In 2012, Aimee Mann was touring behind her album Charmer (SuperEgo Records, 2012). For a leg of the tour, her opener was an artist she had respected for a while: Ted Leo.
"We'd been kind of mildly friendly--as close friends as you could be living on totally different coasts," Mann said. "We've known each other for maybe 10 years but definitely been aware of each other's music for longer than that."
Touring together didn't merely deepen their friendship. When the duo sat in on each other's sets, an unexpected chemistry revealed itself.
"Those small forays into that were just so much fun that I think it was an obvious idea to start working together, to do some kind of project together," Mann said.
The idea blossomed into The Both, a band that combines Mann's and Leo's strengths as songwriters and musicians. Rolling Stone's Will Hermes gave The Both's 2014 self-titled debut album three-and-a-half stars, observing how Leo's "unfussy attack benefits from Mann's melodic and harmonic touch." Spin's Dan Weiss called the album "a pleasant late-career surprise from an auteur who needed more power [Mann] and a rocker who needed more pop [Leo]."
Boise music fans get to hear the fusion of power and pop when The Both plays the grand finale of this year's Alive After Five series on Wednesday, Aug. 27. Matt Hopper and the Roman Candles will open.
At first glance, Ted Leo and Aimee Mann might not seem like ideal partners. Fronting the '90s mod-punk group Chisel and playing with his backing band The Pharmacists, the New York City-based Leo has built a reputation as a fiery, socially conscious rocker. The Los Angeles, Calif.-based Mann, on the other hand, is best known for her work with the '80s pop group 'Til Tuesday and the tender, Oscar-nominated ballad "Save Me" from the 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson movie Magnolia--fans of the IFC show Portlandia will remember the episode in which Mann, playing herself, turns up as Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein's housekeeper. As divergent as their careers had been, Leo found a kindred spirit in Mann, who started out in punk band The Young Snakes and who founded her own label, SuperEgo Records.
"Look, at the risk of overstating this and possibly offending some people," Leo said, "if you've spent time in that world--as a working musician, if you've spent time in the punk-ish world doing that kind of thing--you tend to be able to tell who else has and who else hasn't sometimes."
Proof of the rapport between Leo and Mann can be found throughout The Both (SuperEgo Records). Listeners familiar with each songwriter's solo work will recognize the album's themes of social engagement ("Volunteers of America," "Hummingbird") and dysfunctional relationships ("The Gambler," "You Can't Help Me Now"). But the connection comes through clearest in the music itself--specifically, in the duo's sweet yet bracing harmonies and the way in which Leo's galvanizing guitar solos complement Mann's fluid basslines. With Scott Seiver's muscular drumming providing a solid foundation, the album feels uplifting regardless of how grim some songs get.
Mann and Leo agree that being in The Both allows them to step outside their established personas. Mann said what she's trying to say doesn't always match how she says it.
"I think that you're sort of stuck with the voice that you have," Mann said. "And I think my voice just doesn't have a lot of aggression in it, so things that I think are more hard-hitting--as soon as I sing them--inevitably sound a lot more delicate or morose than I intended. That's one of the reasons I like working with Ted so much: It's because I know that I can write certain things and he will sing them and then it'll be like, 'Oh, this is how it's supposed to sound.'"
Leo said he and his bandmate are more alike than people might think.
"I think from my own end of things, the brush that I tend to get painted with is actually not broad enough," Leo added. "I certainly have my depressive, morose and even quiet, acoustic moments on my records. So there's more in common [with Mann] than I think often gets represented."
Not only has the pairing been good for the two musicians, fans seem to like it, too. The response that The Both has received from audiences has been pleasantly surprising.
"It's been pretty great, I gotta say," Leo said. "I went into it hoping and expecting that fans from either side of the aisle would enjoy what we were doing together, but what I did not expect was just how many people were there to see The Both."
Fans can expect more music soon. Mann and Leo are working on songs for a second The Both album and a musical now.
The chorus for the song "Milwaukee"--which describes Mann and Leo's decision to start The Both--sums up the spirit of their collaboration: "You can tell / By the laugh in the dark at the sound of the bell / You can tell / It's the nucleus burning inside of the cell."