Wednesday, Nov. 28 at Noon ET

Ask Ted Leo

Ted Leo
Wednesday, November 28, 2007; 11:00 AM

Rocker and activist Ted Leo was online Wednesday, Nov. 28 at noon ET to take your questions about his career, music, politics and whatever else you want to talk about.

Leo is currently on tour with his band Ted Leo and The Pharmacists, which is performing at the 9:30 Club on Dec. 7-8. He was a founding member of the D.C. punk band Chisel, and has performed at anti-war protests in Washington.


Indianapolis: I saw you do a really electrifying set opening for Death Cab for Cutie a year or so ago. So I went out and bought "Hearts of Oak" on the recommendation of the clerk at my local record store. It's okay, but it doesn't have the excitement of your live performance.

I'm wondering if you think the studio might be too confining to capture your sound. If not, which of your discs would you recommend?

Ted Leo: Yyeah - there's a lot of discussion about whether you should be a good live band or a good studio band. I think you can use the studio to make a great "studio record" and not necessarily have to reproduce exactly that on stage, but still be a great "live band." Having said that, if what you're going for is just the raw capture of your live sound, then that's cool, too - go for it! I enjoy working in the studio, though, and while I try to get near to an approximation of what's going on onstage, it's not my first priority (usually). Having said THAT, though, "Shake the Sheets" is pretty stripped down, as is "Living With the Living." Also, you gotta remember, we were a different band when we made "Hearts of Oak." We had a permanent keyboard player, and it was ...5 years ago, so hearing us w/Death Cab last year, you were getting a 3-piece that had gotten much tighter over the time since recording that album.


Omaha, Neb.: Greetings from the landlocked Midwest, Mr. Leo. If you could attribute your level of success (i.e. selling records, kids showing up at your shows, etc.) to any one person/entity other than you, who would it be? Record label? Booking Agent (Tim is truly gifted!)? Bandmate? Soulmate?

Thank you.

Ted Leo: That's seriously an amazing question, because there's a definite machinery behind everything that a band does, and sometimes it's hard to figure out how far to go in delegating certain responsibilities and staying COMPLETELY DIY. I really feel like I have been lucky in choosing to work with the right people when it was the right time to make a move toward "working with people." I booked myself until I had a friend in Boston who wanted to start a booking agency at exactly the time that I was getting really sick of booking myself, and that was good, then, as I started to work with Lookout!, I got the benefits of having a label with a press person and a little bit of a budget for ads and stuff, exactly at the time that people were starting to actually care about my records; I found some of the best people to play with when I wanted to start playing more with a band again, and all of our respective "things" grew together. I think we all helped each other. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it's not - it's just been a matter of being patient until you feel like you've found the right people at the right time, and hopefully it'll all click.


Atlanta: Do you feel as though your college degree helped you write songs and become successful in music? Did you ever consider a different career, perhaps one more closely linked to your educational background?

Ted Leo: Hmmmmm... Specifically, my "degree" has done nothing for me at all. But the things that I've learned - the critical thought processes I've tried to keep sharp - these things were furthered along by college, there's no question. I hated so much of my life "at university," but I also loved so much of it, and the things that I loved about it have kept me in a sort of "scholarly pursuit" to this day. Maybe it messed me up because I actually believe that there are things like truth and beauty, and that art and discussion can help us find them and enhance our lives, but... Yeah - maybe someday, when I'm sick of being disillusioned, I'll go back to academia and poison another generation of wastrels.

Wow. That was depressing.


Arlington, Va.: hi Ted,

Do you still keep in touch with any of the old Chisel folks?

Ted Leo: Yeah - definitely. I see those guys a few times a year, and both John and Chris are doing well and living in Chicago.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Ted!

My husband and I have seen you five times over the past year and we always have such a great time at your shows. We've said for years that you're the hardest working man in the business. Just wondering if you'll be mixing up the set list a bit for your shows at 9:30 -- we'd love to hear some older songs. "Crane Takes Flight," maybe?


Ted Leo: TRYING to do that - logistics of having had our bass player of 5 years leave the band in the middle of all of this touring has left a little behind the eight ball for tons of the back catalogue, but Marty (our new bassist) has been awesome, an we're definitely trying to dip further back on this tour - even to the extent of using sound checks to learn older songs.


D.C.: I just watched "I'm Not There," and I noted Joan Baez's point that Dylan didn't believe that songs make any difference in the world. I'm a casual fan of yours; probably, because I presume to share your politics. Still, I've got to ask: "Can a song really make a difference?"

Ted Leo: Well, the simple answer (because I'm not sure if we have time for me type out the long answer) is that songs have certainly made a difference in my life, so who's anyone else to tell me that that's invalid? If songs have helped/influenced/informed/enraged/disgusted/bored you, you have every right to feel the same way, no?

And then, you know - you extrapolate from there to a wide and overly populated world...


London, UK: Who is funnier Patton Oswalt or Alan Partridge?

Ted Leo: OUCH. Tough one. I'm gonna call the question invalid, though, because Alan Partridge is just a character, my friend!


Indio, Calif.: Why did you chose to call yourself Ted Leo and the Pharmacists? (the Ted Leo part is obvious)

Ted Leo: Well, when I started playing solo (10 years ago!), I had some ham-fisted idea about trying to subvert the "singer-songwriter" tag/genre, and I tried to obscure my identity into the identity of a collective or band or whatever. That's part of the reason that I used to play with backing tapes and why so much of my early stuff was so awash in tape hiss and echo noise. Back in the Chisel days, at a certain point, we realized what a dumb band name we'd chosen, but it was a little late to go back, so we were just tossing out ideas of what other good band names would be, and "The Pharmacists" came up. So when i started out on my own, I was like, "The Pharmacists -the perfect band that doesn't actually exist!" Then, of course, I started playing with people again, and so it just became who we are today - the perfect band I actually get to play with, now!



You originally had some shows planned this year in the UK but were canceled due to illness back home. While I was sorry to not see you, I did understand the necessity to cancel. Is there any chance of you heading back our way soon?

Ted Leo: I'm trying to plan that out right now, actually. We will definitely be back to make those dates up ASAP (I had to leave in such a rush, I still have all of our merch sitting in a storage warehouse in London).


Portland, Ore.: Ted,

What's in the pipeline aside from your "hardest working man in indie rock" tour schedule? I guess I'm asking when we can expect a new record and what it might sound like.

Ted Leo: When this tour finishes, we'll be taking a break from touring in the US for a while. In that time, I hope to get most of a new record written, yes, with an eye toward getting out by next fall. I have a few other things up my sleeve, too...


Lillington, NC: I'm 23 now and have been uninsured since I turned 18, and hearing "Heart Problems" for the first time was a big deal for me. Do you not have health insurance as a sort of protest, or just because it's so ridiculously expensive? What are your thoughts on the American health care system?

Ted Leo: Man, trust me - that's not a protest worth making! It's just too expensive. I had to get it last year because I've had some serious hospital bills that I've been a part of taking care of, and the sort of comprehensive care we needed cost us more than what some people make in a year. My "significant other" wound up finally getting put on the full-time payroll at her job, which gave her care, but it's been inadequate, frankly. Rock and a hard place, and all that.

As far as further thoughts...

Hopefully, in my upcoming time off, I'll be able to get into that on my website. It'd be answering this question for the rest of the hour if i even got started...


Arlington, Va.: I have been listening to your music for the last three years and a lot of religious themes pop up in the material.

Are you a religious person? If so, do you get a lot of grief from the punk community for it?

Ted Leo: I am the stereo-typical classic lapsed Catholic. Religious themes crop up in my songs sometimes as metaphors and other kinds of touchstones for getting at issues and "deeper issues," and all that. Right now, honestly, I think all religion is proving itself to be a NET negative on the human race. I recognize its valuable place in individual lives and many larger communities - I know the good that is done in its various names all over the world, but I don't believe in it anymore, and I see the negative aspects dragging us down at a much faster rate than the positive ones are bouying us up.

I expect I may get grief, as you put it, from plenty of people both within and without the punk community for that, but there you go...


Washington, D.C.: I know you are a pretty hardcore vegan. Do you see that as a political stance and, if so, is it one you can see yourself writing about?

Ted Leo: Yeah - it's a political stance, as much as anything is. It's also a moral stance, an environmental stance, a personal health stance, etc. It all factors into that particular choice for me. And I have, actually, written about it in the past and will probably do so again, but I will admit that in terms of being moved to write songs that will hopefully move others, "other issues" have been more pressing on my mind.


North Caldwell, N.J.: Hey Ted,

You've always come across as a well-read guy, so what books have you been reading lately?

Ted Leo: I freaked out on this series of mysteries involving a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake in Henry VIII's London this fall... C.J. Sansom is the author's name. I flew through them on tour. Also read Christopher Hitchens' annotated "The Rights of Man," by Tom Paine, a book about The Yes Men, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan, some PG Woodhouse stories... It was a good tour for reading!


Chicago: Ted,

How much of a difference does downloading make to you, as an artist. Like, do you notice the difference coming out of your pocket as compared to, say, five years ago?

Ted Leo: This, also, is a huge pit of debate that probably can't be solved in the next 39 minutes, but to just specifically answer your question, "yes." I definitely have felt a massive pinch since "Shake the Sheets" was first leaked. I have a lot of positive things to say about file sharing and the future of digital, but I can't deny getting depressed when I do the math. Maybe I need to just set up a tip jar at shows - "You downloaded it? Totally cool - no recriminations here - but maybe you'd consider popping a little something for the artists into the tip jar?" That could be the answer that everyone's looking for...


Washington, D.C.: I'm always wondering how shows differ when bands book the same venue two days in a row. Do you have any plans to shake things up on your two nights at 9:30?

Ted Leo: We definitely try to mix it up a bit. It's tough because we actually like our own songs, so when we get a really good set list going on a tour and then we try to shake it up at some point, we're always, like, "Oh man - I don't know - we GOTTA keep that one in," etc., so... But yeah - we do try to make sure that those amazingly loyal two-nighters get a little bonus...


Washington, D.C.: Hey Ted

I love some of your low-key songs (i.e "Under the Hedge," "Bottle of Bucky"). Have you ever contemplated doing an acoustic/folk album?

Ted Leo: I have thought about it, and I still think about it, and o I think I just might!


La Quinta, Calif.: Which do you prefer: vinyl, cd, tape, mp3 or 8-track?

Ted Leo: I think I'd like to see CDs disappear. Too much plastic crap lying around. If I want some music these days, I'm gonna either get as MP3s or on vinyl.


Seattle: What is a regular day in the life of Ted Leo?

What do you like to do besides rock?

Ted Leo: You're lookin' at it.


Washington, D.C.: The 9:30 Club ain't what it used to be. Thoughts?

Ted Leo: This is true, but what it's become is pretty awesome, too. It really is a great club - different than the old one, but great none-the-less.

(and really - are the rats on the pipes in the dressing rooms worth getting all misty-eyed and nostalgic about?)


Baltimore, Md.: In a club after a show, I once had a long conversation with Roman Kuebler of Baltimore's The Oranges Band about your song "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" Have you played with those guys? What do you think? They all had great admiration for your music.

Ted Leo: Absolutely - we used to tour with those guys quite a bit, actually, and remain friends!


Washington, D.C.: While it's obvious you have a totally amazing and loyal fan-base, are there times it is hard for you to remain optimistic and keep producing quality records when many indie music fans remain so fickle about what bands or type of music they listen to?

Ted Leo: I mean... yeah, sure - we all go down that road of despair every now and then, but really, there are more people that are WORTH playing for and making records for than the fickle and casual - they just don't blog about what they hate as much. I feel like every show that we play live reminds me of why I play music. When you're away from that personal connection, you can get wound up in all the hoo-ha about this and that, but when you get out there and connect with people, you can't help but be moved, and that keeps you going (at least until the next show!).


Tenleytown, D.C.: Hey Ted: When you play your guitar, your pick hand moves 100 MPH. It sounds fantastic, but given how hard you work, I wondered if you have developed any repetitive motion injuries?

Ted Leo: Huh.

Never thought about that before.

I have to wear that sweat band so I don't get a rash from my forearm rubbing against my sweaty guitar, but other than that... nothing that I can think of.

Ask me again in 25 years!


Altoona, Pa.: Hi, Ted. Thanks for taking questions. What are some bands that have grown on you? Bands you didn't like but then did?

Ted Leo: This might ruffle some feathers (among a few of my greatest friends, even), but it took me a while to appreciate DC's finest: Rites of Spring. I just couldn't get my head around it at first - the lyrics, the production of the record, etc. Eventually, though, I wound up taking to them like I have to very few other bands in history.

I have a similar relationship with Morrissey's solo stuff. I'm now a completist, but after Viva Hate, he lost me for a while...


Arlington, Va.: Are you favoring anyone in the upcoming elections?

Ted Leo: Not yet, but I'm paying very close attention...


Washington, D.C.: As a native of D.C. and (in my opinion) one of D.C.'s greatest indie role-models, what's your take on the pervasive view that this town's local music scene is dying -- if it's not already dead?

Ted Leo: Unfortunately, I can't give you the "street level" perspective on that anymore, since I've been away for so long, but my impression is that it's getting harder and harder to maintain small or mid-sized venues in the city, especially in light of all of the problems that flowed from the shooting last winter and the subsequent all ages vs. 21+ flap. That is, as I say, and outsider's perspective at this point. You probably know better than I do!

The thing is, though, there are plenty of bands that continue to form and flourish and make records and tour, so I guess I'd have to ultimately disagree, you know?


Logan Circle: David Brooks and Steven Van Zandt have recently commented that rock has lost its edge. I find this to be very true in "alternative" and "indie" music. There seems to be very little edge any more and the decline seemed to begin after Kurt Cobain's death and picked up speed after bands like Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk and Archers of Loaf left the scene. Most "indie" music seems directed to upper-middle class, grad school white kids. A far cry from more edgier, bluer-collar acts like the Ramones, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Nirvana, and the previously mentioned. Do you think "indie" rock will ever get its edge back or will it continue becoming more feminine?

Ted Leo:"Feminine?"

I think you might have a few people in this forum that would argue with that characterization, Robert Bly...

But as far as your point goes, I'm not sure what to say. I suppose this is why I sometimes attempt to draw a line (however blurry) between "punk" and "indie." It's a stupid thing to try and do, since so much of what passes for one or the other is actually NEITHER these days, but there's an understood sentiment within "punk" that "edgy" is gonna be there, and "issues" are not weird to hear cropping up. Of course there are plenty of "indie" artists for whom this also holds true, but...

What the hell am I talking about, again?

I can't answer this.

You just gotta do what you gotta do. And look - when I want to listen to a Bad Brains record, I wanna listen to a Bad Brains record, but when I wanna listen to a Beach Boys record, then I'm glad to have them around.


Manassas, Va.: You've been on the indie scene for a while, and I was wondering what the pros and cons are in staying independent and going to a major label.

Ted Leo: Tough to really say, since I've never been on a major label, but my suspicions are these (and this is ENTIRELY conjecture):

1. I'm too old and too set in my ways for them to be able to groom me for rock stardom. NOBODY wants to see my wrinkly brow on TRL.

2. Despite the fact that I trust the people at major labels who tell me that they don't want to do that - they want to offer me a home as a "stable artist," who can just do what he does for the long haul, time has shown us that it rarely works out that way - the bottom line is the bottom line, not mention the threat of mergers and firings and whatnot, and people get dropped.

3. Though I know for a fact that some of my fans would be happy for me to do anything that's going to help me be successful (and I thank them for that!), there'd be a lot of people who I think wouldn't be so happy with that change, and when I DO get dropped, then where would I be?

4. Look at where the major labels are going these days, anyway. Smart rats get the hell off a sinking ship.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Do think that any bands or musical movements are having an impact on society? Or have the vestiges of punk ethos and folk movements faded, leaving music for entertainment only?

Ted Leo: This is similar to an earlier question, so I'll just reiterate - I can only tell you that I know how bands and musical movements have impacted ME, personally, and I am certainly part of society, so I have to say that, yes - it's an old cliche, but the beach is made up of many pebbles of sand. One by one, the gather and become something bigger. If you've been moved, he's been moved, she's been moved, I've been moved, then hasn't society been moved?


Washington, D.C.: Ted -

Your image is always "Jersey boy" but D.C. folks (or at least the bloggers) like to claim you as one of our own from your chisel days. How about it; do you feel any kinship for this god-forsaken city? (Or at least think we should be represented in Congress?)

Ted Leo: Apparently, I'm being told to wrap it up and to let you all know that I'll be signing off soon, so first of all, THANKS! This has been a blast, and has given me a lot to think about. Maybe I'll go try and actually write a new song or something (that'd be a novel idea, huh?)...

So DC - DC. Yes, I was raised in NJ, and will always and forever remain a Jersey Boy, but I sent some of the most important and best years of my life in DC, and in addition to all of the streets and alleys I walked around hungry, and the houses and apartments and places I sat in full, so many of my closest relationships were forged there, and it always feels like "a sort of homecoming" to me.

And that's 1:00 - I guess that's it - thanks again, everybody!


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