Ted Leo sheds stress of deadlines, record label, for new LP 'The Brutalist Bricks'

After releasing “Living With the Living” in 2007, Ted Leo & the Pharmacists got off to a fast start on the follow-up. It also proved to be a false start.

Recording sessions went nowhere, prompting the band to take a year-long break from the studio — just in time to spend the summer opening for Pearl Jam and then to see their record label, Touch & Go, essentially fold up the tent. Despite what would seem to be discouraging circumstances, Leo and the band felt liberated.

“It all went toward putting me personally into a place where I was breathing better,” Leo tells Listen, Dammit.

Thus refreshed, the band reconvened in the studio, finished “The Brutalist Bricks” and signed to Matador, which released the album this week. It’s an energetic record that finds Leo and and the Pharmacists in fine form on 13 taut new songs.

Here are three facts we learned talking to Leo.

1. Sometimes you need a break. Leo has been on the record-tour-record treadmill since his days with Washington D.C. band Chisel, and it can be exhausting. “I think spending a year between recording sessions had an interesting effect on us as a band,” Leo says. “It took us out of the hamster-wheel cycle. All of a sudden, deadlines were gone because we had missed them all. It was really kind of liberating, there was no pressure. Without a label and without a deadline looming, it was just like, we were back in a zone we hadn’t been in a while.”

2. Big-budget tours aren’t always bad. Which is not to say the band immediately leaped at the opportunity to hit the road with Pearl Jam. “It kind of engaged me with that world that we always kind of paint with a little skepticism,” Leo says. Yet he and the Pharmacists found the entire Pearl Jam operation to be welcoming and, in its structure and business dealings, inspiring. “It was an amazing way to see how one can grow and still stay connected with some righteousness both in business things and how you interact with your fans.”

Also, it was a great opportunity for Leo to introduce his music to new listeners without feeling bound by set-list expectations. “After a show or two, we kind of realized, you know what, anybody who’s actually here to see us is probably already a fan who’s seen us a million times,” Leo says. “And anybody who’s not already a fan isn’t going to be familiar with our back catalog, so they’re not going to be clamoring to hear the songs that have ingratiated us to our crowd.”

3. And then there were four. The Pharmacists had performed and recorded as a trio during much of the past decade, but early Pharmacist James Canty returned on guitar for tours with Pearl Jam and recording sessions for “The Brutalist Bricks.” “For ‘Hearts of Oak,’ the edges of the band were very fungible. ‘Shake the Sheets and ‘Living With the Living’ were both made as a three-piece, so this is the first one that’s been made as a solid four-piece,” Leo says. “The fact is that the fourth member, who’s quote-unquote new to the band, is actually old to the band and a really old friend of mine. He was one of the people who helped make ‘Tyranny of Distance’ with me and toured with the band right up to ‘Hearts of Oak.'”

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(Photo by Shawn Brackbill)

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