Complacency doesn't suit Ted Leo. Shaped by the D.C. and N.Y. punk circles, it comes as no surprise that he makes little distinction between musician and fan. He's a genuine populist, and his music plays out like a combination of the poetic protests of Billy Bragg, the taut intensity of Fugazi and the rock majesty of Thin Lizzy. His band, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, has built a ferocious live reputation, and though he's lost members along the way, he shows little sign of stopping his torturous touring schedule.
More than most musicians, Leo's reputation as being politically outspoken precedes him. The difference between Leo's opinions and the ramblings of say, Kanye West, is that Leo has the smarts and verbal conviction to back them up.
Some call it punk, but Leo is understandably cautious of labels.
“It's really hard to define what it is; it's a lot easier to define it against what it's not,” he says. “In the most general sense, it's about: a) not being afraid to speak what you consider to be truths to those in power and b) a healthy cynicism toward the proffered fruits that the engagement with mass culture purports to offer.”
Not exactly the inarticulate PSA-style sentiments of the latest Chris Martin cause.
“What makes [punk] vibrant and interesting is this constant frisson between socialist-community idealism and a libertarian, anarchic, self-determining idealism. I know how it guides me, but I don't think punk with a capital P is important enough to define that in a way that would impose my outline on other people.”
When asked about the concept behind the recent download-only EP Rapid Response, Leo can barely contain his disgust for the events that inspired its release. Outraged by the police-incited violence at this year's Republican National Convention in Minnesota, Leo and the band decided that a musical response was not only appropriate, but necessary.
“There seems to be this massive cultural shift that enables the worst, most suspicious and most violent instincts in the powers that be,” he reflects. “This time, I just got furious.”
In particular, Leo was irate at the way journalists were manhandled by security.
“They've got credentials that allow them to stand next to John McCain if they want to, and they're being beaten up by the police, with no regard for who they are or what they're there for.”
The four-song EP can be purchased for $4 from the Touch and Go Records website. Proceeds benefit Food Not Bombs, which serves free vegetarian and vegan food culled from grocery-store surpluses, along with Democracy Now!, a syndicated news program whose main anchor, Amy Goodman, was arrested at the RNC. Pulling off a benefit EP on such short notice may have been hard in the past, but the Internet provided an efficient medium for mainlining music to the masses. On the other hand, Leo recognizes that these advances are slightly offset by the effect the Internet has had on music-industry profits.
“There's no question that I'm flat broke this year, and I wasn't two years ago. It's not even a double-edged sword; it's just two issues that happen to be centered on a particular technology,” he says.
While he's never been the type to be deterred by lack of funds, he sometimes fantasizes about plotting his escape.
When discussing cult crust-punk band Amebix, it's clear that he shares his predecessors' disregard for convention.“They didn't fit into any scene, in any way. Eventually one of the guys in the band ended up living on an island off Scotland, and he makes ceremonial swords! It's just one of those things—not in the sense of completely checking out, but I could see that happening to me eventually. Just throwing my hands up and saying, ‘Fuck this. I'm gonna go make swords on an island.'”
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists were scheduled to play Oct. 30 at The Casbah, but the show's been canceled. www.tedleo.com.