Friday, July 5, 2013

Titus Andronicus -- "The Battle of Hampton Roads" (2010)

And now I’m heading west on 84 again
And I’m as much of an asshole as I’ve ever been
And there is still nothing about myself I respect
Still haven’t done anything I did not later regret
[NOTE:  The "84" refers to the eastern section of Interstate 84, which is the highway you would use to get from Boston to New Jersey if you wanted to bypass New York City.]

In the last 2 or 3 lines, we met Johnny Gwynn of Rula Bula, a native of Cape Cod.  If you missed that post, you can click here to read it.

Before continuing our conversation with Johnny, let's take a brief tour of his home town -- Falmouth, MA.

Falmouth was first settled in 1660 and incorporated in 1686.  It is named after an English town that has the third deepest natural harbor in the world.  

Falmouth's most famous native was Katherine Lee Bates, the author of the poem, "America the Beautiful," which she wrote after riding a mule to the top of Pikes Peak in 1893.

The Bates family home still stands on Falmouth's Main Street:

Bates graduated from Wellesley College, which was then and is still an all-female institution, and later taught English literature there.  She lived for many years in a "Boston marriage" with Katherine Coman, another Wellesley professor.  

The Wellesley dormitory that my wife was living in when I met her was named after Bates:  

Bates Hall at Wellesley College
I rented a bike from a store located just a couple of blocks from the Bates home and rode the Shining Sea Bikeway, a rail trail that was named after a phrase from "America the Beautiful."  It runs from North Falmouth to the Woods Hole ferry terminal, which is a 10.7-mile one-way trip.

Like the Cape Cod Rail Trail, the Shining Sea Bikeway has plenty of twists and turns:

My rental bike (which came equipped with fenders and mustache handlebars) was not exactly what I was hoping for, but it got the job done.

The southern part of the Shining Sea Bikeway runs along Surf Drive Beach on Vineyard Sound, which is the body of water that separates Falmouth from Martha's Vineyard.

There are plenty of rosa rugosa shrubs along the trail.  Here's a pink one:

And here's a white one:

The northern part of the trail runs through salt marshes and cranberry bogs:

Last but not least, I spotted these Adirondack-style chaises longues from the trail:

Let's pick up our conversation with Johnny Gwynn of Rula Bula where we left off:

2 or 3 lines:  Who would you say influenced your musical  style?  If I was trying to describe your music to someone who had never heard it, what other groups would I compare you to if I wanted to give them an idea about what you sound like?

Gwynn: I like bands that can rock but also could write a catchy tune.  Oasis, The Clash, Yellowcard, the Dropkick Murphys, Muse, Arctic Monkey, the Foo Fighters, Black Keys, Green Day . . . I used to binge on these groups for weeks and weeks, dissecting each song to figure out why the hell I loved it so much.  If I had to name just one group that was a role model, I'd say the Clash:  their songs were always way different from each other, but you always knew when a song was a Clash song.  They did whatever they wanted to and but the music was always all their own.

The Clash
2 or 3 lines:  What covers do you perform?  Or do you stick to original songs?
Gwynn:  Covers are a touchy subject for me. I rarely play them with the band because I’m always afraid people will care more about the cover than the original.  I could play Rula Bula songs all night but if I were to do a cover of “Fortunate Son” or “Wonderwall,” that’s all everyone will remember us for and now we’re pigeonholed.

2 or 3 lines:  Doing covers of well-known songs probably makes the crowd happy.  Is it hard to make your audiences pay attention to unfamiliar originals?

Gwynn:  When I write songs, I am purposely aiming to give them hooks or make them catchy so the audience will at least be moderately interested even if they're hearing them for the first time.  But it’s a tough road to play original songs, especially on the Cape where it seems like bars only want cover bands -- so we have to go elsewhere for gigs.  That being said, I’m getting better at fitting in shortened covers as musical interludes to help keep the audience happy, but I’d rather crash and burn with an original then be remembered at the end of the night for performing a great cover of someone else's great song.

Rula Bula performing live
2 or 3 lines:  Who are some of your favorite current artists?

Gwynn:  Currently I am binging on Top 40 country music.  I’ve been working at a country music radio station and have had to listen to country music at a lot of events.  Most of it is not that interesting musically, but country songwriters are just unbelievably clever when it comes to lyrics.  They have a knack for pulling you into a moment and summing up something so succinctly with just a few simple words.  They take a little nugget of an idea and are able to weave a story from it.    

2 or 3 lines:  What's an example of a good country lyric you've heard recently?

Gwynn:  Luke Brayn’s “Drunk on You” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” are more pop music than traditional country, and most people would say those songs are really cheesy.  But lyrically, it’s like you’re just hearing a conversation from your buddy put to music.

2 or 3 lines:  I know that you really admire the music of Titus Andronicus.  Tell us why.

Gwynn:  Titus Andronicus really appeals to me because they have the grand ideas of the Who and the lyrical piss and vinegar of Against Me! or “Darkness on the Edge of Town”-vintage Bruce Springsteen.  Their songs have this huge, orchestral quality while still maintaining a punk-rock foundation. Their lyrics just cut right through the music.  The subject matter and delivery of lead singer Patrick Stickles's vocals  feel like you're ripping off a Band-Aid.  It’s like hearing rock for the first time with all the rawness and danger once associated with the genre.  “Four Score and Seven” just kills me and I think it sums up their huge sound and honest (and angsty) lyrical sensibilities.

[We'll wrap up our conversation with Johnny Gwynn in the next 2 or 3 lines.]

Titus Andronicus (which takes its name from an early Shakespeare tragedy) is a band that was formed in Glen Rock, New Jersey, in 2005.  The group has released three albums.

The title of the Titus Andronicus song I've chosen to feature, "The Battle of Hampton Roads," refers to the famous Civil War encounter between two ironclad ships, the Union's Monitor and the Confederacy's Virginia.  (You may know the Virginia as the Merrimack, which was the name of the Union ship that was captured by the Confederates and converted into the Virginia.)  It's the last track on The Monitor, a 2010 concept album with several Civil War-themed songs (including Johnny's favorite, "Four Score and Seven").

Titus Andronicus is a very hard band to get your arms around.  Some people call them a punk rock band, and there are certainly punk elements to some of their songs.  But punk songs are usually very short, and "The Battle of Hampton Roads" is just over 14 minutes long.  (There are four other tracks on The Monitor that are at least seven minutes long.)

As Johnny pointed out, Titus Andronicus sounds at time like a much rawer Bruce Springsteen.  (That's not a surprise given that the band's members hail from New Jersey.)  The group's music also has a Celtic feel at times -- some of their songs remind you of the Dropkick Murphys.

Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus
Patrick Stickles, the band's lead singer and principal songwriter, is a 2008 graduate of Ramapo College, a public liberal arts college in Mahwah, NJ.  It comes as no surprise that he (like Johnny Gwynn) was an English major -- his songs are full of literary references.  (One of his songs is titled "Albert Camus.")

To say that his lyrics are dark is the understatement of all understatements.  Here are a few lines from "Four Score and Seven":

Because these humans treat humans 
Like humans treat hogs,
They get used up, coughed up, and fried in a pan.
But I wasn’t born to die like a dog
I was born to die just like a man.

Here are a few more lines from "The Battle of Hampton Roads":

Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?
Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?
Is there a human alive that can look themselves in the face without winking
Or say what they mean without drinking

Stickles generally writes in the first person, and his usual persona is best described as "bloody but unbowed," as these lines from "A Pot in Which to Piss" demonstrate:

I’ve been called out, cuckolded, castrated, but I survived
I am covered in urine and excrement but I’m alive
And there’s a white flag in my pocket never to be unfurled
Titus Andronicus is not for everyone, and I haven't decided whether its music is really for me or not.  Stickles is clearly very smart and well-read, and his lyrics pull no punches -- you have to admire him for not pulling any punches.  Having said that, you're not always in the mood to listen to a guy spill his guts all over your new shoes.  

Here's "The Battle of Hampton Roads":

Use this link to buy the song from Amazon:

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