Ted Leo is the new Bruce Springsteen.
No disrespect to The Boss. Spring-steen's still on fire and holds the key, but what Bruce was to the arena rock, faux-glamour, and mind-numbing excess that dragged down the 1970s—a shot in the dark—that's what Leo is now. Thirty-two years removed from Born to Run, the current rock music world has once more devolved into a sad, sorry affair. It's 1975 all over again. Yet this time around, "the formula" has been distilled, quickened, perfected. Retro-shtick, $45 haircuts, quasi-plagiarism, mass media fawning, and a general lowering of the bar results in buzz, which in turn results in a quick break, money in the bank, a two-record-long career, and one big, bad burnout.
"It's a nasty business," says Leo. "I'm struggling with it right now. It's, like, when's it ever enough? When does it stop? When can you rest? But I haven't changed. I'm still doing the same things I've always done."
What Leo, 36, has done is fight the good fight, the only fight. In the game since 1989, Leo's musical career has followed a path that few—if any—are allowed today: a slow, long build. In fact, Leo had been part of two bands and fronted the still-underrated Chisel for three LPs before he ever released his first record with the Pharmacists—and that one tanked.
"People hated it," says Leo, laughing. "Any fans I had after Chisel, I immediately lost." Leo finally found his voice on 2001's Tyranny of Distance, a bold, brilliant, hyper-melodic blend of '60s British pop, Curtis Mayfield, late-'70s punk, and the '90s Dischord scene that rattled those it reached. But it didn't reach many.
So Leo and the Pharmacists hit the road. And then they never really left it. Two-month-long cross-country treks in a van with New Jersey plates became the norm for Leo from 2001 to 2004. And as he delivered on stage nightly like a mad preacher, the door count slowly climbed.
"Man, I loved that time," says Leo. "It was about as real as it gets. And, you know, it definitely took its toll on me and my guys. But I don't think I would have had it any other way."
The preaching paid off. Leo slowly created converts. And with good reason. There are few better sights in rock today than watching a sweaty, charged Leo knock out one of his expertly written, tightly wound songs, while the Pharmacists (drums: Chris Wilson, bass: Dave Lerner, second guitar: James Canty) pummel away behind him. This said, it's not as if Leo is speaking to the masses. A two-night run at the Bowery in NYC is his Giants Stadium. There is no glory in being the new Springsteen. There is no end. Leo will never "make it." And he knows it. Four straight months of press and promotion for his most recent LP, Living with the Living (Touch & Go), only resulted in a debut on the Billboard charts at #106—not exactly the signal of a new era.
Leo even sounds tired of the constant upkeep his small-world fame requires. But he's also defiant. "I always come back to the songs," he says. "They give me life. I'd still be doing this if I were playing my guitar to a few people on my front porch."