Political Punk Rock That Protests Its Own Singer

Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk roars against society, but the front man Patrick Stickles explains that it also represents a journey of self-understanding.

Titus Andronicus's Patrick Stickles
Merge Records

For Titus Andronicus, one of the 21st century’s best rock acts, anger isn’t simple. The singer Patrick Stickles boasts a rabid-badger snarl, and his band’s ruckus is worthy of both humming along to and kicking walls to. But the songs turn and twist in surprising ways, and the singer undercuts his every rebellious slogan with confessions about his own complicity. A track off the band’s 2008 debut explained his backstory in typically self-flagellating fashion: “I learned to play the guitar in the seventh grade in order to convince everyone I was a renegade … I couldn’t fool anyone, I couldn’t even fool myself!”

Something feels different on Titus Andronicus’s sixth album, An Obelisk. The first song is a fierce denunciation of mediocrity, capitalism, and the state of the globe rendered in outward-looking, protest-ready manifesto statements. Stickles’s signature neuroses are still here, but they’re only winked at. “It’s a sorry situation, entire world’s going to hell,” he sings. “But I in no way blame myself.” Later, on the single “(I Blame) Society,” he howls, “I’m not sick, it’s the world that is.”

The singer, of course, doth protest too much. An Obelisk is a concept album sung from the point of view of a somewhat arrogant outcast on a journey toward self-awareness (he’s nicknamed Troubleman, a term that references the band’s original record label as well as the ’70s blaxploitation film soundtracked by Marvin Gaye). Its bracing, rambunctious songs scan as straightforward, but there’s nuance if you listen closely.

Hoping to unpack some of the album’s story, as well as the wider political-punk traditions Titus Andronicus is working in, I spoke with Stickles over the phone in April. This conversation has been edited.

Kornhaber: I was just reading an interview where you said, “I don’t tell any lies in my music—it’s all taken from real life.” In the press materials for An Obelisk, you say the album has a narrator, and it’s not you. How do those square?

Stickles: Well, the artist can only ever speak about their own experience, right? The totality of our understanding of the universe comes from our own perceptions, so that’s the only thing that I feel qualified to speak about.

But certain listeners look at a song and take it to mean that the artist is saying, “This is how to live.” People see somebody up on the stage and they think this person is heroic and enlightened in some way. I don’t intend for it to be taken that way. By using this narrator I am able to represent experiences from my own life without necessarily elevating them to some rarefied sphere of wisdom.

Kornhaber: On the first song, “Just Like Ringing a Bell,” you’re railing against an “inferior version of rock and roll.” The straightforwardness of the message surprised me. But you’re saying it sarcastically, no?

Stickles: Yes and no. I do agree with the narrator that beautiful and inspiring things in life, filtered through our consumer capitalist culture, end up corrupted. It’s the same thing on “(I Blame) Society.” I do think that society has many ills, and the narrator makes a number of fair points. So it’s not exactly sarcastic. I wanted to use a narrator that is a little bit more naive than I am—but that is as naive as I have been at certain points in my life. Not naive in the sense of being wrong. But the narrator hasn’t come to understand his own position in the systems that are oppressing.

Kornhaber: What can that more naive narrator say that you yourself can’t?

Stickles: I’ve been a big fan of the second wave of British punk music. This is when punk music ceased to be made primarily by art-school students and became more of a working-class thing in the hands of bands like Cock Sparrer, Angelic Upstarts, Cockney Rejects, Sham 69, Red London, and also, to a certain degree, my favorite band, Crass. Their lyrics are extremely direct and leave very little room to doubt how the singer feels about whatever topic they happen to be addressing, which typically is things like, The upper class is trying to screw us. I’m into that.

Channeling this era of music, and affording myself the opportunity to speak about these things in a comparably direct way—that’s quite a fun thing to do. But it wouldn’t be fair of me to be purely pointing the finger at somebody else. When you point one finger at another, there’s three more that are pointed back at you. This has been the punch line of many Titus Andronicus songs. I don’t want to just come out and say the establishment is fucked up to a catastrophic degree. At the same time I don’t want to invalidate moments in my life when I have felt these feelings very strongly. From that urge comes this concept of using this narrator who we can follow on an intellectual journey.

Kornhaber: We’re in a politicized cultural moment when it’s pretty common to hear people say things like “I blame society” about any given subject. Is part of the album asking people whether they’re right when they blame society?

Stickles: The narrator is basically saying, “None of this is my fault.” But it should be clear that this narrator is not without a certain amount of responsibility for his own dissatisfaction. That’s why the narrator often tells the listener he’s not sick—“I’m not sick, it’s the world that is.” That should throw up a pretty big red flag that the narrator actually is pretty sick.

Kornhaber: Trying to deliver the slogan but also criticizing the person who’s delivering it is a tricky balance. Do you worry about being misunderstood and being taken in earnest entirely?

Stickles: Of course I’m worried about that. That’s a more likely result than people properly unpacking what it is that I’m trying to do. You can work as hard as you want and make sure that every level of meaning is exactly how you want it. At a certain point you have to put the thing out into the world, and then you don’t have as much authority over it anymore. That’s something that has definitely bothered me in the past, [but] it’s just the reality of the artist’s life.

Kornhaber: When has it particularly bothered you before?

Stickles: I shouldn’t get too petty about it. But the biggest example would be a song called “Theme From ‘Cheers.’” Basically, it’s about getting drunk. It’s a lot of Titus Andronicus fans’ favorite song because some of them think the takeaway is that getting drunk is awesome. That wasn’t really what I intended. It was more a song about such sorrow that will drive a person to numb their brain. But certain people take it as, I’m going to take this as my invitation to get even more hammered than I already was. Probably throw my big sweaty body up on anybody that’s in my periphery. As a consequence, that one doesn’t make it onto the set list too frequently anymore.

Kornhaber: Who is Troubleman?

Stickles: Troubleman is the name of the narrator. That’s how he thinks of himself, anyways. He confesses that he is constantly making trouble for himself and others. Early on in the record, the listener is meant to try and juxtapose this confession that he makes about himself with the accusation that he levels at the world around him.

Kornhaber: Does it matter that Troubleman is a man?

Stickles: Well, it would be pointless to argue that men have not had an outsized role in creating the catastrophic situation that we’re now living in. His masculinity has definitely got to be part of the reason why he acts like a jerk. But if there’s a person who doesn’t identify as a man who can relate with the narrator, then that’s fine by me. Not that our narrator is going around getting into brawls all the time, but the way that he lets his fear manifest as anger is a pretty common masculine trait.

Kornhaber: We were just talking about how with “Theme from ‘Cheers,’” people throw themselves around recklessly at concerts. It sounded like you were talking about men in particular.

Stickles: Yeah, I am. I don’t like to necessarily gender things this way, but at a gig, typically the No. 1 person who will take the most liberties to ruin everybody else’s good time, these are men more often than not.

Kornhaber: This is something you regularly call out on stage, right?

Stickles: Yep, I sure do. Which is not to say that I want everybody to sit in chairs. Dancing and having fun is cool, and [if] people jostle their elbows a little bit, it’s all in fun. But when certain individuals think that the dance floor is some consequence-free zone and they can let their inner wild animal loose and nobody can tell them anything about it, I don’t agree with that.

You can draw a parallel between that and the ongoing discussions we’re having more and more these days about unwanted touching. We’ve all seen this stuff in the news about Joe Biden. I think it would be good if we could have a similar discussion about respecting boundaries in the context of the rock-and-roll concert. They’re related: People feel like they’re entitled to take liberties with other people’s bodies and their personal space.

Kornhaber: You’ve said you’re using the concept of “an obelisk” to refer to power inequality, because an obelisk gets narrower at the top. Were you trying to also play on how ancient a structure it is? Your “(I Blame) Society” video makes clear that you were thinking at least of the Washington Monument.

Stickles: As well as Cleopatra’s Needle, which is an obelisk we have in New York City. That thing’s about 3,000 years old, built it in Egypt.

You’re right, it’s something that’s had a lot of symbolic power for a very long time. The abuses of powers that we’re seeing in the news, they’re often startling, but they’re not exactly brand-new ideas. People think that our president is a pretty far-out dude, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. To a certain extent that’s true. But there’ve also been big guys like him forever. These were the same kind of guys who were building these obelisks so many thousands of years ago.

Kornhaber: Do you think it helps to put people like the president in an eternal perspective? Or is there a danger of throwing up one’s hands and just saying this is how the world is?

Stickles: Perhaps there is danger of that. The way that I think about it is: Maybe we won’t hear so much about our president in a couple more years. Maybe he’ll be gone. But the system that created him will remain. We can’t just treat the symptoms. We can’t just think if we get rid of this one guy then everything will be okay. We need to come up with some kind of thorough overhaul if we’re going to do anything different. We have to recognize that our systems are only as good or as evil as the people operating them.

In that one song about blaming society, I talk about how “an isolated incident is a thing of fiction.” All these horrors we see on a daily basis, they didn’t happen in a vacuum. Which is not to say individuals don’t have any degree of accountability, which is something that the narrator doesn’t necessarily recognize, but he definitely will learn.

Kornhaber: So he does learn?

Stickles: By the end of the album he has at least learned that he’s not really that special. As much as he feels like he’s isolated and alienated, that’s how a lot of people feel all the time. He recognizes that he may not be able to single-handedly dismantle the system, but the thing he is able to control is the way he chooses to treat the people around him. You should treat people with empathy, and recognize that they’re as lonely and isolated as you might feel.

Kornhaber: I saw you tweeting about Beto O’Rourke stealing your sweater look.

Stickles: He’s stealing my swag.

Kornhaber: What do you make of his punk shtick?

Stickles: I’m not a fan of that. His punk talk chafes me. I don’t like the stuff that I care about deeply being tossed around like some kind of political [tool]. If you were really punk you wouldn’t even think to run for president. That’s one of the least punk things you could do.

Kornhaber: A punk couldn’t be president? No revolution from the inside?

Stickles: I dunno, maybe. I can’t see how people could study the teachings of punk and then infer that running for president is a good idea. It’s a really good way for revolutionary ideas to lose all their teeth. We sell the kids so many false images of rebellion that when they see the real thing, they don’t even know what to do with it. They don’t even recognize it.