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Good Grief: Titus Andronicus Frontman Patrick Stickles on Love, Loss and 'The Will To Live'

Wednesday, 28 September 2022 Written by Craig Howieson

It doesn't take long sitting with Patrick Stickles, the black-clad, heavily bearded and wildly literate frontman of New Jersey's finest punk band, Titus Andronicus, to notice that a new found contentment and happiness appears to be radiating from him. And the reasons are made almost immediately clear. “I’m married and I take my medication,” he beams, flashing his wedding ring at the screen.

“I had the time of my life when I was a wild and crazy guy in my 20s and early 30s,” he laughs. “And all those crazy capers and adventures I had, that was cool. But I'm 37 years old now and this is a nice vibe for me.” 

There may still be plenty of tumult around the world, as he sang on his band's 2019 release ‘An Obelisk’, but for the most part, he seems to be managing to keep any similar chaos out of his personal life. It is not just something that has benefitted him personally, but also artistically, as he stands poised to release one of the finest records of his career, ‘The Will To Live’. 

In typically grandiose Titus Andronicus fashion, their seventh LP is a three act rock opera voyaging to hell and back. “Some people argue, and I may have argued in the past, that personal upheaval and suffering can be good fodder for the arts,” Stickles muses. “And there might be something to that. But when my personal life isn't so dramatic and I'm not running around trying to put out all these little fires that I started, it allows me to be more focused.” 

Stickles’ sense of ease can also be traced to the themes of acceptance in the bones of ‘The Will To Live’, where a narrator comes to realise there are things in this world beyond their control, and that living within certain parameters can be healthy. “I'm not the type of guy who goes to church or anything,” Stickles says, explaining that the record’s overt Biblical references can be substituted for all wills higher than our own. 

“The unseen forces that control the universe, if indeed they exist, are a mystery to me,” he continues. “But the higher power that I speak about on the record, whether that's some sort of sentient deity or whether that is just the chaotic nature of the universe, is something that I've had to accept even if I don't understand it. Certain painful losses in my life have forced me to recognise that it's not a good use of my time or energy to get mad about things I can't control or comprehend.”

Stickles has long used a narrator—someone a lot like him, but not him—in his songs. It is a way of allowing him the artistic freedom to separate himself from the words he sings, and tell stories that are not always his own. It is a vital device on ‘The Will To Live’ in adding veracity to the emotional journey the narrator embarks on.

Despite this, there are moments that feel closer to breaking into Stickles’ life than we have seen before, even if he is to be careful to distance the person he is now from his former self.  “When I look back at my own experiences and journeys that I've gone on from innocence to understanding, I want to validate those moments and say it's OK that I felt that way at that time,” he says.

“And I had to go through those moments feeling that way to arrive at the place that I am now. That's what I'm trying to do with the record. If it was me speaking in all these songs it would be harder to validate those moments and feelings without valourising, romanticising or fetishising them.” 

His recent marriage and the death of Matt Miller, his cousin, close friend and former bandmate, have also brought love and loss to the forefront of Stickles’ mind. As we discuss the notion of grief, particularly in relation to Give Me Grief, one of the record's standout tracks, he dives off screen and returns with a cat on his lap. 

“Here I have a perfect example,” he says, holding his feline companion up to the camera. “Look at this cat I got, isn't this a great cat right here? She's doing really well right now but she used to be pretty sickly. I love this cat and when I adopted her and her sister that was a great thing for me. It's a little silly as they are just cats, but they have enriched my life a lot and I am responsible for them. So when she was not in the best of health it was my job to deal with that. And when it looked like she might not survive, it was such a painful experience for me.”

“It was one of those things that made me realise that this is the deal,” he continues. “This is what we sign up for when we make the decision to love something. When you open up your heart to love you become vulnerable. Inevitably the cat is going to die someday and that's gonna be a really rough experience. But the alternative would be that you completely close off your heart to all the great things in life, and then what kind of a life is that?”

An open heart, a focused mind and the acceptance that there are simply some things that will always be beyond his control points to a positive future for Stickles, even if he is under no illusion that the next chapters of his life will contain heartbreak. 

“The grief in the title of Give Me Grief mostly refers to my grief over my close cousin’s passing,” he says. “And the reason I say in the song ‘I have friends to give me glee, so I need god to give me grief’ is that's the trade off, as far as I can tell. It's the narrator saying, ‘I'm opening myself up to painful experiences knowing it's the only way I am ever going to have love, joy and all the things that make life worth living. And I 'the author' actually feel that way. That's the conclusion I have come to.”

Given that he has fronted, and managed, and ordered merch, and plotted tours, for one of the hardest working bands in rock for well over 15 years now, often at the expense of his own health and wellbeing, you can’t help but be happy for the contentment Stickles has found. 'The Will To Live' is perhaps at its most vital when the lines between fact and fiction, between Stickles and his narrator, begin to blur. “He begins in a painful place and arrives at a place where he is ready to affirm life as something worth living,” Stickles says with a smile. “It's a beautiful thing.” 

Titus Andronicus’s 'The Will To Live' is out on September 30 via Merge.

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