Aimee Mann & Ted Leo: The Both
Likely/unlikely collaboration might even yield a musical
By Doug Freeman, 1:00PM, Wed. Aug. 13
Ted Leo and Aimee Mann demonstrate a natural rapport – a deep friendship – one that manifests itself in their musical partnership, the Both. After touring together, the two began collaborating. April’s eponymous LP merges Leo’s punk-driven ethos with Mann’s introspective bent. Experience it live tonight at Mohawk.
Austin Chronicle: Where are y’all calling from right now? Still splitting coasts?
Ted Leo: Yeah, we are. We’re really splitting coasts right now because I’m in the east and Aimee’s in L.A. As soon as we’re done with this interview actually, Aimee’s going into the studio with our drummer Scott [Seiver] to do some tracks that will theoretically get bounced to me so that I can finish them here in the east.
Aimee Mann: A lot of back and forth.
AC: Let’s start there then. What has the experience been for both of you writing long distance and that aspect of the collaboration? I’d imagine there have to have been some frustrations involved in that.
TL: One of the most frustrating things for me was that it’s actually just nice to be in the same room with somebody. But we make good use of the technology that’s available. We video chat a lot. It’s easy to just record a voice memo on your phone and text it to the person and get quick comments back. We make it work. And then we also try to be with each other as much as possible, whether because of touring or whatever.
We recorded all of the last album in one place, in L.A. This is the first time we’re actually trying to record something bi-coastally. At this point, I think we live in an age where there’s a charm to sending cassettes through the mail, having weeks between the turnaround of ideas. I also think we work pretty well together when we can have an immediate conversation about what’s happening.
AM: The only thing I really miss is being able to be in the same room to play something or for us to try a harmony together. You can’t really do that over video chat. But honestly, if we were writing in the same room, Ted would play me an idea and I’d probably go in a different room to work on it. You always have to have time on your own to chew over something, whatever your task is, whether you’re trying to finish a verse lyrically, or come up with the bridge. It’s hard to do that when the other person is just sitting there sipping their coffee waiting.
TL: “Finish that line yet, finish that line yet, how’s that line?”
AM: “How’s it going, how’s it going over there, got any ideas?”
AC: Well, I’d imagine that being such strong songwriters individually, maybe that’s helpful.
TL: Yeah, one of the things we’re doing now that we didn’t do on the last record is that once everything’s written, we do a lot of editing together. Just sitting at the kitchen table and combing through to make sure that we’re excited about everything. We worked on finding better rhymes or better ways to say something together. But yeah, I agree with Aimee that sometimes you need a few minutes alone.
AC: I suppose that would make for a different kind of emphasis when you’re touring. Do y’all try to take advantage of that time on the road to really hash out some of the songs?
AM: No, actually there’s just no time. If there is time, you’re just too exhausted. I would say the only kind of writing-esque stuff we do is just warming up before a show and playing around with chords or something. Occasionally there will be a little bit of a melodic idea that will get put on a voice memo to listen to later. But I just don’t have the focus because you’re always operating at a deficit, on six hours of sleep, gotta look for some food, only have an hour to get dressed for the show. There’s just no time to focus. I’m always tired.
TL: And there’s very little private space. I’ve been in rooms with people who are very comfortable just laying it out there as if no one else was in the room. And I kind of wish I could be like that, but I can’t just walk into a room and start singing.
But we do get a lot of nuggets of ideas. When we’re on the road we’re just talking together all the time and forming our ideas about this and that and what direction something might take. In the brief respite between soundcheck, dinner, and the actual show, we will sometimes, just goofing around strumming guitars and warming up together, come up with a usable thing, something to save for actual writing.
AC: I’ve read different accounts of how the collaboration began, either on the road when your two bands were touring together, and also that y’all had been passing ideas back and forth for a long time before that.
TL: We were friends before that, but it was the touring together that started it.
AC: How did that come up initially, finally touring together?
AM: I had a tour scheduled and my manager called me up and said that the promoter had suggested Ted Leo play on the shows. That was it. I think I would’ve probably thought that a promoter would think that our audiences were too different, because Ted Leo has a sort of punk credibility that’s not exactly in my oeuvre.
TL: Oh, if they only knew! And I mean that as a compliment. The other thing is that, first of all, I always push back on the idea, although I understand people think there’s a giant gap between what we do. I don’t think it’s as giant as people paint. I also think a lot of people knew – even before we started touring together a few years ago – that there was a certain amount of understanding that we did know each other and ran in the same kind of adjacent music circles. That there was an overlap there at least.
AC: The album seems like a testament to the gap that isn’t really there and how well you both meld together in sensibility and sound. What did each of you bring out in the other in terms of your songwriting, and what was surprising or unexpected?
AM: First of all, Ted has a melodic and harmonic sensibility I really like. He has a facility with words that I respect. His harmonic and melodic ideas are different from mine in a way I find really interesting. So to me, that’s why I enjoy our collaborations. If there’s a song that I have a verse to, and he’s writing a chorus to, he takes it to a place that I would never take it and that’s invariably much more exciting to me than any idea I might have had.
And as far as lyrics, I think we just work really well together. We have a similar aesthetic and standards, similar topics that we’re both interested in writing about so we can both hook into the same sort of ideas and subtext. That really counts for a lot.
TL: I would say almost the same thing. We start from a similar place, so I will often feel that Aimee’s suggestions are better ways to sometimes say something that was in my head. Aimee is very prolific–
AM: I disagree with that, but continue.
TL: We can compare the amount of voice memos we send each other with new ideas, and I think you’d come out on top. I really appreciate that sometimes I trip myself up in trying to have something more fully formed before I end up working on it. What happens is that it winds up being either over-written because I thought about it too much, or half-baked because I thought about so much that I couldn’t finish it.
Just getting to the flow of creating and letting this happen as a conversation between us is something that I don’t think I could have done with another person. Aimee helped me keep that flow going in ways that I certainly wasn’t able to do alone. I don’t know if that would have happened with something else.
AC: It will be interesting when the two of you do go back to your own individual songwriting to see what kind of impact all this has had on you.
AM: I’ll probably still make Ted finish certain songs for me. There’s a level of laziness now. It’s easy to generate really unformed, blobby ideas and say, “I’ll just send this to Ted and make him finish it!”
AC: Well, let me flip that question on its head and put you guys on the spot. Aimee, what was the most frustrating part for you about working with Ted?
AM: I can sense Ted getting angry with me already. I don’t know, Ted is actually pretty delightful to work with. This isn’t really frustrating, but something that I found really amusing and fascinating: Everything that Ted sings and plays is exactly 20 milliseconds faster than everyone else. I feel like that really sums up his personality. He’s always just a little ahead of everyone.
TL: We learned that in the recording process. It wasn’t like I just ran ahead on something. It was consistent. I was 20 milliseconds ahead of the beat on everything.
AC: Ted, your turn. What did you find to be the most frustrating in working with Aimee?
TL: Initially it was really frustrating for me to hear and accept that because it was a little bit of, “I don’t care, that’s how I do it!” But honestly, I have to tell you that over the course of recording and playing I learned to settle in with my fellow musicians. That’s been a real boon for me. That’s another thing that really helps me feel comfortable in this collaborative milieu. If I look at why I was doing that, it’s probably just that being in a band and playing solo for so long, I end up being the driving force.
I don’t want to be the driving force in this band. And while initially it was frustrating to be called out on that kind of jumpiness on my part, I see it as a real strength of the project that I’ve learned. And I very much want to lock in with my partners.
The producer was Paul Bryan, who’s been Aimee’s bass player for years and a friend of both of ours. Because this whole project came about in conversation on tour, he was privy to those early conversations as well, so it was nice to work with him. And he’s the one that figured out it was 20 milliseconds. He and Aimee have a very locked-in way of working with each other, so feeling a little bit on the outside of that at some points has contributed to the franticness in wanting to put stuff forward in that way. But we’re all friends and it was a communal effort.
AM: I think the best thing about this band for me has been to rediscover and remember how exciting and fun it is to be a part of a band and not have it all be on one person, all me or all Ted. We look at each other onstage to lock in on our harmonies, to lock in our playing, and we make an effort to really listen to each other and become a unit. And it’s exciting to be a part of a unit rather than the guy who’s got to be the engine of the train and be responsible for everything.
TL: Right, which we both have been to one degree or another for a long time. It’s nice to really feel like you’re part of a band.
AC: Before I let you go, you said you were trading new songs back and forth already. What’s the plan on the project for the future?
AM: I think we definitely want to do another record, and we’re talking about writing a musical together.
AM: We’re talking to a playwright and everything. That’s one thing I discovered about Ted: He really likes musical theater, something I’ve always been doing. There’s an ongoing project to turn The Forgotten Arm into a musical, so I’ve become friends with Oskar Eustis, who’s artistic director of [New York’s] Public Theater. Ted and I had drinks a couple of times with Oskar and that turned into meeting his friend the playwright. All of this will happen over the next couple of years, but that will be a thing. That’s on the burner.