Passion, politics & punk


April 27, 2007


Ted Leo makes no secret of his devotion to punk as it was practiced in the late '70s, and his biggest influences are obvious, starting with the Clash circa '77 and ranging as far as the Replacements in the mid-'80s. But there is nothing retro about the passion and immediacy of "Living with the Living," his fifth album with the Pharmacists and his first release for Chicago's Touch and Go Records.

"I didn't really have much of a goal when we started recording this album, two years from the point when I started writing songs, beyond the actual sonic palette of the record," Leo says. "That's why I wanted to work with [producer] Brendan [Canty of Fugazi] again, because he and I have all the same reference points, share similar tastes in music and understand each other on a lot of levels. I knew that he was going to be able finish thoughts that I couldn't finish.

"Sonically, I was going for a very '77 punk sound: no ringing, modern-rock drums; flat but punchy, and guitars sounding very much like what's coming out of the amp. With the last record I did with Chris Shaw [2004's "Shake the Sheets"], the sound was perfect for that record. I had never made a hi-fi record before, but having done that, and thinking about what these new songs actually were and what would serve them best, I wanted it to sound more like the Tom Robinson Band, Nick Lowe or [the Clash on] 'Give 'Em Enough Rope.' "

Many reviewers have focused on the album's angry political anthems -- gripping tracks such as "Fourth World War," "Army Bound," "C.I.A.," "Bomb. Repeat. Bomb." and "The Sons of Cain" -- but ever since the 36-year-old native of South Bend, Ind., began to win widespread attention as the main songwriter in his earlier band, the Washington, D.C.-based punk/mod revival group Chisel, Leo has never been easily pigeon-holed, and "Living With the Living" also includes stylistic detours such as the Pogues-like pub-rocker "A Bottle of Buckie," the reggae jam "The Unwanted Things" and the plaintive love song "Colleen."

"It's kind of like an inverted bell curve. 'The Sons of Cain' was actually one of the first songs I wrote for the record, and then over the course of the next year and a half, when we were just touring, touring and touring after 'Shake the Sheets,' I got a little lost in trying to figure out not only what to say, but if I had anything to say at all about [politics] anymore -- largely because things really have not changed in any significant way in who knows how many years. I didn't want to write a record that was like a blog, where you're just commenting in real time: 'Oh, here's a song about the Walter Reed scandal!' And if you're not interested in focusing on those immediate things, you've got to look at how they relate to the bigger picture.

"Also, my anger did kind of dip for a while -- not into contentment or happiness, but just into bleak depression. 'Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.' is the thing that took me out of it a little bit. In the winter of '06, I was working on music for a play a friend of mine was writing about the United Fruit Company and U.S. involvement in Central America. The play was trying to draw certain parallels to what is going on today, and 'Bomb. Repeat. Bomb.' is specifically about the C.I.A. coup in Guatemala in 1954. Obviously, I know people will immediately think of Iraq when they hear it, and that's fine. But it kind of took going through being depressed about the fact that nothing has changed in four years to being more incensed that nothing has changed in 40. So a lot of the songs are about the idea that from this point on, in any discussion about what Iraq means in terms of the future of America, there are much more far-ranging, deeper and broader questions."

Leo grants that he sometimes feels typecast as a political songwriter. "But the whole thing is 'damned if you do, damned if you don't.' People want to talk about the more political songs because there's more to talk about, and that's an interesting entree for them into the album. Some people will complain that there's too much political stuff, and others will chide me for not being political enough -- for putting a song like 'Colleen' on there. At the end of the day, I guess there are worse things than having people time and time again refer to me as 'the political guy' or 'a political singer-songwriter.' People are going to box you in no matter what, and there are worse ways I could be boxed."

Frisbie back on track after career detour

The local power-pop band Frisbie was building a real head of steam when it released its effervescent album "The Subversive Sounds of Silence" in July 2000, garnering college radio play, rave reviews and impressive shows opening for Wilco, Cheap Trick, Matthew Sweet and Big Star, all major influences. Like many indie-rockers, however, the musicians found it difficult to tour for months on end while holding down the day jobs necessary to pay the rent. And there were other, more unique problems, too.

"In a nutshell it goes like this," Liam Davis told "Band releases album. Album is favorably received. Band tours to support album. Drummer suffers breakdown and quits band. Drummer rejoins band. Drummer re-quits band. Band struggles to regain momentum lost in the tangled web of personal drama and mayhem."

Now, Davis and fellow bandleader, guitarist and vocalist Steve Frisbie finally have a solid new lineup, and they're back with a strong new recording that is the logical successor to their stellar debut. (The low-key release of "period." in 2003, a collection of songs by original drummer Zack Kantor, was really more of a detour and a coda.) So far, the reconfigured quartet has no solid plans for releasing the aptly titled "New Debut," but its 10 songs are certain to find a deserving home, reprising the jangling guitars and heartbreakingly beautiful harmonies that marked Frisbie Phase I, while adding a much heavier rhythmic undertow and adventurous arrangements that sometimes evoke the more complicated song structures of progressive rock.

Sample the joyful single "Yes Impossible" for yourself at, and watch, for upcoming gigs.


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