As we descend into the basement that houses Titus Andronicus’ practice space in Bushwick, Brooklyn, frontman Patrick Stickles warns me about the smell. In some unholy mixture of trash stored in subterranean heat, a dead rodent decomposing somewhere, and old band clothes left to rot, the narrow labyrinth of rented rooms is indeed rank. But soon we are through that, as Stickles unlocks a door and lights some incense in his own room, unveiling the “inner sanctum,” as he’s taken to calling it. It is, essentially, a narrow closet, with amps and odds and ends stacked against the walls and a drum kit crammed in the far corner, decorated with old setlists, all of it allowing for maybe one person to walk through at any time. Here, Stickles unfolds a chair, occasionally fiddles with a guitar, and tells me about how the new Titus Andronicus album The Will To Live came into being in this very room.
It took a lot to get to The Will To Live—17 years of the indie rock band, endless touring and lineup changes, as well as significant changes and traumas in Stickles’ life. And first, there was the pandemic. “I’d lost my identity as an artist from not being onstage,” Stickles recalls. “I was a layabout bum for the most part.” But when lockdowns loosened up in 2021, he decided it was time to “get back on the horse.” He began spending hours in this little room alone, building up songs for the next Titus album. At one point he plays me a demo of “(I’m) Screwed”—The Will To Live’s official lead single, and a “Dimed Out”-level instant classic in the Titus canon—and all the pieces from the final version are there, painstakingly arranged. It took a lot of time and diligence, differing from how Stickles would’ve worked in the past—both in more chaotic times, and in the basic fact he prefers to have the band together to sort material out. Unable to do that, the environment changed: “It was largely a solitary monastic experience down here, when it used to be a Guided By Voices, beer-drinking hang," he says.
Yet while these humble surroundings and origins might suggest a Titus Andronicus album smaller in scope, such as The Will To Live’s 2018 and 2019 predecessors A Productive Cough and An Obelisk, Stickles had grander designs. Musically, The Will To Live is his attempt to attain, as he dubs it, Ultimate Rock. The band's recent process of punk ceding to classic rock has continued here, with a tight and powerful sound not without its own surprises. Some of his reference points may be unexpected: Stickles found himself digging deep into Boston’s first album, Mutt Lange productions like Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Bryan Adams’ Waking Up The Neighbours. He namechecks Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf, he mentions Faith No More’s The Real Thing. “A muscular, effective, precise, and coherent approach to rock,” he says of these albums, and what they inspired in him. “Every song is like a hit, and they’re all larger than life.”
The latter quality is important, and another foundational premise of The Will To Live. Titus’ producer this time around, Howard Bilerman, told Stickles he should write one of those albums that feels like a greatest hits compilation, but comprising all new material. Stickles liked that charge.
The nature of The Will To Live’s aesthetic is not coincidental, following Titus’ belated tenth anniversary celebrations of their landmark sophomore outing The Monitor late last year. Stickles has infamously had a conflicted relationship with it; to many fans it's the obvious magnum opus, to Sickles it's the record that’s often overshadowed his other work. Yet while he sardonically refers to the album's reissue and subsequent tour as the nostalgia cash-in, it did not come without its own positives or ulterior motives. “I wanted to mobilize the base,” he explains, giving the people what they want, reminding them of their old love for Titus, and then coming back swinging with an album that could rival the achievements of The Monitor and the band's fourth LP, 2015's The Most Lamentable Tragedy. Something with the goods. Not just Ultimate Rock, but the ultimate Titus Andronicus album.
If The Monitor was the operatic Born To Run, an impassioned document at the end of youth, then The Will To Live is Titus Andronicus’ Born In The USA. Neatly, they are both the seventh albums in each artist’s catalog, and Stickles’ age mirrors Springsteen’s in both instances. It is the sort of album an artist makes when they are entering middle age, have some sense of themselves and their history, and want to make a big statement. The songs on The Will To Live are designed to be the most refined, distilled versions of ideas and sounds Titus have tried in the past—even its twin epics “Bridge And Tunnel” and “An Anomaly” are carefully structured for maximum dramatic impact. Alongside a maddened punk rager like “Dead Meat,” there is the pure Stones swagger of “I Can Not Be Satisfied” and the piano ballad “69 Stones.” At the same time, the album might give Titus fans of various eras something to grab onto along the way, it is presenting those sounds in a new context, laying groundwork for the future—an aging, more focused Titus Andronicus that could sustain itself beyond the ranginess or erratic swings of its early years.
If ‘The Monitor’ was the operatic ‘Born To Run’, an impassioned document at the end of youth, then ‘The Will To Live’ is Titus Andronicus’ ‘Born In The USA’.
Historically, any conversation with Patrick Stickles is relatively intense—not unnerving or difficult, but not something you can have idly. You must be ready to keep up with a myriad of references and matter-of-fact dismantling of the music industry to philosophical or spiritual ideals. This is a man whose career kicked off on intermingled Shakespeare and Seinfeld references, who has long bore stadium-level ambition mixed with DIY ethics. Today in the practice space, that Stickles is here, meticulously explaining his road to Ultimate Rock. But there is also something different about him relative to when I have crossed paths with him before—which, given past interviews, plenty of Titus gigs, and the fact that I happen to live on the same block as his practice space, has been somewhat often. Stickles’ demeanor is less wild-eyed and fiery now, more controlled and dialed-in. There is, almost, a serenity to a person who was often written about as having anything but.
A few days later, it’s a pleasant September afternoon and we’re walking through Ridgewood, Queens. Stickles casually points to a mechanic on the corner where you can see his tour van up on the lift. “They’re trying to get that old rust bucket ready to put another 10,000 miles on it,” he says, referencing the band’s veterancy. It’s been a long time since The Monitor, when Stickles and his band were younger and, by his estimation, the apparatus of music media paid more attention to them. The rock opera arrived in 2015, and he’s been threatening to end Titus as he gets too long in the tooth for this rock ’n’ roll game.
“If anything, we are more of an underground rock band than ever,” he says. They have the support of a revered label in Merge, and they have some people helping them out with the practicalities of selling music and touring it on the road. But Stickles manages the band himself, and keeps the operation lean. They’ve never gone backwards (i.e., it’s been a while since they’ve had to ask concertgoers for a place to crash that night.) Even so, it seems a scrappy operation for someone whose trademark dark hair and voluminous beard have become more tamed, and flecked with gray.
These days, Titus Andronicus doesn’t really fit in anywhere—not whatever blog hype they emerged from, nor the local NYC scene they entered during the days when all the band members lived around town and gigged constantly while Stickles worked the door at the now long-since-departed DIY venue Shea Stadium. “It really feels like we’re out on an island, which in a way is what we always wanted,” Stickles says when I ask him about how they operate outside the indie infrastructure. For example, you rarely see Titus Andronicus on festival lineups, a key part of how bands make money in this day and age. He’s quick to point out that they get little love from the algorithm in the streaming era, either. Stickles always qualifies these statements with things he’s grateful for, and stops short of saying he regrets the path he’s followed—patterned after “the OGs” like Fugazi and Black Flag and Hüsker Dü. Right now, he plans to take the music out on the road, “pound the pavement” like they always do, never expecting a new windfall or change of fortune this many years in.
But Stickles is also a man who has always been acutely aware of narrative and his standing in the ecosystem. He quips that The Will To Live’s Ultimate Rock Greatest Titus Hits approach is them exiting their flop era, referring to the more muted reception of 2018's A Productive Cough and 2019's An Obelisk. His premise is hard to argue with. In the same way The Will To Live ups the stakes musically, it emerges from a complex era of Stickles’ life and finds him where he is strongest—using vital, rough hewn yet lofty rock music as a vehicle to grapple with some of life’s biggest existential questions.
Our walk ends at the Ridgewood bar Milo’s Yard, another inner sanctum of a sort; this is Stickles’ neighborhood haunt, and where he conducts almost all of his interviews. It’s still late afternoon, and the interior has that disorienting quality of somehow feeling darker for the sunlight peeking in through the blinds. There is a lone patron sipping a beer, and Stickles quickly greets the bartender who, of course, he knows. We retreat to the backyard and continue talking. This time, he is not hunched over in a tiny practice space, but armed with a couple pints of Guinness and a folder full of the album’s lyrics.
Now in his late thirties, things are, for once, a bit settled. Stickles has lived in the same apartment for almost ten years, but now shares it with his wife; their recent Paris honeymoon provided the setting for the video accompanying “An Anomaly.” While domestic bliss might be one reason Stickles just seems so good, taking care of his mental health has to be the other major factor. Stickles was open about his struggles with bipolar disorder throughout his career, and it clearly contributed to both highs and lows across Titus’ history. Now, he’s finally found a medication that clicks for him—and he’s taking it seriously.
“I used to play fast and loose with that stuff,” he explains. His last real bout of mania happened around A Productive Cough, which eventually led him to conclude: “This is not cute for a guy my age. This isn’t doing it. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, I don’t know better than everyone else what’s good for me.” From there, it took him a couple years to stabilize, where the episodes became less severe, where he could stop living in a “reactive” way. Now, he hasn’t had an episode at all in quite some time. To get there, he had to abandon the “bankrupt myth about these neurodivergencies as they relate to the arts.”
“I got plenty of dividends from playing that game in my 20s, that was cool,” he acknowledges, before saying he’s happy with where he’s at now, for this part of his life. “I had to be deliberate and intentional with my choices,” he says. “My art is imitating my life.”
Just as Stickles was coming to terms with all of those developments, there were other parts of life that became a lot more difficult. After a health episode, his father ended up in a medically induced coma for almost two months. Last year, Stickles lost his cousin Matt Miller, the founding keyboardist of Titus Andronicus and his best friend. “He was a wonderful man and the most incredibly talented guy I ever knew,” Stickles remembers. “There were a million things I hoped he and I were going to do together. It didn’t work out that way. There’s nothing I can do with him now, but there’s plenty I’d like to do for him.”
This brings us to the themes of The Will To Live. That name is not used lightly, nor winkingly. This is an album that uses religious imagery and travels deep into darkness to eventually find its way towards the only kind of resolution it seems we can reach in an objectively meaningless world—to keep going, surviving, and opening yourself up to the experiences that make life worth living, even if that means opening yourself up to the pain that accompanies them when they end. “This is one of my ‘the’ records,” Stickles says. “These are the big swings. When you see me using the 't word', you know I’m up to something. It’s an arrogant word, a definitive article. It’s not just a record, it’s the record.”
“This is one of my ‘the’ records,” Stickles says. “These are the big swings. When you see me using the ’t word’, you know I’m up to something. It’s an arrogant word, a definitive article. It’s not just a record, it’s the record.”
The album is split into three acts, titled “The Lion’s Den,” “Hell On Earth,” and “Where The Buffalo Roam.” “At the beginning of the story, the narrator is at a place where the walls are closing in, his faith is being tested, and we’re going to see how formidable the will to live is in his case,” Stickles explains. In its early songs, The Will To Live sets up the premise with God as the absentee father and a narrator basically asking why everything is so fucked. After an attempt at the old rock ’n’ roll escapist dream in “Bridge And Tunnel,” things take a turn towards absolute despair in “Dead Meat” and “An Anomaly.” The final act is more life-affirming material, notably written after Stickles lost his cousin. There is still world-weariness at the end, but some reinvigorated commitment to marching forward.
Stickles is coy about the balance of the narrator and himself. (“I do have to keep that somewhat ambiguous otherwise I’m on the hook for my narrator’s transgressions, right?” he quips, before arguing most writers are really only able to write from their own experience.) But it isn’t hard to see the parallels in the album’s narrator and Stickles. Both of them—the narrator through the gauntlet the album entails, and Stickles through all the ways in which he has worked on his life in recent years—seem to have arrived at a similar place. Yes, the world is full of suffering, but Stickles has chosen to move through it as a “more open-hearted person open to idealistic moments,” trying to be kinder and more empathetic, and accepting the grief and loss and sorrow that is part of the equation.
He relays a story about one disgruntled fan on Twitter saying he didn’t like the new singles because it sounded like Stickles had lost his anger. In response Stickles wondered: “That’s the life you wish for me? To haunt the Earth like this grim, dour, furious, stunted adolescent, misanthropic malcontent?”
For a moment, I’m tempted to read into certain threads about the album and everything else Stickles is saying, even though I know he’s deploying tropes because he knows their inherent lingua franca potency. Basically: He was raised Catholic, and I ask him whether recent experiences have made him interact with religion once more. At this point, Stickles opens his folder of lyrics and turns to a late album track, “Baby Crazy”. In that song, Stickles tumbles through a frenzied array of words where, among other things, he talks about “the father” as an incomprehensible higher power, that there’s clearly some will above ours otherwise we’d all have everything we want, and our constant search for explanations on this front is what drives us insane.
So maybe he has lost some of his anger. He is measured in talking about his career and his work, he is open in talking about mental health and loss and at least an abstract level of spirituality. Maybe it’s too much to say Titus Andronicus has found peace. But in chasing Ultimate Rock, in growing up, in settling elements of the past while knowing the future is never guaranteed, there is evolution. The whole moral, this time around, is basically saying there are forces beyond us we can’t combat, but we can control how we move through the world in spite of them. It’s a far cry from the young, enraged defiance once glimpsed in Titus’ music.
“We have that will and hopefully we can use it and exercise it towards that which is kind and righteous, but at the end of the day it’s just our will and it’s very small,” Stickles says, by way of parting words. “It’s something. It’s what we got.”