Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.
At first, the combination of Ted Leo and Aimee Mann seems incongruous. Leo got his beginnings in the New York hardcore scene, and he founded the mod-punk band Chisel before branching out to pop-punk with the Pharmacists. Mann, meanwhile, is primarily known for ballads, waltzes, and slow-burning pop songs. Excepting their respective beats-per-minute ratios, however, the pairing makes sense: The duo’s self-titled debut, The Both, features Leo and Mann finding common ground in melody, searing guitars, and meticulous songcraft. The A.V. Club spoke with Leo and Mann about their first experiences with dating, adolescent rapping, and each other.
The first time they met
Ted Leo: We’d been in each other’s spheres for a while, and obviously had known each other’s music. But I guess we only met on a Best Show on WFMU.
Aimee Mann: Was that the Marathon when you played an Elton John song?
TL: I think so, yeah. And I played on “Freeway.” We wore funny hats.
TL: And then over the years, we would see each other infrequently, but every now and then we’d get lunch if I was in L.A. Aimee took me to see The Book Of Mormon in New York once, which was nice. Eventually that led to us touring together, starting a couple years ago, which brought us closer.
AM: Yeah, our relationship was forged over Book Of Mormon. [Laughs.] That was the longest amount of time we’d ever spent together.
The A.V. Club: Was it obvious from the start that collaborating was a good idea?
AM: For me, it really happened when we were on the same tour. Ted was doing a solo show opening for me, and while I was watching him play every night, there was one song in particular that wound up on the record, “The Gambler,” that I really had this very strong instinct to want to play bass on. I asked him if I could sit in. That song in particular, it felt like that was the song that was the portal to the collaboration, because I really did feel an intersection of our thing. And Ted claims that when he was writing it, he was thinking that maybe it was a song that I would enjoy.
TL: I stand behind that claim.
The first song written as The Both
TL: The first song was “You Can’t Help Me Now,” which really kicked things off in terms of us collaborating and writing together. Aimee started it and sent me a voice memo, and was like, “All right, we’re doing it. Go. Do it.”
AM: Go. Do. Go and do.
TL: While I certainly took the idea of us working together seriously, I was both impressed and surprised with the speed with which Aimee took up the ball and ran with it. And it was great. Working on that first song, I think we really established a lot of the kind of things that we hear, things we were trying to say, ways in which we can work together.
AM: I think I also realized that even if you worked as fast as possible and were as conscientious as possible, and put as much effort into making it happen as possible, everything always takes forever. We wrote and recorded this record about as fast as it’s humanly possible to do, especially because we were on tour for most of it. But it still, at the end of the day, doesn’t end up getting released until a year and a half after we first started writing our first song.
AVC: How did the writing process work? Aimee, did it typically start with you?
AM: The first couple songs started with me and went to Ted just because I was really hammering it. You always start with a musical stem. Sometimes it has words, sometimes it doesn’t. It really depends. If I have a little stem and then words aren’t immediately coming to me, I’ll just send it as-is to Ted. He had sent me a handful of things, and almost all of them got turned into songs. That was another thing: We knew we had to really focus in order to get a record done in a timely fashion, in between all the touring. So that’s part of the mindset: “You know what? This song’s not working; we can’t afford to spend time on it. Let’s throw it away.” If it’s not happening, let’s just move on. Leave it by the side of the road. And that’s really good if you can get into a mindset of not insisting on flogging something: “This was my idea!” “Eh, but it’s not working, let’s just keep going.”
AVC: That must be a healthy skill to maintain as a songwriter, too.
AM: Yeah. Sometimes it’s hard to kill off stuff just because you do feel like… There’s always a feeling, like, every little thing is precious, but I think it helps to get over that.
TL: And having this be a new project, it was free of the weight and the pressures of the decades of each of our solo careers. This felt very freeing and open. While the process was largely based around us—like Aimee said, starting with a stem and kicking it to the other person, and then going back and forth—it also opened up, to the extent that essentially, we hummed voice demos to each other, or some of the songs started as little piano ideas and wound up being guitar-driven power-pop songs. It was pretty wide open.
Their first favorite songs
TL: The first record that I requested be purchased for me, because I wasn’t really of the age of going to record stores yet, was “It Never Rains In Southern California.”
AM: Wow. Good choice.
TL: Yeah. I feel pretty good about having that be my first favorite song.
AM: Mine was The Sound Of Music. But shortly after was Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb songs. So that’s not bad. You know what? I feel like my music is more or less a mixture of those two items. [Laughs.]
AVC: Aimee, speaking of musicals, are you still working on a musical adaptation of [Mann’s 2005 record] The Forgotten Arm?
AM: I’m not actively working on it. David Henry Hwang has got a play that just opened called Kung Fu, so he’s been super busy. It’s kind of up to him, if he gets inspired and starts writing the book. So that’s way on the backburner. I feel like Ted and I should write a musical, though. We’ve been talking about that.
TL: I agree. That’s another thing that we share: an appreciation for some aspects of musical theater.
Their first jobs
TL: Of course I would work here or there for a relative or something as a little kid, when child labor was okay within the family, you know? But I actually became a lifeguard at 16, and I think that was my first legit job. I’m a relatively strong swimmer.
AM: Waiting tables. First bussing tables, then waiting tables.
TL: Do you remember the name of the place?
AM: I think it was The Epicurean. [Laughs.] But when I lived in Boston, I worked at Newbury Comics, so I got to work in a record store, which was pretty exciting, I have to say. It was totally happening.
The first time they got a negative review
TL: I stopped reading reviews a long time ago because it ultimately doesn’t help you. They’re so rarely constructive when they’re negative, and they can undercut your confidence pretty quickly and easily. So I prefer to get live feedback from people whose opinions I respect. [Laughs.] But I do remember, back in the ’90s, one of the weirdest reviews I got. Chisel released a 7-inch, and I think it was in Punk Planet or Maximum Rocknroll, the person reviewing the 7-inch wrote, “I’m not really sure what subgenre of punk to put this in. It’s kind of like Elvis Costello, but not.”
AM: Very well written!
TL: Thank you for wasting the inch of tree fiber that that took up. That was when I was like, “I’m done. I’m done with reviews.”
AM: Part of the problem with being a human being is that it’s not hard to read something as negative even when it’s not that negative. I think some review of a record, I can’t remember what they said… I think it was just a misreading of a song. You find yourself getting so outraged, but it really doesn’t matter. If it’s anything under laudatory, I think it’s very easy for any kind of musician to interpret it as negative. So unless somebody’s like, “Hey, you’ve got to read this, it’s really great”—then I’ll read it. I have to have somebody review the review for me. [Laughs.]
Their first dates
TL: I went to see The Last Dragon with a girl named Erica. I’m not entirely sure that either of us knew it was a date until it was a date.
AM: I was 15, he was 27, and he took me to drink piña coladas at a downtown bar in Richmond, Virginia.
TL: Neither of our examples were actually dates, but yours was of a different variety. [Laughs.]
AM: Oh, there’s a whole different tinge and subtext to my date. [Laughs.]
TL: Oh my God, that’s a horror show.
AVC: Do you care to expand on that?
AM: [Laughs.] Well, that was my first and possibly only actual date. Look, a 27-year-old really knows how to show a 15-year-old a good time.
TL: Is there a statute of limitations on a 27-year-old dating a 15-year-old? [Laughs.]
AM: The weirdest part of the story is that he was wildly immature, not necessarily a pedophile. [Laughs.]
TL: Lucky you.
AM: Yeah, I’m one of the lucky ones. [Laughs.]
The first song they wrote
AM: I wrote music to a poem by Lewis Carroll, and I’d have to consider that the first song. Ted, I’ll play it for you someday. I think it’s the poem that’s in front of Alice In Wonderland: “A boat beneath a sunny sky, lingering onward dreamily, in an evening of July…” I think that’s how it goes. [The poem is “A Boat Beneath A Sunny Sky.” —ed.]
AVC: How old were you?
AM: I was probably… 13? Fourteen, maybe?
AVC: Does the song hold up?
AM: I think it might have a little something to the melody. I’ll play it for Ted, and then he’ll report back for you.
TL: I look forward to it.
AM: You can tell me if it’s good or not.
TL: You want my answer to that?
AVC: Yes, please.
AM: I do.
TL: I was into hip-hop and break-dancing when I was 12, 13, and naturally I had some raps, if you can count that.
AM: Oh my God. That’s the best.
TL: I can’t remember too many of them, but then when I was probably about 15, I started a band with a couple people called the Rawheads, kind of like Ramones-y, punk-y. We only had one song, it was our theme song: “Let’s Get Raw With The Rawheads.”
AM: Oh my God, that’s the best!
TL: “Let’s get raw with the Rawheads, baby / Let’s get raw with the Rawheads, baby / Let’s get raw with the Rawheads, baby / We love chapp-ed skin.”
AVC: Wait, “we love” what?
TL: “Chapped,” but pronounced “chapp-ed.”
AM: Of course, why wouldn’t you pronounce it “chapp-ed”?
AVC: We now know what each of you was doing at age 15, and they were a little different.
AM: Yeah. Pretty good.
TL: I was not dating 15-year-old girls. [Laughs.] I was leaving that to the 27-year-olds.
AVC: Do you remember any of your raps?
TL: I had a lot of raps. You’ve got to have a lot of raps when you’re rapping. When you’re a rapper.
AM: You can’t just stop at one rap.
TL: Right. You have to have different raps for different situations, for different aspects of your own boastable personality.
AM: Were you boasting in your raps?
TL: You kind of have to. That’s part of the thing. I remember one couplet from one of them that I actually re-used not that long ago, when I was challenged to an actual rap battle with somebody. It goes, “My name is Teddy Leo, but my middle name’s Francis / You want a battle, boy? You can’t handle this.”
AM: Oh God. [Laughs.] I can’t handle it. Turns out I can’t handle it.
AVC: Why hip-hop? And how did that evolve into your interest in punk, or were you into them at the same time?
TL: Well, hip-hop was really big where I grew up [in Bloomfield, New Jersey], for one thing. I wasn’t an anomaly. I think that being into punk and new wave and stuff before I got into hip-hop as a weirdly precociously young kid, it set me up to understand the really bare, early hip-hop that was based just around beats. I found it really interesting, and it was what everybody around me was listening to. It was often more challenging and political back then. It’s what was in the air.
AM: Some friends of mine were going to see Grand Funk Railroad. I went along.
TL: My father took me to see Adam And The Ants.
AM: Oh my God, that’s awesome.
AVC: Ted, did your parents have hip taste in music, or was your dad doing you a favor by taking you?
TL: Well, they were young when they had me. When he took me to see Adam And The Ants, he was considerably younger than I am now. It was that kind of thing. But it was my request to go see them because I was too young to go on my own. He was happy to. He probably didn’t enjoy it, though. He was more of an Eagles guy.
AVC: Aimee, were you into Grand Funk Railroad?
AM: No, not at all. Some friends were going to the Richmond Coliseum. And it was loud. I don’t really remember much about it.
TL: Did you guys tailgate? Was it like a Heavy Metal Parking Lot scenario?
AM: We were children!
AM: It’s actually kind of surprising that my parents let me. I mean, I was what, 13, 14, once again. It all happened when I was 13, 14.
TL: Yeah, I was going to hip-hop shows when I was 13, 14. And, you know, Lower East Side punk shows a year later. [Laughs.] Looking back, it is kind of crazy to think about. Obviously when you’re doing that stuff, you are you, therefore you don’t feel how young you actually are. But looking back you realize you are a baby-faced greenhorn.
TL: Like a lot of kids into punk and stuff, there were bands that lasted a week, bands that lasted a day. The first band that I was in that did any show playing or put out records was a hardcore band called Citizens Arrest.
AM: My first band was the Young Snakes in Boston, and my second band was ’Til Tuesday. I was never in bands in high school.
AVC: The Young Snakes are still fairly well known around Boston, so you must have really hit the ground running.
AM: Yeah, I guess I did. [Laughs.] I can’t really call the Young Snakes running, so much, because it was just pure experimental craziness. I feel like it didn’t take me that long to figure out what I wanted to do, but I was 25 when I was in ’Til Tuesday, which to me seems super young, but in today’s terms, where everybody has everything they’ve ever done on YouTube, I think people aren’t really allowed that much time to experiment and get it together and find out what genre is really appropriate for them.
AVC: Was “Voices Carry” your first video?
AM: Yeah, I think that was the first one.
AVC: What was that experience like? Did it feel like you were part of this new, exciting thing of MTV, or was it just something you had to do?
AM: MTV was really, really new. And the whole experience was kind of bewildering, actually. It was more like, “What is this?” More than a feeling of excitement, it was a feeling of, “Wait a minute, what are videos? How does this work?”
AVC: And then you got to revisit the video recently.
AM: Yeah, that was a lot more fun than doing the original. [Laughs.]