- Ted Leo (center) goes nowhere without his two pharmacists.
Ted Leo is often compared to Joe Strummer, the Jam, and Billy Bragg. He shares with the Jam a stripped-down power-trio lineup, occasionally augmented with keyboards and second guitar. Like Bragg, he often writes righteous, left-of-center lyrics. And so did Strummer, with whom Leo shares a penchant for Jamaican music.
What's most interesting -- to me anyway -- about all of Leo's likenesses is that none of them are Americans. Leo looks, sings, and plays more like the aforementioned Brits than he does fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. His blog reveals him to be an ardent soccer fan, and he sports an Irish soccer jersey on the cover of his 2004 album Hearts of Oak.
That same album includes a lament, titled "Where Have All the Rude Boys Gone?" about the rise and fall of the two-tone ska movement in the 1970s. It sounds like it was written by a native of the British Midlands, not somebody from Bloomfield, New Jersey.
Living With the Living, Leo's latest, has a song about hanging out on the banks of the River Clyde in Scotland, drinking a legendarily potent tonic wine called Buckie, a Celtic analogue of MD 20/20.
So what gives? Is Leo a shameless Europhile, or just a product of a uniquely Europeanized section of America? Does he feel more or less American than the people he meets in the South and elsewhere in the "red states"?
"I have two very different perceptions of the South and Middle America," he says, speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Florida. "Traveling in the punk/indie ghetto, I meet people all the time who are of like mind, and I get their perspective on, say, central Florida or Houston or whatever. So in some ways, my perspective is that the South is just this hotter, slower version of Rhode Island. But then I have to recognize that I don't have the broader perspective on day-to-day life that I do for up here. For the South, I can only get that from the media version of events. And in that sense, I do see that there are differences."
Although Leo speaks like the Notre Dame English lit grad that he is, he's just warming to the subject. "As for the Northeast relating to Europe, I think that it's because well into the middle of the 20th century, New York and Boston were such hubs of European immigration, especially for Italians and Irish. And well into the late 20th century, Italians were still dealing with discrimination from the WASP-y ascendancy. My own father is Italian, and he used to get beat up on the basketball court and called 'meatball.'
"So I think there were and still are a lot of people up here who grew up knowing that they were from somewhere else. So there was this kind of immigrant culture, even among the majority of white people, that was still strong and present in their lives. So because of that there might be more of a kind of conscious connection with the Old World."
Bloomfield is just west of New York City and just north of Newark. Leo says that growing up there, he was always oriented eastward -- not just to New York, but beyond. "I didn't know shit about what was happening on any given day in Philadelphia, even though it was only an hour and a half away. We were all focused directionally upward and outward -- up the coast, and even all the way back to Europe."
Maybe it's his Old World outlook, or maybe it's just his age, but Leo stands apart from many rockers today who rush their music headlong from verse to chorus and back again. The songs on Living With the Living move at their own pace, arrive at their choruses at their leisure, and fade out gracefully.
"I think it's natural that younger people that have grown up in a music world that is more single driven and flash-in-the-pan would have those impulses to do things like rush to choruses quicker," he says. "For me, it's an ongoing, learning-about-songwriting process. Going back to Hearts of Oak, I think there are some songs on there that I could have tightened up. I could have not allowed myself to enjoy sitting on a riff for that extra four measures. So I took that idea going into the next record, Shake the Sheets, and actually did try to tighten them up, and see if I could achieve that same impact with a much tighter song structure."
Leo says he felt pretty good about the way Shake the Sheets turned out. Looking back on it, though, led him to decide that conciseness could be sacrificed for spontaneity this time around. "On Living With the Living, I just kind of wanted to let things unfold as they would. So 'Colleen' and 'World Stops Turning' -- those are really tight pop songs, where you get to the chorus fast. But a song like 'Sons of Cain' -- it's really like one riff that just builds and builds. So I guess I did make a sort of conscious decision to, like, go with the flow."
And then there's "Who Do You Love?," with a lovely, almost "Layla"-like two-guitar punk fade-out. "The main body of that song is kind of quick and tight, a Clash-y pop-punk song," Leo says. "But then I do enjoy those 'ride-you-off-into-the-sunset' moments, so it was like I could have ended it at one point. But it was like, 'Nah, let's ride it off into the sunset instead.'"