As a singer-songwriter, Aimee Mann plays smart and sad better than just about anybody. She may seem an unlikely bandmate to Ted Leo, the punk stalwart and leader of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. But together they’re The Both, and they’re coming to Belly Up this weekend on a tour behind their charming, surprising new self-titled record.
The pair started playing together in 2012, when Leo was opening for Mann on tour, and The Both was born out of mutual admiration.
“Ted playing solo, he plays the electric guitar — usually when people do a solo thing they go acoustic, and he gets such an interesting full sound with the electric guitar,” Mann said. “When I would watch his set, I kept thinking, ‘Man, I could just add a bass in there and we’d be two-thirds of the way to a band.’”
Leo had been playing a new solo song, “The Gambler” — which would become the opening cut on “The Both” — that particularly caught Mann’s attention. A lively pop number with touches of distortion and the chorus, “You’re a gambler in need/A gamble indeed,” Mann eventually asked Leo if she could sit in on “The Gambler” during Leo’s opening set.
“I thought if we had a band together, this song is what it would sound like,” said Mann.
Little did she realize, Leo was thinking the same thing.
“I had actually written that song with Aimee in mind,” Leo said. “I wrote the chorus first, and I was thinking, ‘Aimee would really dig this song.’ I was working my courage up to ask her to play it with me on tour, and she saved me the potential embarrassment.”
They continued touring together through the fall of 2012 and into 2013, regularly sitting in on one another’s sets. That spring they started collaborating on new songs and by last summer they had an 11-track record finished.
Touring as The Both, they play all the songs off the new record, peppered with both Mann and Leo’s solo material.
The album is more than the sum of its parts — they sound like a new band, not two acclaimed solo artists trading songs on a half-hearted side project. There are equal doses of folk and punk, with power pop hooks on up-tempo songs like “The Gambler,” “Milwaukee” and “Bedtime Stories” alongside gorgeous vocal harmonies on songs like “Hummingbird” and “Pay For It” and a cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Honesty is No Excuse.”
Despite both of their fully formed identities as solo artists, they’ve managed to find a fresh and complementary sound in the middle ground between them.
“We’re not just bringing what each of us is stereotypically known for,” said Leo. “Because we’re so comfortable working with each other, we’re able to stretch out a little more toward what the other might be known for.”
For Mann, collaborating with Leo has allowed her to add a dimension of what she calls “muscle and energy” into her songs that she’s not been able to hit while recording solo, when her melancholy vocals tend to dominate.
“If I have a song and envision it as being really energetic, if I do it as a solo song, it never comes across that way once I record it,” she said.
From Leo’s end, the band allows him to showcase the songwriting craftsman beneath his pop-punk persona.
“Ted can get as depressed and morose as anyone,” laughed Mann.
Leo quickly cut in and added: “I keep trying to tell people that!”
And, it appears, the project is more than a one-off side project, as the pair is continuing to write songs together.
“It’s at least a two-off,” Mann said.