Sunday, August 14, 2005

Ted Leo story - Newport Mercury 6/22/05 - full text

Ted's turn


"Holy crap, it's Ted Leo!"

That's how 21-year-old University of Rhode Island student Meg Bickford reacted when she thought she saw the front man of Ted Leo and The Pharmacists enter Wakefield Liquors last January. Bickford, who was working at the store, wanted to be sure, so she checked the New Jersey driver's license of the man buying a six-pack of Hoegarten and a bottle of wine at the checkout counter. Sure enough it was him.

"My heart was pounding," said Bickford, whose older sister Susie had turned her on to the Pharmacists and taken her to New York to see the band at the Bowery Ballroom a month earlier. "He was super nice, friendly, and he talked to me for about 10 minutes, just small talk. I couldn't wait to get home and call my sister."

Leo sightings should be no surprise now that the 34-year-old singer and guitarist of the tuneful rock outfit is officially living in Wakefield after getting married last year to longtime girlfriend Jodi Buonanno, a Rhode Island native who has her own full plate of artistic and musical endeavors. A Bloomfield, N.J., native who spent most of the last 15 years living in Washington, D.C., and Boston, Leo's new home is the Narragansett Grange Hall, which Buonanno and a friend bought in the late 1990s and converted into a residential workspace for artists.

"Construction-wise, we're still working on it, but it's been livable and usable for years," Leo said. "Part of the idea behind the place was to have living and working space and invite an artist-in-residence to come and live and be able to do their thing on the cheap for a period of time. Unfortunately, my moving in has also meant that there's not a lot space for another person right now, but we're trying to figure out how we can make that happen again soon."

Beyond college radio

While Leo may be settling down in his personal life, the same can hardly be said for his band, which remains a full-time job replete with writing, recording, and aggressive touring. Mainstream critical acclaim for the band has expanded their popularity beyond college radio darling status - they logged a second live guest appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in February. Touring on the steam of their latest album, Shake The Sheets, released last October on the Lookout! Records label, Leo noticed a remarkable spike in attendance at the live shows.

"The crazy thing that has happened is, just in the last six months, is that it's doubled," Leo said. "And that's a bit of 'Whoa!' I've never had to experience that 'Whoa!' kind of feeling before, you know? Because it had always been 'Oh yeah, that's cool, there were 25 more people here than there were the last time!' for like 10 years."

The Pharmacists played two sold-out gigs in a row last December at The Middle East in Cambridge, Mass.. For the upcoming June 25 show, the Middle East has booked the 899-seat Somerville Theatre in order to accommodate a larger anticipated crowd, according to Kevin Hoskins, booking agent for the 575-seat Middle East Downstairs room. "We chose to do the show there this time because obviously one night downstairs isn't enough," Hoskins said.

Leo does not point to a singular cause for the increase in popularity and show attendance.

"It just seems like that this last record just actually kind of connected with more people than the previous (records) have. It seems to have connected with a lot more young people. I can assume that's because it's a bit of a faster, punkier record than some others that I've made in a while, but I don't really know," Leo said.

Faster and punkier has not always been Leo's modus operandi with much of the Pharmacists' material, but his ties to the punk scene date back to the late 1980s New York hardcore era when he was in the bands Citizens Arrest and Animal Crackers. He went on to earn more notoriety within underground circles as the frontman for Chisel, a band that took heavy cues from late '70s British mod-punk artists like The Jam and Elvis Costello. Formed in 1990 in Washington, D.C., with fellow Notre Dame students Chris Norborg and John Dugan, Chisel recorded three albums before disbanding in 1997. Leo then formed the short-lived (read: one-year-long band) The Sin Eaters with his brother, Danny Leo, and Sean Greene (formerly of The Van Pelt), and also spent some time playing guitar with The Spinanes, a folky indie-rock act that would have been more likely to share the stage with Providence's late, great Small Factory than, say, an all-ages afternoon punk rock lineup.

In the late 1990s, Leo started The Pharmacists as essentially his solo act, but he would be joined by other musicians, particularly his cohorts from the Secret Stars, a band of Boston and Rhode Island musicians that include Buonanno. The first Pharmacists full-length record - released under the name Tej Leo (?) Rx/Pharmacists - was a vast departure musically from his Chisel records with its heavy dose of experimental noise and dub. Compared to the more straight-ahead rock that would increase on ensuing Pharmacists albums, Leo and his band pulled a "reverse-Clash" by first getting out of the way their Sandinista! (The Clash's sprawling and most reggae-fied, stylistically diverse outing).

"Now we're into some Mescaleros phase or something," Leo concurred with a laugh, referring to Clash frontman Joe Strummer's final post-Clash group.

"That was part reactionary to expectations of making another pop-punk kind of record, but also just, in a more positive sense, an experimentation on my part," Leo said. "Thinking back, my opinion on that record is that, even in some of the most noisy bits, there are kernels of songs that were full enough that when I toured - I used to tour alone at that point - I could play all those songs on the record with just me and a guitar and they would be just songs, as opposed to the dubby, noisy experiments that they are on the record. Making the record as it was, and then going out and reining those songs back in started to rekindle my enthusiasm for sticking to maybe what I do best."

Punk virtuoso

Sticking to what Leo does best has led to an increasingly stripped-down band - which for the past couple of years has included bass player Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson - as he crafts more songs that incorporate songwriting that mixes the personal with the political. To some ears, Leo has earned a seat among the founding fathers of the more sophisticated punk music, a pantheon that includes the likes of Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, TV Smith of The Adverts, and, of course, Paul Weller of The Jam.

Leo cited the song, "Scrape Away," from the Jam's Sound Effects LP as an example. "It's just one of those songs; it's political, and the way that it is (political) is by detailing this conversation by two former idealists who have grown up, that kind of more ... I don't want to say subtle, but maybe a more nuanced approach to it. It's something that I definitely try to achieve."

Leo has also found some harsh critics among his loyal fans. Some fans cried foul earlier this year, when the band released Sharkbite Sessions, a three-song EP exclusively available on the music download service iTunes that included a cover of Irish punk legends Stiff Little Fingers' "Suspect Device." When iTunes approached Leo's record label with the idea, the band decided to use some songs they had recorded for an Australian-only split release with the Australian band Blueline Medic. Leo said it seemed like a fun, easy way to share those songs with stateside fans who would otherwise have had a harder, more expensive time tracking down the import disc.

"The kids don't like it," Leo said with a chuckle. "It's the first time I've ever actually been accused of selling out. I think it's ridiculous that someone would charge that doing an iTunes exclusive EP (is selling out). I mean, I'm sorry, I use Macs, you know? Whatever!"

"I guess I could have put them on my Web site for free," Leo added. "But everybody who makes records could do that with every record that they make. I actually considered the fact that 'Oh that's cool, it'll be a cheap way to get these three songs out.'"

Once the Pharmacists return at the end of June from a month-long American tour, Leo plans on spending some much-needed downtime at home. With the exception of a solo appearance July 16 in Providence as part of AS220's 20th anniversary celebration, having the entire month of July off will be "the longest consecutive break" he's had in the past three years, Leo said.

Leo is a bit amused by the attention his new residential status has gotten lately.

"It's interesting, because WBRU has been playing some of my stuff a lot recently and just, like, hammering that factoid so hard," Leo said. "I have a long history with Providence specifically and Rhode Island in general. I've been in bands for 15 years that have been playing shows in Providence, and you know, all over the place and stuff. So, it's just really interesting sometimes what it takes to get noticed at a local level."

Ted Leo joins other performers who have played at AS220 in the past 20 years for "The 20 Fest," a free admission block party on Empire Street in downtown Providence on Sat., July 16, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For complete line-up, visit

Ted Leo and The Pharmacists perform Sat., June 25, with Radio 4 and Spitzz at The Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show starts at 8. All ages. Tickets $15. (617) 931-2000.


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