political. But, I mean, it's almost hilarious how the different sides in this country demonize each other, like they're diametrically opposed, even though it's an incredibly centrist government and everyone is completely beholden to the money system that flows in D.C. I'm not saying there's no difference, but it's a small one.

I have to admit, I was excited to vote for Obama, but you have to take these quote-unquote "changes" with a grain of salt.  Things aren't going to change any time soon, and there isn't any reason to not be angry about it.

With that said, you sound rejuvenated on this album, like you're just plain having a lot of fun with what you're doing.

Yeah, yeah, I'm glad that comes across. I think the time between albums has been really helpful. We got to do things at our own pace and away from the hamster wheel of doing one album after another. Being away from that context, we were all able to reconnect - not that we were ever lost, but we were really able to be in touch with what we do and enjoy creating with one another.

Was the time between albums a deliberate move or was it more down to external forces?

Well, you had Lookout fall apart, and also around that time, you know, we always toured a lot, but after hammering at it that long, I honestly think I wound up a little spent. Living with the Living wound up being a double-album, so the time between records kind of evened out. This time, we started recording a year and a half ago and wound up shelving it.  I never did that before, never felt the confidence to put on the brakes, and I'm glad we did because we came out with a much better album.

I'd imagine you're pumped to be going back on the road.

I was very pumped about it until the last few days, and there's nothing worse than starting the tour exhausted. I've had so much going on [with the karaoke party preparations]. Let me put it to you this way: you know your life isn' t in the best state of affairs when your van shows up and your first thought is, "I can't wait to sit in the van and do nothing." That's where I am right now, but I think we'll be good by the time we come around to Minneapolis.

TED LEO & THE PHARMACISTS play with Title Tracks and the Dynamiters TONIGHT, MARCH 15 at FIRST AVENUE; 612.322.1775.
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