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THE BOTH: Q&A w/ Aimee Mann & Ted Leo


Photo by CHRISTIAN LANTRY

BY JONATHAN VALANIA Aimee Mann and Ted Leo started out as friends a decade ago, and then more recently they became tour mates. One day on tour Mann walked into Leo’s hotel room and heard him playing “Honesty Is No Excuse.” They got to talking about sounds and songwriting, and they quickly worked up a cover version they began performing on tour. This led to them discussing the prospect of pursuing a long-distance collaborative effort (she lives in L.A., he lives in Brooklyn) when they got back home. “We were just like ‘Fuck it, let’s push and make it happen,’” notes Mann. “You really just have to go, ‘You know what, I have to trust that this other person’s instincts are good.’” Leo furthers, “I think as Aimee and I have gotten closer, we have realized how much in common we have and how much respect we have for what the other person does and what they’re bringing to the table. The writing process has largely been long distance, but it’s been line by line, verse by verse, part by part; we’ll send each other something and go back and forth until it’s finished.” Verses and choruses were traded via email, how to piece them together was discussed over iChat. There was both trial and error and then one day…they clicked. And behold, The Both was born. Earlier this month they released the self-titled debut that is the fruits of said labors. Reviews have been glowing and last week they embarked on a tour that brings them to Union Transfer on Saturday. In advance of The Both coming to town, we got Leo and Mann and went over the album track by track.

PHAWKER: Why don’t we start with the most obvious question which is how and why did you guys come together to do this?

AIMEE MANN: Well, we have known eachother for probably ten years. About a year ago, I had a record out, and I was going on tour, and it was suggested to me that I have Ted Leo open the tour, and I said ‘What a delightful person he is. That would be wonderful.’ We definitely got to know each other better on that tour and started spending time together and that kind of eventually turned into ‘We really should write some songs together.’ We were going to do an EP, and you know, once you commit to doing an EP, you figure why don’t we make this a real thing — do a whole record and have a band?

PHAWKER: Where are you guys currently located? Aimee, you’re in Los Angeles — is that correct?

AIMEE MANN: Yeah, I’m in LA — Ted is in New York — Brooklyn.

PHAWKER: So, what I thought we would do is go track by track, play kind of free association — what inspired it or what’s it about, or just some funny/instructive anecdote about making it, recording it or finishing the writing up. Does that work for you guys?

AIMEE MANN: Except about the trying to be funny about it part. No guarantee on that.

PHAWKER: See, you just proved your fears of being unfunny unfounded — that was funny, Aimee, keep it up. You’ll be fine. OK then, “The Gambler.”

TED LEO: That’s the song that kicked the whole thing off. It was a song that I was writing and kept playing while I was opening up on tour for Aimee. I had actually written it, thinking to myself ‘I bet you Aimee would like this song,’ thinking eventually, ‘I should have Aimee play on it or something,’ and low and behold.

AIMEE MANN: When I actually heard it, I found myself thinking ‘I really want to play bass on this.’ So I asked Ted if I could sit in on bass.

TED LEO: Turns out, I didn’t even have to impose.

PHAWKER: There’s some peppy songs on here, but in general, the tempo is a tad slower than is typical of Ted’s work.

AIMEE MANN: I slow Ted down — he speeds me up.

PHAWKER: Exactly. Which is not a bad thing, right? He completes you.

AIMEE MANN: Really is a classic fire and ice situation.

PHAWKER: “Milwaukee.” I’m hearing a little Thin Lizzy on this.

AIMEE MANN: Oh yeah, they are definitely on our list of influences. I was stopping by Ted’s hotel room to pick up something, and he was playing the Thin Lizzy song — the one that we cover now, “Honesty Is No Excuse” — and I was really, really intrigued by it. I thought that that’s the kind of a sound that I could see us using as an influence for songs that we write together where there is that more frenetic energy of someone like Ted, but there’s still like an acoustic guitar element that — you know, I can’t avoid this ‘I’m a little bit country and he’s a little bit Rock n Roll.’ It’s really sad, but yeah, Thin Lizzy became a big influence. And for “Milwaukee,” I came up with the initial stem for that song, and I was really consciously trying to go towards the Thin Lizzy thing, but also, I thought it was a more signature Ted Leo sound which was a lot of chords moving and a faster harmony than I usually have it.

PHAWKER: It’s called Milwaukee because that’s where the hotel was, or some other reason?

TED LEO: No. It is a kind of a song that’s based on a weird, fun day that we had in Milwaukee.

AIMEE MANN: To be honest, those lyrics — when I had initially sent them to Ted — I had written those lyrics as somewhat of a joke like ‘Remember that dumb statue that we saw?’ But then I kind of became attached to it like ‘Maybe we should keep it– make it a real thing.’

TED LEO: When you are on tour you sometimes have these weird moments that become the locus of the focus.

PHAWKER: Did you just coin that? Locus of the focus?

TED LEO: I think I did. I don’t know if I want to own it, but maybe. But, this particular day that we’re writing about — it was a time while you’re on tour when you’re a little bit in that kind of trench warfare, foxhole mentality with your traveling companions, and I think that our shared humor and shared aesthetic — a lot of it was actually revealed to us on that particular day.

PHAWKER: I’m picturing you guys doing the Laverne and Shirley thing.”1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel!

AIMEE MANN: Very close.

PHAWKER: Did one of you put your glove on the beer bottle?

AIMEE MANN: We’re trying to take a picture of ourselves with the Fonzi statue, but it was so awful that it made us look even worse. It was so bad we were like ‘Nope, got to delete every picture.’ Ted, I think you just recently sent me a picture, or someone posted a picture, with them posing with that statue. It’s really — as bad as I remember it, it’s even worse. I feel completely justified in saying that it brings out the worst in everyone.

PHAWKER: “No Sir.”

TED LEO: I think “No Sir” is a good example of how our writing styles mesh — sometimes in talking about how we work together, where we overlap doesn’t get enough credit or credence as it should. “No Sir” is a great example of how when we come from a place where we both differ in approach that it has created some of our more interesting songs.

AIMEE MANN: I agree.

TED LEO: It’s still pretty exciting for me to play.

AIMEE MANN: Yeah, that’s my favorite song because I think it’s the perfect marriage of our songwriting styles — the verses are something I came up with, but if it was my song, I probably would’ve stayed in the same cadence, and it would have become like a little dirge-y and there’s kind of a bridge-y chorus thing that Ted came up with that is so interesting and so different from anything I would’ve thought of. It makes it really exciting and fresh. And the thing that’s interesting about our writing, to me, is that –I don’t know if this makes any sense to you Ted– but, I feel like we have the similar melodic sense, but a very different harmonic sense. Like your chord progressions are very different from mine, and that keeps it really interesting, but we kind of overlap on the melodic thing.

TED LEO: I agree.

AIMEE MANN: His kind of rhythmic vocabulary is what differs a lot from mine.

TED LEO: I feel like what you’re saying is that my timing is bad.

AIMEE MANN: No, no, no, no. You’re just a lot more conversant in a lot of different styles.

TED LEO: You really just think my timing is bad.

AIMEE MANN: People hear what they want to hear.

PHAWKER: It seems to me that Ted is a little more out of his comfort zone vocally than you are, Aimee. Not meaning that it’s awkward, but just not what he’s done before. Is that accurate?

AIMEE MANN: That’s interesting because I feel that Ted is always in his comfort zone and it’s really annoying to me, because I feel like I have a range of like two notes. I’m also forced to sing high harmonies on this which I can just barely hit. Very irritating. Ted always sounds like super strong, and belting it out regardless of where the range is.

TED LEO: Ordinarily with my vocals, I would be pushing things to the top of my range — even to the extent of raising the key of the song so I can sing it higher. Part of that is that I honestly don’t really feel that comfortable — I’ve never thought that my voice was all that strong against lower registers, but I feel much more comfortable singing in that zone when I’m singing with Aimee. I think our voices very well together, and it gives me more confidence to be in that lower register, and kind of settle into where the song is at, and not have to — not actually try to drive a song with my vocals.

PHAWKER: The harmonies are quite lovely all around.

TED LEO: Thank you.

PHAWKER: “Volunteers of America.”

AIMEE MANN: We were very interested in the idea of self-sacrifice and where the line is between being of service to people, when does that become codependency, and sacrifice and martyrdom, and how that it manifested in Catholicism — or in people who are ex-Catholics.

PHAWKER: Oh, you both ex-Catholic?

TED LEO: Very ex-.

PHAWKER: Same with you Aimee?

AIMEE MANN: Not me, but I’m fascinated by the Catholicism.

PHAWKER: Ted, what do you make of the new Pope?

TED LEO: You know, what am I going to say? I think a lot of his movement back towards the actual social gospel and consideration for the poor and underprivileged of the world is great and noble, but hey, you know — I really don’t care. I think the church — it’s not something I’m invested in. I’ll leave it at that.

PHAWKER: “Pay For It.”

AIMEE MANN: One of our poppier songs. To me, it sounds like a Monkees song.

TED LEO: Yeah, I feel like Neil Diamond even maybe.

PHAWKER: Who wrote a bunch of their songs.

TED LEO: And that was one of the last songs that we wrote. That was when our machine was really humming. You have the chorus riff, and we just really kicked that one back and forth throughout the course of like a day or two.

PHAWKER: “You Can’t Help Me Now.”

TED LEO: That was the first song we wrote together, and that was the one what really made it happen. We had been off tour and in our separate locales for two weeks and much to Aimee’s credit, she really got the ball rolling by sending the first verse chorus, and I said ‘Alright. If we’re doing this, we’re doing this. Let’s go.’

AIMEE MANN: Co-writing makes you have to be very clear about what you’re saying because you have to explain it to the other person. If I send Ted a verse — in order for him to write the second verse, he needs to know exactly like ‘Where do you want to go for the second verse? What’re you saying in the first verse? Is this person angry or is this person happy? What’s the dynamic? What do you want to happen?’ If I was just writing it on my own I would be more like ‘Well, I don’t know. I thought I’d throw some words together and just hoped for the best.’

TED LEO: And going through that for the first few songs — especially this one — eventually we got on the same wavelength. Just getting over those first couple of hurdles that you can’t help really brought our co-writing thing really together.

PHAWKER: Is this the first time either one of you has really taken advantage of how easy the Internet makes it to collaborate long distance?

TED LEO: Yeah. For me, we did a lot of writing on iChat actually, and we would send things back and forth via email.

AIMEE MANN: By sitting down and concentrating writing the whole record together, we really had to figure out ways to make the internet work for us.

PHAWKER: “Prisoner.”

AIMEE MANN: That was very informed by or touring experience together which is why it references a lot of European ice and snow. That’s where we found ourselves.

PHAWKER: “Hummingbird.” There’s a line in there about marching on Monsanto — is that right?

AIMEE MANN: Yes.

PHAWKER: And, what’s that all about? Because I’d love to march on Monsanto.

AIMEE MANN: I wrote the initial verse at right when there were people marching on Monsanto that I just read about. It started to become this whole — some of it was inspired by my knowledge of Ted’s love for the Tolkein-ish all things Hobbit-y. So, it was a bit informed of that. It was also a vision this dystopian future.

TED LEO: It’s obviously an environmental song. There is some explicit things in there about the bee colony collapse and also GMOs. It’s also like I feel like in some ways with this album — and it’s largely encapsulated by this song– it is the latest step in a lifelong pursuit of mine to write a dystopian Ram — that’s Paul McCartney’s pastoral thing. And this is the dystopian version of that.

AIMEE MANN: I am so down with that.

PHAWKER: “Honesty Is No Excuse.”

TED LEO: “Honesty Is No Excuse” is the Thin Lizzy song that got us discussing sonic palettes and realizing that we had a lot of similar ideas about where to go next with out songwriting, and etc. That was the song I was playing in my hotel room when Amy walked in and it pretty much started the whole project. We had been covering it on tour so it just felt natural for us to include it.

PHAWKER: “Bedtime Stories.”

TED LEO: “Bedtime Stories” — that one is actually important. That’s kind of –I wouldn’t say dedicated to but– inspired by, and in some ways for, a mutual acquaintance of ours — Scott Miller from Game Theory. He died last year. He’s actually the person who introduced Aimee to my music many many years ago. It’s one of those weird windy roads that sort of brought us together.

PHAWKER: “The Inevitable Shove.”

AIMEE MANN: This is where our mutual love of musical theater comes in. To me, it almost sounds like it should be in Godspell which is absolutely a good thing.

TED LEO: I could see some Godspell choreography going to that.

PHAWKER: So when you say love for music theater, you’re not being either sarcastic or ironic, you genuinely —

AIMEE MANN: No.

TED LEO: Not at all.

AIMEE MANN: Ted is a big fan of Jesus Christ Superstar.

PHAWKER: Who isn’t?

TED LEO: But I feel like Godspell‘s got a couple of good songs, but overall it’s pretty cheesy.

PHAWKER: A little too Hippie/mime-y for your tastes? Last thing — Aimee, is there anything else you’d like to add about “Bedtime Stories” and Scott Miller?

AIMEE MANN: One record especially — Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things– it was a Loud Family record and it was a huge influence on me. I listened to it over and over and over. And Scott and I became friends — he went up to San Francisco, so I didn’t get to see him very often. But musically, he was a really big influence. I was trying to make a record with him — it was probably about 10 years ago– an acoustic record where we were both singing basically my favorite songs of his, and somehow the hard drive got lost somehow. I have no idea where that record is. But I was really crushed when I heard of his death.

PHAWKER: Alright. Well, sorry to end on a bummer note there but thank you guys for taking the time out to do this and I look forward to seeing you when you get to town. Good luck with this.

THE BOTH, FEAT. AIMEE MANN & TED LEO, PLAY UNION TRANSFER ON SAT.

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