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Ted Leo on Anarchist Cooking & His Break Up With Jameson

Welcome to Sound Cheque, where we sit down with one of our favorite bands to get the scoop on their city-by-city dining picks.

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Ted Leo [Photo: Matias Corral]

After nearly 25 years in music, Ted Leo is something of an indie stalwart. Opinionated and high-energy, he's fronted hardcore bands,been a part of DC's mod scene and turned out his own brand of pop with Ted Leo & The Pharmacists. So where does Ted still find the energy to tour non-stop, put on lively performances, and tweet like a boss? We asked him his secret? and if we could bottle it.

First of all, let me thank the Internet for making my first question super creepy: I noticed you've just tweeted a photo of an Arbois red you're enjoying this evening. How is it and are you a fan of Jura wines?
Awesome, it's really good! I really like a lot of the wines from the Jura region, especially the whites are really crazy. They change more over the course of a meal more than most wines do over the course of a few days. It took me a while to appreciate them, but I do really like them. And even the reds, like this Arbois, it's really simple compared to Jura whites?. just a nice, very French wine.

So you've said that you've been vegetarian since 1988 and vegan since 1998, what made you make the transition?
After about ten years of being vegetarian for a whole host of reasons that people tend to make that choice, the driving force was that I couldn't justify not being vegan. To a certain degree, once I'd made that decision to be a vegetarian and live with that for ten years, a lot of the less personal, more political/economic/animal rights reasons didn't really justify not being vegan for me. Just seemed like too much of a half-step.

So do you consider yourself a strict vegan then or a little more "a la carte" with your vegan choices?
Yeah? I wouldn't say I was vegan if I was a la carte.

So does that translate to booze as well? For example, are you a fan of any vegan beers?
Oh well, haha, I guess you just caught me in an a la carte moment! I guess when it comes to alcohol, I practice a "when I find out something is not vegan I cross it off the list," but I don't really do enough research to always have that knowledge on the tip of my tongue. But interestingly, as it turns out, a lot of the more mainstream beers — more so than mainstream wines — are actually safer than the well-crafted ones because it's less cost-effective to do the isinglass filtering, which is often the main reason that beers or wines are sometimes not vegan.

Speaking of booze, I read about your Emergen-C + whiskey concoction: two fingers of Jameson, one Emergen-C packet, and hot sauce. How'd you make that discovery?
Trial and error! Experimentation! Yeah, it's Emergen-C, whiskey and a healthy dash of hot sauce is the full recipe. It's just a nice little metabolism zoomer.

Well with Four Loko off the shelves, the market's ripe for Ted Leo-brand alcoholic energy drink? just saying!
Ha, well, I try to keep that sort of private lest people think I'm too much of a? well? an alcoholic. Haha!

Okay well then this makes me an enabler because my next question was going to be about your love of whiskey: Would you say it's your liquor of choice? Do you have any favorites?
You know, whiskey is not really my liquor of choice? anymore. It was for the majority of my drinking life, but something has changed — not in my palate, but in my body — literally over the last couple of months. It just slows me down these days. It used to kind of energize me more than other hard alcohol would, but now it just kind of makes me tired. It's not really something I'd sip alone, unless it was end of the night and I'm reading a book with the intent of falling asleep.

But in terms of favorites, I mean the workhorse of whiskey is obviously Jameson and for a long time we had a really lovely relationship — Mr. Jameson and I. But I also like a lot of single malts on occasion. Glen Moray is good and relatively affordable, Laphroaig is much more interesting, but sometimes a little too much of its own thing. And I really like Scapa, that's a single malt that you don't see enough I feel like. But as I've moved away from some of the darker liquors, I've come to find — and this is kind of posh, I know — but I really like a nice clear tequila mixed with Prosecco. It's amazing, even just tequila and soda water is really great — clean, refreshing, hydrating.

You've lived in a number of different cities and are on the road all the time – which do you consider home base?
I've been bouncing around a lot lately, but I'll take New York as a hometown.

What are the local New York spots you miss most when touring?
There are some great vegan bakeries around the country but it's pretty tough to beat BabyCakes. There's so much great local food just down the block Indian or Chinese places everywhere here. I guess for kind of a fancy night out there's always Pure Food and Wine, which is raw as well. One of the three best raw restaurants in the country I've ever eaten at.

What are your other two raw food faves?
I think it might be closed now but what actually beat out Pure for me back in the day was this place called Grezzo in Boston. Amazing, just so rich and so inventive. There's also a place in St. Augustine, FL of all places whose name I can't remember, [Ed note: Present Moment Café] kind of one of those magic on-tour-happened-to-stop-by-because-we-had-the-night-off kind of places. And it turned out to be amazing!

In your over 20 years of touring, what's would be your most memorable food experience?
There are a lot of moments where you're feeling depressed, it's rainy and cold, and you just stumble into something that knocks your socks off. As with any great meal — context has so much to do with it, but when you're in that kind of bedraggled state and you meet with any warmth and hospitality it seems like heaven.

I think I can say that the greatest meal experience I've ever had on tour was back in winter of 1997 when I was on tour in Europe with a band called the Sin-Eaters and it opened the door to years of other great hospitality meals in Europe, meaning meals provided for you by the people that are putting on the show. And to anyone who's toured America at all, the first time you experience that, it's such a shock, like "God! We're like barbarians back in America compared to how they treat you over here!"

So it was late November in England, just miserable classic English raw, rainy and cold. We'd played a couple shows and rolled into Nottingham and this guy Neil — who is still there and will take care of you! — was cooking for us. And usually in America we'd much rather go scout out something, but the care and effort he put into this meal was just amazing. There was this giant tray of vegan potatoes au gratin, and a vegan lasagna he'd made, and wine and beer, amazing bread. And I still joke around with my brothers who were on tour with me that at the time, what seemed like the most kindly offer in the world was the moment Neil leaned over and said, "More soy d'margarine, Ted?" in his cute Nottingham accent. It was just like, "(Gasp!) More soy d'margarine!? Thank you, thank you, thank you!" I practically broke down in tears, I'll never forget that.

What are your favorite cities to tour in because of the food? And where do you go when you're there?
At this point I have my kind of places pretty much mapped out and it's very rare I find myself in a place where I have to go back to my bag of almonds I keep in my pocket in case I can't find anything else.

Obviously New York is great. But as you might expect, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles are really great for vegan food in particular. There are more than a handful of really great options in any of those places. I mean, there's vegan junk food everywhere and sometimes that's what you want, but I find that on the West Coast, there are enough really creative, really well thought-out, real food vegan restaurants to choose from. In San Francisco there's Millennium, which is just the classic.

There's a place in Portland that's basically a whole section of town that's like a vegan mini mall. There's a mini-mall there with a vegan market called Food Fight and a little bakery there that's amazing and this anarchist collective kitchen around the corner called The Red & Black where the food is fantastic. You're going to wait a while because there's usually just one punk guy behind the counter making all the food, but it's really great.

And there's this place in Seattle called Plum Bistro that's pretty great. Their brunch is centered around sort of Central and South American type food, which is pretty uncommon for what you'd usually get, you know, like you're not going there for a tofu scramble.

As a Shorty Award winner and pretty avid Tweeter, do you ever use Twitter or apps like FoodSpotting to find new places on the road?
Not so much anymore, I mean at this point it's rare that I find myself in a town that I don't kind of know after having done this for 25 years or wouldn't know at least which neighborhood to go to. But I do use sites like HappyCow to get a vegetarian listing, and in conjunction with that sometimes I'll use Yelp.

Okay so now for some of your top picks!
Best all-round vegan cuisine: Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, FL and Candle79 in NYC
Best veggie burger: Open City in Washington, DC
Best bar or cocktail spot: The Black Cat in Washington, DC and Henry Public, Floyd and Roebling Inn in Brooklyn, NY

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists' latest album The Brutalist Bricks is available now on Matador Records

Check out Ted Leo & The Pharmacists video for "The Mighty Sparrow":

Also watch their video for the single “Bottle in Cork” featuring John Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins:

· Ted Leo [Official Site]
· All Sound Cheque Posts on Eater [-E-]