The self-titled debut from The Both sounds so natural, so developed and full, that it’s hard to remember that the duo is a collaboration between two distinctive, separate solo artists. Guitarist Ted Leo and bassist (for this group, at least) Aimee Mann bonded while on tour together, performing together during each other’s sets, then simply decided to try writing together.
“The more time we spent on stage together the more fun I had,” Mann said.
“It was such a fun experience performing music together that it made me want to take very seriously the idea of collaborating,” Leo added.
Now, the freshly-formed duo is back on the road, putting their individual careers on hold and taking this new batch of music from Boston to Los Angeles, including two dates in New York City. amNY caught up with Mann and Leo to chat about the art of collaboration and to get a lesson in great music duos of the past.
amNY: What do feel like you bring out of each other?
Leo: Working with Aimee has helped me up my own game. To a certain extent, in the past I’ve approached my own playing and singing with a desperate need to make a point that has overshadowed or derailed my own ability to sing and play and thus possibly make the point I wanted to make. Workingwith Aimee – and I’ve never collaborated with somebody at the same depth – we’re pretty in sync about our phrasing of a line, for example, but if I’m not singing as well as I need to in order to lock in with Aimee, it won’t sound great, and it’s helped me become a better singer.
Mann: Wow, thank you.
Leo: That’s just one.
Mann: I really enjoy the experience of fitting in and trying to make an interesting third thing out of giving yourself over to the second thing. I think that’s a really unsung glory of music, when a group of people come together and set aside their egos for a minute to make an interesting mixture. We often celebrate the one person, the diva, the star, and to me it’s more interesting to collaborate with somebody. I really enjoy listening to Ted sing, trying to harmonize with him, match his phrasing and come up with parts that support him. And come up with song ideas that might be compatible with his sensibility, as well as the fun it is for me to hear him sing things I’ve written and bring a whole new energy and interest to it.
amNY: You’ve both collaborated in interesting ways with comedians – Ted with the “The Best Show on WFMU” crew and Aimee with comedians like Paul F. Tompkins. Which is harder – working with comics or other musicians?
Mann: I don’t collaborate with that many musicians. I’ve probably collaborated with more comedians.
Leo: Neither of us are comedians. I don’t think either of us would feel all that comfortable doing stand up, for instance. But the ability to riff, for lack of a better term, is something that we both tend to do – sometimes a little too long – in our stage banter. There’s some training that you get from appreciating comedy and bringing a little bit of that to how we speak on stage that probably does spill over. But that said, it’s a very different thing. The ability to humorously riff with someone is very different from being able to craft a set of comedy. The interplay that Aimee and I have, even when we’re writing, tends to be jokey and heady, and that might help. But at the end of the day, we definitely remain musicians.
Mann: There are similar skill sets, but like music, it has to be something you’ve done for years and years, picked up a little here and a little there, and come to certain conclusions, and practiced. They’ve done it in comedy and that’s why people like Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins are world-class comedians. It’s one thing to be mildly humorous, but that’s probably because I’ve spent so much time around comedians that I can get to the “mildly amusing” level. But when I’ve collaborated with comedians, I’ve basically said, “tell me exactly what to do so that it’s funny. Move me around as your comedy chess piece as you see fit.”
Leo: I think that there’s probably something to that, in terms of musical interplay, but when you start heading down that road, you start getting dangerously close to jazz. Little musical jokes back and forth. As musicians and writers, if we start to think about that too much, it might get in the way of us actually doing it.
amNY: Favorite duo: Who ya got?
Mann: Just last night, I had a little musical nostalgia moment for Hall and Oates. That was the first tour I ever went on, way back in the day. What duos are there?
Leo: John Doe and Exene Cervenka from X?
Mann: That’s a pretty sweet duo.
Leo: [Lindsay] Buckingham and [Stevie] Nicks.
Mann: Nice. Which one am I?
Leo: That’s a good question.
Mann: The Smothers Brothers?
Leo: Each couplet within Abba.
Mann: [Mike] Nichols and [Elaine] May.
Leo: There’s got to be more. Susi Quattro and whoever she sang “Stumblin’ In” with? [Editor’s/Google’s Note: Quattro and British soft rocker Chris Norman teamed up for “Stumblin’ In” in 1979.]
Mann: That’s … from left field.
IF YOU GO: The Both performs at Bowery Ballroom on April 29 at 8 p.m., 6 Delancey St., 212-533-2111, sold out.
The Both also performs at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 1 at 8 p.m., 66 N. 6th St., Brooklyn, $25.