Ted Leo talks about the personal and political motives behind his new album


It's been seven years since punk rocker Ted Leo released The Brutalist Bricks, a record he made with backing band the Pharmacists, and it's good to have him back.

Not that he was ever really gone. As outlined in an in-depth profile on Stereogum published last summer, Leo's been hard at work setting up a home studio in Rhode Island, during which time he wrote and recorded nearly 30 songs, playing many of the instruments himself. In the midst of all that, he also found time to record and tour for a project with Aimee Mann called the Both.

In that same profile, Leo also opened up about the sexual abuse he endured as a child at the hands of a piano teacher, as well as losing his daughter due to pregnancy complications, and being dropped from Matador records.

Leo's new solo record, The Hanged Man, plays like a power-pop/punk take on the studio-driven work of the mid-to-late Beatles. The 14 tracks are humanly uneven, with joyful punch-ups and spited jingles wrapped around careful ballads about Libertarian running mates and escaping the horrors of Earth for a quiet life on the moon. The record was funded through Kickstarter and Leo self-released it earlier this month.

We talked with Leo on the eve of the album's release and his first U.S. tour with an expanded Pharmacists lineup, which stops in Detroit on Sept. 20. The 47-year-old was as candid, thoughtful, and self-deprecating as we expected.

Metro Times: Your first album in seven years is coming out tomorrow (Sept. 8), and it sounds like it's been a lot of work. How are you feeling today heading into the release and upcoming tour?

Ted Leo: Umm ... (laughs) a little ragged? A little rundown. The last three weeks have been the real crunch time to get everything ready while also trying to wrangle a band that's geographically disbursed for rehearsals. In terms of this process coming to fruition, I don't think I've had the distance from it yet to actually feel things. Once I actually get on the road, I will be able to relax and feel things. Check back with me when I get to Detroit.

MT: There are some really big swings in mood, and feel, and style on this new record. Did you feel freer to experiment working by yourself?

Leo: I've never felt not free to explore whatever my whim and weird direction choices would be. But I do think for many years, when I would write I would be thinking in terms of a touring band playing on stage. So the palette was just a little bit smaller. It's been so long since I've toured on my own songs with a band that it wasn't even a part of the process for me this time. What informed my writing more was learning about recording.

MT: How has preparing the new material for a live set been? I read that you plan to expand the band.

Leo: It's a six-piece band now, including myself. Adrienne Berry, who plays saxophone on a couple of songs on the record, is joining us, and she's playing sax on a lot more than she did on the record, which is really exciting. Even on some older stuff, it's helping to reveal the soul/R&B core of some of my songs.

MT: Can you give an example?

Leo: "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone" is really working for me. It always had that '60s R&B shuffle beat to it, but more in a '70s rock way. Now I find myself really enjoying not using my guitar to propel forward so aggressively, but to actually sit back into the groove.

MT: How did the Kickstarter campaign come about? Were you surprised by the response to it?

Leo: Having felt sort of stymied by my label situation for a while, it felt like I should try something new. I was elated at the response. I was super nervous about how it would be taken, let alone how it was going to actually work. I set a pretty ambitious funding goal, because I knew what I needed to make this record. When it hit [the goal] in the first day, I had a new sense of relief about deep levels of anxiety I didn't even know I was carrying. From then on it was all fun and gravy, and interacting with fans.

MT: What was it like to read the Stereogum profile when it came out, and what kind of reactions did you get?

Leo: It was hard to read. I didn't ask for a draft to approve or anything. Once I decided I was going to open up like that, I figured there's no point trying to control the message. When I started reading it, it seemed very raw. I had a mild, or maybe not-so-mild, panic attack. I'd spoken to my family about it. It was hard on them. It hasn't been easy, but I think it's been good. And the outpouring from people who had similar experiences to mine across the board has been really unexpected and amazing, and it lets me know I made the right choice about opening up.

MT: You've joked about embracing your "political folk punk singer" tag, but this new record feels very personal. Given the current climate, if you had another record coming out next year, do you think it might be more overtly political?

Leo: There's a lot of pretty explicitly political stuff on this record. In some places it's as explicit as it's ever been. In some places it's a little more obscured.

In terms of addressing Trump and the administration itself, I'm not even interested. I would much rather talk about institutional racism, sexism, xenophobia — the things that affect people on the ground that an administration like Trump's is exacerbating. I'm not writing a song to yell at the president. I'm a writing a song to hopefully help people who actually want to listen to my song.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists perform on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at the Magic Stick, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700; Doors open at 7 p.m.; with special guests Ryan Allen and His Extra Arms, and Someone Who Isn't Me; Tickets start at $18.

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