Staying true

Ted Leo holds out
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  November 27, 2007

VIDEO: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, "Colleen"

With his roots in the popular ’90s band Chisel, his outspoken belief in veganism, and his passion for punk-influenced, politically minded music, Ted Leo is a man with all types of fans. Last March he released his fifth full-length album, Living with the Living (Touch and Go), with the Pharmacists, whose members have varied over the past eight years. They’ll play Avalon on December 1. Reached by phone, Leo discusses arm wrestling, that whole Radiohead thing, and why he refuses to sell his music for commercial use.

Your music video for “Colleen,” a track from Living With the Living, debuted on Stereogum a few weeks ago. In it, you arm-wrestle a group of tough-looking competitors, with a thermos of baked beans as fuel. Are you a big arm-wrestler?
[Laughs.] Not at all, actually. Apparently I have a hidden talent for it that I never knew about. It’s written by this guy Tom Scharpling, who’s a comedy writer and has a pretty famous radio show on WFMU, a free-form radio station in New Jersey, and I think that it was definitely a nod to Sylvester Stallone’s Over the Top arm-wrestling movie.

You’ve been supportive of WFMU over the years, and a frequent contributor, especially on Tom Scharpling’s The Best Show on WFMU. What do you see as the importance of radio among today’s download-minded music fans?
I grew up a mile from the WFMU studios. Since the early ’80s, when I first started listening to the station, it’s opened up so many doors. I first started getting into hardcore and punk from hearing it on WFMU. The diversity of a true free-form station, it’s a really rare thing in the world of radio.

As far as radio in general goes, even the biggest rock stations have such limited playlists at this point. Everyone’s part of the big names in broadcasting — Clear Channel, etc. But what’s interesting is that there’s been kind of a resurgence in good college radio as a reaction to that. I’ve certainly noticed from driving around the country and just flipping around the left end of the dial that the college-radio format is branching out a bit, and I’m hearing a lot more diversity on those airwaves, which can only be a good thing.

We’ve got some fantastic college radio stations in Boston.
Oh yeah. Boston in general is one of the better areas for radio, without a doubt. You’ve got so many college-radio stations — ’BUR, ’ERS, WBCN. Wait, no, what’s the BC station? [WZBC.]

Radiohead recently released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, as a digital download, asking fans to pay whatever they want for it. What do you think about this concept?
All right, let me start with a positive thought first. I think that anything that pushes the boundaries of expected sales models for music right now is an interesting and probably good thing to do. I also, however, feel that Radiohead, being kind of rich rock stars, have the luxury of doing something like that. A lot of bands don’t. I’m slightly suspicious about the whole thing because they did this “pay what you want” download release with full knowledge that it would be released in a box set with tons of extra stuff later on. Meaning they had to know that a big percentage of their fans were going to buy the album twice. So to be totally honest with you, in some way I kind of feel like it’s actually a scam, and I’m not particularly excited by it.

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