Titus Andronicus, playing Tuesday, borrows creatively

Posted: October 20, 2012

Titus Andronicus' Patrick Stickles has no qualms about borrowing from the past. Over the course of three albums, his band, originally from Glen Rock, N.J., has combined punk-rock brio with historical, literary, and philosophical allusions.

On 2010's The Monitor, Titus Andronicus conflated Civil War references and Abraham Lincoln quotations with the saga of a modern-day young adult in the middle of an existential crisis. On "In a Big City" from the album Local Business, which comes out Monday, a day before the band plays the First Unitarian Church, Stickles drops a line from Hamlet's "to be or not to be" soliloquy into a song that blatantly alludes to the '80s hit "In a Big Country."

"It's all part of the ongoing conversation, the great dialogue that is art," he says. "What is it about art, that good artists borrow and great artists steal? If that's true, then we're one of the greatest."

That's not saying that Titus Andronicus, whose name comes from one of Shakespeare's bloodiest plays, lacks originality. Stickles, 27, writes word-dense, thoughtful songs that are working-class punk-rock anthems. Local Business, while still dense with buzzing guitars and growling vocals, is more direct and stripped-down than The Monitor. While it avoids grand, unifying narratives, songs such as "Ecce Homo" and "Still Life With Hot Deuce on Silver Platter" overtly address issues of existential self-determination and empowerment.

Stickles' punk rock models include the Sex Pistols, Rancid, and Crass, but Local Business reaches back to the early to mid-'70s for some of its sources, to glam-rock bands like Slade and the New York Dolls, which provided the model for the rollicking "Food Fight!"

"I pretty much lifted that one directly from them note-for-note; no shame in my game about that one," Stickles says. "We're going a little bit glammier than we have in the past. It got me in a little bit of trouble with the record company, in fact. There were some unfavorable comparisons to Elton John's 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting' that I had to defend. I'm a big Elton John fan myself, but he doesn't have that many champions at our record company, I guess."

While the powers at XL Recordings might have questioned the slightest hint of Elton John amid the burly punk riffs, Stickles finds freedom in drawing on a large library of sources. That's how "In a Big City," a song about moving across the river from Jersey to Brooklyn, can find a common ground between Big Country and Shakespeare.

"I guess it's just saying that it's a wide world of ideas, and you can draw inspiration from any era," Stickles says. "It's going back to existentialism: You decide what's valid for you, personally, and even though sometimes we think about punk as a narrow-minded thing, to me it's more empowering to have greater freedom to draw from a broader set of sources. It's all part of the dialogue, part of the continuum of ideas: Shakespeare, 'Big Country,' and whomever."

Titus Andronicus and Ceremony play at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. Tickets: $15. Information: 215-821-7575, www.r5productions.com.

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