A Conversation between Ted Leo and Ben Arthur
Ted Leo is a songwriter and performer. His latest release is a self-titled album from The Both, a collaboration with Aimee Mann. Before that, his solo album, The Brutalist Bricks, was released by Matador. Ben Arthur has released six albums and two novels, and is a producer of the songwriting web series SongCraft Presents. His new album, Call and Response, is a collection of “answer songs,” which each respond to another track or artwork. Leo and Arthur are both writing an answer song in response to “Deceit,” a short story by the author Joyce Carol Oates, which they will perform at a live show/reading on June 27th in New York City.
BEN ARTHUR: You’ve just been touring out on the West Coast—how was it?
TED LEO: It was really nice. I did a Sonny and Cher style variety show with Aimee Mann, which—as the grind of normal touring has begun to offer diminishing returns in a lot of realms—is really fun for us to do now and then. And I did a few solo shows up and down the coast, just because I was there.
BA: Explain what you mean by the diminishing returns of the grind: more hustle and less income?
TL: Yeah, more hustle and less income. But also just, like, the older you get…when I say the grind, I don’t mean the actual shows. They’re rarely not rewarding. It’s not even that I mind traveling. I actually love traveling. But the day in and day out of loading in, and packing, and dressing rooms, and rooting around in your shoulder bag for the allergy pills you can’t find, or the charger you needed to bring. That kind of stuff.
BA: How does the variety show change that—it just adds variety?
TL: More or less, yeah! It puts what you’re doing in a different context. When you’re traveling on a body of songs that you have played for many, many years, for most nights of your life—I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself—it’s not that every night is not it’s own thing. It is. You play the one song that people want to hear the most every night, and for every audience that’s a special thing. And usually that translates back to you. But I think that stumbling upon the idea that you can do something different with the…uh, what am I trying to say?
BA: With the addition of other elements, you can change—
TL: With the addition of other elements. And kind of recontextualizing the whole thing. I mean, Aimee and I have a good stage banter dynamic to begin with, and the idea that, like, “Hey, we can make a whole show out of just this part of what we do!” is exciting right now because it’s like a fifth act in each of our lives, one that neither of us really expected to have. That alone is encouraging and exciting. It’s a different way to get out on the road. And we can still play a lot of those same songs, but—
BA: But change the context and the feel of what you’re getting up there to do. I can certainly sympathize.
TL: And I think it probably has something to do with…going back to what I said about the grind earlier? Neither of us is on an album cycle right now. Our last albums—separately and together—came out a couple of years ago at this point. We’re not on that hamster wheel of touring to promote an album and filling every free minute with press, etc. It’s really just doing it for the joy of it. [Pause] Not, you know, to diminish the joy of what we do!
BA: Not to intentionally spit in the faces of all of the people who have very kindly paid for tickets all of these years!
TL: Exactly! But, you know, there’s that other monkey—when you make a record and have to go out on tour for it, you have to go out on tour for it. Whether it’s going to be joyful or not, you have to do it.
BA: Or you’re being a crappy partner to the people who are investing with you, whether that’s a label or agent or anyone else on your team.
TL: I’m saying this as someone with a reputation for being on the road all the time. I love touring. But it’s super nice to have a new reason to play shows that isn’t based around that perennial cycle of album/tour/promotion.
BA: Yeah, for this “answer song” project that you’re very kindly taking part in, that’s a lot of my own personal impetus. Getting up on stage and doing something that reflects the larger effort to make new art. Not just saying, “Hey, I’ve got a new album, and here’s the second single,” or whatever. But to say, “This, here, is an active part of my effort to make art, and here are some people I admire, and whose work I’m trying to reflect a shard of glory from. Let’s do something tonight that’s not repeatable.”
TL: Yeah! That’s a really good way to put it. That’s part of my active…the activity of building art. I actually had a little bit of misunderstanding of motives with some of the people at my own label. Because they were like, “Hey, we kind of signed you to a record deal based on all this solo stuff you were doing. And this record you’re doing now doesn’t really fit into that.” It just required a discussion—it wasn’t, like, a major contention. But that’s exactly it. I’m rounding the corner into my late forties, and I really want to be able to do these things that are, as you say, a continuation of the work.
BA: God knows you’re not the first artist who has had problems partnering with a label based on the work that has come before. Because that’s not really how artists work. Whether you’re talking Neil Young and Trans and the conflict with Geffen, or any number of other artists who were like, “Yeah that’s great that the work succeeded in this or that format, but I didn’t sign up to make a covers album of myself. Or a tribute album to myself.”
BA: Speaking of what we’re working on: have you had a chance to read “Deceit” yet?
TL: I’m in the middle of it.
BA: What do you think?
TL: It’s a great story. Right now the mother is about to confront the daughter about the bruises that she’s been told about by the school psychologist.
BA: As you’ve been reading it, is there been a direction musically or lyrically or emotionally that has drawn you so far, that you’re tempted by?
TL: I am really interested right now in the school psychologist. I know she’s not the main character, but she’s drawn really interestingly. You’re used to seeing people like she’s initially portrayed as: a sexless, imagination-less, bureaucratic drone. Who the mother—who considers herself way beyond that—is going to put in her place. But then there are these little rumblings in the text that actually evince a person who really cares about what she’s doing, who cares about the students.
BA: And has genuine fucking cause to be concerned, and is more dialed in to the daughter’s reality than the mother is, at least at that moment.
TL: Yeah, that’s kind of what’s grabbing me right now.
BA: So, how do you usually incorporate your influences, other people’s work, into your own?
TL: It’s varied at different times. Someone once said that “The Waste Land” was a scum of poetry floating on a sea of footnotes. That resonated with me, because that’s kind of what I was doing lyrically for a while. I was being very referential in a way. I would drop in these little phrases or ideas that were sort of portholes into a whole bigger realm of thought or whatever, that would work within the song, but that you could also poke through into a bigger discussion.
BA: Yeah. Listening to your music, my sense is that you tend towards resonance, things that vibrate on a deeper level. That seems something you’re drawn to—and I am too, for what it’s worth. But…isn’t that also sort of a necessity of the form? In order to cram sufficient meaning into a three or four minute song you’re forced to do that, aren’t you?
TL: I think the answer is yes. What we consider “sufficient meaning” probably varies from songwriter to songwriter, but—
TL: But I think that’s sort of the subjective nature of partaking in any art from the other side of the equation. You can have a real simple love song that perhaps [pause]. Martha and the Vandelas didn’t necessarily mean “Jimmy Mack” to be about a girl pining for a guy that’s not there because he’s in Vietnam….but that’s how I’ve always interpreted it.
BA: I suppose there is an Easter egg sensibility about some great writing, in that there’s a surface thing that you want everyone to get, ideally by the end of the first chorus, but you also want to reward listeners who dig a little deeper. Certainly some of my favorite songs are the ones that, weeks later, or months later, or sometimes even years later, you get hit by a lyric that you suddenly understand in a way that you didn’t. My favorite is Paul Simon’s “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance / Everybody knows it’s true.” One day I actually heard a freaking train in the distance and just thought, “Agh! I love that!” Before that it was just a line, just some pretty words, but suddenly I felt it.
TL: Sure, but if you live up against train tracks, it can make your life a living hell.
BA: Yeah, actually I was coming back from Coney Island with my girls yesterday, and we passed some of those apartment buildings that are right up on the D train, and I couldn’t help imagining the deafness you would have to develop in order to live there without going bonkers.
TL: And you do! I’ve stayed with people who live up on the Chicago “L.” And I lived in Boston across from a 24 hour parking garage that had a beeping gate. And after a while you just tune it out. People come and visit and they’re like, “How the fuck can you live like this?”
BA: That happens to us! Our apartment in Manhattan, we have people who come stay with us who are kept up all night long by sounds that we literally don’t even hear. So, anyway: What kind of work—literature, music, art—usually inspires you?
TL: By and large it’s music. I am always thinking music.
BA: Within your very broad genre, or other kinds of music?
TL: All music. Especially guitar playing-wise, I’ve been influenced by non-rock stuff. The kind of percussive playing of like 60s R&B, especially as that was translated into more rock stuff like the Small Faces, even going into early Clash and the Jam. As I’ve grown older I’ve been more influenced by more meandering styles of guitar playing, whether it’s Celtic or Ethiopian folk music or some kind of noisier jazz like Sonny Sharrock. In terms of songwriting, I don’t know that I could even pin it down.
BA: How conscious is your writing process? For this project you’re reading a story and writing a song responding to it…and on a timeline. But when you’re in your world generally are you a let-it-come-when-it-comes artist or a forced-process kind of writer?
TL: Both. I don’t really have one method. I try to be good about…I actually dream a lot of songs, and I try to be good about voice-memoing ideas. I’ve done it like three times in the last week.
BA: I’m legit jealous right now.
TL: Well, the amount of good things that I’ve forgotten…you’d be amazed. The great lost catalogue.
BA: Lennon or McCartney, I forget which, once said that if they couldn’t remember an idea then clearly it wasn’t that great to start with. But my reaction to that is, “Easy for you to say, John Lennon or freaking Paul McCartney!” The rest of us, all we’ve got are these scraps.
TL: I know that the dream mind is irrational, but I like to think that if I hear something in a dream that’s really good, then it’s irrational…but it’s not crazy.
BA: Interesting. Are you talking about just ideas for a song, or actual melodic content?
TL: I have dreamed complete instrumentation. I’ve dreamed about performing songs, songs that don’t even exist, as a complete song.
BA: And then woken up and successfully translated? For me, even just describing a dream, a narrative dream, the very act of describing it makes it become something else, and actually destroys the dream in my head. You’re able to translate songs in a way that feels true to the dream performance?
TL: Yeah, not all the time, but sometimes. Most of the time I wind up with a sleepily mumbled melodic line, sometimes with words, sometimes not. But then with my waking brain I have to decide whether it’s worth…I mean, sometimes it’s not worth it.
BA: Sure, the same could be said for a lot of my ideas when I’m awake.
TL: But there have been a couple of times when I have been able to take the whole thing as I heard it and actually plop it into reality. I can tell you two off the top of my head. There’s one on The Brutalist Bricks, “Woke Up Near Chelsea.” I had this dream I was on this windy outdoor stage, like Carly Simon in Nantucket, or whatever that old HBO documentary was, with her hair blowing in the breeze. And I was sitting at this piano pounding out this song, and—
BA: “You’re So Vain”?
TL: It wasn’t “You’re So Vain.” But I—
BA: “But I was making out with Mick Jagger…”
TL: And people keep saying I wrote it about Warren Beatty! [Laughing] But, yeah, that song kind of came out as it is. And there’s “First to Finish, Last to Start.” That also happened that way.
TL: But most of the time it’s a drawn out process. What I usually end up doing is, the inspirational moment will hit me with the germ of a song, and that will lay around however long it takes to work it out. When I get into the moment of actually feeling like I want to write, to finish something, I do what I’ve always read authors do, and park myself at a desk and bang things out for three hours. And if I have to throw it all away, I throw it all away. I put in the hours.
BA: You’ve got to. So, you were talking about the grind of touring and the new Internet economy. How do you define success for yourself, and has it changed?
TL: I mean, I used to think success would be sustainability. Not being behind the eight ball…
BA: Not going into debt to release a record?
TL: Exactly. I remember driving with Chris, who’s played drums with me for years, back in 2000, 2001. And I was going through all these numbers. At the time we were playing mostly as a four-piece band. And I was calculating that if we could, if we could just average a thousand dollars a night we could be completely self-sustaining. That was my goal. That would have been success. Now I really don’t know how to define it other than in non-financial terms, because I don’t think I can measure it that way anymore.
TL: Because I think that the old model, which for me not only lasted but really worked in my favor…the old model of touring, pounding it, releasing records, that’s what you do. You make records, release records, tour to support records…
BA: And then start again.
TL: Start again. I feel like that worked for me until 2005-2006, and then it was literally likes someone flipped a switch. And the idea that someone could sell records and do well on the road, and that both aspects would feed each other, just exploded. People stopped buying records, and everyone started having bands. The touring circuit was flooded. You could be playing the smallest town and be one of ten things going on. I mean, we struggle on because people expect certain things from you, so you try to make it work. But in terms of defining success, I’m not sure it’s possible anymore. I gotta make a living somehow, and make ends meet. I accept the idea of having a retirement. It’s a little late to get into another field, an IRA or something. That’s out the window. It’s really just a matter of making art that hopefully resonates with people.
Photograph of Ben Arthur by Christopher Auger Dominguez.
Photograph of Ted Leo courtesy Ted Leo.