Aimee Mann and Ted Leo pool their talents as The Both

Peter Blackstock
Austin American-Statesman (MCT)

On any given night, a concert by either pop singer-songwriter Aimee Mann or indie-punk rocker Ted Leo at a local nightclub would be a hot ticket and a fair guarantee of a good show. Now they’ve teamed up in a band they call The Both.

Born of mutual respect and a willingness to transcend individual impulses for the creative spark of collaboration, The Both took root two years ago when Leo opened a tour for Mann. That led to a self-titled album, which came out in April and has been one of this year’s most pleasant surprises. Leo’s dynamic guitar playing and punchy songwriting combines with Mann’s alluring vocals and pointed lyricism to create a whole that’s not only greater than the sum of its parts, it carves out a whole new territory for the two artists.

“We’re trying to actually make the best collaboration that we can, in service of a better song,” Leo says, explaining that any early concerns about singular visions evaporated once they saw the results of being all-in. “It became very fun to actually lay your preciousness about your first idea aside, and just kick the ball back and forth to see what else you could come up with.”

Both Leo and Mann were aboard for a telephone interview, in and of itself a symbol of how much they consider The Both to be, well, both of them. “Part of the experience of writing with Ted is learning to set your own ego aside, and learning to accept other people’s ideas,” Mann says. “It’s easier to do with Ted because I have so much respect for him.”

Though they first met in 2009, they’d been fans of each other’s music for many years before that. The late Scott Miller, leader of the alt-pop bands Game Theory and the Loud Family, gave Mann a copy of a Ted Leo & the Pharmacists record in 2001, sparking her interest. Leo says he was a fan not only of Mann’s mid-’80s breakthrough band ‘Til Tuesday but also of its early-’80s predecessor, the Young Snakes.

The two agree that it took time for them to reach a point where working together made sense. Though she liked Leo’s music when she first heard it, “I probably would have thought that our styles were maybe a little too far apart,” she says. “I think I didn’t really know how to blend those two elements in the way that Ted and I do now.”

Leo concurs. “Had the idea of this collaboration with Aimee come up at an earlier time, I don’t know that I would have been ready to do it, either temperamentally or musically,” he says. “It kind of landed in both our laps at a perfect moment in both our lives and our careers.”

When they toured together in 2012, it became clear the time was ripe, thanks in part to a song Leo had written called “The Gambler” that seemed especially suited to both of their sensibilities. Leo was performing it in his sets, and Mann asked if she could sit in with him. The Both was born.

“I heard that song as, ‘Oh, this is what it would sound like if we had a band together,’ with me playing bass and him playing guitar,” Mann says. “Suddenly I had a blueprint and a map that was laid out in front of me.”

Leo says he had Mann in mind for “The Gambler” even before she had heard it. “The first thing that occurred to me when I wrote the chorus for that song was, ‘Oh, you know, I bet Aimee would like this song,’ “ he recalls. “Honestly, I probably would have eventually approached Aimee on that tour to ask her if she wanted me to join me on it, but she beat me to the punch.”

“The Gambler” leads off their album, serving as a prelude to co-writes they say were “pretty much 50-50” collaborations. If any of the tracks came more from one of them than the other, it would be hard to tell from the intertwined vocals. An example: “Milwaukee,” the album’s most instantly appealing pop tune, starts with Mann’s voice, then gives way to harmonies on the chorus before Leo sings the second verse. At the end, they unite again on a line that seems to define their collaborative core: “It’s a nucleus burning inside of a cell.”

“Obviously something has to start in an individual’s mind,” Leo says. “But we really worked on and completed every song together. That was part of the fun of the project — if you hit a bump, instead of torturing yourself trying to figure out how to get over it, kick it to your partner. And it often goes to a place you might not have initially thought of that is way more interesting.”

The lone track on “The Both” that neither of them had a hand in writing is a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Honesty Is No Excuse,” a song they bonded over on that 2012 tour when Mann heard it playing on Leo’s iPod dock. “I was really intrigued by it,” she remembers. “I loved the chord changes, I thought it had a really nice melodicism to it, and (singer) Phil Lynott’s delivery was so odd and interesting.”

The song also helped them envision The Both as a power trio; on tour, their only accompanist is drummer Matt Mayhall. “The first couple of Thin Lizzy records, they’re a three-piece, and they’re a band that’s influenced me forever,” Leo says. “So when I was listening to that song and saw how it affected Aimee, some puzzle pieces clicked in my mind.”

Mann chimes in to agree, suggesting that the song became similar to Leo’s “The Gambler” in terms of sparking their collaboration. “It became another touchstone for us,” she says. “It was another example: If we formed a band, it would sound kind of like this.”

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