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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Oct. 20, 2014

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In Music

Ted Leo plays at WMSE's Radio Summer Camp this week.

In Music

Ted Leo playing to an entirely empty house at The Globe. Not even a bartender on duty! (Photo: Ted Leo)

Go to Summer Camp with Ted Leo


Folks know Ted Leo for his great pop songs, like the brilliant "Me and Mia." And they know him for his outspokenness on political and social issues.

Raised on the rebel rock of the late '70s and early '80s – The Clash, The Jam, Crass, Billy Bragg, etc. – and on early hip-hop and conscious soul (a la Curtis Mayfield), Leo has been one of America's most intelligent purveyors of guitar pop for more than a decade.

He comes to town this week to kick off WMSE's Radio Summer Camp with an 8 p.m. show Wednesday at Turner Hall that also includes Tweak Bird and Call Me Lightning.

Hopefully, a lot more of you will come out to hear Leo play music from his new Matador disc, "The Brutalist Bricks," than attended his show at The Globe all those years ago (read on for the details).

I got a chance to hurl questions (like bricks) at Leo recently and here's what he had to say about politics in pop, his new record, hanging out at Comet Cafe and more.

OnMilwaukee.com: I remember reading in your blog that there was a bit of a thing with a request for a song for a Sconnie union compilation. I know you started to write a song. Did you ever finish it?

Ted Leo: No, as of yet, I haven't finished that particular song. I've finished two other songs, but not that one. The mind goes where the mind will, but I guess your question also reminds me that I should use some of my own will to bend that mind back to the task at hand and finish the damned thing!

OMC: I know you don't shy away from the issues, but I've never had the chance to see you live, so I'm wondering if you'll talk about the issues – a la Billy Bragg – from the stage.

TL: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. In all honesty, as the years have gone on, I've become less and less interested in speaking about issues with any attempt at "depth" during a concert. We have too many songs to play and too little time to play them, for one thing, and for another, I'm usually playing to an audience that's familiar with where I stand on things, and how that manifests in my songs, and I prefer to let the songs do the talking.

That said, I do, definitely, sometimes feel moved to speak out, but I don't like being pressured into it. In Madison, last spring, I had planned on saying something about what was going on toward the end of my set, but I kept getting badgered by someone in the audience to say "This is what democracy looks like," which I would have been happy to do, if he'd have let me do it in my own time, but I wasn't at that point in the set yet, and if I'd have done it then, it would have been completely devoid of context, and thus, nothing more than a mollifying gesture to give that person – and presumably a few others – what he wanted out of the show, which was just to hear me say that phrase. And I understand that – it was an especially emotional time back then and I know what it's like to want that affirmation, but it made me really angry because I've been outspoken enough about what's going on up there, both in interviews and on my website, that I was hoping I'd be given the benefit of the doubt that I was gonna get to it at some point, but the demanding nature of the whole thing really put me off and created a bad vibe that kind of sent the evening tanking, unfortunately.

And I guess that's the point – I'm pretty sensitive to the dynamics of a show, and if it feels right for me to bring something up and speak about it, I will; if it seems like everyone would be better served just engaging with the music – which, again, is all full of issues and things to think and talk about, itself – then I'll let that be the mode.

OMC: What do you say to the folks who would argue that politics has no place in music?

TL: I say that that's just ridiculous. An artist or listener may very well be within his or her rights to say that politics has no place in his or her music, but to say that about music in general is just stupid, frankly, not to mention egocentric, ahistorical, and utterly pointless.

I'll gladly make a couple of general statements, though – no matter how hard even the most abstract artists might try, it's impossible to divorce the finished product from the process, and in the process, one finds the artist; in the artist, one finds the influences, and in the influences, one finds politics, no matter what. At some level, whatever is created reflects something of one's life, and all life is influenced, in some way, by politics – acknowledged or not.

Now, more specifically speaking, it's just silly to try to tell someone else how to create or what to appreciate, and for me, it all flows from the same source. In the Crass song, "Yes Sir, I Will," they say something to the effect of, "People ask us, 'Why don't you sing love songs?'/But everything we sing is a love song/Everything we do is a love song/Our love of life is total."

And that pretty much sums it up for me, as well.

OMC: But, as the Redskins reminded us when they said they wanted to walk like the Clash and sing like the Supremes, it's important, too, to make the music great, too, isn't it? To keep people listening and dancing and engaged.

TL: Well, that depends on your motivations, and again, that's up to you. There's a lot of brilliant stuff out there that treats the polemic first and the music second, but for me, yes – I do this because I love music, I will always prefer being a musician to being a politician.

OMC: Where did your inspiration come from, in terms of music, but also in terms of creating socially and politically conscious music?

TL: It's tough to say. I mean, it was never really a question for me – the idea of "should one mix pop and politics." I've understood that music could be used to express the entire range of emotion and thought, and for me, sometimes that comes out as very pointedly political, and that's never felt like a "wrong" choice. Certainly, bands and artists like The Clash and The Jam, the Minutemen, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Bragg, etc., as well as early '80s hip-hop, which was often more political than people seem to sometimes remember, gave me many many touchstones and moments of inspired and cathartic singing along, but I think I took to them all so strongly because they resonated with what was already in me.

OMC: In another blog post you mentioned "burying the lede." Your spelling suggests you were trained and / or worked as a journalist. Is that true? Do you feel like that connection, if there is one, has had an effect on how and why you make music?

TL: Ha! Oh, man – no, I've never been a journalist – I just like words! Art can certainly be used as a form of journalism, though. It documents culture and can be revisited and engaged with in very immediate and visceral ways for as long as its reproductions last, but it can also serve more immediate journalistic purposes – everything from Emile Zola's writings influencing mass movements in France to the "United Breaks Guitars" guy getting his message out on Youtube, you know?

OMC: Tell us a bit about "The Brutalist Bricks." What's the story behind the title?

TL: Well, it references Brutalism in architecture, and is a lame play on words. It comes from a line in the song "Where Was My Brain?" that says, "Modern architecture gave me a kick, Until I lived among the Brutalist bricks." And both the song and that line are just about, like, exploring how ideas that seem fascinating on paper, or academically, don't always play out the best way when they bump up against actual human flesh. There's a sort of theme of "reevaluation" that runs throughout the record – grand ideas that have been tried and aren't working, grand ideas that have never really been given their chance.

There's also something about, as Brutalism sometimes turns buildings inside out, trying to find an interior pastoral amid the urban environment, but that aspect of it is a little hokey, and half-baked anyway, so I won't go any farther with it!

OMC: The record's been getting great reviews. Do you read them? Do you take them to heart?

TL: I mostly try to stay away from record reviews unless someone tells me that someone said something I should read, but even then, it's a minefield, because I do take it to heart, even as I let it roll off my back – it's a strange thing – like being in crisis mode through a tragedy – you can file it away in the appropriate place in your brain so as to not let it interfere with you doing your job, but some seed of disquiet lodges itself deeper no matter what, and it winds up coming back to bite you, psychologically despite all your best efforts to keep it at bay or think you've processed it correctly.

Everyone loves praise, and everyone needs critical assessment, so I do try to receive the kindness that's given and learn from what I can, but reviews aren't always the best way to do that. It's better to just talk to people.

OMC: Lastly, it's been a while since you've been to Milwaukee. Do you have any memories of the city and your gigs here in the past?

TL: Oh yeah. One of my best Milwaukee memories is actually of DJing my friends Pat Graham and Melanie Standage's photo show opening party at the Comet a long time ago. It was such a fun thing to be able to just "hang out" with Milwaukee people without all of the stress and logistics that surround playing a show, you know? You never really get to spend QT with anyone at a show.

For the flip side, though, see a recent post on my blog where I mention playing at The Globe to zero people in 1999. Still fun, though.


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