A listen to Titus Andronicus’ discography makes it obvious why the band has inspired countless feature-length articles and cultivated a devout following. Over the past decade-and-change, Stickles has crafted a sprawling punk universe built atop imagery from the American Civil War, a 90-minute rock opera that grapples with his bipolar disorder (or, as he prefers to call it, his neurodiversity), and a healthy reverence for the artists who motivated him. The band’s oeuvre runs the gamut from tightly wound 30-second guitar workouts to orchestrated ballads, all anchored by Stickles’ lyrical musings on morality, existentialism, and the opportunity cost of perpetually getting hammered with your buddies.
In other words, there’s a lot to chew on.
Stickles' ambition and his irascibility have been well documented in his myriad interviews with the music press. But one of the singer-guitarist's most striking qualities has been consistently overlooked: He’s funny as hell.
New Times caught up with Stickles by phone on a rainy late-summer afternoon, just a week before the band embarked on a three-month tour behind its latest album, An Obelisk. He discloses early on that the tour’s practical considerations have left little room for pondering how crowds might respond to the new record.
“This is the time in the cycle where it would be nice to sit around, assess my feelings, and interrogate myself and say, How am I feeling? How confident am I?” he says. “But the fact is, I just don't have the time to do that, because I'm up to my back in logistical concerns and administrative duties — because I'm not only the singer, I'm also the manager, or the president of the limited liability company. So I'm spending less time thinking about what it's gonna be like onstage next week than I am thinking about how I'm going to make the left blinker on the van blink at the same speed as the right blinker. I'm thinkin' about how can I get rid of the other fuckin' broken-ass van that we had from the tour last year that I never got around to selling before. Now I've got too many vans, and one of 'em's gotta go.
“I’m thinking about anything except any matter that would be artistic or creative,” he sums up, "anything but the reasons I got into this business.”
Regardless of Stickles’ thoughts — or lack thereof — about how audiences are receiving what he calls the “raucous punk bangers” of An Obelisk, Miamians will have a chance to make their feelings known Monday, November 11, when Titus Andronicus swings by Churchill’s Pub.
The current tour represents a renewal of sorts for the band and the expectations surrounding its live shows. Last year, Stickles performed acoustically with the backing of a lone pianist in support of March 2018’s A Productive Cough, a more subdued entry in the Titus Andronicus canon. He says the break in sonic continuity and subsequent return to “rocking out” were conceived as a way of renegotiating the terms upon which Titus Andronicus engages with listeners.
“Part of the whole ballad-y, more acoustic thing that we were doing last year was an attempt to establish that Titus Andronicus can't always be expected to show up with an enormous wall of amplifiers and bash out a ton of super-uptempo punk bangers,” Stickles says. “To my mind, that's not really my essential purpose as an artist; that's just one of the tools in the box that I might pull out to achieve my real goal. The performing of punk bangers is just a means to an end; it's not an end unto itself.
“It's possible that people are going to show up and be like, 'Oh, my God, thank heavens they're not doing that acoustic thing anymore, 'cause I only came here to punch my friends in the face and last year I was really disappointed; so watch out, friend's face, 'cause here comes the fist.' That would be my fear,” he adds.
Stickles says the Churchill’s show will mark Titus Andronicus' first Miami performance — one of multiple recent milestones for the group.
“If I'm not mistaken, it's actually the longest Titus Andronicus has gone without having somebody quit the band,” Stickles imparts, alluding to the group’s present iteration of Liam Betson, Chris Wilson, R.J. Gordon, and himself.
“I'll tell you, though: If I wanted to make somebody quit the band, one effective way to do that might be to conscript them for a 63-show suicide mission, such as I am about to do, and burn 'em out like I haven't been able to do thus far,” he says before knocking on proverbial wood and assuring that all parties involved are down to hit the road. “And, of course, this is how we make the money — we're all very poor, you know. But not when this is over. When the tour is over, we're gonna be rich.”
If it’s true that tragedy plus time equals comedy, Stickles is one of America’s most masterful humorists. As Titus Andronicus’ internal continuity of recurring themes and lyrical callbacks indicates, Stickles has thoroughly mined his own life, as well as history and current events, for inspiration; for better or worse, he’s found ample material with which to work. Even beyond the aforementioned rock opera, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, the bulk of Stickles’ writing has concerned learning to navigate an unjust world and one’s shortcomings in order to lead a meaningful existence.
“The punch line of most of the records I have made is that we as individuals need to take responsibility and accept that we are ultimately going to be the architects of our own happiness,” he says. “And as tempting as it is to cast the blame for our lack of satisfaction onto somebody else — and that's a perfectly natural and often comforting thing to do; it’s fun! — at the end of the day, that doesn't really get you very far. That's just whackin' off, basically. And if you want to have a better life, you have to strive to be a better and a kinder person.
“You can point the finger all you want at whoever you want. But when you're done doing that, you should really make a point of assessing, reassessing, and continuing to be in the process of reassessing your values and your belief systems and your actions and your words and deeds — and always trying to grow and to do more and better work," Stickles says. "That would generally be the punch line of the discography."
Titus Andronicus. With Partner and Superhaunted. 8 p.m. Monday, November 11, at Churchill's Pub, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami; churchillspub.com. Tickets cost $15 via eventbrite.com.