From hardcore hellion to indie journeyman to respected songsmith, TED LEO has been a well-regarded figure in the American underground for well more than 15 years. Despite the years and the demands of real life, he’s neither completely mellowed nor run short on ideas.
Story: Mike McKee
With a career marked by strong records and countless road miles logged, Ted Leo makes a strong case for the curative power of music. If you want direct testimonials and proof, he’ll gladly reference his own personal life for your edification, but the strongest evidence remains in the music. Longtime listeners and a growing base of onlookers just now discovering Leo can attest to the indestructible optimism built into the man’s back catalog.
But when news first dropped about a new Leo record coming out this spring, some fans wondered if Leo would finally run out of steam. Keeping pace with the “whole lot of walking to do” messages he confronted in his last record, 2004’s Shake The Sheets, Leo found his creative muse a tough task to maintain in light of depressing news headlines, his band’s Herculean tour schedule and the near dissolution of the label that released the bulk of his recordings.
The interview takes place on an extremely chilly day in February, the late, East Coast winter casting a shadow all its own. Meteorology is an apt metaphor to convey the physical and emotional demands facing anyone trying to make a living off of his art, let alone off an art that mixes pop and politics.
“At the end of the day, I’d be feeling completely dejected, like there’s nothing really more to say at this point,” says Leo of the past two years. “So, you just sit there and stare at a blank page, and it all feels relatively pointless. We just have to go through those down periods and eventually, you get so low that the only way to go is up.”
Whether he has risen (or simply stepped to the side) will be up for every fan’s conjecture, but few will deny that Living With The Living, Leo’s new disc and Touch And Go debut, takes new directions. It’s a solid move away from the frequent comparisons to the politically charged post-punk of the Jam and Billy Bragg. On Living, the rock is more classic, invoking the refinement of the Kinks (and their contemporary stylistic offspring, Blur) and the burning blue-collar ambition of Bruce Springsteen. Speaking in very different tones and terms from previous albums, it’s one of Leo’s most difficult records to dissect by influence.
And like those artists, the struggle to say something new is essential to Leo. With an attenuated career arc spanning from a stint singing for NYHC underdogs Citizen’s Arrest; fronting indie-rock contenders Chisel; or performing with drummer Chris Wilson and bassist Dave Lerner-aka the Pharmacists-on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Leo has never been short on material. The trouble isn’t so much writer’s block, as much as striking out with something singularly “Ted.”
“In the few breaks I’ve had in the year before going into the studio, I had music just coming out of me,” says Leo. “I have another album-and-a-half of music written. I’d have all this music, but absolutely nothing to say, nothing to add to the things I’d been saying every night and everyone else was already saying. You have to claw your way back. You find something you can latch on to and a reason to actually waste your time writing a song about, and you just go with it. If I didn’t believe the sad, but somewhat optimistic shit I was slinging on the last record, I wouldn’t be able to do it every night.”
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Click HERE for the official AP review of Living With The Living.