Ted Leo is a little freaked out. It’s been 15 years since his band released its critically acclaimed album “Hearts of Oak,” and a lot has changed in the interim. Washington, for instance, where Leo was a stalwart in the city’s punk scene when he formed Ted Leo and the Pharmacists in the late ’90s. Now he tours the District in awe of the fancy condos that have sprouted near his old haunts. His industry has also changed. For 2017’s “The Hanged Man,” Leo eschewed record labels, funding his album through fan donations on Kickstarter.
And yet, Leo — who now lives in Rhode Island — says these changes just serve to remind him how much remains the same. His songs, still fast and melodic and tinged with protest, veer into politics and rail against issues that have lingered since the Reagan era.
Leo is performing two shows at Black Cat that will take an enhanced look at the Pharmacists’ back catalogue. On Friday, the band will “warm up” with newer songs before playing “Hearts of Oak” front-to-back. On Saturday, they’ll perform a nostalgic set list covering their two-decade history. Leo spoke about all of this reminiscing.
Q: This tour feels almost like a career retrospective. What motivated you to take this dive into your older songs?
A: It’s been 15 years since “Hearts of Oak,” and just looking at the rest of the numbers I also realized it’s been 20 years of this band. That’s a weird milestone that I’m freaked out by but also wanted to acknowledge. With the impetus of doing “Hearts of Oak” front-to-back, it made it a little more interesting to specifically plumb the back catalogue.
Q: Why does it freak you out?
A: It’s been almost constant movement. I remember the very beginning of this band, this part of my life, as vividly as if it were yesterday. The fact that it’s been 20 years actually really snuck up on me. It’s surprising in some ways how different the world is, and in other ways, how little has changed, both in my life and the world. It’s a heady thing to think about.
Q: What was it like at the beginning of that 20-year history, when you formed the band here in D.C.?
A: I lived in D.C. for most of the ’90s. I was in a band called Chisel when I first did a project that I called the Pharmacists. And that was just a duo with myself and Amy Farina, who now plays in the Evens with Ian MacKaye. We would record our own backing tracks and kind of karaoke to them live. It’s interesting, because much later, with the advent of small, electronic recording devices, you started to see people play with backing tracks a lot more. But at the time, it seemed pretty weird and radical and sometimes off-putting.
Once Chisel disbanded, I transitioned that into a solo thing. I kept the Pharmacists moniker and was in D.C. for the genesis of that. Then I starting moving around again, mostly living on the road.
Q: What changes do you notice returning to D.C.?
A: Development is obviously off the charts. It’s visually striking. I was just there, and driving in on New York Avenue and seeing that old Hecht’s building turned into condos and a shopping center — it gives you a little bit of whiplash.
Q: You wrote a song about that type of gentrification for your newest album. Are you nostalgic for the edgier identity the city had when you first moved here?
A: Of course I am. I’d be too coy to pretend that I wasn’t. This is the eternal push-and-pull of it all. You can’t be upset when people’s quality of life goes up and crime rates go down, et cetera. But you can be upset at the way it happens — looking at who it benefits the most and who benefits the least.
Therefore, yeah, there’s a romanticism to the grittier side of things, but there’s also a feeling that something real has been lost when people who have been gritting it out wind up having to leave because some new prefab construction gets plopped down in the middle of the neighborhood.
Q: How'd you decide to fund your latest album through Kickstarter?
A: I had a bad experience with my previous label. When I finally got out of my contract, a friend at Kickstarter helped me see how it could empower me to do something I might not be able to do with a label. Ultimately, the money I raised for the record, if anybody’s wondering: It’s gone. I spent it all. But I spent it all making a record and doing some touring that I never would’ve been able to do with even the most friendly record label. The budgets and the will just aren’t there anymore.
Q: How does it feel to return to a song you might not have played in years — a deep cut from a 15-year-old record, for instance?
A: Here’s what it is. I’m not at the level of popularity where we have casual fans. And that is a good thing. I don’t feel like we have people who are just, like, “Hmm, I read about these people on Pitchfork.” Because Lord knows Pitchfork hasn’t said a nice word about me in almost that entire 20 years. Our fans are really there for it. A lot of our songs, I think, are important to a lot of them.
When you tap into the older stuff, it never really feels like a nostalgia trip. And that’s because of what I get coming back from the audience. Maybe that’s because we never stopped playing. This isn’t a reunion show. It’s not like we’re getting the band back together. It never stopped.
1811 14th St. NW. blackcatdc.com.
Dates: Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.