Patrick Stickles lives an examined life.
It’s easy to engage the loquacious Titus Andronicus frontman about his art. Any offhand question prompts an eager, considered discussion, one that typically finds its way to punk ethics and 20th Century French philosophy. That’s why critics have spent gallons of ink trying to dissect Titus Andronicus’s totally unexpected new record, A Productive Cough.
Released via Merge Records on March 2, A Productive Cough is bafflingly out of the box for a Titus Andronicus record. Gone are the heart-swelling eruptions and burn-it-down riot songs of The Monitor and A Most Lamentable Tragedy. In their place are seven barroom shanties running nearly an hour.
While critics and music fans have scrambled to understand the transition (Pitchfork called the record a “fundamental recalibration of the band’s sound” before dismissing it as “an undertaking”), Stickles is at peace with the transition.
“I have to ultimately follow my own artistic compass,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of different things over the course of the career, and this is just a moment in time when we’re just focusing on this one particular element of the Titus Andronicus sound.”
A Productive Cough is an exercise in distillation. By stripping away the trappings that fans so readily identify with his band, Stickles is hoping to isolate some essential Titus Andronicus element at the bottom. It was an open invitation to anyone that wanted to share in it. There wasn’t a lot of homework to do before you could get something out of it.
Stickles has referred to A Productive Cough as a “reverse Bob Dylan.” Where Dylan defied his legacy by plugging in an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Stickles is raising outrage for turning the down the distortion. He goes so far as to nod to this moment on his quasi-cover of “(I’m Like) a Rolling Stone,” where Stickles flips the Dylan classic to his own perspective.
This change in tone necessitated a change in how the record is toured. On Saturday, Stickles and pianist Alex Molini will come through the Turf Club on what’s being misleadingly described as a Titus Andronicus acoustic set.
“‘Acoustic’ was just about the closest term I could find to explain what I’m doing, there’s not even gonna be an acoustic instrument up there,” Stickles says. “You can communicate intensity of emotion without resorting to using extreme volume and nonstop screaming. I will still scream a little bit, because that’s pretty much the only way I know how to sing, but I’m not gonna try to go up there and fall asleep or anything. I’m not gonna sit on a stool. I’ll be in it. I’ve got my electric guitar, I’ve got a bunch of amps, and I’ve got some heavy feelings I want to share.”
Communication has become the credo for Stickles. He’s taken notes from Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and, you guessed it, Bob Dylan and written a collection of songs that invite people to hear his message. Though album opener “Number One (In New York)” still poses as a classic change-of-pace Titus Andronicus waltz, the record follows up with the song that most engenders Stickles’s endeavor to strip away the noise.
On “Real Talk,” Stickles sings in a leading refrain, inviting listeners to join in as he damns the world for being so cruel. On the chorus, Stickles sings, “If tonight’s as tough as the last couple months, we’re in for a real bad year,” the gang vocals swelling with every iteration.
“Whether we’re talking about being depressed or the world just being a cruel place, we just try to sing about that in an uplifting way,” Stickles explains. “Not to sugarcoat it, but just to externalize it in a more triumphant way that can hopefully fortify the soul. When you get the people together, and they’re singing along, there’s a sharing of strength that happens there.”
Instead of galvanizing, Stickles is universalizing. There is no us vs. them, only us. You reflexively holler along until you agree with what’s being sung.
Stickles’s co-pilot on this journey through communication is pianist Alex Molini, who was introduced to Stickles after the singer was whining to Titus Andronicus bassist R.J. Gordon that he didn’t know any pianists. Gordon gave him Molini’s number, and Stickles contacted him under the guise of wanting piano lessons.
“I came up with a tricky plan to check him out,” Stickles says. He invited Molini to his studio for a lesson, and Stickles suggested they play a quick jam. “It felt really good for me, so then I had to come clean. I was like, ‘Hey, look, Molini, I don’t really need lessons. What I really need is a guy to come with me to the recording studio and lay down some piano tracks on this album.’”
The experience recording A Productive Cough turned into what Stickles calls “rewarding artistic connection,” and after some negotiation, Molini agreed to join his newfound collaborator on stage. On Saturday, it’ll be the two of them, a guitar, a keyboard, and the audience. Gordon and the other Titus Andronicus players will be back on the East Coast, awaiting the next chapter of noise and revolt, which Stickles readily admits is coming.
“I still love playing with a loud rock band, and I will again,” Stickles says. “This is just a different approach to achieving, hopefully, the same result.”
With: Rick McGuire from Pile
Where: Turf Club
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Mar. 17
Tickets: $15; more info here