Musician Interview: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists Celebrate the 20th Anniversary Of “Shake the Sheets”

By Robert Duguay

“I would say that a good half of Shake the Sheets has always remained in our set. We haven’t necessarily played all of those songs at every show, but they’ve been rotating in and out all the time over the last 20 years.”

Punk rock singer-songwriter Ted Leo has a stellar discography alone as well as collaborating with others. He has been a solo artist, one half of The Both with Aimee Mann, and part of several bands, including Chisel and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. For many, one of Leo’s recordings stands above the others: his fourth album with the Pharmacists, Shake the Sheets, which came out in the fall of 2004. For many critics, it is the best album Leo has ever done. Since its release, the disc’s songs “Me and Mia,” “Little Dawn,” and “Heart Problems” have become fan favorites. Leo is now on a tour celebrating the album’s 20th anniversary. He and the band will be coming to Boston and performing Shake the Sheets (in its entirety) at the Paradise Rock Club on June 22 with Washington, DC, punks Ekko Astral kicking the night off at 8 p.m.

I asked Leo about writing and recording Shake the Sheets, what it is like to revisit some of the album’s songs after 20 years, his thoughts about Boston, and his future plans.

The Arts Fuse: What are some of your most vivid memories during the initial songwriting and recording process for the making of Shake the Sheets?

Ted Leo: This was the first and one of the only times I’d ever worked with a producer who wasn’t me on a record. It was this guy Chris Shaw, who is fantastic by the way. He’s an incredible person; he also has an incredible ear for music in general. He’s worked on anything ranging from Bell Biv Devoe and Public Enemy to Bob Dylan and later Bad Brains stuff. Chris is really adept at seeing what strengths you are bringing to the table no matter what kind of music it is. He had the idea to use two studios, which was partly based on budget, partly based on what he knew we could do and what we should spend our budget on.

We wanted to get the drums done at the Power Station, which was known as Avatar Studios at the time. It has a big, amazing geodesic dome drum room. It’s where a lot of ’80s [Bruce] Springsteen records were made. I think he was working, as an intern, at the studio on those records. We went from there to Stratosphere Studios, which was more of our speed of a studio. It was smaller, but it offered a great old mixing board, a lot of great gear, and some old friends were engineers there.

It was really fun to go to the Power Station. To go from a big giant classic rock studio to a smaller place you’re used to, where you can just settle in. We could throw in all of our overdub and mixing ideas and not have to worry about owing billions of dollars to the giant studio, where we recorded the drums.

AF: For this run of shows celebrating the album’s anniversary, you’ll be in the Northeast and eventually the West Coast playing the album in its entirety. How has it been for you and the rest of the band revisiting these songs during the rehearsals?

Leo: I would say that a good half of the album has always remained in our set. We haven’t necessarily played all of those songs at every show, but they’ve been rotating in and out all the time over the last 20 years. So there’s a lot of it that we’re very familiar with, even though we haven’t played them in order, as we’re doing on this tour. The other half of the album pretty much fell out of rotation; a couple of these songs have almost never been played live in the form that they are on the album. I’m not sure we’ve ever played the song “Better Dead Than Lead” live, other than the night before we went into the studio to track. We had booked a secret show and just played the album to work it out. I play “Bleeding Powers” all the time solo, but the band version is very different. We’ve never played the tune as a band because it’s rhythmically really complex.

Of course, the band is different now. We were a three-piece back when we made this record. We had a different bass player, so it’s only myself and drummer Chris Wilson who remain from those days. It’s a much bigger band, so there is the need to figure out how to work three guitars into these songs and a keyboard part — that kind of thing. One thing that I always have enjoyed since I expanded the band is the chance to add more backup vocals: there are harmonies on this record that were never reproduced live — until I got a few more singers involved. That’s going to be fun for me, having a lot of those harmonies be part of a live show.

It’s been a long time since we’ve revisited some of the songs, even the ones that we’ve played forever, because I haven’t listened to the entire record for awhile. I don’t go back to listen to my own records, so I forgot about some of the harmonies that are on the record as well as some of its extra guitar parts.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Photo: Luke Slisz

AF: You lived in Boston for a few years. Are you nostalgic about coming back to the Paradise?

Leo: Even though I haven’t lived in Boston for a long time, I’m still kind of always there. I’m always coming through the city for one thing or another: it never feels as if I’ve been very far from it. It always feels like I’m coming home in some ways, but it’s not about nostalgia because I feel like I’m never that far from Boston.

AF: After this tour with the Pharmacists, what are your future plans?

Leo: I’ve been putting out a lot of music over the last few years, just not in the traditional album format. It’s all been via Bandcamp or my Patreon. There’s more than an album’s worth of new material in those places. It’s a large amount of stuff, to the point that it’s a little bit daunting to think about it. Do I just record something new and leave all this stuff where it is? Or do I try to compile some kind of album out of it and rerecord it with the band? I’m not really sure, but something will happen next year. My time and ability to do touring is very limited, which is why we’re only doing a week here and a week there. That should open up a little as time goes on. So there will probably be some more touring next year. Also, I just recorded a couple of new songs as The Both, my project with Aimee Mann — we’re going to put out a new single at some point but we don’t have a timeline for that.

Rob Duguay is an arts & entertainment journalist based in Providence, who is originally from Shelton, CT. Outside of the Arts Fuse, he has also written for DigBoston, Aquarian Weekly, Providence Journal, Newport Daily News, Worcester Magazine, New Noise Magazine, Manchester Ink Link, and numerous other publications. While covering mostly music, he has also written about film, TV, comedy, theater, visual art, food, drink, sports, and cannabis.

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