Musician Ted Leo, on Protests and Living on Tour For eight years, Ted Leo has been making music and putting his records out strictly on independent labels. Never one to shy away from songs with a political message, Leo draws from a broad range of influences, including hard-core, 1960s soul, 1970s reggae, and Celtic folk music. Melissa Block talks with Leo about how to keep anti-war music fresh.
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Musician Ted Leo, on Protests and Living on Tour

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Musician Ted Leo, on Protests and Living on Tour

Musician Ted Leo, on Protests and Living on Tour

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Ted Leo might croon in the sweet falsetto, then moments later, shout out it defiance.

(Soundbite of "Who Do You Love")

Mr. TED LEO and the PHARMACISTS (Band): (Singing) So the weight of your will, will stave off decline And you won't stop that war, but that don't stop you trying. You say all the words that move all our friends. And you work 'til the clock has gone 'round again. But who do you love? Who do you love? Who do you love?

BLOCK: Ted Leo's songs often have a sharp political edge, lately an anti-war message. His new CD is called "Living with the Living." Ted Leo is from New Jersey, started playing in what he calls aggressive, hardcore band, then swerved into more poppy punk. Now at age 36, he mixes it all up, however he wants. And for a creative spark, he draws on a wide range of influences.

Mr. LEO: More often than not, if I'm ever stuck, you know, for anything, whether it's just, you know, a chord change or a vocal melody or something, I have to learn about what the kind of wells that I continually go back to for inspiration are. And those are, you know, mostly '60s kind of R&B, like the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield, and '70s kind of reggae vocal groups like the Pep tones and the Muddy Diamonds, and Celtic folk melodies and things. It kind of always winds up somehow of coming back to being grounded, and something from those three.

BLOCK: That's a pretty broad swath right there.

Mr. LEO: I've been there. Yes, I know. I know.

BLOCK: You can do a lot with that.

(Soundbite of "A Bottle of Buckie")

Mr. LEO and the PHARMACISTS: (Singing) Nine years down the road and I remember it still, standing at the corner back in Govanhill. Nine days out from home, feeling no pain, that northern city sun breaking through the rain. That warmthless sun barely shining on - me and you and a bottle of Buckie.

Mr. LEO: In the past, really tried to cram all of that into every song that I've written. And sometimes, I think they've been a little overwrought even at times because of that. So I'm trying to kind of let things be a little bit as they are instead of always kind of, you know, having to punk up the reggae or something like that, you know. I just kind of leave it alone.

(Soundbite of "A Bottle of Buckie")

Mr. LEO and the PHARMACISTS: (Singing) Well, I knew about the dew in your starry eyes. It was the day we both had studied for all of our lives. Whether bold Missionaries, or Children's Crusade - no fear, pioneers, we were on our way. And there never were nothin' that could get in our way.

BLOCK: You've been known for a while now as being a topical political songwriter. Is it hard to keep the anti-war message that you had in your last album too? Is it hard to find a way to keep that fresh, to keep it interesting for yourself?

Mr. LEO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, probably, the biggest reason is less about actually, you know, having to continually write songs about the same thing than it is about being continually on the road, playing those songs. And I really have to believe what I'm putting over if I'm kind of putting it over in a believable way every night. And it can soon be physically exhausting, but it can also be kind of ideologically exhausting. And when the time comes to start writing new songs, certainly, I often have found myself at a bit of a loss to find something new to say, frankly, which is depressing.

BLOCK: There's one very in-your-face song on the new CD called "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb," and it starts with what sounds like a spoken word archive recording. I'm not sure what it is.

(Soundbite of "Bomb.Repeat.Bomb")

Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) how it said that the Americans should tumble to (unintelligible) government as secretly...

Mr. LEO and the PHARMACISTS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) forward to the blue where (unintelligible) they fly.

Mr. LEO: It's meant to sound like spoken word archive recording, but it is actually a friend of mine speaking those words. But Bomb.Repeat.Bomb is actually specifically about operation PB Success and the, kind of, CIA-implemented coup in Guatemala in 1954. And this is an example of, you know, kind of meeting to get at a subject from a different angle. I didn't want that song to be so explicitly tied in with the current situations in Iraq, because that's not how I wrote it. So, to having that little lead-in, I felt, you know, was a little bit of a clue as to something else that I was getting at, which is the fact that many of the things that we're dealing with are not new, and that there are much deeper questions that need to be asked about the way we interact to the rest of the world.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm. It's interesting because that song segues right into a song with a very different sound, a very different feel called "La Costa Brava." And that line, everyone needs a Sunday someday. It looks like you're taking a deep breath. Let's - okay, enough of all that political stuff.

(Soundbite of "La Costa Brava")

Mr. LEO and the PHARMACISTS: (Singing) I've been seeing the same old things and I been hearing you saying some things that you don't mean. Everyone needs a Sunday someday. Everyone needs to take some time away.

Mr. LEO: The one thing that I had to, kind of, allow myself at a certain point was to come terms to the fact that if you don't want to burn out, you know, you must give yourself a Sunday some days, you know, as the line goes. And we can sometimes get so caught up in the fights that we're all fighting from time to time that it really would behoove all of us to take a step back, take a breath and understand what it is about the beauty of the world that actually makes us want to continue these fights.

(Soundbite of song, "Army Bound")

Mr. LEO: (Singing) Come on over to San Falou coz, it's somewhere I been and I wanna take you there.

BLOCK: Do you have one guitar that you're especially attached to?

Mr. LEO: I do. Actually, I have a couple that I am especially attached to, actually. I have an old, early-80's Epiphone Sheraton that I've played for years and years and years. And just about a year ago finally hang up because it was falling apart and upgraded to the more executive model of that guitar, the Gibson 335, which is my baby.

BLOCK: And is that what we hear on the CD?

Mr. LEO: It is. Yeah. Just that one guitar, actually. I never swapped out guitars in the entire record.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Does it start to feel like an extension of your voice?

Mr. LEO: You know, yeah, I think it does. It definitely feels like it's an extension of my torso at times, you know. And we get to the point pretty quickly in any tour when the actual singing takes a lot more effort on my part than the playing of the guitar, which, kind of, becomes muscle memory, you know, for me.

BLOCK: The singing takes more effort you're saying?

Mr. LEO: I tend to push my range most of the time but it requires more of a kind of, you know, it has to come from the gut.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEO: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

BLOCK: It's interesting to hear you say that about your voice because I've read that you've had some trouble with your vocal chords in the past and I saw on your Web site you actually have photographs of your vocal chords.

Mr. LEO: Yeah.

BLOCK: Clearly, there's something going on here.

Mr. LEO: Yeah. Well, I had to cancel an entire tour a couple of years ago, just a few dates into it because I had, like, completely blown out my larynx. I just felt that I owed it to whoever may have been disappointed to give them some proof of that fact. You know, so...

BLOCK: Yeah. That's the visual testimony of here's what I've done.

Mr. LEO: Yeah.

BLOCK: Well, what do you do about that to get better?

Mr. LEO: None nearly as much as I should to be honest with you. At that point in time, it was prescribed that I be silent for about a month. But touring the way that we do, and this is by no means of a, you know, woe is me complaint, but it still like a lot of people crammed into one band is not always dressing room. You know, doing the kind of stretching and vocal warm-up that I probably should be doing most of the time, is really logistically a problem.

BLOCK: Your doctor is listening to us right now, saying Ted, have you learned nothing?

Mr. LEO: Well, sorry, Doc.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEO: (Singing) Say.

BLOCK: Well, Ted Leo, thanks so much.

Mr. LEO: Oh, you're welcome. Thank you.

BLOCK: Ted Leo's new album is called "Living with the Living." And tomorrow night, you can hear a live performance of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists at our Web site,

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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