AUSTIN, Texas - One sunny afternoon at the South by Southwest music conference recently, Patrick Stickles led the Glen Rock, N.J., punk rockers Titus Andronicus - who headline an all-ages show at the Barbary in Northern Liberties on Thursday night - through a blistering set in a dark bar called Empire Live.
With Titus' third SXSW show (of eight) over and done, the bearded 24-year-old took a coffee break and talked about The Monitor, the band's sophomore album, which has had praise heaped upon it since its release last month.
"My dad called me up after reading the Time Out New York review," Stickles says, speaking of the album, which is significantly more accomplished and ambitious than the band's 2008 rough-and-ready debut, The Airing of Grievances. "He said, 'Did you see this? It says you made the first great concept album of the decade!' I said, 'Dad, it's March.' "
The Monitor takes its name from the USS Monitor, the Union ironclad gunboat that faced off in 1862 against the Confederate Merrimac in "The Battle of Hampton Roads," which is also the title of the 14-minute song that brings the album to a cathartic conclusion.
Stickles got the inspiration for using The Monitor to create an allegory about present-day divisions, both personal and political, when living in Boston and staying up late to watch Ken Burns' The Civil War on YouTube after his then-girlfriend had gone to bed.
"I thought it was pretty much the greatest movie of all time," says Stickles, wearing a T-shirt bearing the faded image of Abraham Lincoln. "The best movie made by humans. That got me thinking about what it meant for me to be an American, being from New Jersey and living in Boston, and thinking about American identity. E pluribus unum and all that. . . .
"And then me and this woman broke up," says Stickles, who now lives with a new girlfriend (who gave him the shirt) in Brooklyn. "And we were something of a house divided, as Abraham Lincoln might say. And I'd already been thinking about all the evils of the world, like racism, homophobia, the patriarchy."
Bruce Springsteen's name is nearly always invoked in relation to Titus Andronicus. "I guess that's fitting, though it's still kind of lazy," Stickles says. "He's the patron saint of New Jersey rockers, and that's what we are. He's the guy who more or less formed the idiom we work in, which is songs of desperation and hopelessness, in which there's at least an attempt to infuse them with some kind of cinematic grandeur or epicness."
Still, Stickles points to any number of indie bands that he also considers Titus' spiritual brethren, such as "Crass, Black Flag, Fugazi, Minor Threat, the Minutemen." Most come from the 1980s DIY punk movement that author Michael Azerrad focused on in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a favorite book of Stickles' in his formative teen years.
"Those are the guys we kind of take our ideological cues from, along with [contemporary Jersey rocker] Ted Leo, perhaps more than the rest. He showed us our business model is sustainable." Which is? "Hard work, treating other people decently, looking out for the kids, trying to keep things fair and equitable, removing the excess, keeping your overheads low, busting your ass whenever possible, being committed, dedicated, devoted."
Stickles, who studied literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah (a place name that shows up in both Springsteen's "Johnny 99" and The Airing Of Grievances' "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, N.J."), named Titus Andronicus after William Shakespeare's bloodiest play.
It's not his favorite play, but "it just sounds cool. It's so gory and pretty much mindless slasher-type entertainment while still being an entry in the Shakespearean canon," he says. "And it occupies an interesting nexus between the cerebral and visceral urges of the human mind. Which is an intersection we hope to reach someday."