Is The Both—the name given to the new collaboration between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo—a duo or a band? This seems like a critical philosophical question, and the answer is: Can't it be both? Although these once-and-future solo artists are the only mainstays of the project and do more than their share of harmonizing, there is an overwhelming sense that the rock is strong with these two, which makes it difficult to relegate their galvanizing joint music to a terminology historically reserved for gentler guy/girl verse swappers.
"Honestly, I feel like for the first time I'm part of a rock band," exults Mann—and that's really saying something, given her history leading 'Til Tuesday (and before that, Boston's Young Snakes) as well as taking full coteries of musicians out on her solo tours. "I guess it really is just the two of us, but I think of it as a band, you know, like the Captain and Tennille were a band."
There is an awkward pause in the conversation before Leo chimes in. "The Carpenters were a band," he adds, helpfully, or not.
"Like Seals and Crofts," Mann further contributes. Okay, maybe this is not going well. "There are no rockin' duos," she finally complains, lamenting the obvious and chuckling at their seeming aloneness in the musical firmament. "Are there any rockin' duos?"
"It's interesting," says Leo, putting on his brain-racking hat. "I mean, there are bands that are built around duos, like X." That's agreeable to Mann. "Let's think of ourselves like X!" And with that, these two revered and ready-to-turn-it-up-to-10 singer/songwriters have finally arrived at an acceptable analogy, with apologies to Richard and Karen.
Clearly, Leo and Mann harmonize in their sense of humor as well as in more literal ways. And about the only thing you can count on going into The Both, their SuperEgo Records debut as a musical couple—er, rock group—is that there will be a sad wryness to much of the material. Not to mention probably a bit of between-song light comic relief on stage when they take this act out on the road.
"We've bantered in German," reveals Leo. "We had a whole bit. Sense of humor is one thing we have in common, for sure. And also, just a love of melody, and harmony, and—'Words that actually mean something,'" says Mann, finishing his thought. "But," adds Leo "I also think that it's still revealing itself, to a certain degree. Because we are constantly meshing and pulling apart and coming together over the course of songs or even just individual lines in songs, I'm discovering more than ever things I'd never even thought about that appeal to me."
Mann: "I think the most important thing that we're on the same page about is the importance of doing something well. There is so much cynicism, and when you see somebody doing something, even if you don't like it, you can tell whether or not they gave a shit about it, and that imparts this almost spiritual thing to me as a viewer, whether it's in music or 'I knitted this puppet' or whatever bizarre thing it may be. There's something so inspiring when you see somebody that really cares, so it's important for us to make it as good as we can make it."
Even if that led to occasional clashes in the extremely collaborative writing process over... rhyme schemes. Leo comes from a more overtly punk-oriented background, as the leader since 1999 of the New York-based band Ted Leo & the Pharmacists, and he admits he hasn't always been so meticulous about the exactitude of language as Mann, one of popular music's most celebrated wordsmiths. "I wouldn't say it's a bad thing that I've done this in the past, but there are fudgy rhyme schemes that I would have let slide because there was a particular word that I got attached to using in a particular place. Aimee has shown me that often there is another word that will rhyme better that also gets to where you want to be. I've sometimes enjoyed the sloppy miss of certain things, to the extent that I've sometimes purposely sung a different word in a vocal harmony."
"Oh, God, that is so against my nature!" groans Mann, laughing. "It's just that later in life, I've realized that when I hear exact rhymes, there's an enormous pleasure that happens and a little thing that clicks in your brain that makes the whole idea lock in in a different way. So I strive for that and say 'Let's spend an extra minute here'—because it's fun! And because I've been doing it for 30 years, it has gotten easier." Leo came around to Mann's way of thinking: "That's part of what helped me get over any ego issues with the editing and collaborative writing, because it really is fun to sit down with her and tinker and treat it like a puzzle."
Yet The Both is hardly an album that suffers from evidence of excessive fuss. The raw, mostly stripped-down musical approach of many of the songs will sound familiar to fans of Leo's Pharmacists, since his band has operated in recent years as a power trio, and much of the new album was recorded with just Leo on guitar, Mann on bass, and guest drummer Scott Seiver. On any number of occasions it actually sounds ferocious, which has not typically been the first word popping up amid Mann's three decades of rave reviews. You wouldn't want to overstate the case that Aimee Mann records haven't "rocked," since her last album, 2012's Charmer, was characterized by a return to a less keyboard-driven and more guitar-based sound. But this may be the first Mann-associated release to spotlight something we might even loosely characterize as shredding.
"I've got to say, it's funny the way this album has shaken out," says Leo. "Because my albums are littered with guitar solos—there's no way I would deny that. But I actually think that it may be even crazier on The Both record! While we were recording the Thin Lizzy song"— a cover of that legendary power trio's "Honesty is No Excuse"—"I was holding back a lot, and it was actually Scott, the drummer, who said, 'I don't want to hear what you think you're supposed to do on this record. I want to hear you.' And I was like: Okay! Seat belts off!"
But Leo feels that there is "a lock-in of expectations" about what each of them brings to the table that is a bit "unfair. Going through Aimee's catalog, it's not like she doesn't have her rockers on every record."
"Yes," Mann tells Leo, "but anything you sing on, you have an energy to your singing that declares it a rock song. And I have this fucking sleepy Karen Carpenter thing to voice that's absolutely not in my control that declares it to be a folk song, and that's just how it is. I really think vocals dictate how a song hits people. I could sing a song that's super-fast with constant drum fills and solos, and it would still lilt," she laughs. "But, Ted, you could have the same exact track, and then people would say how blistering it was. See, that's why I like singing with you!"
Leo, for his part, said he's dealt with the opposite stereotype about his previous music—that it's more hardcore than contemplative. "I've straddled a lot of different worlds," he says. "I feel like sometimes I get wrongly painted as someone who never treads into that kind of slightly slower to even mid-tempo, acoustic guitar, borderline-ballady territory. But it's not something that feels alien to me to approach... Going back 25 years, in the real crust-punk world that I was involved in, I was always the guy who brought melody and a pop sensibility to things. 'Oh my God, that's crazy: You actually sing on that song, instead of shouting through it!' On the punkier side of things, we'd be like 'The Pop Band!' But then playing on different kinds of bills on different nights, going more into the indie-pop world, we would always be known as the band with lots of energy that was really loud. So it's almost hard to peg from night to night what the more dominant aspect of one of my crowds would be."
It's nice to do a project that shatters those mutual stereotypes, but that's not to say they don't both bring their known strengths to the Both. "I don't think that anybody even with those broad expectations who comes to the table is gonna walk away feeling like they didn't get that out of the record," Leo promises. "I don't think in either case fans will feel like there's anything missing," he says... while adding, as an aside to Mann, "I don't know how people will respond to your black-metal grunts and rumblings."
"Grunts and rumblings!" she echoes. "Oh my God. My growling."
There are trademark Mann touches in the instrumentation, like some occasional keyboard parts, "but compared to the records I usually do," she says, "adding a little Mellotron part in the chorus still counts as pretty stripped down." The general modus operandi, though, was simple enough, and the most basic of classic-rock setups: Power trio.
"In retrospect, I feel like we should have listened to some Cream or something," says Mann, who largely swaps out her acoustic guitar on the record for the electric bass she was first seen playing in 'Til Tuesday days. "But it really came down to one Thin Lizzy song, as our model. It was like, oh, okay. This song? Let's go."
It was a happy accident that a Thin Lizzy song became a partial model for what The Both would become. "The two of us were going to meet to go get coffee one day, and I was playing 'Honesty is No Excuse' in my room when she came in. It's from their first record, which is pretty obscure in their catalog. Aimee had never heard it, and she said, 'What is this?' Early Thin Lizzy is not 'The Boys are Back in Town'; it's a lot spookier and more atmospheric and strange. And talking about that particular song is what led to us, I think, really figuring out where a lot of our musical overlap lays. So purely for the fun of it, before we had written most of the record, we started playing that song together on tour and decided to record a version of it. The narrative of the lyrics almost goes maudlin, but it stays on the sharp side of picking apart a personal history of addiction and human failure and all those things we like to sing about, and I think all that appealed to Aimee."
It was another late singer who brought these two together in the first place, though—not Phil Lynott, but Scott Miller, front man for the cult favorite Game Theory, who passed away last year, and who holds a special, spiritual, guru-like presence in the new album's heart.
"The whole reason I knew about Ted," Mann says, "is that way back in the day, Scott Miller had said, 'You should check this guy out; I think you would like him.'" Leo recalls how Miller "wrote me out of the blue and said, 'I really like your record,' and I was like, 'Oh my God, really? I'm a huge fan of yours.' And he gave Aimee one of my first solo records back in 2000 or so. I was a huge Game Theory fan back when they were around in the mid—'80s, and his influence is a meandering series of tributaries that really led to this thing."
When they started doing joint tours together a couple of years ago, they always meant to connect with Miller and thank him for the recommendation, but never did before he committed suicide in April 2013. "As with any time someone you know dies, you're filled with self-recrimination" for not staying in better touch, Mann says, "and it was just very upsetting." One way of dealing with the grief was to write a song that is both about Miller and a musical salute to him, "Bedtime Stories." "It was consciously a tribute to him," she says, "especially the chord progression of the chorus, which is very, very Loud Family."
How'd they make the leap from mutual Miller friends and fans to actual collaborators? There were the joint tours as mutual solo artists, which eventually led a couple of singer/songwriters who really aren't used to sharing the spotlight to think about the benefits of going side-by-side, as Sondheim would have it. Funnily enough, they had both recently written songs that they felt was more in the other's stylistic wheelhouse.
"You Can't Help Me Now" was the first of their jointly written songs, and from there, they were off.
At first they committed only to doing an EP together, which is how the first announcements went out in 2013. Upon the shorter version's supposed completion, says Leo, "I didn't feel like 'Okay, that's done.' I actually felt like we were just getting started." Agrees Mann: "Me too, me too. I mean, I'm ready to do the second one. Let's make it a double album. With double gatefold sleeves, and cutouts of mustaches and hats and dress-up dolls."
Anyone waiting for the next non-collaborative Mann or Leo project may have to wait a while. They're hooked on sharing. "It takes the pressure off," says Mann, "and on tour, certainly with some of the banter back and forth"—in German or otherwise—"it's obviously a lot more fun than just talking into a microphone to a dark sea of people. People focus on the fun of playing music as the person who's out there getting all the attention, like this narcissistic sponge. But to me the most fun thing about being a musician is being part of a unit that works together where you can hear that a totally different thing springs up. That is definitely more satisfying to me personally than being out there all on your own. Certainly it's fun to have people clap for you and you alone and think 'Oh, look how awesome I am,' but it's really not as satisfying." Mann and Leo can take at least as much delight, then, as we can in the fact that this town is big enough for the Both of them.