Sometimes, Ted Leo seems too respectable. During his 20-year career, the songwriter has gradually become an unspoken archetype of Punk Rock ideals. His work is layered with spirited socio-political musings but his words never become forced or stale.
Anything the man sets to tape is imbued with an organic vitality: Leo’s dulcet vocals are masculine without being afraid to test higher ranges and his playing is equally able to be explosively brisk or taper off into slow, reflective tempos.
Leo’s diligent work ethic and handsome yet unadorned style has endeared him to a varied order of music enthusiasts: Pop Punk fans have stayed loyal since his modest beginnings, Indie Rock devotees have grown impressed with his skill and ambition and other listeners just enjoy the good hooks.
He’s edging in on his forties but his cultural relevance remains unwavering. He’s never been on a major label and never plans on joining one. Dozens of artists have been in this position and said the same thing yet Leo comes off as more sincere. Cast as a blue-collar idealist with an artist’s voice and intellect, how must the man himself feel about all of this?
“I find it flattering,” says the singer/guitarist. “At the same time, I’m a songwriter and an artist and my own influences go beyond the Billy Bragg/ Joe Strummer/ Bruce Springsteen School of Songwriting.”
Here’s where popular portrayal becomes troublesome.
“Sometimes, I do feel a little bit shackled to that image when I would like to break out of that more and write a song that’s complete fiction,” he admits. “I tend to think from a first-person perspective more, so it’s more natural for people to assume that’s where I’m coming from most of the time.”
Lately, Leo’s had a lot of extra time to consider such creative problems. After he and his band, the Pharmacists, temporarily adjourned last fall, he took a break from touring until May — his longest breather in 10 years. He’s spent his downtime preparing a record that he hopes to see materialize this year.
“The last album and the one I’m working on right now are (like) pulling teeth,” he says.
“I piss away 20 good riffs a day. Lyrically, I’ve been having a really hard time. There are plenty of real specific things to write about but I can never make them interesting enough to write them into a song. I’ve just become utterly dejected with the news.”
It’s not difficult to figure out why Leo’s abilities are so affected by global goings-on: His writing is inherently rooted in current affairs. Two examples: “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb,” a tangled piece of speedy Post Punk mocking pro-war attitudes, and “The Ballad of The Sin Eater,” which chronicles an American’s tumultuous adventures away from home.
“Every now and then, it’s very fun for me to know beforehand what I’m writing is straight-out a political screed, completely unrelated to my personal life, or (that I’m) setting out to write something very specific that tries to not delve into current events,” he says. “Probably 98 percent of the time there’s very little boundary.”
“Sometimes I’ll get a bolt of lightning and be able to crank something out,” Leo says of the writing process. “Other times I’ll have a kernel of an idea and work through it for ages until I can at least settle for something and actually be happy about it.”
He attests his frustrations to the Pharmacists’ rigorous touring pace that has afforded him few moments away from his own music: “I feel like we’ve practically overstayed our welcome at this point.”
The ride has been hectic. During the 1990s, Leo did stints in a handful of obscure Punk bands before committing to the vigorous Chisel. When Chisel was finished, he developed another project. 2001’s The Tyranny of Distance debuted Leo and a full band (Ted Leo/ Pharmacists, as they were credited) and started their relationship with iconic Californian Punk label Lookout! Records. Leo asked “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?” on Hearts of Oak in 2003.
Driven by bulimia-based allegory “Me and Mia,” 2004’s Shake the Sheets ignited a wave of hype and shot the group to success. Quickly thereafter, Lookout! was in shambles due to poor financial upkeep. Dozens of successful outfits whose releases were integral to the label (including Green Day and Operation Ivy) rescinded their work, forcing Leo and the Pharmacists out, too.
The band relocated to the Chicago-based Touch and Go Records for ’07’s Living with the Living. In February, economic problems forced the company to dramatically restructure its distributing deals with independent labels, hacking away at a primary source of funding.
“We had almost an album’s worth of stuff for Touch and Go before it fell apart,” Leo says. “When the distribution fell apart, it knocked the legs out underneath the label.”
Once again, Leo is searching for a home, but even in these times he has no plans to move away from independent labels.
“I’ve never had a bad experience with the (major label) people but I always just walk away feeling like it’s still not the right situation to me. My previously less-informed stance on why gets more informed,” he says. With a laugh, he notes, “When all else is in flux, I can look at everything and go, ‘Well, at least I know I’m not going to be on a major label.’ ”
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