After writing The Monitor, Titus Andronicus' unlikely 2010 punk-rock concept album loosely based on the Civil War, singer-guitarist Patrick Stickles took a more autobiographical approach on the New Jersey band's new record, Local Business. He had plenty of material to choose from, including an inadvertent electrocution last year and his lifelong battle with an eating disorder.
"I don't see much need in dressing things up too much, hiding them behind too many metaphors," Stickles tells Rolling Stone of the album, which is out October 23rd on XL. "I guess I've been guilty of doing that in the past, but this time, I just wanted to tell it like it is, as far as I can see it."
Taking such a forthright approach was uncomfortable for Stickles, who had largely kept quiet about his struggle with a rare disorder known as "selective eating." People who suffer from it, a condition rooted in childhood, find it difficult or impossible to eat anything but a limited range of foods. Stickles says trying to eat something unfamiliar makes him panic and gag. He addresses it in a song called, simply enough, "My Eating Disorder."
"I started to write about it largely for the reason that I don't usually like to talk about it," Stickles says. "In art, there should be no secrets, really, so I decided to play out that concept in the most personal way for myself and see what was there, and hopefully in the process maybe empower some of our fans that might be dealing with similar issues, whether that's an eating disorder or any kind of bodily control thing."
Although the singer has sought treatment for his selective eating in the past, he says he hasn't made much progress. "I sort of gave up on it some years ago," he explains. "I'm not proud to admit that, but that's the way that it is. Sometimes it's easier to empower yourself in song than it is in real life. But at least I'm taking responsibility. Hopefully that's the first step toward something. I don't know if I've made the second step yet."
Although Stickles was unaware of other musicians' empowerment efforts like Lady Gaga's Body Revolution project, he says he has heard from fans in similar circumstances who have thanked him for writing about his struggle.
"People think that eating disorders are mostly a female problem, and male eating disorders don't get a lot of coverage," Stickles says. "Hopefully we can have a little bit of solidarity going on with my boys. Or girls. Whoever wants to get something positive out of the song."
"My Eating Disorder" is one of the tougher moments on Local Business, an album that Stickles wrote as a way to sort out the past few years of his life. "Moving to New York City, where I lived for a couple years, was a big part of it," he says. "That got me thinking a lot about my place in the world, how I can be an individual and still be a component piece of something much bigger than myself."
One unusual New York City experience inspired another song on the album. Titus Andronicus was rehearsing in Brooklyn last fall when nearby construction work sent a 200-volt burst of electricity surging through Stickles' body, resulting in a trip to the hospital. He wrote the punchy sing-along "(I Am the) Electric Man" while waiting in the emergency room.
"It's a positive moment on the record," he says. "It's where our hero learns the value of community, discovers that he's a circuit on the great motherboard – that is, society – and his purpose is to be a conduit for the energy of those around him."
Stickles pauses. "I guess there was a metaphor there. Sorry."