Ted Leo and Ekko Astral Are Preaching to the Choir

The soon-to-be tourmates on the utility of political punk, being a band in DC, and more.

Jael Holzman is the lead vocalist and songwriter for the DC-based punk band Ekko Astral; Ted Leo is singer and musician, and the frontman of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, which formed in DC. Ekko Astral’s debut record pink balloons is out April 17 on Topshelf, and the band will be joining Ted on his tour this summer in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Pharmacists’ record Shake the Sheets. To celebrate it all, Jael and Ted got on a Zoom call to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Jael Holzman: How you doing, Ted?

Ted Leo: OK, how are you?

Jael: I’m doing well. We’ve actually never chatted face-to-face. 

Ted: That’s true, that’s true. 

Jael: We’ve done phone calls, we’ve done texts — including late night conversations about what we’re about to talk about. Where am I finding you? Are you at home?

Ted: I’m at home. This is my dark, dingy basement workspace.

Jael: I am currently inside of a phone closet in the House Press Gallery in the US Congress.

Ted: Interesting. They put a lot of money into the sound baffling in there.

Jael: Yeah, I’m friends with the people that do the sound stuff here. There’s actually a white noise machine also going on.

Ted: Oh, wow, amazing. 

Jael: People do TV hits in these rooms, too. I’ve actually done a TV hit in specifically this closet — I once did a hit for Hawaiian television to talk about the gas stove ban. [Laughs.] Alright, let’s get started here. So, the question I posed to you, to start this conversational joint-interview thingamabob, was: how has the world changed in 20 years since Shake the Sheets came out? I mean, you told me it it hadn’t changed much…

Ted: I mean, I don’t want to be too doomerist about this — materially, some things have certainly changed. You know, 2004, when the record came out, was the the height of the beginning of the second Iraq War. It was already a period of some exhaustion for me personally, because so many of the previous few years had involved so much energy spent trying to make one’s voice heard against starting the war, and against the war in Afghanistan. And of course, the social fears of the what was the new-ish Republican Party under George W. Bush, which was more explicitly welcoming to the kind of Christian nationalism that is now really ascendant in the party. But of course, that was the same in the Reagan years — it just was not as well understood, I think — and, in fact, had been a growing part of the right wing electorate at that point for a hundred years. Everything that I say, I have to go back and say, “Well, I guess that has a 60 year history…” But these things snowball, and now it’s a big giant snowball.

I will say that maybe [the biggest difference] was that I was 20 years younger. I currently feel two ways about the ability of an artist, and a citizen in general, to affect the kind of change that actually stops wars. Because one thing that I always would say back then is, if you’re a lefty punk rocker, you often get accused of “preaching to the choir.” And I would be like, “Well, yeah, that’s right.” These very cathartic shows that we were having back then were absolutely about catharsis for the choir. There was no point at which I thought that one of my records was going to land on Donald Rumsfeld’s desk and he would change his mind about American military policy and imperial hegemony in the Middle East. You know? It was absolutely about keeping my momentum going in our own movements and trying to meet my audience where they were at — because that’s where I was at — and create some sort of communal catharsis that would hopefully engender further work. And I think that that continues to this day. The record is not going to land on Joe Biden’s desk and have him say, “You know, this fella from new Jersey’s got something to say…”

One thing that’s changed somewhat positively since then is a little bit of a better understanding about how the smaller races for office are actually kind of attainable, and it’s through them that, if you’re into electoralism, you can actually affect some change. So we’ve seen the House in both directions get a little more deeply into where their constituency is at. And that’s a good thing from my side of the aisle. 

Jael: I’m struck by the point you raised on your record never landing on a a person of power’s desk. As a band in DC, candidly, it’s become clear that the culture you make is the culture locals take. Without naming names, I’m fortunate enough to say that people who are important have arrived at our shows and the shows of our friends. I’m sure you have experienced something to that effect, as someone who’s been a mainstay in DC as well. Do you think that being a DC artist in particular gives you a degree of influence over the culture in the city? Do you think that being a part of the arts community in a space like Washington can actually impact the decisions that are made? Or do you think that people, for better and for worse, just separate the artists from the art completely?

Ted: Well, unless they’re just wandering in off the street like, “Oh, music. I’ll go see what it is” — I don’t think that someone’s going to walk into one of your shows or my shows without some idea of what they’re getting into. To be really specific about DC and the population and the government, maybe a lot of staffers are coming to our shows. I actually do have a pretty firm belief — and you can corroborate or choose to not say anything about this — that most elected officials don’t actually consume a ton of media. They probably just consume what their staffers are feeding them in the morning. So maybe if a staffer gets emotionally moved or intellectually sparked by something that an Ekko Astral performance is laying down for them, maybe that translates into some recommendations from them. But, you know, DC punk has been very political, and very big in the national consciousness of punk rock and indie rock, for decades. And I don’t feel like we’ve seen a subsequent shift in government priorities based on, you know, the punk protests against apartheid that happened in the ‘80s, or the Operation Ceasefire thing on the Mall that I played in 2005, or things that are going on now. I’m not entirely sure how far up the chain that winds up translating.

Jael: Yeah, I mean, in my experience, it’s often a secret enjoyment. I heard a story once of someone who wore their their Ekko shirt to work on the Hill underneath their clothes. [Laughs.] I’m struck by the point you raised that things haven’t shifted. Why do you think that is? We, on our record, have this idea that you are what you eat culturally. Like, culture flows downward from politics — it’s one of the few ideas that I would praise Steve Bannon for saying, because I say it all the time. It’s totally accurate. Do you think DC punk — or I guess now the current iteration of whatever punk is in this country — do you think it has the cultural cachet now that it used to?

Ted: Again, I think I have to give this a yes and no answer. It’s a little bit, it is as it ever was. Because one of the things that’s always been interesting to me about punk rock is the frisson between kind of socialist aspirations and libertarian don’t-tell-me-what-to-do vibes. Either one of those things can be co-opted and bent to whatever point one wants to make.

Jael: But that’s the zone of horseshoe, right? Isn’t that a place where we can be culture warriors, in effect? Isn’t that a place where we can actually influence people towards moral decision-making?

Ted: Well, yeah. And I hope that does happen. When we’re talking about the levers of power — don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that there’s no power in what we do. I’m just suggesting that, thus far, I haven’t seen a ton of it filtering all the way up to the top. I mean, this goes way deep into capitalism and what actually moves the levers of power — at the very long end of things, one hopes that the answer to that is people. And so we all have our role to play in moving people in a very immediate sense. This is really cliched and sort of Pollyanna-ish, but that, one hopes, ultimately becomes a bigger movement of people that actually moves things. What are your thoughts about this? Because you’re much more involved in DC in particular these days too. 

Jael: I guess, first and foremost, I take a journalistic approach to songwriting, where I really don’t try to tell people how to feel about a particular thing. The root of good storytelling is that you show, don’t tell people the story. I like to describe Ekko’s music as an affective, as opposed to an effective, mode of culture. And so knowing that we are so popular in DC and that our crowds can be quite diverse, I try to use that melting pot moment to encourage solidarity between people based off of face-to-face interaction — something that happens quite rarely. As an organization, Ekko does not act politically, we act culturally, and that’s with intention. I struggle with this a lot, because knowing that our band, at least in our roots, comes from the DC queer community, I do wonder if, as we get more popular — because so few people know a trans person, maybe just by being in the same room and seeing people as they are, perhaps by being in the pit, people can understand one another. I don’t know if that is actually what is happening, but in my initial interactions, it does seem to me that at a minimum, we’re giving a lot of DC residents the first chance to meet a trans person, like, ever. And I’ve heard great responses from people. I’ve never heard a bad thing. It feels a bit secretive, though. People aren’t making themselves known, at least right now, and I do feel as though that’s because the political has become all-encompassing. Politics is culture, when that’s the worst way for things to be. And so as a punk band, there are obviously things that are presumed about us politically. But I think punk is really not about rules, and so confining ourselves to them feels prescriptive and wrong. 

A question I have for you is about American punk, because I personally have an affinity now for mostly British rock bands — a lot of what I listen to is like IDLES and Lambrini Girls and Ditz. I’m wondering, do you think that American punk is alive and thriving? Or do you think it’s gone the way of the dodo?

Ted: Well, first of all, just to follow up on what you were saying earlier — I actually think we’re saying very similar things about what we try to do in a room, in a live context. I think I feel the same way that you do. I also would just point to the fact that you and I are here to say that I don’t think American punk is dead. Like, we’re literally here talking to each other right now. 

Jael: Yeah, I mean, we are definitely examples of that. But I do fret about, what are people doing in the trenches? You see me post about this all the time — the strength and the influence…

Ted: Right. I don’t know, these things all come and go in waves. I think that maybe we’re delving into a little bit of just personal taste for what’s happening at the moment. The new bands that I listen to are mostly bands that I wind up seeing or hearing about from other people. I am not tapped into a zine culture like I used to be, or radio stations—

Jael: You don’t use TikTok, Ted?

Ted: I don’t use TikTok. [Laughs.] It’s not going to get banned for me because I have not used it. I still use Instagram pretty frequently, but I barely use any other social media these days. But I understand that these are the ways that people find things out. For so long, I was on tour so often that it was great — that was how I would see other bands. This is just to say that, in terms of musically and excitement-wise, what’s going on in American punk right now — I do have to admit that I fall into a little bit of an old person slot, where I’m not using TikTok, I’m not finding things out in that way, but I am still engaged and I am still interested. It’s how I found you and your band, by trying to keep an ear to the ground.

Jael: I admire that about you and I hope more people embody that. I guess I’m not concerned with the presence of artists, or whether or not there are smart and creative voices being heard. But in terms of social impact through culture-making, I’m curious to see if the coming months of unrest that this country is going to go through foments some sort of re-ignition in terms of angry music. That’s something I will be interested in. I hope it happens, because we’re overdue.

Ted: Yeah. This is one of those tough things where — you know, I’ve lived through enough cycles of hopeful eras and less hopeful eras that, every time we turn a corner into a more frightening era, there’s always the certain segment of people that will say, “Hey, at least punk’s going to get good again.” And as someone who has never stopped doing it for going on 40 years now, I really just want to say: fuck you. Like, please, fuck all the way off. Do not wish for that. What you’re wishing for is bad circumstances to create things that you could create yourself, if you need it that badly. Or that are [already] here — there’s angry punk music out there from the past and currently. Find it, engage with it. Don’t wish for or celebrate the circumstances that may in fact bring this back. Celebrate it when it happens. Celebrate it if you need it. But don’t wish for it, you know?

Jael: Journalists have asked me why I thought Ekko was getting so much traction, and I tell them that it’s because a lot of people are worried they’re going to die, and that’s what we write about. I have to say, lately I’ve not not been sleeping very well, because when we made pink balloons, we were kind of predicting and trying to imagine what would happen. We recorded it last year, and we knew it would come out around this time, and my fear was that this would come to pass, and that fear and anxiety and anger and sadness was what drove a lot of our creative output. It continues to drive our creative output in Ekko. What’s been unnerving is seeing how accurate and correct it was, that now I’m I actually have trouble sleeping. Because like, how dare you hope that one day things are so bad that I make this? I’m making art about my own death. Why would you wish that upon anyone? And for what it’s worth, we may get great art out of this era, but hopefully it fulfills its purpose and is not suborned by the big capital of it all.

Ted: Right. We need the great art to help us through those times. It helped me time and time again in my own life. And one of the main meta goals of doing this for me is just to hope that you’re part of that continuum that that will help somebody else. While you’re also helping yourself, by the way. We do need it. We absolutely need it. And if you’re like me, you’re also compelled to create it in those times. 

I did this short audiobook conversation with Aimee Mann, called Straw Into Gold. She and I were talking about Rumpelstiltskin, about spinning straw into gold, and how the whole thing is really a metaphor in that particular case for the trauma of a young woman. But we were talking about trauma in general — and just for context, I’m an abuse survivor, as a child — and how it affected my art, and sometimes how it affected my reticence to make it, or even to feel that I was worthy to make it. One of the things that we got to at the end was: it’s amazing that we can take this straw that we were handed and try to spin it into gold, but what if we were just handed gold? What would we make if we were just handed gold at the beginning? That’s one of these things that actually makes me tear up thinking about, all of the people who have to take their trauma and their fears and work with that to make something beautiful in their lives. And to put that into the lives of other people, it’s a gift. I don’t take it lightly. Going back to the original question about bad times making good art — I just wish that it didn’t have to be that way. I just wish that artists had a chance to make some art that didn’t require that it begin from this sort of tainted soil, as it were.

Jael: If there’s any plus, I would say it is that we’re experiencing a death of poptimism in a sense. Because as conditions get worse, people are panning the new Ariana Grande album. They’ll probably do the same to the Taylor Swift album. They’ll start spitting it out, all that bad, over-sweet candy that they’ve been served for a long time that distracted them. 

Ted: Well, I would also say that there’s always a place for escapism. We need our love songs.

Jael: Oh, sure. But I think so many people make music about being rich and being powerful, and being lost in vapid celebrity drama. I think people just don’t have appetite for it anymore. I think there are still people who want it, but I think a lot of folks are starting to realize that that is like watching the Super Bowl while Gaza is bombed, you know? 

Ted: I hear you on that. I agree. I don’t know how to feel myself about this. I guess I’m glad, but that has actually never appealed to me, for whatever reason. I feel like I came into the world with a crooked eyebrow at that kind of stuff.

But can I just say, also, that I can’t wait to get your actual new record? I’m going to flex a little bit and say that I’ve heard it ahead of the release, and I think it’s really beautiful. It’s actually one of the things that made me go, “Ah, we have to tour together.”

Jael: I’m really excited for people to hear it. I think that our run is going to be fucking sick.

Ted: It’ll be great.

(Photo Credit: right, Kohei Kane)

Ekko Astral are the DC-based pioneers of “mascara moshpit” music — a pummeling puree of garage princess post-punk. Their debut record, pink balloons, is out April 17 on Topshelf. 

(Photo Credit: John Lee)