Interview: Now Christmas collaborators, Aimee Mann and Ted Leo find common musical ground

There seems to be no in-between when it comes to a collaboration between two established musicians. Things can either end up disastrous, like Lou Reed and Metallica’s ill-fated Lulu LP, for example, or it can be harmonious, like Queen and David Bowie’s legendary collab, “Under Pressure”. These days, we can place Aimee Mann and Ted Leo on the latter end of the spectrum. Ever since the formation of their musical partnership The Both back in 2013 and last year’s stunning self-titled full length, it seems as if Mann and Leo have been rhythmically glued together.

This Wednesday at The Wilbur Theatre in Boston, Mann and Leo are once again putting on their annual Christmas Show, an extension of the holiday tradition Mann became known for in the 2000s, and this year’s festive gathering features ’90s alt-rock luminary Liz Phair, folk-rock geekazoid Jonathan Coulton, and John Roderick from Seattle indie rock act The Long Winters. Recently Vanyaland had a chat with Mann and Leo about the beginnings of their songwriting partnership, Mann’s history within Boston’s music scene, Leo’s travels throughout his career, trying to help Lincoln Chafee in the Presidential polls, and what the both of then plan on doing next. Check out clips from recent Christmas shows, as well as the Both’s new holiday single, “You’re A Gift”, throughout the Q&A.

Rob Duguay: To start things off, how did it come about for you two to start writing songs together?

Aimee Mann: We were on tour together, this was like three years ago I think. I had just released my record Charmer and I was touring with a full band and Ted was opening solo for a few shows. We started hanging out and I was looking for a totally different thing to do. I like collaborating with people, sometimes you get kind of sick in your own thing. From listening to Ted every night and how interesting and full he sounded from just playing electric guitar and singing I would think, “Boy, I could add some bass to this and it would sound great.” I thought it would make for a great band.

Ted Leo: I definitely was hitting a point… it was three years after my most recent record had come out and at the time I recently ended my band’s touring cycle on that record. I go out and try to do some solo stuff at the end of touring cycle for a lot of reasons, one is that it’s the only way I could make any money [laughs] and also it helps you reconnect with the core of your songs after the crazy whirlwind of an album touring cycle has wound down. That’s what I was doing on what was initially just a fun tour opening for Aimee.

The idea came about between a week and 10 days into the tour that maybe Aimee should join me on stage for a couple of songs, which is what we started doing. By the end of that trip, we parted ways with something that has often happened in my touring career with other people which was like “Yeah, that was so much fun maybe we should do a project someday.” It usually never pans out, but to Aimee’s credit in this regard, within two weeks of getting home she had sent me the first verse and chorus of a new song. We just started working together and it took off from there.

Mann: I kind of thought that I sort of embarrassed you into going through with it [laughs].

Leo: It wasn’t embarrassing, it’s just that I’m usually not one to take initiative in that direction so it was good that she did.

There seems to be something symbiotic with the both of you harmonizing together on vocals and playing different parts. When you both started writing songs, did you both share a common bond due to both of your styles being rooted in punk rock? You both started out in punk bands when you first started playing music.

Mann: For me it was so long ago that there wasn’t necessarily a common bond. My guess is that any punk roots I have are completely covered over with a soft, mossy buttercup layer of flowers [laughs]. In the songwriting itself, there’s a melodic sensibility that I think we share.

Leo: I agree with that, in the songwriting it comes down to a melodic sensibility that certainly overlaps with a lot of punk. Where I would not diminish the punk connection is in the approach to making art and it’s role in your life and in the world in general. I think we sort of share an outlook that if you lived through your own personal punk wars at one point in time, you tend to recognize that in someone else that has also lived through that. I think that there’s an ideological or attitudinal reinforcement that sort of underscores a lot of what we do but goes different places musically.

Aimee, you’ve been involved in the Boston music scene since the early ’80s. You went to Berklee for a short while, started out with The Young Snakes and then shortly starting ‘Til Tuesday afterwards. What was the landscape like back then in Boston when it came to being a musician?

Mann: I’d have to say, it was pretty exciting. There were a million bands and a million places to play and people came out to see music. The Young Snakes were sort of art rock and new wavy. There were outfits that were like “We’re going to break every rule!”, which meant: no melody, no groove , crazy lyrics that don’t necessarily make any sense, really unappealing singing style and nothing that you would ever want to listen to. With The Young Snakes, we would play a several times a week. I actually was supporting myself at one point playing just around Boston with that crazy band. Not lavishly but enough to pay rent on an apartment.

There were a lot more venues back then versus Boston today where there are only a handful. Even a few have closed down with T.T. The Bear’s shutting its doors back in July and Johnny D’s on its way out early next year.

Mann: Aww Jesus, that’s sad.

Leo: Yeah it is.

It is definitely a shame. Ted throughout your career you’ve been somewhat of a troubadour. You grew up in New Jersey, you first started playing in bands in New York, then you started playing music with Chisel at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and while being with The Pharmacists you’ve also lived in Washington, D.C. and Narragansett, Rhode Island. What makes you want to live in different places rather than staying in one spot?

Ted Leo: I’ll tell you, it’s nothing specific. I was in Indiana because I somewhat foolishly decided to go to Notre Dame and I fell in with some people there who I shared enough with that we formed a relatively long lasting band. One of them from was from D.C. so when we graduated I had already been living away from home for the previous five years up until that point and we wanted to keep playing together. He got an internship with Amnesty International and we had friends in the D.C. music scene from our years of being in bands since the ’80s so it felt like a natural, fun and interesting transition. I’ll also tell you this, there was a period of time in my life from having grown up in the New York music scene that I was sick of New York to be honest.

I also did spend some time living in Boston during the late-’90s. All throughout that period of time, New York to me was a very success driven world that was too expensive and it drove people toward being too concerned with making money and striving, grasping and struggling against each other. I also hated how it sucked in every potential regional success story, people feel that at a certain point in time you have to move to New York. I basically grew up there and for me it was “I have to move away for a while” [laughs]. So I lived in D.C., then I lived in Boston and I’ll admit that I grew to very much miss New York. I now bounce back and forth between Rhode Island and New York.

What made you want to eventually move to Narragansett of all places?

Leo: Circumstance, largely. When I was living in Boston I began seeing someone who lived down there and we started spending a lot of time together. It’s a great place and I have a little studio scenario and a cat [laughs]. Southern Rhode Island is actually a very beautiful part of the country. It’s a great place to be in and of itself along with it being close to Boston, close to New York and it enables me to actually survive in a way that I couldn’t before when I would have to live in a more expensive place.

Especially with the University of Rhode Island down there it’s definitely more affordable living wise than either Boston or New York.

Leo: Yeah.

Speaking of Rhode Island, recently to help former Governor Lincoln Chafee in the Presidential polls you both performed on Conan, pledging to get him to at least 1% of the primary vote to the tune of Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy”. Who’s idea was that?

Mann: They contacted us and it was their idea. We had some other suggestions for a song but doing it in the vein of Fine Young Cannibals was pretty perfect.

Leo: We were on tour and they contacted us. They came up with the idea for the Fine Young Cannibals and we ran with it.

Well, sorry you couldn’t help him out. Lincoln Chafee dropped out in October. It’s a catchy song, though.

Mann: I say that were we really protective of him.

Ted Leo: [laughs]

Mann: Then when he was on the podium during the debates it was so sad. It was so sad.

How long do you plan on having this songwriting partnership last? Do you plan on having it last for a while? Ted, do you plan on putting out another album with The Pharmacists? Aimee, do you plan on putting out another solo record?

Mann: I plan on having this be a forever situation but it’s been a long time since Ted has put out another record so we’re both putting out solo records. I’m not sure Ted, are you doing a Pharmacists record?

Leo: Well, there’s the dividing line between me solo and me and The Pharmacists. I’m doing a record of my own that will certainly be with at least one of The Pharmacists [laughs].

Mann: Ted Leo and The Pharmacist.

Leo: Right [laughs]. I agree with Aimee also, we are actively working on separate records right now but we’re also still actively writing together so that will continue.

THE AIMEE MANN & TED LEO CHRISTMAS SHOW WITH LIZ PHAIR + JONATHAN COULTON + JOHN RODERICK + SPECIAL GUESTS :: Wednesday, December 9 at the Wilbur, 246 Tremont St. in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., all ages, $35 to $45 :: Wilbur event page :: Advance tickets