Off key I sing

February 6, 2009


One of the best surprises at last summer's Pitchfork Music Festival, the New Jersey art-punk quintet Titus Andronicus delivered an energizing but entrancing mix of layered shoegazer guitars and synthesizer and raw punk-rock fury.

In between climbing the stage scaffolding, jumping into the audience and waving an American Revolutionary banner, singer and bandleader Patrick Stickles addressed the crowd. "This is a really nice thing, like, all these like-minded individuals coming together," he said. "Community spirit is a nice thing."

Here the hyperactive 23-year-old vocalist inserted a dramatic pause worthy of a group that takes its name from a Shakespearean play. "Just remember that Monday morning when you're back in the real world, all this will make absolutely no difference." Then he launched into the anthemic "Titus Andronicus Forever," which found him howling the band's motto, "The enemy is everywhere!"

Given the intensity of Stickles' performances, it's surprising to hear him confess that midway through recording the band's debut album, "The Airing of Grievances," he took time out to visit a vocal coach.

"We started recording it back in August of 2007, then we moved into this wonderful studio in New Paltz, N.Y., under the watchful eye of our good friend [and producer] Kevin McMahon," Stickles said. "I guess around October we started doing the singing, then Kevin said, 'We need to stop doing this record for a while 'cause you suck at singing! Go learn to sing and we'll finish the record.' So we stopped for about three weeks and I was depressed for a little while, and then I got a consultation from a professional.

"I went to see a very gifted tenor who gives vocal lessons in the town next to the town where we grew up [Glen Rock]. He gave me some pointers -- he was a very smart man and he had a very beautiful voice -- and I don't really remember what he said, but maybe it had a placebo effect at least.

"I guess Lou Reed or Bob Dylan or a lot of my heroes can't sing, either -- I had some bad role models as far as having a beautiful voice -- but we were just kind of getting into a funk with the singing, so we had to kind of step back for a minute."

Next came a change in the band's recording methods.

"Our strategy became that when we had to record vocals, we would get all our friends to come and drink beer and have a big party," Stickles said. "We got everybody to sing the shouted bits with me, and it was kind of a loose, relaxed environment so I could let some of that natural energy come out and take some of the sting out of the often horrendously off-key singing. We needed things to be a lot more fun and laid-back so we could get to work, ironically enough."

As unconventional as this approach may have been, it yielded an impressive album, with Stickles' passionate, if off-key, wail nestled among the great melodic wash of sound churned out by his revolving bandmates. (At various times, the group has varied in size from a trio to an 11-piece band, though the lineup has now solidified around Stickles, guitarist-keyboardist Andrew Cedermark, bassist Ian Graetzer, drummer Eric Harm and guitarist Ian O'Neil.)

"You've gotta have a good melody, otherwise what is it? It's just masturbation," Stickles said. "My friend Kevin McMahon -- who told me I sucked at singing because he loved me so much and didn't want me to embarrass myself -- also used to always lecture us about how even bands that seem to be the sloppiest or most chaotic, like Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr., are able to be spontaneous because they've kind of got their craft down to a hard science. He used to try to teach us that we had to create order before we could effectively create chaos or the illusion of chaos. But to tell you the truth, we never really learned to do that. We still just do regular chaos."

Maybe so, but there isn't much chaos that ultimately is as tuneful -- or as funny -- as the music of Titus Andronicus.

"I think the funniness comes from the fact that I spent my formative years listening to rap music," Stickles said. "We think of rappers as being serious guys expressing themselves very sincerely, but they also have great punch lines: I feel like a good rapper can say something that is very funny without being funny himself, and maybe that kind of rubbed off on me."