Go ahead and call Ted Leo a punk-rocker. It's better than another niche some pundits apply. "I actually bristle at the indie-rock label," says the singer/songwriter/ guitarist. "That means a whole different thing to me; it has a much different agenda than the classic American hardcore scene."
Let it be known that Leo, 33, does not categorically sound like a punk-rock artist, not the circa-'77 variety and certainly nothing like the dumb guitar-pop bands that pass themselves off as punk these days. But, he reasons, "Nobody said The Clash weren't a punk band when they did Sandinista."
Leo has sifted his early hardcore leanings through a wide colander of influences: political folk, early '70s soul, classic reggae and various permutations of Brit-rock, from the Beatles to The Jam to Thin Lizzy.
What has emerged in his solo career — he has two albums out on the Berkeley, Calif., label Lookout! — is a sound unique to him, a tightly wound, almost nervous brand of rock, long on melody and sharp-edged guitar. Using an unmannered tenor that occasionally pokes into the rarified Freddie Mercury range, Leo spews torrents of words that deftly blend the personal and political. Thematically, he strikes a fragile balance between optimism and indignance. And sometimes he just lays it on the line. On the last song of his current EP, Tell Balgeary, Balgury is Dead, Leo intones over solo electric guitar, "No more shall I be loyal to my sorrowful country."
All his lyrics are deeply thought out and, unlike other artists who are loath to offer interpretations of their work, Leo is willing to deconstruct their meaning in detail. "That was pretty much the way of doing things in the scene that I came up in — American hardcore and immediate post-hardcore," he says. "Part of the whole thing was an attempt to break down the fourth wall between [artist] and audience, although I don't think that wall should completely not exist. The music that affected me was the stuff that I felt a personal connection with. That's the milieu that I'm working in."
His social and aesthetic consciousness started young. Leo grew up in Bloomfield, N.J., a working-class buffer town between the harsh urban environs of Newark and the safe, privileged air of the suburbs. His father, a lawyer, was one generation removed from Italy; his schoolteacher mother came from a tight-knit Irish-American clan. "My parents actually were not lefties by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "They kind of went through that chute — the first kids in their families to go to college, marriage, job, that was their thing. But I will say this: They were thoughtful people, and that kind of set me on a certain path."
As a kid, Leo had the run of his folks' record collection. "I remember being obsessed with Buddy Holly when I was 5," he says with a touch of bemusement. "I had all the Beatles records at my disposal. I deeply dug into them. I would sit there freaking out about 'Revolution No. 9' when I was 9 years old myself."
Leo's Catholic middle school drew kids from the 'burbs and the 'hood, and hip-hop soon caught his attention. At 13, he attended a Run-D.M.C. show in Newark, the only white kid in the crowd. "In 1983-84, rap wasn't as pointedly political as Public Enemy, but it addressed these vague injustices," he explains. "I really think that was an awakening for me. I think it was my first realization that there was racism. It was something that I got up in arms about. I was more than willing to take anyone to task about something I perceived as racist
"Looking back, I think my radar might've been a little too intense," he adds with a chuckle.
Soon after, Leo got stuck on The Jam and a wide range of punk-rock, further politicizing him. In high school, he was keenly aware of "the whole Nicaragua scenario, the Contras and the Sandinistas, the backroom deals of the Reagan administration. I realized that the government didn't just fix roads."
On the music front, Leo fronted a high school band called Flinch, which he describes as "sort of pop-punk, a la the Descendents from that era." His next band, Citizens Arrest, "got pretty big at a certain point."
The singer picked up guitar at age 19. "I never really practiced it," he says. "I just played it all the time." Over the years, he's become a formidable player, with a distinctively biting tone and a way with barbed riffs.
Leo attended Notre Dame, where he played in various punk and hardcore bands. In 1990, he joined the D.C. mod-punk outfit Chisel, where he stayed for seven years. His solo career began in '97, although he fronted Sin Eaters in 1997-98 and did a stint as a touring guitarist for the Spinanes.
Leo unveiled a new band, Ted Leo/ Pharmacists, for 2001's critically lauded The Tyranny of Distance, which he followed up with this year's estimable Hearts of Oak. Although he likes his upward career trajectory, he claims no interest in joining the major label sweepstakes. After years grinding the highways in a van, playing countless shows in houses or small punk clubs, Leo now headlines to crowds of up to 800 in larger cities. "If you keep your expenses low, you can make a living playing rooms that big," he says. "If I could feel confident that that would be consistent, I'd be fine with it."
But it's not consistent, not yet. Leo still runs into the occasional paltry crowd. "In one sense, I actually have paid a lot of fucking dues," he says. "There are [slow] nights when I think, 'I don't deserve this anymore.' At the same time, you gotta treat the show like what it is — the only show you're playing that night.
"The shows with five people can truly be better than the ones with 5,000. If you're talking financially, that's not the case. But if you're a punk-rocker, financially is not the only reason you do it. We played a festival in New York with thousands of people there, and it was really cool. The faces, the ones I could make out, showed me a great reaction. But I also have years of memories of playing in basements, where there's a fan six inches from my nose and there's only 10 of them in there, but they're freaking out and it's amazing."
In the final analysis, Ted Leo is happy with his lot. "The nature of the fan reaction I've been getting the last couple of years is, uh, it's everything you could wish for," he says. "The people seem to want to be there other than just to hear some music and party down. They want to connect. And that's why I'm there."
Contact Senior Writer Eric Snider at [email protected], or 813-248-8888, ext. 114.