Ted Leo’s big breakthrough came at the turn of the century, right around the time everybody started saying that both the music biz and the electric guitar were dead.
He proved both ideas wrong at once, emerging with a new wave of indie artists who inspired reverent fandom by touring incessantly, keeping costs low, being smart about the still-coltish internet, and, lest one neglect to mention the important bit, by being an absolutely thrilling performer.
Between 2001 and 2004, Leo made a succession of dazzling records with a direct connection to the feel of the Jam, the Clash, and the Specials (associations he’s likely tired of seeing, but then, I’m not the one who wrote a song called “Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone”)—but with a far more direct connection to the emotional reality of a suburban Yank enthralled by that music and desperate to both live in it and live up to it.
That same process seemed to happen between Leo and his audience, whose penchant for early adoption of social media translated to their enthusiasm for him and the nascent 21st century indie rock renaissance. Leo and his band the Pharmacists were one of a small fraternity of GW Bush-era groups—the Hold Steady, New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, and the Decemberists also leap to mind—who constituted a short-lived but exciting lower-middle class of working bands.
Absent the traditional marketing accoutrements available to bands on major labels, they found they could not merely squeak by but really thrive via direct interaction with their fans (who, in classic indie style, were energized in part by having been on board before everyone else).
Flash forward about a decade and some of the most prominent bands of that era—whose songs were more likely to be heard on an iPod Nano or a MySpace profile than on a radio or in a TV commercial—went on to sign with major labels (still not dead, as it happens), and in many cases did well. Several others disbanded and are now seeing how it feels to reunite.
Leo never went away, though the utopian moment of the early ’00s did. Though his tempos remain fast, his pace has slowed. A lot happened during the seven-year gap between The Brutalist Bricks (2010) and his brand new, powerfully excellent LP The Hanged Man (2017), both good and ill. On the plus side: He made a duo record and toured a lot with Aimee Mann as the Both.
On the minus side: Money became a lot scarcer for everyone, Donald Trump et cetera, and the world of independent music transformed from a magic secret garden into an infini-verse in which everyone is always releasing 500 triple albums every minute and you have to book a tour a year in advance.
Closer to home, Leo had label and money troubles, as many artists do. More significantly, his wife Jodi came down with a rare and life-threatening illness that required constant attention from both of them. (According to Stereogum’s very revealing profile of Leo, she’s healthy now, but it was a very arduous process getting there.)
Which brings us to The Hanged Man, which Leo funded through Kickstarter and worked on for many years. You can hear the care, but you can also hear the abandon, the urgency, the necessity of remaining plugged in to the essential thralldom to the intersection of early-middle punk, power pop, and classic rock. It’s a bracing record, familiar and singular, catchy as hell and expansively emotional.
But, as with any other music that anyone releases in 2017, I always wonder whether the artist ever thinks, “Should I even bother releasing this?” I ask Leo if he ever asked that question.
“I look around and I see how much music is released every day,” he says. “I see what people react positively to and strongly to, and I certainly ask myself many, many times, ‘Does anybody need this from me? Does anybody?’”
Along with the Kickstarter campaign’s resounding success, Leo also discovered something more immediate, even primal: In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the dream of making music that means something to people is still very much alive in him.
“As realistic and as circumspect as I think I am being,” he says, “I’d be lying if I said that deep inside of me that dream isn’t still trying to scrap it out, and make something grander happen.”
“I think to put something out in a way that still gives a nod to the idea that we’re all—how can I put this? That we’re all in this together, working toward that dream,” Leo says. “I think that the audience actually appreciates that as well. Maybe it’s wrong for all of us, audience and artist, to keep clinging to this dream. But if the audience is there, you might as well show up.”