Ted Leo is a great guy and a great songwriter. It’s a combination that makes him as universally loved as any musician on the indie rock circuit, and with good reason. He puts his full self into every performance and always treats his fans with respect — everything from keeping ticket prices low to playing requests to interacting with them on Twitter.
He comes to town on Saturday to perform a Positive Force benefit show at D.C.’s Sacred Heart Church. As with every time he plays in D.C., it’s something of a homecoming for Leo, who spent a good chunk of time as a D.C. resident fronting his beloved ’90s mod-pop band Chisel, and starting his solo career after that band called it quits. He’s been fighting some pretty serious vocal problems over the past week so we conducted this interview over e-mail as to not put any unnecessary stress on his vocal cords, and Leo
talked typed about saving his voice and his influential time spent in D.C., and why he’s so good at Twitter.
It seems like you lose your voice semi-frequently, which isn’t too surprising considering how many shows you play/your style of singing. So what are your best ways for handling this affliction?
Yeah ... It's not that it happens frequently as a percentage of time I spend on the road; it's more that I spend so much time on the road that the occurrences might be more, while the percentage is probably average. Not to be self-aggrandizing, but I think if most people kept the schedule I do and performed the way I do, they'd probably have vocal problems, too. I could change the way I perform, but that would defeat the purpose of performing for me. Beyond that, there's not much that I can do other than get the rest I need, attempt to be quiet most of the day and avail myself of the usual traditional remedies that we all know about.
The ability to properly warm-up would be nice, and I suppose I could force the issue and make the space for myself to do that privately, but I have a bit of a hard time doing that. It's really usually not that big a deal, anyway. It's been scary once or twice (one of that possible twice being the last two weeks of this tour, actually).
It probably has to do with being on tour basically non-stop for 10 years. (Not to mention all the time before that.) This is probably why so many people took your seriously when you jokingly announced you were going to stop. When people reacted the way they did were you like, Hey, maybe I should slow it down?
Oh, no — but only because that little tweak that I pulled in announcing the "Bottled in Cork" video was entirely based in truth! I HAVE to slow down sometime very soon. I just haven't figured out the smart creative solution that's going to allow me to age and die gracefully while still being able to play as much music as possible. But I'm workin' on it.
The show you’re playing in D.C. is a Positive Force benefit show, and I know they’ve been trying to get you for a while. Are you psyched to finally get to do this?
Yeah, absolutely. The stars finally aligning for this show was a big relief because Mark Andersen and I have been kicking the idea around for so long.
It seems that it’s getting harder for bands to NOT engage politically these days, at least in some manner – is this a good development?
I don't know. I'm not entirely sure what you mean by that, but if it's true, I suppose I'd have to see it as a good thing. Growing up in the punk/hardcore world of the ’80s, it was the anomaly to find a band that didn't just take it as a given that at some level, they were going to be dealing with politics, but from my perspective, it seemed to have changed at a certain point, to it being the anomaly TO be engaged in anything political. I appreciate it when it seems like artists, as a community, are on the same page about working together, through their art, for some sort of general awareness or betterment, but I leave that choice up the artist and a god song is a good song, no mater what it's about.
Let’s talk about your D.C.-ness, or lack thereof. I think it’s safe to say D.C. considers you more its own than you consider D.C. a home. Are you OK with that?
I spent some of the most formative years of my early adult life in D.C . and would not be the person I am today, had I not lived here and been part of the group of people I was connected with, so while it's not technically my home, it will always feel like "home" to me.
What was the best part of being in D.C. when you were here? Care to debunk any myths of the D.C. scene that may have been perpetuated over time?
I think the greatest thing about the early ’90s in D.C., to me, was the constant exchange of ideas and the feeling that we were all really experimenting, making interesting things, and pushing each other in interesting directions. The time we spent at each others houses and apartments in those final years before any of us had cell phones and the Internet, was pretty golden, if I can wax so nostalgic. We all learned a ton from each other and had a ton of fun doing it.
I think the biggest myth I'd try to debunk is the “exclusivity” tag the D.C. scene of that era gets targeted with. There was no Internet, but there were zines, and if one person rubbed one other person slightly the wrong way, it would work its way around via print. So one person's two-sided argument with someone from D.C. would become codified via the one side's decision to write about it and print it, and the rep would stick because musically, visually, whatever, we were all doing things a little different from the rest of the country's hardcore scenes, and that was... what? Off putting? Threatening? Confusing? Who knows? I love so many of the people I fell in with in that era so deeply still, and I know how open and hospitable they are.
Everyone knows you have one of the best musician Twitters. Advice for the beginniners – don’t RT all your positive press, don’t simply promote, try to be funny, etc?
Ha — thanks! Yeah -- I mean, you kind of just nailed it. Say thanks when you can, tweet your real thoughts and life, give people a window into your thought process and personality, and promote what you need to promote — by all means — but try not to let that be the only reflection of who you are.
And finally – when you played “The Tyranny of Distance” this summer to mark its 10th anniversary you were adamant and convincing that it wasn’t just nostalgia. But some D.C. folks who just want nostalgia want to know — when that Chisel reunion show will be?
Ha. No plans for that, but never rule anything out.