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.