There’s a unique place that’s going to be popping up this spring in South Kingstown and it’s called the Rhode Island People’s History Museum. The organization aims to tell the story of The Ocean State via historical artifacts and the experiences of working people from the state’s past. In turn, they want to inspire people about the future through exhibits and presentations with a hands on approach while abiding by the theme of social and economic justice. Obviously it’s going to take some money to make an endeavor like this a reality so there’s going to be a fundraiser happening at Pump House Music Works on 1464 Kingstown Road in Wakefield Saturday evening. Punk rock troubadour and current Wakefield resident Ted Leo, from Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, and Providence Americana act Barn Burning will be performing.
I had a conversation with Leo ahead of the show about how he got involved, his plans for St. Patrick’s Day, being a fan of comedy and working on some new music later this year.
Rob Duguay: How did you end up getting involved with the museum and this event?
Ted Leo: The people behind the museum have a little bookstore and meeting space in Peace Dale called The Collective. I’ve been in there a few times, they told me about the museum that they’re trying to put together and they asked me if I was interested in being a part of a fundraiser. Turns out that I am free and I was definitely interested.
RD: That’s very cool. Last year you got to be a part of the animated film “Steven Universe: The Movie” which is based on the Cartoon Network TV series of the same name. You voiced the character Steg and you contributed the song “Independent Together” with Aimee Mann and Deedee Magno Hall. What was the experience like for you being a part of the film?
TL: It was great. Rebecca Sugar, who created “Steven Universe” and still runs the show, came and stayed with me here in Rhode Island for a week or so. We worked on the character and the song together. It was mainly us collaborating on the song and I actually enjoyed acting even though my lines were slim. When I went out to Los Angeles to actually record the vocals with the Cartoon Network people, I did all the lines that I had to do and it was just fun.
RD: It sounds like it. Next month for St. Paddy’s Day weekend, you’re going to be doing a series of shows with the Dexy’s Midnight Runners cover band Too-Rye-Ay. This includes a stop at the Columbus Theater in Providence on March 13. This band, including you, has 11 members so how has it been rehearsing with this many people? It must be crazy, fun and a little chaotic at times.
TL: We did this as a one-off last year in New York on St. Patrick’s Day. The main idea behind this project is this guy David Nagler who is a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter himself and Wesley Stace who performs under the name John Wesley Harding and he also has a long-running variety show called the Cabinet Of Wonders that I’ve been a guest on numerous times. David is the bandleader for the show and that’s how David and I hooked up. He found out that I was a Dexy’s fan and when you find other true Dexy’s fans you have to cling together because there aren’t a ton of us in America. We had this idea of just doing it as a one-off last year but it was so much fun that we decided to do it with a full-blown tour.
There’s a big horn section, some traditional Irish instruments and they’re all excellent musicians. Adrienne Berry, who plays with me in The Pharmacists, is part of the horn section and it’s all people who’ve known each other through music over the years. It’s not as hard as you would think to put it all together. I just stand there and sing, they’re all craft players. I have the easiest role mentally although physically I’m singing it all at the top of my range, so it’s actually not that easy but mentally I have the easiest part.
RD: Kevin Rowland sang like a soul singer when he lead the band in the ‘80s so I can only imagine the difficulties that come with trying to match that. Do you have an old pair of overalls that you’re busting out for this?
TL: Adrienne let me borrow a pair last year (laughs). I’m hoping the same thing happens this year.
RD: One thing I’ve always found interesting about you as a musician is how you’ve incorporated elements of comedy into your work. For the music video “Bottled In Cork” you had Paul F. Tompkins involved, the music video for “Can’t Go Back” is a spoof on those ‘70s album commercials and you’ve even performed on the sketch comedy show “Human Giant” when it was on MTV. Have you always been a fan of comedy since you were a kid or did you not get into the comedy until later on in your life?
TL: I always was a fan of comedy. I think as a kid, growing up especially in the ‘80s as a pre-teen I was into Richard Pryor, a lot of drier stuff like Bob Newhart and stuff like that. I was definitely a fan of Monty Python and all of their spinoffs like “Fawlty Towers.” It probably wasn’t until the very late ‘90s that I started meeting some comedians who were my own age. They really started creating their own new scene, some people called it the alt-comedy scene or whatever.
At the time, it centered around a couple places in New York. They were my age and they were people who grew up in punk rock in the way that I grew up with comedy so they were fans of music. I would meet comedians at my shows who were doing cool stuff in these clubs that I would go to. I got to be friendly with a lot of people, people like David Cross, Todd Barry, Paul F. Tompkins, John Hodgman and that went on for a long time. A lot of them moved to L.A. and only since I started working a lot with Aimee Mann around 10 years ago I’ve gotten to reconnect with a lot of those people and the comedy scene has become a scene that I’m adjacent to again.
RD: It’s interesting how you got involved with it in the ‘90s by having fans who turned out to be comedians coming out to your shows. That’s pretty cool.
TL: It’s the kind of thing that until you’re in a band, you don’t realize how normal it is for someone who’s in a band to be in a band. For me, this is my life and some people will be like “Oh, you’re in a band?!!!” and I wouldn’t think it would be that big of a deal. It was the same thing meeting these comedians where I would be like “You like my music? I’m such a fan of your comedy! This is crazy!” They would be like,” Well, we’re like the same age and I’m a human being who likes music so why is it so weird?” I would be on the other side of that coin and it would take a little bit for me to realize that it makes sense.
RD: I totally get that. What do you have in store for this year in terms of new music? Do you plan on putting out another solo record or something new with The Pharmacists or another record with Aimee Mann?
TL: I don’t really know yet to be honest with you, I have a lot of things on tap. I have a lot of leftover music from what I was working on that became my last album, “The Hanged Man,” which is now over two years old. I could pull another album together from that if I wanted to but over the last two years some of my ideas have changed and moved on. I don’t have a lot planned for the spring, I think that’s going to be a real sit down look through the archives to see what I want to continue working on and see which new direction I want to go in.