By Scott Timberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
February 18, 2011
When indie rocker Ted Leo comes to Los Angeles, he and his taut band the Pharmacists typically head to clubs like the El Rey and the Troubadour, where they played a packed, high-energy show last March that included a killer cover of the Waterboys' 1988 song "Fisherman's Blues."
Leo — a tall, lean vegan who performs as if he's been plugged directly into the wall socket — returns over the weekend, but he'll be flying solo, hauling his amp onto stages at the Mondrian Hotel (Saturday), Eagle Rock's Center for the Arts (Sunday) and The Barn at UC Riverside (Wednesday). Later in the tour, still without a backing band, he'll play Scranton, Penn., and Hamden, Conn., as well as Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum.
Career suicide? Actually, for Leo — a musician who channels the focused drive of the early Clash and other punk acts with the precise, melodic songwriting of the mid-'60s Kinks — it's a way to keep himself alive.
"It's important for me as a human being, just to get out alone and clear my head," Leo, 40, says from his home in New York City. "And as an artist, it's important to get out there free of the constraints, of the various hamster wheels, to play my songs stripped down, in the kind of venues that were more common on touring maps in the '80s and '90s. And help me re-contextualize."
Leo typically does a few weeks of solo shows each year, but this tour of almost three months is both his biggest in some time and his first solo gigs on the West Coast, he says, since 2003.
For a musician whose sound is often about ripping away excess, it's fitting that part of what he's excited about is something the tour will not include — which is pressure to play new material. Leo's last record, "The Brutalist Bricks," came out on Matador almost a year ago. "Revisiting my old catalog allows me to reassess," he says, "to figure out where my strengths and weaknesses are."
Leo is in a curious and self-critical period right now — both going back to his roots as a solo musician and taking stock of his future. By phone he's intelligent, kind and a bit self-conscious, displaying none of the brashness that sometimes inspires political rants from the stage or leads him to scold crowds calling out requests.
At least since his leadership of Washington, D.C., mod-punk trio Chisel, in the mid-'90s, Leo's name has been associated with both integrity and consistency. With Leo's music you get things that don't always go together — tuneful songwriting, rhythmic force, political commitment and no-frills production. And he mixes musical styles — Irish rebel songs, reggae and dub, British punk — that have little in common besides their dedication to social protest.
Gerard Cosloy, co-head of Leo's label, Matador, argues that Leo is far more approachable than his reputation as a lefty DIY hero might suggest.
"For a lot of people who grew up with classic punk and new wave songwriting — Elvis Costello, Graham Parker — there are things he does that are instantly familiar. And the more you dig into it, not only do you realize he's as good as them, but you wonder what he's gonna do next. He's a master of many different styles."
Whatever styles Leo explores in any given song, he's got an unmatched ability to keep a melody unspooling long after it seems like it should have resolved. It's something he works hard at, he says, and that comes mostly from pre-rock song craft.
"The wells I go to tend to be Celtic music," says Leo, who is part Irish, "and the American folk and country music inspired by it. Lines one and two will come to a resolution, and you'd expect lines three and four to resolve on the same couplet. But instead a minor chord will show up. Side by side with that is the way '60s and '70s soul singers incorporated longer melodic passages."
Smart songwriting and thrilling live shows, though, haven't been enough to keep his career stable. Because of financial troubles at his earlier label homes, Lookout and Touch and Go, Leo's last three albums have been on different labels: Each label shift, he says, cost him about a year of productivity.
Similarly, the first half of the solo tour was postponed after Leo tweeted a few weeks ago that he was "in the midst of a very bad time." His label is calling it a "personal family health issue"; some speculate that it was Leo's own feelings of disorientation that caused him to retrench.
What's next for Leo? At this point, even he doesn't know. "The last two years feel very transitional to me," he says. "For the next couple of years, I have to figure out what it's a transition to."
Midcareer and veteran musicians — especially those from the ever-growing category of artists who need to tour incessantly for financial reasons — typically go through phases where they tire of the road. Some of them never snap out of it and retreat permanently. But few give off Leo's love of the stage.
"I'm 25 years of being in bands and almost 20 years into it as a full-time thing," says Leo, who married in 2004. "I'm very conflicted about it, and I have a very manic life. Half the time there's nowhere I'd rather be than on tour — even the grinding, the degradation, the being in the van all the time. And half the time, there's nothing I'd like more than to be home long enough to establish the simplest of domestic patterns."
Says Cosloy: "For anyone who's been around as long as he has, it's natural if you're a real artist that you come to a crossroads where you have to figure out your stylistic direction and how your music fits into the styles around you. And the marketplace is a very different place these days — a much more a la carte environment. He's dealing with very different attention spans in 2011 than in 2000."
Compared to one of the musicians he most resembles — Paul Weller of the Jam, known in the U.K. as "the changingman" for his many successful musical leaps — Leo has remained stylistically stable. It may be that Leo's emphasis on integrity makes it difficult to budge.
It's hard not to wish, at least in part, that Leo will stay in place: At this point, he's got one of the strongest collections of songs — funny, biting, tuneful, muscular — of anyone on the indie circuit.
Some bad mojo aside, Leo is fired up about the shows. "It's not just, new album — big tour. No, it's: I have these songs, and I want to play them."
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