When I ask Patrick Stickles of the punk rock band Titus Andronicus what or who inspired the big sound of their new album, The Will to Live, he gives me a very unexpected answer: Mutt Lange. Yes, the super producer who put his trademark gloss on a series of landmark rock and pop albums, including AC/DC’s Back in Black, Shania Twain’s Come on Over, the Cars’ Heartbeat City and Def Leppard’s Hysteria, among others.
“Bands that worked with him seemed to get into a certain mood,” Stickles says from his New York City home after an extensive tour of the United Kingdom. “[Bands] try and create the biggest and best version of their particular sound in an immodest way and try to saturate the sonic picture as much as possible with the very densely arranged backing vocals and all of the dozens of different guitar tracks and the subtle use of synthesizers to beef things up and put a nice sheen on everything.”
Since their first album, 2008’s The Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus has been a shambolic rock band with frequent heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics. Yet, Stickles, the band’s frontman and sole constant member, has never shied away from big, ambitious musical statements. He says The Will to Live embodies a concept he calls “ultimate rock” and defines it as “the biggest and boldest version of whatever music.”
It sounds as if every space on the album is stuffed full of sonic flourishes. On The Will to Live, that means a dense sound full of backing vocalists, frequently erupting guitar solos, stadium drums, piano and saxophone. The record begins with “My Mother is Going to Kill Me,” a rock instrumental that would have not been played on any FM radio rock station back in the day. There are also some nods to Nirvana’s “Territorial Pissings” on “Dead Meat” and a cover of English punk band Cock Sparrer’s “We’re Coming Back.”
“On one level, the inclusion of that particular song lets us keep one foot in the world of traditional punk rock while also expanding it to the more grandiose, celestial sounds,” Stickles explains.
Besides Mutt Lange and his production techniques, another effect on the album was the death of Stickles’ close friend and cousin Matt Miller in 2021. The surprisingly buoyant “Give Me Grief” was inspired by Miller’s demise. “It’s a musical representation of the sort of emotional, fraught, intellectual processes I had to go through to deal with his passing, which was painful,” Stickles says.
There are references to god and the devil, including a struggle between those forces in the seven-minute-plus “An Anomaly.” When I ask Stickles about the song’s dive into religion, he offers a disclaimer: “The record is definitely not intended as religious propaganda by any means, Christian or otherwise,” he says and then explains that it’s symbolic.
It’s impossible to write about Titus Andronicus without mentioning their 2010 opus, The Monitor. The ambitious concept album combines Civil War allusions and young adult angst under a sometimes dark cloud representative of Stickles’ New Jersey roots intertwined with anthemic rock. Though they’ve made seven albums, it’s the record of their career and their most popular and critically acclaimed.
Stickles admits that he has bristled at music writers and others who have focused on The Monitor at the expense of his other albums. “When I was a younger and grumpier guy, it often did feel like an albatross around my neck because inevitably anything that the band put out would be compared to that and not so favorably,” he says.
At this point in his life, Stickles has come to accept the benefits of that record.
“I have to have a certain level of gratitude for that record and the younger version of myself who made it because it sets us up for the long career we have enjoyed,” he says.
Meanwhile, this is one of those shows where the opener, the Country Westerns, should not be missed. The Nashville trio plays gritty and literate rock with a country twang that recalls both the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young’s work with Crazy Horse. The group’s drummer, Brian Kotzur, was a member of Silver Jews, and Silver Jews’ mastermind, the late great David Berman, was an early advocate.
The Country Westerns’ 2020 self-titled debut features a batch of rough and ready songs that beg to be heard in a live setting. Their upcoming second album, Forgive the City, was produced by Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan, the Superwolf projects with Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and comes out on April 23. Stickles is also a fan.
“They are a joy to be around and a real infusion of positive energy in the touring company,” he says. “And they make great tunes.”
Titus Andronicus and the Country Westerns perform Thursday, March 16, at 9pm. $20 plus fees. The Catalyst, 1101 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. catalystclub.com