Ted Leo on Pop, Punk, and Getting Pigeonholed by Politics

We asked singer, songwriter and leader of his own partially eponymous rock band, Ted Leo, how he might describe his music: Is it indie-rock? Or, really, just rock? Punk? Or pop? Politically charged? Or laden with emotions?

Like most musicians -- especially internationally recognized touring artists who are constantly forced to answer ridiculous and perilously abstract interview questions -- Leo resists easy categorization. "But I would say that everything you just mentioned is something I would include in that mix."

"Honestly," he adds, "I usually just say punk."

While the past decade of Leo's music hasn't quite been punk-by-the-book, his musical origins are none other than the late-'80s New York City hardcore scene. From his band at the time -- grindcore-powerviolence provocateurs Citizens Arrest -- to his next big project -- '90s mod-punk band Chisel -- there was a notable transition away from punk's belligerence and toward a more musically melodic experience.

After a handful of smaller projects and a few rounds in the producer's chair, Leo set back out in a "truly solo" fashion, he says, that would help develop the sound he would focus on up to his 2010 album, The Brutalist Bricks: a blend of upbeat, high-energy punk and melodic, catchy pop with clear, loud vocals. This project was quickly adapted to a larger ensemble -- Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. As he explains, "I made the band the main focus because I love playing with an amazing rock band ... My amazing rock band."

In other words, Neil Young had Crazy Horse, and Ted Leo has the Pharmacists. And while his latest band may be his most traditionally melodic, his lyrical content is as punk as ever. Leo describes being pigeonholed as a "political artist" can result in "a limited view of what you do if that becomes the headline." But he also adds, "there are worse brushes to be painted with."

"It's really important to me," he says of social justice issues and incorporating those subjects and causes into both his music and the various forums in which he shares his music. "It's why I continue to use the word punk. I wanna write about all kinds of things. But ultimately, I want to write about the core issues of life."

Leo doesn't really believe his music serves any didactic purpose, though he does recognize music's ability to "give voice to" a listener's still-developing feeling or thoughts. More than anything, though, when it comes to politics, Leo sees his music as capable of forging "a cathartic community moment."

"I've been through a lot of the same struggles and questioning times [as my audience], and it's a very important and powerful thing to feel like you are not only not alone but have champions that you can connect with."

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, presented by Sweat Records, with Pujol and Deaf Poets. Sunday, October 30. Churchill's Pub, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami. The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets cost $12 in advance or $14 at the door. Call 305-757-1807 or visit

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