The making of Ted Leo And The Pharmacists’ The Tyranny Of Distance
By John Vettese
On their third day in the studio together, Ted Leo and Brendan Canty watched a reel-to-reel machine explode all over National Recording. “The tape shot across the room and whipped like a rope,” says Canty. “Like a bullwhip. You could see the magnetic particles flying off.”
It was February 2001. The song they were in the middle of tracking was “Under The Hedge,” a fierce meeting ground between the Pogues and Elvis Costello; the sessions were working toward The Tyranny Of Distance, Leo’s anthem-rich sophomore LP. The studio, nested in the then-desolate fringes of Washington, D.C.’s Mount Vernon Square, was owned by the band Trans Am—post-rock soundscapers and avid collectors of old recording equipment. In this case, a dusty Atari 16-track and an “ancient” Trident mixing board couldn’t sync up; it wasn’t possible to rewind on one and stop on the other.
And so a terrific take of “Under The Hedge” was lost. Everything so far was lost, actually. “Teddy looked at me and said, ‘I think the tape is fucked,’” says Canty.
But what could have been a crushing setback was taken in stride. The machine was recalibrated, the sessions moved on. Friends and fellow musicians in the neighborhood began to join in. Hearing Leo and Canty describe it 15 years later, it sounds damn near idyllic, a perfect nexus of creative productivity with a dearth of external pressures. The result was a bold collection of songs that goes in a variety of directions with confidence, thrash to folk to pub rock, while maintaining a strong central focus.
Leo likens the album to “a really good mix tape.” Canty praises his friend’s prolific songwriting. In a May 2001 Pitchfork review, critic Kristin Sage Rokermann enthused, “This album could have sounded like anything. As it turns out, it sounded like everything.”
Heading into the June 2001 release of The Tyranny Of Distance, Ted Leo was something of a free agent. He had been playing in hardcore bands like Citizens Arrest and Puzzlehead since he was a teenager; his biggest success came from D.C. power trio Chisel, which had parted ways four years previous. The interim was a mix of lo-fi four-track noise (his solo debut tej leo(?), Rx / pharmacists, released in 1999 on Gern Blandsten), bare-knuckled political punk (the Sin Eaters, a band with brother Danny) and indie-pop (a stint with the Spinanes). Though tapped-in people knew Leo, he wasn’t yet a marquee name in the indie-rock sphere.
Because of that, did he feel compelled to be more exploratory with his sound and style?
“It’s hard to say I felt compelled to do anything,” says Leo. “At that point in my ‘career,’ I don’t think there really were many expectations. There were probably a few lingering Chisel fans around who were looking for some good pop songcraft.” When that band broke up, it hit Leo hard. He had moved from Indiana to Washington, D.C., with his bandmates, and he took jobs based on his ability to tour. His eggs had very much been in the Chisel basket. As he recalls, “We had come to a real crossroads in terms of a future direction. I was feeling very punk, I didn’t want to sign to a major label. And we were diverging musically.”
Leo admits that he and his bandmates were neither making shit-tons of money nor feeling artistically fulfilled. When he left and began touring solo, his shows were aggressively unconventional—he set up an old tape machine onstage and performed to backing tracks, something that was at the time unheard of in punk.
“It was fun for me, but I look back and I realize I was kind of pushing for someone to come at me about it,” says Leo. “I would get heckled a lot. It was weirdly confrontational.”
At some points in the setlist, he’d put down his guitar and “basically karaoke to my own songs.” This carried on for a year or so until he realized the absurdity of “lugging this giant, constantly breaking piece of near obsolete technology around.” About the time of the 1999 release of the Treble In Trouble EP, gigs turned into 90 percent solo-with-guitar, 10 percent pickup shows with friends. His life at that point was very fluid, freewheeling and in the moment.
“What do I want to do today? I want to play a show. I need to pay my rent, I have to play a show,” says Leo. “I have a bunch of songs, I’m gonna record them. I don’t have any money, I’m gonna do it on a four-track in the basement.”
This outlook carried over to his writing.
“I was kind of careening back and forth—and I always am, in a way—between this desire to write beautiful music and this desire to write really repulsive music,” says Leo. “I think where I landed with Tyranny was a little bit more on the pretty side of things. But because there were no expectations, really from almost anybody, it was nice to make a record where the only thing you were worrying about was what you were doing at that moment, what it sounded like and whether you were into it.”
Tyranny may have been Leo’s first album released under the Pharmacists banner, but as he told the D.C. City Paper in 2011, it was recorded very much like a solo LP—complete with contributions from friends and fellow musicians whom he respected. Along the way, the band emerged (see sidebar), and a sound was zeroed-in on, though this in-process vibe was appealing to the team at Lookout! Records, which signed Leo on the strength of his home-recorded demos.
Molly Neuman, co-owner of the label, says she was a longtime fan and friend of Leo’s from the Chisel days. Where some were perplexed by his scattered, transitory direction in the wake of his old band, she found it exciting.
“Fans, or people who aren’t in bands themselves, get really obsessed with one track or one album from an artist,” says Neuman. “But artists have to continue to challenge themselves; they need to go off the rails. And creatively, there should be permission to do that.”
When Leo was approached by Neuman and her partner Chris Appelgren, the label was in a transitional state of its own, moving beyond the Bay Area pop/punk that was its bread and butter in the late ’80s and early ’90s, bringing artists like Scottish synth-pop trio Bis into the fold.
At the same time, Leo notes, it wasn’t like he was coming out of the wilds of some other region of indie rock. “I had been in punk bands all my life up to that point,” he says. It felt good to have a revered punk label get behind his music.
Neuman says Tyranny Of Distance was approached with a lot of mutual trust.
“He was happy to have a team of people helping him, where he had been so on his own before,” she says. “And in a similar way, we were happy because we were such genuine fans, and it spoke to us at a deeper musical level than some other projects we had been working with.”
That’s not to critique, she’s quick to note. But there’s a certain level of maturation that happens in a company run by young people who are figuring things out as they go. “Lookout! had a lot of important legacy artists who had defined the tone sonically and aesthetically,” she says. “And then a certain amount of growth is going to take place.” Tyranny, in her view, was the perfect embodiment of that transition.
In step with the artist and the label, the city itself was in a period of change. Washington, D.C., in the ’90s boasted a bustling, progressive-minded DIY scene, home to Fugazi, the Make-Up, Nation Of Ulysses and Chisel. By 2001, those bands had broken up or were on the wane; musicians had formed new bands, moved to New York or left music entirely.
“There was a lot of change happening,” says Leo. “In the ’90s, it was such a unified, youthful, forward-momentum city, musically. It was still flowering creatively out of the ashes of all this stuff. In a way, that actually felt kind of adult to me. The idea of being open to change, and rolling with it. Trying to find the positive flow of energy and working with it.”
Before he cut his teeth as a producer, Canty was the longtime drummer of Fugazi. He says the D.C. scene gets unfairly pegged as a hardcore-punk mecca—which it was, sure, in 1981 and 1982. “There was a lot of time since then,” he says. “I love all kinds of music, I would go see Simple Minds and the Church. I love the grandeur of all those big bands. There was a lot of good stuff going on. But it gets written out of history because it doesn’t make sense to talk about Minor Threat and Rites Of Spring alongside Screaming Blue Messiahs.”
A lot of the punks were closet pop fans, and Canty lists one-off projects he started with peers like Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto: the Brief Weeds, Band Of Baghdad, Blacklight Panthers. He refers to them as “joke bands,” describing their music as super poppy. But, he says, “Even if those songs are all tongue-in-cheek, the music is straight-up 12-strings and mellotrons and basically trying to be the Zombies.”
Leo stood out in this landscape because when he went pop, it was no joke. Canty says this was evident even early on, when Fugazi took Chisel on the road.
“As you get better at your instrument and start listening around to the history of music more, you start realizing if you want to play to music for the rest of your life, you better keep an open mind,” he says.
Additionally, Leo stood out in post-hardcore D.C. because of his ambidextrous, multi-instrumental ability in a scene where “it was mostly bands, where everybody focused on their own thing,” says Canty. “Singers doing the singer thing, guitarists doing the guitar thing. Ted’s ideas were so fully realized and so writerly, for me Tyranny was a really fun project.”
Leo demoed songs for Tyranny while house-sitting for Canty in 2000; a layered, dreamy early version of “Biomusicology” set the stage for something very different from his past work. The song went on to open the record.
Leo says he chose to work with Canty because of their shared sensibilities. “He and I speak a really similar musical language,” he says. “If I was trying to express something, even clumsily, he would be a guy who knew exactly what I was talking about and would help me get there.”
They went into National Recording on Feb. 17, 2001, began setting up, exploring sounds, getting comfortable. When the tape machine broke on day three and the project reset itself, the door opened to more collaborators—picking up where they left off on “Under The Hedge,” Seb Thomson of Trans Am joined on drums. He also played on “Parallel Or Together,” while Danny Leo drummed on “M¥ Vien iLin” and “St. John The Divine” with “Fretless” Peter Kerlin on bass.
The sessions also included second guitar from Canty’s brother James, formerly of the Make-Up—a band Leo was an occasional touring drummer for (he calls himself the “unofficial fifth member”). Make-Up bassist Alex Minoff joined as well, and they knocked out “Biomusicology,” “Dial Up” and “Stove By A Whale.”
“People were coming in and had all these great songs to work with, and Teddy had all these ideas for the songs,” says Canty. “The studio sounded great. We were totally making it up as we were going, they were all guys who had been playing with him on the road here and there. Everybody was super supportive. And who wouldn’t be? Ted is pretty much the nicest guy on the planet.”
Leo and Canty each describe it was a free and open process, both them working side-by-side in the proverbial trenches and trying out ideas. Leo remembers covering a drumkit in towels and sweaters to achieve the ultra-dead, ’70s-style sound that’s become more common in production but in 2001 was conspicuously absent. Canty recalls indulging Leo’s idea to let “Timorous Me” go on for two minutes before the rhythm section kicks in and then being blown away at how well it worked.
“When I work with a producer, the best thing is when you can treat them like a band member, be real with them,” says Canty. “The worst is when you tell a producer what to do, or the producer tells you what to do. That’s not really where it’s at.”
Leo describes those two weeks in National Recording as having a “party atmosphere” in how it was as much of a social scene as it was a work space.
“Because it was friends in a friend’s studio, and all friends working, nobody was really like, ‘We’re under the gun to get this done,’” says Leo. “But we still did it relatively quickly.”
Musically, the album swings with hooky, angular pop, showcasing Leo’s fondness for the Jam and soaring, endlessly catchy vocal melodies. The raging tide of opener “Biomusicology” sweeps from a gently phasing, clean-tone guitar lick to a stratospheric full-band complemented by cello arranged and played by Tsunami’s Amy Domingues. It’s a statement of sorts for the album, and the Pharmacists as they would become: “Look beneath the glassy surface,” Leo sings, “All the songs you hear, down there they have a purpose.”
His roots are in political punk, and Leo would bring the Pharmacists in more explicitly political directions on subsequent releases Shake The Sheets, Living With The Living and to a lesser extent on Hearts Of Oak.
On Tyranny, it’s there, too—the album title makes reference to oppressive rule, while a song title (“The Great Communicator”) nods to the Reagan era. Lyrically, it shows up in the thundering thrash of “Stove By A Whale,” filled with images of governments and accents and menacing captains. Most directly, it’s heard on “iLin,” with lyrics “When I was 17, I made myself a DMZ” and “Dig in, Vien iLin, dig in today/The Americans are on their way/American bombs away/Dig in today.”
This was recorded in March 2001, mind you. Six months before September 11 sent the country into a war-mongering panic, two years before we entered the Iraq War and lyrical images became reality. To make it even more prescient, Leo wrote the song in 1997 for the Sin Eaters.
“Writing from the late ’90s, you’re still dealing with the Clinton era and American adventurism, militarily, abroad,” he says. “You’re dealing with the legacy of the Vietnam era, which we have still not learned the lessons of today. I was already thinking about that before the Bush era.”
By the time the Tyranny was in production, the writing was on the wall for those who were paying attention. “And these things are never far from my mind,” says Leo. “There’s never really a time when I feel like I could write something completely free from certain types of metaphor.”
At the same time, Tyranny overall is a very personal, introspective work, coming to terms with all the change and transition that swirled around its making, as well as the songwriter behind it having just entered his 30s.
“We joked a lot during the process that it was becoming my Ram,” says Leo. “Paul McCartney retired to his country estate and made his weird personal record.” (Leo actually loves Ram, and covered “Backseat Of My Car” for WFMU’s pledge drive a few years back—you can hear it on his SoundCloud page.)
The driving “Dial Up” seems to take stock of the life cycle of artistry: “Five years further on, from the stage it looked like we’d won/But how many of those who heard you play have gone their insouciant ways?” He wrote it around the time veteran anarchist punks Crass, who Leo greatly admired, were being threatened with eviction from their Dial House community center.
“It was through that lens that I was looking at my life as a musician,” he says. “What things had been important to me, what struggles there are.”
“Timorous Me” is the album’s emotional pinnacle—it opens as a jaunty, Graham Parker-ish tune that narrates two parallel stories, memories of personal encounters: one with a childhood friend on a summer day, one with a fan at a show. The song kicks into full-tilt punk before touching down on a final story, and though the connection isn’t explicitly drawn, we can sense it in a verse about “dwelling in the quiet space left behind, where only peace can answer why.”
“They’re both real people who have passed through my life who died very suddenly,” says Leo. “The song is basically about attempting to not go too far down the hole of wondering why things like this happen. And not going too far down the hole of regretting missed opportunities. And just trying to be at peace with the fact that you did have a moment that you carry forward.”
In the wake of Tyranny’s release on June 19, 2001, Leo hit the road hard with a new band featuring James Canty on guitar, Dave Lerner on bass and Chris Wilson, a drummer from Philadelphia who had played with Matt Pond PA and Sean Na Na.
Wilson says he was drawn by Leo’s mix of pop and complexity, noting that later Pharmacists bassist Marty Key once called the songs “deceptively difficult.”
“I come from a bit of a math-rock background, but I always wanted to be in a band that was a little more accessible and also difficult musically,” says Wilson. “He always had all of those things.”
Having a band, though, and a more prominent name changed things for Leo. He’s still the nicest guy ever, no doubt. But the absence of expectation that made the process of Tyranny so unique and freeing was a thing of the past. On the one hand, he jokes about the process of players switching setup and people coming and going from the studio: “As I’m describing it to you right now, it’s definitely something that’s giving me stress. I would be afraid to enter that situation at this point in my life.”
Of course, D.C. is different 15 years later. National Recording is no more, the neighborhood is completely changed. Leo has had a variety of experiences on subsequent records, from the focused, Iraq War-era intensity of making Shake The Sheets with Chris Shaw, to working with Canty again in a Massachusetts farmhouse on Living With The Living. Each album reflects the situational surroundings of Leo’s life when he made them.
On the other hand, he says, “I think that I’m lucky enough that, if I wanted to, I could make a record like that again today. I still have so many great and talented friends who I love, I can still find places where we can go and cheaply loll about while we knock ideas around.”
The word “favorite” comes up a lot when talking about The Tyranny Of Distance. Neuman, Wilson and Canty all cite it as such in one way or another.
“I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t play on it and I can step back without my being involved,” says Wilson. “The songs, though, that may be the best batch of songs he’s ever written.”
“There’s so much beauty, so much pure energy to it,” says Neuman. “I think it totally stands up, and I think it’s also a representation of the community of people that helped bring it to life.”
“There are moments on it that I know I’ve helped bring to fruition, makes me proud,” says Canty. “I’m a huge Ted Leo fan, I still am, and it’s my favorite Ted Leo record. Other people seem to love it, and that makes me happy. It makes me think that at one point in my life, for a week or so, my instincts were OK.”
But he concludes, all praises are due to Leo.
“Teddy sang like a bird on the whole fucking record,” says Canty. “That’s really what we’re talking about here. I can tell you about who played drums on what song, who did guitar. But in the end, Ted wrote great songs, he sang like a bird, he’s an amazing performer.”