On March 8 and 9th, 1862 two ironclad ships, The Monitor and the Merrimac, also known as the CSS Virginia, clashed at Hampton Roads, a roadstead in Virginia where the Elizabeth and the Nansemond rivers flow into the Chesepeake Bay. This meeting marked the most famous naval battle in American history. For two days, the mammoth naval structures went head-to-head, The Merrimac for the Confederacy, The Monitor for the Union. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of the most influential battles of the American Civil War, and was the first time ironclad warships engaged in combat—each ship, The Monitor especially, representing innovative engineering and technological advancement the likes of which the world had never seen before. In the wake of the two-day battle, both ships declared victory, though it was later determined that it ended in a draw; a defeat on both fronts.
On March 8th, 1889, Swedish-born inventor and engineer John Ericsson—who designed and constructed The Monitor right here in Greenpoint at the long since defunct Continental Iron Works, and whose accomplishments are commemorated in McGolrick Park, where a statue stands in dedication of his great ironclad ship—died in New York City, at the age of 85.
And on March 9th, 2010—148 years after Hampton Roads, to the day—Titus Andronicus, one of the smartest, tightest, most creative bands playing punk music today, released their second full-length record, The Monitor, an album that employs the Greenpoint-built warship and its fight against the Merrimac as an extended metaphor for the struggles of modern life. Titus Andronicus frontman and Greenpoint resident Patrick Stickles caught up with the Greenpoint Gazette in McGolrick Park, to talk music, history and neighborhood.
GG: Give me a little bit of history about Titus Andronicus.
PS: The band started about five years ago—I think our first practice was in April of 2005. My friend Ian, who plays the base, was back in New Jersey from Rhode Island, where he was going to school at the time. It was just buddies getting together and making a racket, and we stuck with it for three years. We made a record, graduated college, people seemed to sort of like the record so we decided to put off adulthood for a little while, that was two years ago. We’ve been slugging it out, pushing the old boulder!
GG: When did you move to Greenpoint?
PS: I moved to Greenpoint in October. My girlfriend moved in when we were on tour, and when I came back I became a Greenpoint resident and I haven’t looked back since.
GG: What are some of your favorite Greenpoint spots? What’s your favorite thing about living in the neighborhood?
PS: I’d have to say the Greenpoint Deli Market on the corner of Greenpoint and Manhattan Avenue, which is where I go to get all my cassette tapes. I also love God Bless Deli Grocery on Calyer, which has the best pickles in the neighborhood, the hottest pickle jar in the neighborhood. I always feel like a Greenpoint resident when I go in there. They say, “Hey, you want your pickle?” and I say, “Hell yeah I want my pickle!” Café Grumpy is another good one, get your coffee and your little laptop out; typical no-bro stuff. Lulu’s too, with the beer and the free pizza. They have some cool shows there sometimes, and they have the best proverbial juke box in Greenpoint.
The thing that’s best about Greenpoint is, well the location. Everything you could ever want is in the neighborhood, or a short train or bus ride away, but it’s not quite as crazy as some other neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It’s not quite as hipstery as Williamsburg, though it’s pretty much almost there. It’s got that nice small town kind of feel, but with all the amenities of the planet’s greatest city. It’s the best of both worlds. It’s friendly and homey. Look at this beautiful park that we’re in! It’s so cool.
GG: Tell me a little bit about your new album, The Monitor. It’s sort of about the Civil War, but it’s also very contemporary and modern. The name, The Monitor—a ship constructed in Greenpoint—and there’s also a song at the end of the album called The Battle of Hampton Roads. What is so interesting to you about the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac?
PS: Yeah, built right here in Greenpoint! My friend Alex, our official videographer, and I actually decided to go where the Continental Iron Works used to be. So we went there, and it’s a parking lot now. There wasn’t even a plaque or anything. It’s such a drag.
[The Battle of Hampton Roads] is just so epic. I was watching a movie by Ken Burns called the Civil War, and I remember getting to the part about the ironclads and thinking, this is something out of Star Wars. It was a pretty unprecedented achievement of maritime technology. There was something like 42 patentable achievements on board. John Ericsson who built it, a Swedish engineer, was a genius. I was just so impressed. It was real Clash of the Titans stuff. The Monitor and its arch rival, the CSS Virginia, were representative of the big-weapons opposing forces during that conflict. The sum total of both of their military capabilities, respectively, manifested in such a massive way. It must be the Civil War battle that actually had the fewest casualties, probably. I don’t think anybody who was on board the Monitor died during that battle. Maybe a couple, but not thousands like in the other battles.
GG: It’s also funny, because both the Monitor and the Virginia claimed victory, though neither of them actually won.
PS: That’s sort of the case with all of our battles though. Does anybody really win when we face off against each other? That was one of our motifs, making that battle an apt metaphor. Of course, being a New Jersey-an, and a fan of racial equality, I’d have to side with the Monitor, though the Virginia was an impressive battleship, too. Even though it’s only real advancement was a different material for the hull. Those Confederates. What a bunch of dummies!
GG: What was the process of writing this album like? Because some might say it is something of a concept album. Did it grow out of the Battle of Hampton Roads?
PS: It sort of is [a concept album], but the narrative doesn’t have anything to do with the Civil War. The Civil War is just a metaphor. Every great album, in my mind—not to say ours is great!—but they all have that unity of action, because a long-playing record should be more than just a collection of singles. It should be a cohesive statement. The best albums, I find, are the ones that you get more out of by listening to the whole thing than just whatever song comes up on shuffle. That was an aesthetic parameter I set for myself.
GG: Did you do any research?
PS: I did, here and there, but that ended up not being what I wanted to do, because it ended up being about my own experiences. I did read some things that ended up supporting my thesis.
GG: What is your thesis?
PS: The thesis is that we all have to be accountable for our happiness. Our hero—well, it’s me, but I’ll refer to him in the third person—he’s not necessarily that happy with himself but he finds solace in the self/other relationship, and is able to define himself positively only in relation to others who he defines negatively. The character feels a lot of angst, and ennui, and is able to pass the buck onto the enemy that we hear so much about throughout [the album]. But ultimately, in the end, he finds that’s what the other guys were doing. He finds that in the end, we’re all the same, we’re all slugging it out because it’s something to do, it’s easier than taking responsibility. In the end, nobody wins and nobody ends up making any progress, just like how the Monitor ultimately couldn’t destroy the CSS Virginia. The Virginia ended up being blown up by its own crew, and the Monitor was brought down by engine failure. Ultimately we can only be responsible for our own happiness, our own self-actualization or, if we chose, our own destruction. In the beginning of the record, there’s that quote by Abraham Lincoln that says, “As a nation of free men, we will either live forever or die by suicide.” Our point is that ultimately, we have to be responsible for defining ourselves positively, and not by absence, which is a symptom of our own post-modern nightmare. But ultimately, like any human, I’m just bouncing around on a big old spaceship I can’t possibly understand.
GG: What was the recording process like?
PS: We recorded at a studio called the Marcata Recording, localized inside a barn. We spent the whole month of August 2009 up there. We moved in, set up shop and made it our little clubhouse. Then our friend Kevin was left to make sense of it while we went on tour. He mixed it in September and October, and we mastered it here in New York City. Since then, it’s been in God’s hands.
GG: Any last words for the readers of the Greenpoint Gazette?
PS: Support your local businesses! I hate the new 7-Eleven. It makes me so mad to see it. It’s tough, because as what might be seen in the eyes of the neighborhood as a hipster, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been complicit in the opening of that 7-Eleven. Not that they’re going to get a cent from me. We were talking about this at the NAG Action meeting. It’s a paradox, because people move to the neighborhood because they love the local feel of it, but somehow that translates into the destruction of local business. That’s weird and awful, and I’m not sure how to correct it. But I do beg all the Greenpoint Gazette readers: Let’s be the neighborhood that puts 7-Eleven out of business. There are ten bodegas even just on that block. It’s bad enough we’ve got that Duane Reade.
Titus Andronicus will perform on August 20th at Glasslands, with Bad Credit, No Credit. The show is a benefit for Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG).