MIKE PESCA, host:

Leo is the ruler of the Fifth House of the Zodiac, also known as the House of Pleasure. Leo the lion rules the heart, and those born under his sign are said to have a strong body and deep voice. Ted Leo of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, not actually a Leo. He joins us in the studio now, free of the Pharmacists, but he's plugged in and he's playing a special set for us. He's also playing tonight at the River to River Festival in Manhattan. Hi, Ted. How are you?

Mr. TED LEO (Singer-Songwriter, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists): Hey. I'm all right, Mike.

PESCA: I want to talk about the band name. It goes well with Ted Leo. You've got six total letters in your name. So, your - that gives you the freedom to have a pretty long "and the" name.

Mr. LEO: That's true.

PESCA: Now, what are some backing band names that you've liked over the years?

Mr. LEO: Ooh. I'm going to go ahead and go out on a limb here and say, "The News."

PESCA: Yeah? Definitely.

Mr. LEO: Huey Lewis and the News. That's a good band name.

PESCA: Mm-hm. Band name.

Mr. LEO: Yeah. Absolutely.

PESCA: Good band, name, yes.

Mr. LEO: Band name, yeah, absolutely.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. I like Graham Parker and the Rumor.

Mr. LEO: Brilliant.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LEO: Mm-hm.

PESCA: And then there was Nick Lowe and the Impossible Birds. That was kind of interesting.

Mr. LEO: Oh, yeah. Mm-hm.

PESCA: So, what I like about pharmacists...

Mr. LEO: Mm-hm.

PESCA: To be really - to really break it down, is that it's kind of funny, because, like, this dodgy guy in a coat, but it's not Zany Zagnut, like, it's not, you know, Ted Leo and the Forensic Accountants. That would just be a goofy thing.

Mr. LEO: Yes. Yes, it would be.

PESCA: But it's workman-like, too. These guys are going to work. Right, they're mixing something up, and they're going to work...

Mr. LEO: Mm-hm.

PESCA: So, it's better than the chefs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: It's fair to read. I've though - I've read a lot. I mean, I didn't come up with all of this, you know, kind of backstory to it, but I've added that in over the years.

PESCA: Yes.

Mr. LEO: Mixing up the remedies, and fix-its, and poisons, and a pretty pill, and all that kind of stuff.

PESCA: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: But initially it was just that, like, you know, I just thought it sounded it cool.

PESCA: It does. And you first - Chisel, you thought, maybe wasn't such a good name?

Mr. LEO: Well, that's when - that's actually when it came up. We - I mean, all of us were kind of sitting around at one - the - all the people in the band Chisel were sitting around at one point, I remember, and we were just like, wait, why are we in a band that's called Chisel again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: Like, how did that happen? And it was at that point that the idea for the name Pharmacists came up, and I was, like, I'm definitely going to use that someday.

PESCA: You want to play a song, and then we'll talk a little more?

Mr. LEO: Sure. Yeah.

PESCA: We could do that.

Mr. LEO: Mm-hm.

PESCA: Intro it if you will, Ted.

Mr. LEO: I'm kind of thinking about doing a cover. Are you guys OK with that?

PESCA: Love it.

Mr. LEO: All right. I'm going to play this, just because I woke up today singing. Yeah.

PESCA: OK.

Mr. LEO: And I figured, why not? So, yeah, it's called - it's by the Waterboys, and it's called "Fishermen's Blues."

(Soundbite of song "Fishermen's Blues")

Mr. LEO: (Singing) Well, I wish I was a fisherman tumbling on the seas, Far away from dry land and it's bitter memories, Casting out my sweet line with abandonment and love, No ceiling bearing down on me but the starry skies above.

With light in my head, you in my arms. Woo-hoo.

Well, I wish was the brakeman on a hurling fevered train, Crashing headlong into the heartland, like a bullet in the rain, With the beating of the sleepers and the burning of the coal, Watching the towns just flashing by on a night that's full of soul.

Light in my head, you in my arms. Woo-hoo-hoo.

A light in my head, you in my arms. Woo-hoo.

And I know I will be loosened from the bonds that hold me fast, And the chains slung all around me, they will fall to the ground at last. On that fine and fateful day, I will take you in my hand. I will ride on a speeding train. I will be the fisherman.

With light in my head, you in my arms. Woo-hoo.

A light in my head, you in my arms. Woo-hoo-hoo.

Hey, light in my head, you in my arms. Light in my head, Light in my head, A light in my head, you in my arms. Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo.

PESCA: So, you know, a lot of musicians - I bet you played, you know, growing up, for hours and hours on end on the guitar, right?

Mr. LEO: I didn't actually start playing guitar until I was like 18.

PESCA: Really?

Mr. LEO: Yeah. I...

PESCA: Why'd you pick it up so late?

Mr. LEO: You know, I don't know. I was a fan, you know? I just, like, I was a music fan. I just consumed music, and I sang. I sang in bands, before I actually played in - guitar in bands, but it just was - in terms of actually - in terms of actually, like, you know, taking the reins myself and doing something of my own, I was kind of content to just be a fan for a long time.

PESCA: Also in rock 'n' roll, the kind of straight-ahead rock 'n' roll that you play, yeah, there's some sort of nostalgia for the guys who can only - you know, the Sex Pistols, who can all play three chords, but musical craftsmanship gets a lot of respect. The singing voice, not so much, I find.

Mr. LEO: Yeah, you know, I think in certain quarters, that's true.

PESCA: And especially if you're a lyricist. I'm also surprised how many guys write lyrics, and they don't even care if the lyrics are intelligible. I never understood that.

Mr. LEO: Well, I mean, you know - you know, there are different motivations for making music, and there are different theories for what, you know, art in general should be, and certainly there's a very valid portion of the art world that is - can be just entertainment.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LEO: We all need that. I mean, you know, you can't deny, like, the power of, like, you know, going to a Go-Go or - you know what I mean? Like Smokey Robinson, or something that just really has no point other than to make you, like, dance and sing along.

PESCA: Right.

Mr. LEO: Like, that's fine, you know? And you know, those are expressive of emotions that we all feel, too. Like, I mean, I'm not - you know, I mean, even the most, like, angry political screed that someone might write, they don't always - they aren't always walking around in their lives feeling that way, you know? So, there's a whole range of stuff that you can - should feel free to deal with, I think.

PESCA: Now, speaking of political screeds or political songs, all your work has always been political, seems to have gotten more so, lately, with the last album, more explicitly, maybe. Is that fair?

Mr. LEO: Possibly. People say both things, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: It's really true. Like, I kind of - like, you know, there have been songs in the past, like on the "Hearts of Oak" album, there was the song, "Ballad of the Sin Eater," which is one of the more, like, kind of punchy political songs that I've ever written. And sometimes people seem to just want that over and over again, you know, and other times, people really, you know, pull the Dixie Chicks thing on me and just say, why don't you just sing some love songs?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah, you can't really disinvite those people to the show, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: Yeah. And you know, the thing is, like, I try these experiments of just writing love songs and kind of social issues creep in anyway, so...

PESCA: OK, so on the politics front, Jacob Ganz, who's our director, he has wanted to know the answer to this question for seven years.

Mr. LEO: OK.

PESCA: So you get to answer a seven-year itch this guy has been having.

Mr. LEO: All right. It's rare you get that opportunity.

PESCA: Yep. Your song, "The Great Communicator," is that about Ronald Reagan?

Mr. LEO: No. It's not about Ronald Reagan. It's about kind of concepts of the English language. I wrote that back when the, like, Ebonics debate was flying all over the place and kind of, you know, just the idea that language should remain a living and evolving thing.

PESCA: Yeah. All right, you want to play another one?

Mr. LEO: Sure.

PESCA: OK, what do we got?

Mr. LEO: I'm going to play a new song that - most of our new stuff is a lot - it doesn't really translate well to singer-songwriter-y, solo-y, like a lot of my other stuff has. It's more, like, kind of just straightforward and punk. But I'm going to try it anyway, because, what the heck?

PESCA: OK. Cool. Tell me what it's called.

Mr. LEO: It is called "The Mighty Sparrow."

PESCA: Oh, yeah. The calypso, by chance?

Mr. LEO: Yeah.

PESCA: Loved it.

Mr. LEO: It's not actually about that Mighty Sparrow.

PESCA: It's cool.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. LEO: OK.

(Soundbite of song "The Mighty Sparrow")

Mr. LEO: (Singing) When the cafe doors exploded, (Unintelligible) your tattoo, What to do? What to do? Cast us (unintelligible) that sunny morning, I was coming to, was coming to, coming to.

Paper's in the window watching, I was dancing, too. (Unintelligible). Lifted up on wings of strangers, (unintelligible), Then I saw you, red, white, and blues.

Silence for a moment, that's singing I thought I could hear Singing (unintelligible) ringing turn in my ears. And the sirens called me back to their miserable luck. Well, we follow in the sparrow working only four o'clock. Hey!

Silence for a moment, that's singing I thought I could hear Singing (unintelligible) ringing turn in my ears. And the sirens called me back to their miserable luck. Well, we follow in the sparrow working only four o'clock.

When the cafe doors exploded, (unintelligible) your tattoo, What to do? What to do?

PESCA: That is some great stuff right there.

Mr. LEO: Thanks, man.

PESCA: OK, so it wasn't about the calypso guy, but...

Mr. LEO: No.

PESCA: He's like you, in a way. I heard you were going to maybe do a musical about Guatemala and the banana trade. I'm just saying that because, you know, his lyrics weren't just, you know, Bob Marley, let's change the world. It was like about a specific dictator, and this guy needs to go.

Mr. LEO: Right, absolutely, yeah. That's one of the amazing things about, like, the history of calypso music. I mean, people tend to only remember, like, you know, "The Banana Boat Song" and stuff. But I mean, to this day, it's, you know - they call out, you know, specific politicians on the most specific of issues.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. LEO: I just found it pretty interesting. But yeah, I did actually write the music for a musical that has - seems to be stalled in terms of production.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Guatemala banana trade musical?

Mr. LEO: Yeah, yeah. It was - it's about - I mean, it's actually kind of - there's a romance, you know, that's the entree for the political sphere. There's a woman named Jennifer Harbury who was a human rights lawyer who went to kind of document abuses and stuff on the front down there, and wound up falling in love with a rebel leader who was disappeared, and she's spent years trying to recover his body. That's kind of where the story begins, and it delves into the history of not just the banana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: You know? But the entire, you know, sordid story of American governmental and business dealings.

PESCA: Yeah, United Fruit.

Mr. LEO: Absolutely.

PESCA: And yeah, I mean, this is why they are called banana republics.

Mr. LEO: Yeah.

PESCA: Is this something that you're looking to do, maybe a musical, or a soundtrack to a, you know, distinct piece of film? You know, put your songs in a context other than, you know, how you do them in live shows and albums?

Mr. LEO: It's not a priority for me. I - as a matter of fact, it's the kind of thing where, in terms of use of songs that I've written, it's got to be something that really makes a lot of sense to me. Not to be too precious, but, like, my songs are precious to me, you know, like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You know, if you want to emphasize that point, maybe a different adjective. If you want to take it again, you can.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: I stand by it. I stand by it.

PESCA: Gem-like, no?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEO: But that's not to say that, you know, the right circumstances don't exist, you know? I'm sure they do. I just haven't really found them yet.

PESCA: All right. Thanks a lot, Ted.

Mr. LEO: Thanks for having me.

PESCA: Will you be playing with the Pharmacists tonight?

Mr. LEO: Absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. LEO: All right, so Ted Leo and the Pharmacists playing at the River to River Festival in Manhattan. Check them out. Thanks a lot, again, Ted.

Mr. LEO: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Coming up, if your name is Bryant Parker, you are a boy. But if you are Parker Bryant, well, it could either way. Next up, androgynous baby names and The Most. This is the Bryant Park project from NPR News.

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