Old Haunts and New: An Interview With Veteran Punk Musician Ted Leo

The 42-year-old performer plays at the Birchmere this Wednesday and Thursday.

By: Sophie Gilbert

Ted Leo hasn’t lived in DC for more than a decade, but the South Bend, Indiana, native (who grew up in New Jersey) is still an icon in the Washington music scene. The musician, 42, was a huge force in the local punk scene in the ’90s and has been solidly making music with his band, the Pharmacists, ever since. Leo plays two solo shows with singer-songwriter Aimee Mann at the Birchmere October 24 and 25. We caught up with him to discuss making time to make new music, why he’s so beloved in Washington, and what it’s like being a veteran in the punk world.

What are you up to at the moment?

I’m working on a new record, and the process is kind of different from usual—this is the first time in, I want to say about 15 years, when I’ve had actual time to work on something. Normally I have all these ideas swimming around in my head, but we’re on tour all day, every day, so I lose about 70 percent of them. But I’m tired of that hamster wheel, so I purposefully engineered a bit of a stop to write and flesh out ideas. I’ve been playing a lot of solo shows because I do have bills to pay, but I’m really trying not to be on the road so I can sit and write and pretend I know what it’s like to be an artist rather than a workman for once in my life.

How did the tour with Aimee come about?

We’ve been pals for a while. I grew up knowing [her old band] ’Til Tuesday, and was always aware of what she was doing. I was more involved in the punk world as Aimee went into the singer-songwriter world, although she came from a pretty punk background. I liked that after having this huge hit [“Voices Carry”], she stopped playing the game and just made the music she wanted to. Through all her ups and downs in 30-plus years of making music, she retains an excitement about it.

This is your first time ever playing at the Birchmere.

I’m psyched to play there. I’ve grown so accustomed to playing the Black Cat and 9:30 and various church spaces across town, and playing there is always very comfortable, but one of the things that excites me about this tour with Aimee is that it’ll take me out of my comfort zone, venue-wise. I assume I’ll be playing to a lot of people who otherwise might not come to my usual haunts. It’s funny at this stage of my life, which is late, as things go, to be thinking about opening up to a new audience.

Speaking of stages of life, you’re still pretty young at 42. What’s it like always being referred to as a “veteran”?

Well, thank you for saying that. In my world, I’m not that young. I know plenty of musicians my age who’re still doing it at the pace that I am, and that’s great, but by and large rock and roll is a young person’s game. That’s not to say I don’t believe I have a place in it—I actually relish my place right now, and I like being someone who’s had my experience but still feels comfortable and excited about being around younger bands. I think a lot of people who write about music at this point are young enough that when they were starting, I was already in a position of establishment. And it’s funny to be in that category, because I still know all these people whom I regard as elder statesmen, and I look up to them in that way.

You certainly have an enthusiastic fan base here.

It’s great. I’m not from DC, although a lot of people think I am. I really only lived there for five years in the ’90s, but it was an important time for music, and for me, and for the city. Washington remains a place that continues to grow for me, even though there’s a certain amount of transience in the city and among the music-going population. I never arrive in DC expecting it to be as good as it was, but it always is, and that’s really a remarkable and much-appreciated thing.

Ted Leo plays with Aimee Mann at the Birchmere October 24 and 25. Tickets ($49.50) are available via the Birchmere’s website.

An abbreviated version of this interview ran in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.