Singer, songwriter, guitarist
At a time when it seemed impossible that indie rock would ever find mainstream acceptance, Ted Leo was forging ahead, laying the foundation for the “emo” and hardcore bands of the future by writing seamless pop and punk songs that pleased both the sugar-craving ear and the intellectual mind. He combined a love for 1960s pop and soul with a flair for 1970s punk rock and his ongoing legacy is one that will continue to be an influence on independent music for years to come.
Leo was born on September 11, 1970, in Bloomfield, New Jersey. His parents enrolled him and his younger brothers in piano lessons at young ages. He didn’t pick up a guitar, the instrument for which he’s best known, however, until he was 18.
After graduating from high school, Leo cut his musical teeth on the New York City hardcore punk scene, playing guitar in the bands Citizen’s Arrest and Animal Crackers. By 1990 those bands had exhausted themselves and Leo moved to Washington, D.C., to study at the University of Notre Dame. There he had his first taste of success when he formed the mod-punk outfit Chisel.
Obsessed with the soul-drenched pop style of the Jam and the dubby rhythms of the Clash, Chisel, consisting of Leo on vocals and guitar, drummer John Dugan, and bassist Chris Norborg, created a hybrid that was both heady in its political sensibility and advanced in its musicality. Sarah Liss of Toronto’s Now describes Leo’s music as “political without being didactic, gor-geously layered fables with clear messages embedded in the poetry.”
Affairs of the state always played an important role in Leo’s life, both musically and personally. In fact, during his stay at Notre Dame, and because of his proximity to the politics-heavy D.C. hardcore scene, Leo was in spired to work on President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. He left rather disillusioned though, telling Avishay Artsy of Boston University’s Student Underground, “I felt betrayed. He [Clinton] seemed more hopeful than he turned out to be.”
After releasing a slew of singles on the independent New Jersey-based label Gern Blandsten, which were compiled on 1995’s Nothing New, Chisel released their 1996 full-length debut 8 a.m. All Day. The band was briefly courted by Slash/London Records but stayed with Gern Blandsten right up until their final release, Set You Free. Leo and company never quite trusted the major label system, having heard horror stories from other like-minded D.C.-based bands that were stripped of their artistic freedom after signing big label contracts.
Following the 1997 release of Set You Free, their most popular record, Chisel disbanded and its members went their separate ways. Of the breakup, Leo told Artsy, “The three of us in the band had started having different ideas about where things should go and how they should proceed. The third and last album was the hardest… largely because we weren’t ideologically and aesthetically together as a band.”
Leo then moved to Boston to form a punk trio called the Sin Eaters with his younger brother Danny and ex-Van Pelt bassist Sean Greene. The Sin Eaters played fast and hard and in less than a year burned out with similar speed and intensity. Leo’s hands were in so many pots that it was no surprise the Sin Eaters’ end was near. He was doing double duty as a touring guitarist for the Spinanes and was producing the Secret Stars’ record Genealogies at the same time. At the same time his brother Danny decided to focus on his side project Holy Childhood; soon enough, without any real recorded history, the Sin Eaters were no more.
Throughout the late 1990s, Leo continued to move around the East Coast, roving between New Jersey, Boston and Washington, all the while picking up friends from each area and recording different projects with many of them. In 1998 Leo began performing as a solo artist at the urging of his friend Amy Farina, a member of the Warmers. It was with her that the original blue-prints for Pharmacists were drafted. The pair traded taped ideas back and forth, singing karaoke over top and adding new pieces here and there, then shelved the project for a time.
Eventually Leo’s solo experiments were ready for the public and in 1999, under the moniker Tej Leo(?), he
Born on September 11, 1970, in Bloomfield, NJ. Education: Attended University of Notre Dame, Washington, D.C.
Guitarist in Citizen’s Arrest and Animal Crackers in New York, NY. 1989-90; formed Chisel in Washington, D.C., 1990-97; released debut 8 a.m. All Day on Gern Bland-sten, 1996; formed Sin Eaters in Boston, MA, c. 1997-98; touring guitarist in the Spinanes, c. 1997-98; solo performer, c. 1998-99; released Rx/Pharmacist on Gern Blandsten, 1999; formed Ted Leo & the Pharma-cists, c. 2000; released debut Tyranny of Distance on Lookout!, 2001; released Hearts of Oak, 2003.
Addresses: Record company—Lookout! Records, 3264 Adeline St., Berkeley, CA 94703, phone: (510) 450-8310, website: http://www.lookoutrecords.comMan-agement—Flower Booking, 1532 N. Milwaukee Ave., Ste. 201, Chicago, IL 60622, phone: (773) 289-3400, fax: (773) 289-3434. Website Ted Leo Official Website: http://www.tedleo.com.
released Rx/Pharmacists. Like his solo live shows, Rx/Pharmacists incorporated electronic samples and beats as well as other bits of studio trickery and noise. Understandably, this was quite a departure from the raw punk pop sound by which most had come to know him. While the record was critically panned, Leo viewed it as an exercise that many of his Chisel fans took a bit too seriously.
In a 2003 interview, he told Pitchfork Media’s Chip Chanko, “I mean, people’s reactions to that record were so over the top. It’s like, people acted like I came into their f***ing house and stomped on their puppy’s head or something. I just put out a record. If you don’t want to listen to it, don’t listen to it.”
After the not-so-successful Rx/Pharmacists, Leo re-cruited a few live players including Farina, Make-Up guitarist James Canty, and bassist Jodi Buonanno of the Secret Stars. With this new lineup Leo released the Treble in Trouble EP—a throwback to his more soulful Chisel days—under the name Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. This time around, Leo was lavished with praise and he knew he was back on track.
Years earlier he had struck up a friendship with Chris Applegren, front man for the Pattern and head of Ber-keley, California’s Lookout! Records. Applegren agreed to release Leo’s next release, the full-length debut of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists entitled Tyranny of Distance—a line nicked from a Split Enz tune. The album was produced by Brendan Canty, drummer for the seminal anarcho-punk band Fugazi and brother of Pharmacist James Canty.
Following Tyranny of Distance, Leo assembled an entirely new band of Pharmacists and recorded Hearts of Oak in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, his thirty-first birthday. “After the attacks, I worked on the docks in Jersey City loading boats. A lot of the record is about trying to remember my place in the world,” he reminisced to Jenny Eliscu in Rolling Stone.
Heart of Oaks, recorded with bassist Dave Lerner, drummer Chris Wilson, and keyboardist Dorien Garry, finally garnered Leo the wide recognition he deserved. While it lyrically found Leo at his most lucid, he described the sound to the Boston Globe as, “This weird Van Morrison meets Curtis Mayfield, meets Irish traditional music, but as loud as you can play it, kind of thing.”
Though Leo is often compared to Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello, he admits that Curtis Mayfield is one influence/comparison he holds dear. “All of Curtis’ records are such amazing examples of seeing the whole person. You have this amazing, beautiful love song next to a scathing political song. That’s always been the ideal way to go about things for me,” Leo explained to the Austin Chronicle’s Greg Beets.
By 2003 Leo replanted himself in his native Bloomfield, where things have come full circle for the Jersey boy. Hearts of Oak stepped up his public profile and gave him a renewed sense of optimism. His resumé of guest appearances continues to grow—from the Lapse to Saturday Looks Good to Me—and, no doubt, so will his studio productions. Leo also says that the more he plays, the more his songs change and the better they get. “Touring means you’re playing your songs every day—and that’s actually good for me over the last couple years. I was able to verbalize some things that were a little more amorphous. I was able to focus for more of every day on the ‘craft’ than I otherwise would,” he reflected in a 2003 Detroit Metro Times story.
(With Chisel) Nothing New, Gern Blandsten, 1995.
(With Chisel) 8 a.m. All Day, Gern Blandsten, 1996.
(With Chisel) Set You Free, Gern Blandsten, 1997.
(As Tej Leo(?)) Rx/Pharmacist, Gem Blandsten 1999.
(With Ted Leo & the Pharmacists) Treble in Trouble(EP), Ace Fu, 2000.
(With Ted Leo & the Pharmacists) The Tyranny of Distance, Lookout!, 2001.
(With Ted Leo & the Pharmacists) Hearts of Oak, Lookout!, 2003.
Austin Chronicle (Texas), March 14, 2003.
Boston Globe, March 28, 2003.
Metro Times (Detroit, Ml), February 19, 2003.
Now (Toronto, Canada), March 27, 2003.
Rolling Stone, January 15, 2003.
Student Underground (Boston University), November 6, 2000.
“Chisel,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 4, 2003).
“Chisel,” Epitonic, http://www.epitonic.com/artists/chisel.html (April 4, 2003).
“Eventide: Interview with Ted Leo,” Insound, http://insound.com/zinestand/eventide/feature.cfm?aid=5101 (March 29, 2003).
“Interview [with Ted Leo] from January 30th, 2003,” Pitchfork Media, http://pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/l/leo.Jed-OS(January 30, 2003).
“Ted Leo,” Aquarian Online, http://www.theaquarian.com/articles/iviews.mv?ARTID=000244-1 (April 4, 2003).
’Ted Leo & the Pharmacists,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 4, 2003).
“Ted Leo & the Pharmacists,” Lookout! Records, http://www.lookoutrecords.com/bands/band.php3?bnd_id=355 (April 4, 2003).
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