Last year, the punk band Titus Andronicus released its fourth album, "The Most Lamentable Tragedy," a five-act, 93-minute rock opera that follows a protagonist's journey through lives present and past.
At the helm is Patrick Stickles, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist from New Jersey, whose experiences with manic depression informed the sprawling album — and who has been the only constant member of nearly 20 who have rotated through in the band's 11-year existence.
Ahead of Titus Andronicus' show tonight at the Ottobar, a stop on their tour with The Hold Steady's Craig Finn, Stickles spoke on the phone from Queens, N.Y., about what punk means to him, writing a rock opera and coming to peace with the band's legacy. This interview has been edited and condensed.
"The Most Lamentable Tragedy" was a hugely ambitious output. What came after that, and how has your life changed in the past year?
To be honest, it didn't really change my life all that much. I think it's sustaining the life that I live. There were obviously some fantasies that this record was going to lift us up to some new plateau and put us on Easy Street forever, but maybe that's not so realistic. It would have been great if that record solved all my problems, but it didn't. That's a lot to ask of any record or of any piece of art, but as far as I can tell, the people that have supported us for a long time continue to support us, and hopefully we picked up a few more [supporters], but it's kind of just what we've always done. Picking up people here and there. It's been a slow, organic process expanding our audience.
Was this your last album?
Every album has the potential to be the last album, because like I said, the people decide how long the band gets to keep going. We depend on their support for our survival, so anytime you put a new record out, you have to entertain the possibility that it might not carry you to the next record necessarily — not to sound too defeatist, but it's always possible. A lot of it has to do with just being somewhat amazed that we've been able to sustain it for this long. We've been at it 11 years; that's a lot longer than a lot of bands get. You're just grateful for everything that you've got and not try to predict the future, necessarily.
You've said "The Most Lamentable Tragedy" was a way to extrapolate your manic depression into a fictional narrative. Was that a new exercise for you? Did you spend time writing fiction as a child?
No, I never really did. This was kind of my first fictional story, but obviously it's not totally fictional. It's all based on real experiences that I've had. Projecting it onto a fictional story and a fictional character serves a twofold purpose of affording me a certain amount of emotional camouflage -- it gives me the ability to say things that I wouldn't necessarily be inclined to say if I myself, Patrick Stickles, was the protagonist in a strict autobiography.
And the other purpose is that I know that my experiences are not unique to me, I'm not the only person in the world that feels the way that I do or has experienced the things that I've experienced, and by making the character more of a nameless everyperson, hopefully that makes it a little more inclusive and makes it easier for the listener to feel like it's their story if indeed they share the experiences that I've had or the feelings that I've had.
Rock operas are not generally associated with punk. Were you intimidated by that?
I wouldn't say that, because to me, punk is not about two-minute songs with no guitar solos to me in the way that maybe it was to the Ramones or something. But it's more about freedom and the freedom to do whatever you want to do and follow your true muse as closely as you want to. It's the freedom to not feel like you have to adhere to any artistic or stylistic template. You can do whatever you want, and if I felt like I needed to write a rock opera to communicate all the things that I wanted to communicate, all these feelings and stuff, then that's my prerogative. So really being a punk band, ideologically speaking, made it much easier to do a project like this.
You've said that you felt like everything Titus Andronicus puts out has been held up to the band's second album, "The Monitor." Do you still feel that way? Is "The Most Lamentable Tragedy" a new albatross?
It's too soon to say, because until we put out a new record and everybody says, "Oh, but it's not as good as 'The Most Lamentable Tragedy,'" I have no reason to have a big chip on my shoulder about it. But I've started to be more at peace with the degree to which our legacy is controlled largely by that one record. I used to get grumpy about it, but nowadays I see that it's a path for a lot of people to get into the band, and hopefully it's a doorway into a greater degree of fandom and appreciation.
What's the difference in how you approach concept albums and non-concept albums?
To my mind, all of our records have sort of been concept albums. Sometimes the concept is a little more concrete and easy to wrap your head around, or maybe sometimes I make a greater effort to beat the audience over the head with the concept, but I've tried on every record to make sure there was a thematic through-line that tied the whole thing together as a cohesive statement.
Beyond touring, what's next for the band?
Right now, the focus is on the live concert and getting out there and doing a good job and rocking the kids. When it comes time for a new record, I think that will just occur naturally. You can't force that sort of stuff, even if there's certain pressure from the industry to continually be cranking out product just to stay in the news. Ultimately, I think that's detrimental to the larger body of work and you can have a more sustainable long term career if you put the quality of the work first and not just use it as a means to stay in the public eye.