Only a college kid could come up with the particular cocktail of bratty defiance and sophomore-level lit-geekery that defines Titus Andronicus' first album, The Airing of Grievances. On the one hand you have the New Jersey band's name, taken from a somewhat obscure early Shakespeare play, and on the other hand you've got an album title drawn from the Festivus episode of Seinfeld. The songs mingle expletive-filled shouted gang chants and Pogues-ish pub punk with references to Albert Camus, the Bible, and W.H. Auden. The album's first track, "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ," starts off with a crowd roaring "F--k you!" and ends with singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles reciting a monologue from Titus Andronicus the play. This is what happens when late adolescence collides with a liberal-arts education.
"When I was reading Shakespeare in school and we read Titus Andronicus, I thought, ‘Wouldn't that be a great name for a band?'" Stickles says. "And it turns out it was. I think most bored kids who play guitar spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking up good band names."
For all its obvious undergraduate sensibility, though, The Airing of Grievances is an exuberant and refreshing debut. Stickles was in college when he wrote these songs, after all, and the band's collective energy and unchecked enthusiasm make for a ragged, rambunctious, unashamedly emotional album. On top of that, the classic rock arrangements, horns, and generally heartfelt execution establish Titus Andronicus—Stickles, guitarist Pete Feigenbaum, bassist Ian Graetzer, and drummer Eric Harm—as a band proudly unconcerned with most contemporary trends in indie rock. (If there are comparisons to be made, the band would land somewhere near the spot where the Hold Steady, Bright Eyes, and the Felice Brothers converge.)
"It was just a bunch of green, untrained college students hanging out in a barn for four days trying to do too much," Stickles says of the recording. "Our ambitions wildly outpaced our abilities. We reckoned nobody would ever hear it and it would be the only record we'd ever make. We made a conscious effort to include as many of our buddies as we could. We wanted it to be a definitive statement on behalf of our friend community. We were young and naive. Like the Bob Seger song, we were runnin' against the wind."
Given both the communal nature of the recording and the fact that band members were still in college or recent graduates when The Airing of Grievances was originally released in April 2008, it's no surprise that Stickles has had a hard time keeping the line-up stable during a year and a half of nearly non-stop touring. The scale of the rotation is a surprise, though—Titus Andronicus has gone through 12 or 13 full-time members since forming in 2005, and Feigenbaum is the fourth guitarist since recording Grievances.
"I'd love to be able to have a real band and not this revolving door," Stickles says. "This life's not for everybody. But when we're out on tour I see all these other bands that have been together so long, and I think, ‘Why can't I find just one more guy like that?'"
Things have settled down enough with Feigenbaum that the band spent most of August recording the follow-up to The Airing of Grievances. The new album's due out in March, but Stickles is glad to have new material now after such a long period on the road supporting the debut. After Grievances was initially released on the tiny Troubleman Unlimited label, a strong review from online tastemaker Pitchfork led indie giant XL to reissue the disc in January. But Stickles still resists the notion that his band got made by the Pitchfork review—and the idea of Internet buzz in general.
"We've been on kind of an upward trajectory," he says. "We haven't seen crowds get smaller, certainly. But it's a baby-step process. We're growing incrementally. When we go back to places, either bigger cities or smaller towns where we had a good show, it seems like we've picked up a little more goodwill in our absence. We're getting there, but it's slower than I imagined. For all the people who might think we're Internet darlings, we're not. We're a humble small business."