Tyrannosaurus Rx: A Conversation With Indie-Rock’s Most Prominent Pharmacists

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It’s hard to accurately describe in print the music that Ted Leo and the Pharmacists produce. Leo, the band’s spokesman and chief songwriter, draws inspiration from many different sources, including classic punk, folk rock and even Celtic music. Having cut his musical teeth in East Coast bands Citizen’s Arrest, Animal Crackers and Chisel, Leo emerged in the early 2000s as an honest musician—full of political ire, tinged with melodic pop-punk appeal and wearing his New Jersey-sized heart on his sleeve. His latest project with the Pharmacists, an album titled Living with the Living, hit stores on March 20th. Leo was kind enough to talk to SLUG about his music, his inspirations and his process of writing and recording the new record.

I started our conversation by asking Leo to describe the music that he makes. This seems like a stupid place to begin, but no two descriptions of Ted Leo’s sound are ever quite the same. Entertainment Weekly described it as “a near perfect amalgam of straight-up melodies and pogoing beats.” Rolling Stone referred to Leo as “an immediate vocal presence, with hints of Elvis Costello in his howls that turn into precise yodels.” Spin called it “electoral-college rock,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Leo is much more realistic in his description of his music: “Just as classic rock is to rock, it is classic punk.” He added, “What I mean is, it’s punk from an era when the definition of punk wasn’t so narrow—when a band like The Clash could make London Calling or Sandinista! and still be considered a punk band.”

This classic punk feel runs deep on the new record. It’s not a straightforward punk record, though—there are elements of hardcore, 70s rock and even reggae layered throughout. Leo explained this assortment of genres as being representative of his own varying tastes during the almost two-year period that he spent writing the new record. He explained, “I have always been heavily influenced by different kinds of music. In the past, though, what I usually ended up doing was trying to cram every influence into almost every song. So there would be this kind of core of melodic-punk or power-pop music, but it would be infused with a little pulled from reggae, or a melody pulled from Celtic music or something more aggressive—like something pulled from Crass.”

On Living with the Living, some songs reflect the standard Ted Leo melodic-punk vibe, while others are much more genre-specific. “Bomb•Repeat•Bomb,” one of the first singles to be released, could easily be mistaken for a British anarcho-punk tune. Another song, “The Unwanted Things,” is a straightforward reggae track, which takes its place on a disk full of catchy and honest anthems—a disk that works to include some of the band’s most far-reaching musical ambitions.

Living with the Living also marks the reunion of Leo with recording engineer and Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty; the two are old friends, and had worked together on an LP Leo did for Lookout! Records. Canty’s presence during the recording process was a positive force on the band. Leo explained, “Here’s why I like working with Brendan: We have very similar musical tastes, we’ve known each other a long time and we see eye to eye on most things.” Leo pointed out that Canty’s engineering skills and enthusiasm played a big part in allowing the band to make the record they set out to make. His willingness to experiment and his ability to coax out solid performances from all those involved helped to solidify the album’s sound. Leo continued, “Brendan has a real great ability to help me to facilitate my ideas and to help me articulate the ideas that I’m having a difficult time articulating. I had a very specific idea on how I wanted this record and all elements of it to sound, and I would never have been able to realize that had he not been involved in the process.”

So with a new disk in stores and a tour starting this month, Ted Leo fans have much to look forward to. When I asked Leo whether or not his popularity in indie-rock circles was proof positive that his fans understood the left-leaning messages that sometimes find their way into his music, Ted just laughed. “You know, I don’t really have one message per se,” he said. “But I will say this: I think that most of the people who know us and enjoy our music … really do kind of get it.”

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists are playing at In the Venue on Sat., April 21st. The show will start at 7 p.m. and tickets are available through 24tix.com and at all Smith’s Tix locations.