All the world’s a stage for a lead singer to share his internal struggles.
“I know the world’s a scary place,” Patrick Stickles sings in “My Eating Disorder,” the song that centers Local Business, the third album from his band, Titus Andronicus. “That’s why I hide behind a hairy face.”
But Stickles isn’t hiding much these days. Not only did the New Jersey punk-rocker shave his heavy beard, but he’s made his life an increasingly open book as he faces a wider audience.
“I like to think that I’ve kept it pretty real,” says Stickles, 27. “Honesty is the best policy in life as in art, and in my earthly experiences that’s what I’m an expert on, so that’s what I feel qualified to write about.”
That real-life approach informs songs like “Tried to Quit Smoking” (he failed after a few weeks) and “(I Am the) Electric Man,” inspired by suffering an electrical shock at his band’s rehearsal space. “My Eating Disorder” blows open a particularly unusual and personal topic, a “selective eating” condition that he’s lived with since childhood.
Stickles eats only a limited range of foods, and no matter how hard he tries, he says he can’t keep anything else down. Being on tour is especially difficult. “It’s tough to find the stuff I like, which is annoying,” he says. “But it’s just part of my struggle.”
Stickles has also battled depression, taking medication for several years. In “My Eating Disorder,” a track that climaxes with the desperate, lurching coda “Spit it out!” Stickles questions the effects of anti-depressants first administered by his parents. The sentiment recalls his lyric from another song, “My authentic self was aborted at the age of four.”
“That refers to the age at which I started using drugs, Ritalin in this case,” he says. “I’ve been quite concerned over the years with the extent at which feelings and emotions and cognition stuff are really just chemical reactions in our brain. Which ones are authentic, and which ones do we choose for ourselves? And is that OK? That’s been another one of my struggles. Is it the real me that’s done all these things, or is it the various substances?”
All this from an album that begins with the broadside “Everything is inherently worthless,” a starting point that Stickles doesn’t relegate to pessimism. “Hopefully that would be a good place to begin further discussions,” he says. “With everything being worthless, that empowers the individual to determine what is actually worth something for them. Everything has the potential to suck, but it also has the potential to be as great as you please.”
Named for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus has displayed great potential since its 2008 debut, The Airing of Grievances. Stickles, whose parents are educators, studied literature and philosophy in college with plans to teach before he shelved academia for rock ’n’ roll. He was drawn to punk for “the honesty, the immediacy, the urgency, the freedoms inherent in it,” he says. “It’s really just a blank canvas, a big open space where you can do whatever you like.”
Stickles stretched that canvas to his conceptual whims, particularly on 2010’s ambitious jewel, The Monitor, which closed with a 14-minute track about a Civil War naval battle and his own retreat from Boston, having courted a woman here in 2008. That album featured members of several bands, including Hub indie-rockers Hallelujah the Hills, who sported horns and bagpipes.
By contrast, Local Business consolidates Titus Andronicus’ shifting lineup into a five-man core whose more streamlined attack reflects influences from Bruce Springsteen to Thin Lizzy and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse. The quintet hits the Sinclair on Jan. 27.
The title Local Business holds multiple meanings for Stickles, from support for local businesses (“the lifeblood of American capitalism at its best”) to an effort to contrast The Monitor’s historical bent, favoring something “close to home, not so abstract or mired in metaphors.” His band has also grown its own commercial enterprises. “We sell T-shirts and concert tickets and stuff,” Stickles says. “It’s a way of addressing that duality of being a punk band that had certain anti-capitalism or anti-consumerist sentiments behind it and is now somewhat complicit in those things.”