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Interview: Ted Leo

Interview: Ted Leo

“It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling loop of love.”

I caught up with Ted Leo on the eve of the release of his ambitious, self-released new album, The Hanged Man. This is his first album as Ted Leo, rather than Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.

He is currently touring until December or so, promoting the album. We talked about funding the album through Kickstarter, how the writing and recording process was different this time around (he recorded most of it himself) and what has been inspiring him lately.
Note: The interview is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.

Congratulations on your new album! To start things off, I was curious to hear you reflect back on the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund the album. What made you decide to take that route?

I hadn’t been in an especially happy place with my label for a while. I was under contract with them for another record, but I was thinking of what I might do if I were able to get out of that contract or if they ended up dropping me, which was also a possibility. I’m lucky at this point to have made a lot of friends over the 30+ years that I’ve been doing this, friends who work in all aspects of the music world. Some of them work at labels, and I had been thinking about other labels that would have been better to work with. But one of the things that came up was that an old friend of mine started running the music department at Kickstarter. She was the one who approached me with the idea, which definitely took some some getting my head around at first.

What were your hesitations?

Going back six or seven years, when the crowdfunding thing started to be visible, it had a feeling of acquiescence to the idea that one could no longer actually be a working musician and still operate on a transactional model with fans—“I put money and time and effort into making this thing, and then you buy it from me.” It felt like a non-solution to a growing problem.

I only started thinking seriously about it when I finally did get out of my contract with Matador a little over a year ago and my friend at Kickstarter approached me with the idea. Through talking to her, I started seeing how the whole thing had grown and evolved, and I began to understand what someone in my position could do with it. I was rolling the dice and hoping I had actually built an audience “the old way” that might be willing to come with me on this new version of things. When I started to think about it, I realized that labels more and more were relying on pre-sales to drive interest in actual albums. In a way, crowdfunding is still a transactional model—I’m still putting time, money and effort into making something and people are still buying it, just without the middleman of a record label. Which I still say with some sadness, because record labels are really important. I built the audience I have with the help of amazing people from amazing labels over the years.

So there’s a place for all of this, but I wonder, given the success that I’ve had with Kickstarter, if labels themselves shouldn’t start to work in this way a little bit. If embracing pre-sales is already a huge part of the process, why not work with artists and potential audiences a little earlier in the process? Because labels have less and less of a budget, if you can get people pledging to it at the front end of things, they feel even more invested in what I was working on, and that made me feel more invested in having them invested. It becomes a kind of self-fulfilling loop of love.

Actually, I hadn’t seen your Kickstarter video until recently. Sometimes the earnestness of those videos can feel a bit icky, but I found yours really lovely. Was it hard for you to put it together?

I’m glad you say that! I had a friend of mine help me make the video—she also directed a music video for the record, for “Can’t Go Back.” She was living in LA and sort of got bumped out of her space and needed somewhere to go. I was ramping up to this thing—I know her, I know she’s got a great vision, I had seen films she’d made and I said, why don’t you come stay with us and make a video? What you said about Kickstarter videos—we really didn’t want to make a “Hey guys!”-type of video. For me, it had been such a long, turgid, emotional process that I really wanted to tell something of the story of my life that led me to this point. Bringing a friend in, someone that could help me do it, was great. The voiceover is culled from two hours of interviews. We really sat and put a lot of effort into that, so I’m glad it worked!

Turning to the music itself, I gather the fact that you played most of the instruments is something of a first in your recording career.

Not entirely, but it’s been a long time, not since the first few albums I recorded under my own name. On The Tyranny of Distance, I brought a lot of people on, but there are still some songs where I play everything, including drums.

But this one is the first album I made in isolation in about 20 years. I was dividing my time between New York and Rhode Island, where I was actually working on the recording. In the past few years, I spent more and more time up here [in Rhode Island] working on it. When I got out of the contract with my label and decided to do the Kickstarter thing, I knew it was time to wrap this process up and finish something. I guess I began the earnest process of finishing it about a year ago.

So you had these songs written when you were working with Aimee Mann?

Some, not all. I had Chris (Wilson, the Pharmacists drummer) come track drums on a bunch of stuff over a year ago at this point, but I was writing songs that made it onto the record as recently as April.

What are some of the more recent tracks?

The two most recent—the ones where I knew there were missing pieces that I hadn’t figured out—were “William Weld” and “Let’s Stay on the Moon,” which was the final song I wrote for the record.

Listening to the album, it felt to me as though it was an effort to reflect as many sides of your musical passions as possible. Or was it more a matter of responding to what an individual song demanded of you?

I would say somewhere in between the two. I did make a conscious effort to allow myself to respond to what each individual song asked of me. If I had an idea that seemed like I wanted to do it on piano, I would let myself, whereas in the past I might have said, I’ll transpose it to guitar.

Going back to The Tyranny of Distance, that was a record made more like this one where there wasn’t an agenda, an ongoing concern as a band. In that space, things were a little more open. It wasn’t made in one studio session, so the idea of “can I get a friend to come in and play cello?” was more reasonable than it was on the successive three or four records that were more one studio session, limited budget, band touring all the time.

They’re great for what they are, but the constraints showed themselves in the songwriting, the arrangements, the instrumentation. On this one, I just didn’t have any constraints or expectations.

By the time three years had gone by without me putting out a new record, it was really like, well, I guess I’m just doing this to make the record I feel the best about making.

One song that really struck me was “Grey Havens.” I wonder if there’s anything you remember about how that song came to be and how you figured out the arrangement.

I’m really glad to hear that! It’s obviously a little bit of an outlier in terms of what the normal rock record should sound like.
It sounds like a song that could be a hundred years old.

That makes me really happy because I came up with that opening verse melody with the weird timing a while ago. I was kicking that around on guitar for the past two years or something, fiddling around with that figure and the vocal melody.

It had a really madrigal, medieval chamber quality to it. I really liked it and wanted to figure out something to do with it. I really wanted it to be a part of the record.

That was part of the batch of four songs that I finished this year, after the new year. I had it in my head, I just needed to figure out how to correctly iterate it. Also I think the biggest challenge was figuring out what do with the rhythm backing track. There were so many directions it could have gone. The song is about imagining fleeing from something…ultimately landing on this repetitive but propulsive percussion was what felt good to me. Those are live drums I played myself with one or two electronic-sounding hits where I added a triggered sample over my playing.

What can you tell us about the album’s long gestation period? Did your songwriting change?

I had about 30 songs that I had completed and only 14 made it onto this record, so there’s a whole second record that’s going to be coming out at some point.

Some of the older songs of the batch do lead more directly out of The Brutalist Bricks—they’re a little more punky, for lack of a better term.

From this record, the three oldest are “The Future is Learning to Wait Around for Things You Didn’t Know You Wanted to Wait For,” “Run to the City” and “The Little Smug Supper Club.” They’re all sort of in that pub rock, power pop thing that I’m somewhat known for [laughs], but they also have their quirky prog elements to them that are definitely a step forward from The Brutalist Bricks toward the more expansive stuff that I wound up writing later in the process.

It’s funny, they don’t sound anything alike, but “The Little Smug Supper Club” reminded me of the Beatles song “Savoy Truffle.” I guess it’s the food-related humor…

(laughs, sings:) “A coffee dessert, yes, you know it’s good news!” I hadn’t thought about that!

To wrap things up, I was wondering if there’s anything in particular that’s been inspiring you lately or that has inspired you over the course of this album, not just music but reading-wise.

Actually, the album’s cover art—Emil Ferris, the graphic novelist, has a massive two-part tome (the second part isn’t out yet)—My Favorite Thing is Monsters. It has really blown me away and affected me deeply. It’s an amazing story and it’s beautifully illustrated. Whether you’re into graphic novels or not, it’s really worth checking out. It was recommended to me by the person who designed the record, Gail Marowitz—she did The Both record and a couple of Aimee Mann ones, too.

Whom will you be touring with?

Some of the same guys I’ve played with for a long time. Marty (Key), James (Canty) and Chris, with the addition of Ralph Darden—he plays with The Jai-Alai Avant, from Chicago. He also DJs under the name Major Taylor. Also my friend Adrienne Berry, who plays on the record—she’ll be doing sax, some keyboards, some backing vocals.

Sounds great. It was nice talking to you, Ted. Congratulations on the new album!

Thanks a lot!

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