by Interviews

Ted Leo has been a fixture of the punk community for over thirty years, first with bands like Citizen’s Arrest and Chisel, and later with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. In 2000, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists signed with seminal East Bay label Lookout Records and went on to release three critically acclaimed LPs and several EPs on the label. Ted Leo is performing this Sunday on the third installment of the Lookout Zoomout concert series. He chatted with Punknews staffer Tyler Barrett about the occasion and his time on the label.

How are you doin’ [shrugs] I’m doin’ alright.

Yeah I don’t think we can have a discussion in 2021 without having a caveat like, “Well, it’s a pandemic but, ya know, I’m alive.” Yeah exactly.

So…what have you been up to the last 12 months or so? Well…I cancelled three tours, one of which was more or less meant to be my entire income for the year [laughs]. But I did a series of streaming shows from a theater in Providence back in October/November, which was good. It was actually really fun and I’m glad I was able to get my head around doing something like that. Other than I’ve just been holding it down. Spent the first half of the year trying to finish up a bunch of shipping I had to do for a Kickstarter thing from a couple years ago. And trying to stay ahead of some health stuff, given that there’s not really much to do other than sit around and figure out ways to be more fit…I did a lot of that.

How’d you find the remote concerts or Zoom concerts? It’s obviously a different experience. I haven’t done any Zoom concerts [yet] -- the thing that I did was, we set up in a theater and really did a lot of production work to make a different kind of thing.

You had a budget? No, didn’t have any budget…but we made it look like we had a budget. And I was able to pay the people who worked on it with me once the shows were done. We didn’t have any budget for doing it but we were able to put a lot of work in and sort of approach it sort of like an old school variety show where I was playing with a lot of graphics and did a mix of playing solo or playing with backing tracks I’d recorded. And we had guests that we did remote stuff with where they’d send me tracks and I’d finish the music track so that it was a collaborative thing. And then we did either videos of it separately and a friend of mine who was the director would edit it into a piece or else we figured out how to either do me with them in front of a green screen or have them projected. So in the show I was actually playing live with what was a newly recorded version of them. But it was more than me sitting here right now in front of my desk.

It’s been interesting to see the resourcefulness that people have come up with in the pandemic. I don’t necessarily wanna call it a silver lining because…well maybe it is a silver lining. Yeah, that’s an interesting thing. You always have to make the best of a situation and sometimes you definitely come up with things that are really interesting and fun to do. I’m kind of like…when everybody immediately just started jumping in on like, “Hey everybody I’m doing a thousand shows at my desk” the first week that lockdowns were announced I was like…”MMM….that’s not for me.” [laughs] I’m just gonna wait, like, the world has got enough going on. I also felt like all the air for that was just sucked out of the room to a certain degree so I was like, “…whatever.” [laughs] You know? And I’ve got a lot of other work to do and that’s how it’s gonna be. And taking the time to figure out how I really wanted to and be able to present something that I really wanted to under the circumstances was good for me. And also, by the way, just as a caveat, I’m not trying to suggest that all those shows weren’t amazing. Because I’m certainly now…I mean, it’s a year later…but I think I’m now at the point where I’d feel comfortable doing that and I recognize the value of all of that and the intimacy that everyone was offering. I think just for me, and the brain that I had and have, it wasn’t right at that moment. But yeah, long-winded way of saying you hesitate to call it a silver lining when it’s like, bad stuff that forces you into a box. But when you can still figure out ways to be creative within that box, sometimes you can find things that are unexpectedly exciting and fulfilling. And I enjoyed doing that enough that I will probably do more like that whether we go back to venues or not, it was great for me.

Nice. So tell me what you can about the upcoming Lookout Zoomout. It’s a show that a bunch of people who were on Lookout bands are playing hosted by Grant from the Smugglers. He’s been doing a series of these, this is the last one. It’ll be a little bit of chat and a lot of song playing. For me, being able to do this particular show with Dr. Frank from the Mr. T Experience and obviously Penelope Houston from Penelope Houston & the Avengers as well as people from Common Rider, Brent’s T.V. and some real classic Lookout bands…it’s nice. It’s actually closer to the core of playing with those people than when I was actually on the label. [laughs]

[laughs] Yeah, that’s actually what I was wondering about because, was it about 2001 when you joined Lookout with Tyranny of Distance? It would have been, I guess, Tyranny of Distance came out in Spring of 2001 but I would have made the decision to sign up with them in 2000 at some point.

So at that point, the identity of Lookout was kind of established as like East Bay--you know, Op Ivy, Isocracy, Crimpshrine as well as some of the Ramones-influenced bands they had like Screeching Weasel, Queers, Groovie Ghoulies. So was that an easy decision for you to make to join Lookout at that time not really fitting with that mold? And Lookout at the time was kind of starting to branch out but not fully. Um…it was an easy decision for me. The only hard aspect of it was making the decision to leave [former label] Gern Blandsten. Because I had been friends with Charles [Maggio] from Rorschach and Gern Blandsten since we were kids basically. I had, for years, from Chisel through the first solo record that I did, pretty much only done records with him. It was just sort of a…it was a great situation and kind of an unspoken, I guess…”deal” that if I wanted to put out a record he would put it out. It’s so hilarious to think about these things in retrospect, especially since these days I don’t even know if people think twice about signing to a major label or selling their songs to commercials, [now] it seems like the goal. But at the time, just moving from Gern to Lookout was like a couple rungs up the ladder that like, set off a lot of DIY punk world alarm bells for me, in my own brain. And it took some talking and some thinking. But that said, I had been a fan of a lot of Lookout’s stuff since inception. Especially the bands like Crimpshrine. Crimpshrine in particular was a contemporary but big influence on early Chisel. Really classically melodic punk music that wasn’t retro or garage band-stye. Not GarageBand the program, garage band, the genre [laughs]. In one sense that was really cool for me. Op Ivy was another band that was really, really huge for me. Chisel actually covered a couple Op Ivy songs early on. We were very much fans of that stuff. But in terms of where I would fit in, I mean, I think the first record that I made for Lookout is the most anomalous in that Tyranny of Distance probably fits the least in that equation of the three or four records I did with [Lookout]. But, that said, you have to think about--and this is how I thought about it--in terms of myself and everybody who was currently running the label--Chris Appelgren and Molly Newman and everybody--we’re all the same age and I wasn’t interested in continuing to make the same kind of music year after year. I was just alway interested in evolving. I mean, Chisel itself from 1990 to 1997 evolved quite a bit…from covering Crimpshrine and Op Ivy songs [laughs] to being much more kind of orchestrated and 60s-influenced music. The thing is, everybody who was running the label…like anybody who listens to music--I shouldn’t say anybody--but it’s rare that people only listen to one thing. We all go through our phases, our deep dives, or if we only wanna hear one thing for awhile we do that. But nobody--again, I probably shouldn’t say nobody--most people listen to and appreciate a lot of different kinds of music. And having all grown up in the hardcore scene of the 80s, no matter where you come from there there’s always a rounding…I mean, I know this sounds trite and maybe this isn’t true anymore but I have always found that you know when somebody grew up punk and when somebody didn’t. And this isn’t a value judgment of this person or their life, it’s just that you have a shared vocabulary and shared experiences that transcend a lot of need to discuss certain things. And transcend what you may be doing in the current moment. You may meet someone doing something wildly different and you find out they were in hardcore bands in the 80s and it clicks. You’re like, “Oh yeah, I get it.” And I think that’s what we shared. I also understand a lot of people who were Lookout Records fans would argue with me about this but I don’t think there’s a thing that I did during my time period on the label that I wouldn’t classify as punk. And I feel like if the Clash get away with calling half their catalog punk, so can I. [laughs]

Sandinista…. Yeah. It’s about [in fake British accent:] attitude man [laughs]. But it is at a certain point. So while I realize that, especially Tyranny of Distance was a bit of a departure musically for what was going on on the label, it was understandable to everybody who was running the label. Just like it was understandable to me coming out of me. A lot of the references were older stuff that we grew up with or we listened to before we got into hardcore. They understood my progression to the point of making that record. And they appreciated that record for what it was. So it didn’t feel weird to me at all. Because I brought them a record and they weren’t like, “Whoa, we’re not feeling the Winona Ryders influence in this.” [laughs] They were like, “Yeah, we get it.” That’s it.

What was it like when you started to see some red flags and could maybe see the writing on the wall with Lookout when bands started pulling their catalogs. From an artist’s perspective…you left Lookout and went to Touch and Go, then Touch and Go folded. Was that as frustrating as it sounds like it would be? It was. I mean…you say I left Lookout…I didn’t leave Lookout. It fell apart beneath me. I mean, those people were my friends. I enjoyed working with them. I wanted the label to succeed. I will say this, I don’t know and I never really pried into the specifics about what went on with bigger bands pulling their catalogs and whatnot…I kinda know as much as anybody does. But from the inside I will say without meaning to suggest that anybody was acting with ill intent, I think that some bad decisions were being made. I think there was probably some money being thrown around at things that were maybe rolling the dice on certain things happening for a lot like new hipster-y kind of bands. And perhaps, in hindsight--although I do think a lot of people including myself maybe did see it at the time [laughs]--resources could have gone to support the things that were solidly plugging along. It certainly left me in a financially bad state because I had royalties that were lingering and we had to come to an agreement about.

You got the rights back to those Lookout releases? Oh I did yeah, that reverted immediately. That was no problem, but I also got like…a semi-truck came and delivered in lieu of some of those royalties, four or five pallets of mostly CDs which as I’m sure you know by the middle of the 2000s were…well, most of them are still sitting below where I’m talking to you from. Just waiting for the retro CD fad to come back. [laughs]

[laughs] It’ll get there. I read somewhere recently that Shake the Sheets was the last great Lookout release and I was inclined to agree at first but then I realized Sharkbite Sessions actually came out after that. Which is great. The “Six Months in a Leaky Boat” version might be better than the original. [laughs] I will not cop to that. I’m gonna argue with you on that but I appreciate the sentiment.

You’ve covered a lot of different artists. You’ve covered Stiff Little Fingers, you’ve covered Kelly Clarkson. What is it that draws you to record a cover rather than just enjoying a song? What role does royalties to other artists play in that decision? Well just because it’s the shortest part of the answer getting the royalties part out of the way, that part doesn’t factor in at all honestly. The way that works is their publishing and collection rights, they’ll collect for them. Anyone can do a cover of anybody as long as you credit it correctly. You don’t have to buy the song or rights to the song. Whatever money flows from the owner’s side of it will usually accrue to them and they’ll track it down.

I read a conjecture someone had made that you wanted to do a Springsteen cover but weren’t able to due to it having extra royalties. [laughs] [laughs] No. As far as I know, it’s not the case that you have to pay up front to do that. As long as the money on the back end flows correctly to the owners of the rights to it. I have covered, but I guess I haven’t released any Springsteen songs…

That was the reason why they were making that supposition [laughs]. [laughs] No, the reason is probably that that would be too obvious. But to answer the first part of your question, I appreciate your framing of “as opposed to just being a fan of it, wanting to cover it.” Honestly, the answer is just because I’m enough of a fan of it. I am a fan of music and I like singing and playing music and it’s fun to sing other songs you like. I certainly don’t walk around the house singing my own songs. Unless I’m like, actively working on them in my head or thinking about them for some reason or practicing them mentally, I don’t ever sing them. That’s a little weird. I mean, especially since most of the last thirty years, the amount of time I’ve actually spent onstage playing them, it’s not often I’m doing the dishes and wind up whistling “Heart Problems” or something. But I love music and I love other people’s, it’s fun to sing and play them. And it’s fun to do a take on them. Sometimes that take is really correct to the original because like, I don’t wanna mess with it. Sometimes it’s fun to take it to a different place. With “Suspect Device” for example, I think probably back when we were doing that, we probably started doing that around 2002 and we put it on the Sharkbite Sessions in ‘04 or something when that came out [Ed: released in February 2005]. We continued to play it off and on for a couple years after that. Sometimes with me, what I like, when I choose a cover like that that’s more like, out of the canon, you know, out of the songbook that you’d imagine you’d find in a songbook shelf or whatever, it’s sometimes because I’m actually choosing to make something explicit about influence that is not as much out in the offing. Like, I don’t think a lot of people were really talking about Stiff Little Fingers during that time period. They’d kind of fallen into a little bit of a memory hole. I think the same thing about Thin Lizzy when in the late 90s and early 2000s, that was a really big influence on my songwriting, nobody was talking about Thin Lizzy then. Sometimes we’d do a Thin Lizzy song literally to remind people about Thin Lizzy. Like, “This is influencing us, why don’t we just play one of their songs.” With the Kelly Clarkson song, the idea for that is something I’ve done a couple of times, it’s something I don’t really do that much anymore, which is doing something with a little bit of irony. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have genuine appreciation for it. The short but true story behind that is just that back when that came out I had a session for a website that I was supposed to be doing. And I literally woke up in the morning, I saw the video for that on like, VH1 that I just happened to be like, switching past. And I just thought it was a great pop song. It was a great hook. I also immediately understood so much about it. How it was a like, Jet Propulsion Lab-created amalgam of current trends and radio indie rock given to this person you wouldn’t expect singing a song like that in Kelly Clarkson. But she was great for it. And I both thought it would be funny for me to do but also sometimes with a song like that if someone you don’t expect to hear sing it sings it, it can reveal something else about the song. Basically, yes I was doing it ironically, yes I saw the humor in doing it but also I was trying to illustrate that I appreciate what a great piece of pop craftsmanship it was. And I actually enjoyed it and enjoy singing it.

Can you talk about what, if anything, you have planned after the Lookout Zoomout? Yeah…umm…not much. [laughs] I still am trying to scrape together some money to finish the last bits of things that I owe people before I can move on and do anything else. But I do have some things planned. I have kind of a backlog of songs that I’m working on remixing. I don’t have a label right now so maybe I’ll put it out myself, I don’t know what I’ll do. I can maybe break a minor bit of news that I’m gonna do a live Pharmacists record.

Nice. A couple years ago, in 2018, well this relates to Lookout so I guess I can say it. We did a Hearts of Oak 15th anniversary tour where we were doing two nights in every city and one night would be Hearts of Oak in its entirety and the other night would be more of a normal show. And in San Francisco somebody generously offered to bring their mobile 24-track rig down and record us. And they did. And I was definitely fighting a sinus infection then and my voice was not in the best shape and in my memory I was like, “Ugh, great, this is the night that we get it recorded.” And he sent me the files and literally I was like, “I can’t even…I’m gonna be so bummed if I listen to this, I can’t.” And I put it aside. And then, I don’t even really remember why, maybe it was just curiosity but a few months ago I was like, “Boy, I should listen to it and see if there’s something usable.” And it’s great. It’s actually got my whole 6-piece band, which like, there’s no recording of that. Because the last record I did all myself, with Chris Wilson, the drummer, drums on most of it but not even all of it. And then we sort of expanded the band and had been touring for the last few years with this band that I love and it’s not recorded anywhere. So this is a way that I can a) put something with the full band out into the world and b) hopefully, because they’re all affected by the pandemic, as well, can hopefully earn them two dollars [laughs], you know. More than Spotify is earning them. So yeah, I don’t know, maybe that will just go up on Bandcamp, but that’s something I’m working on.

Do you have a target date for that or anything? Not really, it’s kind of already a little overdue. I was hoping to have it maybe done in time for the end of last year but I don’t really feel like I can really do anything new until I sort of clear my decks of some older stuff I’m still working on. But it’ll be soon, it’ll be very soon.