The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: The Discreet Charm of Aimee Mann

Barney Hoskyns

A freewheeling interview by RBP's Martin Colyer that takes in Aimee's new album Charmer, her talented collaborators, reality TV, turning up the treble, Laura Linney's focus, Jack Kerouac's drying-out and, uh, women's boxing... Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Hi, Aimee, are you looking forward to a morning of people phoning you up? I should have had coffee. Why did I not drink coffee? I didn't even think about it!

I just watched you and Laura Linney—that was very funny. [In the video for 'Charmer', Linney plays an animatronic version of Aimee that can be sent out on tour, and to fan meet-and-greets, but who eventually goes rogue and has to be terminated] She's the greatest.

You were very good—but she's brilliant. Yeah she's really fantastic. And you know, that she would agree to do something like that, for no money and in 100-degree heat... It's unbelievable.

I kind of felt sad at the end when you covered her up in a sheet. I know—it's terrible!

Really not good. It's terrible. Putting plastic over somebody's head, it's a horrible feeling.

Not high on the Charmer scale. No.

I've only had a preview of the new record and the cover looks like a fairground, hypnotist kind of... It's actually sitting right in front of me, I think that's okay for the advanced, except here's the problem—there's a picture of me with the word "Charmer" as if I'm saying "I'm a charmer!" which is horrifying.

And where are you on the charmer scale? I'm not great. The charmer scale for me is—where you wanna be sitting is a person who's present and interested in you, and asks you questions about yourself, and have a modicum of entertainment in your own conversation, and stories that you relate. I don't think I come up to that level. I think I'm more stilted and uncomfortable and I feel like I could really use some more charm.

Just not a pathological level of charm, where it goes too far. Yeah. People who really develop it, and are so great at creating this fantastic impression—in the end they are all impression.

Yes, or they're being incredibly manipulative... Well you know, along with great charm comes great power. And people like to be liked and they like to be paid attention to, and once they feel that attention they don't want it to go away. Everybody is susceptible to that. And it's not that everybody is susceptible to flattery, but people want to be liked and admired.

It's a basic human thing. Exactly.

You've been doing this for a time now—do you that you have to cast your net wider for inspiration now than you did earlier on? A couple of these songs are influenced by US Reality TV shows like Hoarders or Intervention so... Well, you know, inspired by that, but it's not like I wasn't conversant with drug addicts, drug addiction, alcoholism, depression...

You know that territory. Yeah, I know that landscape. Some of it, I've lived the landscape, some of it, I know the landscape intimately—I mean, you can hardly be in the music industry and not know drugs addicts and alcoholics. And especially narcissists and charmers and people who are bi-polar—that's just out there. And then the hoarder thing, I've definitely seen examples of that. I relate to the feeling of—kind of parallel to the charm thing—you don't wanna let go of stuff because you think you might need it. I think when you have mood disorders it alters your thinking and you can't make decisions about things. So I get all that and I think that watching the show gives you an extra perspective...

A more extreme perspective. I've not watched that many episodes because it is pretty depressing.

Really. And in the end it's the same thing every time... Yeah. But to me that's on a continuum, it's very addict-y. That same kind of denial is there, the increasing health risk and the denial. You know what these people are like. Everything is covered in dust. They have allergies. They are living on a respirator and yet, "No, there is not a problem, I'm in a wheelchair and I can't wheel it out, that's cool. We're all good." So that's fascinating.

[The songs are about charmers, and also about those who fall under their spell. See 'Labrador', for example: "And you laughed in my face and you rubbed it in/'Cause I'm a Labrador/And I run when the gun drops the dove again."]

I want to ask you about the sound of the record. It was mostly tracked at Stampede Origin? The engineer—Ryan Freeland—that's his studio. Some of the recording we did at [producer] Paul Bryan's in-home studio, because there were a couple of songs that weren't really happening so we kind of stripped them down and built them back up from the ground up at his place.

Ryan worked with Bob Clearmountain? Yeah, that's right.

So Bob Clearmountain has been a through-line in your career. Yeah. I've worked with him a lot, and then gradually started working with Ryan.

And is that group of people important to you? Because Paul Bryan has been involved a lot in the production of the last couple of records. Well, you get to know people, and you get to know what they can do. And I think Paul, especially, has just got better and better. He's a very interesting guy because he's always learning and trying to become a better, more rounded person. He took Orchestration classes at UCLA when he had time off and he just fucking works, you know. He'll say, "What did you do this weekend?" and I'm thinking, "Well, I sat around for a while and then I watched some TV. And then I met somebody for coffee and we sat around the coffee place," and Paul will say: "Oh, well, there was this jazz record I was transcribing and I really got interested and I was doing a sample horn chart just to see if I could and then it was, like, eight hours later!" So it's crazy. He's that guy.

There's a lot of nice gnarly guitar on the record. There's some nice guitar. We tracked a really good guitar player and then Jamie Edwards, the keyboard player, is a great guitar player and he played some extra guitar. He did a couple of solos, it was fantastic.

It does have a nicely unworked-over feel. There's some great straight-ahead synths and guitars that sound like they weren't laboured over. [He's not mentioned in our little chat, but the great Jebin Bruni also plays keyboards on the album]. Yeah. That's the goal, to try to get that. Most of the record is the band playing live in the studio. Probably two takes. I tell you—that drummer, his first takes are always perfect.

J J Johnson, who you've not worked with before? [Johnson has played drums for John Mayer the last couple of years] No, Paul had played with him and he was really great. Yeah, we wanted something slightly different, a little poppier. And obviously some of those sort of new wave-y Cars/Split Enz things were an influence. I was thinking classic pop, and what that meant to me. So there was a bit of Jimmy Webb and, you know, a couple of different influences—but a lot of pop.

Supertramp? I would not have cited Supertramp, but now you mention it...

The intros more than the songs. I suspect the keyboard player has some Supertramp history that he might have snuck in! I tell you what was a big influence on Charmer, the theme from The Rockford Files. It's actually quoted at the end—so that kind of sound, synthesizers when they're used in that way.

What, that kind of raw... the first time they got them in the studio and said "Now, what can we do with this..." Exactly! Put it on everything.

And not worry that it doesn't sit organically with anything else. Also I went back to listen to Blondie's Parallel Lines and said, "Okay, what was that era, what were they actually doing?" and really it's like a rock band, and someone just plugged [a synth] into the middle of this and it's really kind of funny.

Did you find it doesn't sound as modern and machine-y as you remember. They're actually more just—endearingly—slightly clunky rock music. Yeah I know—and at the time you're like, "Oh this is Crazy Robot Movie Music!" And now you listen and it's like—"No, it's like a sloppy dumb rock band!"

I know! Someone gave me a re-masted copy of Tusk the other day and the drum sound is like cardboard boxes being hit. But it's great, it's just not sleek and Californian and 48 track. It's not hi-fi at all. I think it wasn't until the '80s that people really started to obsess about drum sounds. And everybody had their libraries of samples. Urgh. I remember that time. And those were the days of taking two days to get a snare sound. It would drive you up the wall. I'm happy to return to a simpler time. Maybe it's because we can't pay for the studio time! Got to get on in and get it over with....

Indeed. Did you play much bass, or was it Paul? No, Paul. He's such a great bass player that he's really usurped my bass territory. I can't argue with it. What am I gonna say—'Um I think a version of what you are doing but, like, way dumber, and not as proficient, is what's needed..."?

Did you miss not playing bass? I'm kind of used to it, because then we can track live and I play acoustic and I'm more locked in to the rhythm of the song when I'm singing if I can play acoustic. So I would never be able to play bass live in the studio. I can do it live, but you kind of have to learn how to sing and play the song at the same time; two halves of the brain have to coordinate.

There's a great grungy bass line on 'Charmer'. The sound is fantastic. It's the first time Paul's playing with the pick and turning up the treble. We've had the treble completely off for about a decade [laughs].

That'll do it. There was a specific sound that I really wanted and I thought What is it? Is it emanating from the drums? Is it about the bass? Is it the bass doing 8th notes? Is it about the electric guitar doing 8th notes? Who is doing what to get that sound? You don't want everyone doing the same thing.

There is always one song that stands out for me when I first listen to one of your records. 'King of the Jailhouse' on Forgotten Arm. 'It's Not' on Lost in Space. 'Medicine Ball' on Smilers. And on this record 'Barfly' sticks out. That's interesting.

It's a great song. Thank you.

I haven't figured it out yet. That was actually written a while ago and then revisited. This kind of thing happens all the time, where you get asked to write a song for something. Someone gives you a documentary about the time Jack Kerouac was trying to dry out in Big Sur in Northern California. ["Spent my nights in a sleeping bag smelling kerosene/Thinking fog and sand/Was gonna keep me clean"]. And I was told that Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar were writing songs for it, so I thought "Great," and I wrote this song. And then I don't really know what happened. I think the movie came out and I know [Ben and Jay] had music in it because they did a little tour [with those songs] and I saw them. But my song didn't get included. So I finished it up—I think I wrote a bridge for it for this record. And it kinda turned out that the band that we have did an interesting job with it.

And the last song is really interesting, too. 'Red Flag Diver'.

Short and sweet and... Short, creepy and sweet!

I wasn't going to say that. I don't want to end on that note, though. So women's boxing got in to the Olympics for the first time. Did you watch? I watched, like, about thirty seconds of it. I TiVo'd all the Olympics and I didn't generally come across it. There was a lot of stuff to go through.

I just wondered because there was talk of The Forgotten Arm becoming a musical... Yeah that's still in the works, we hired a new writer [David Henry Hwang] and he's got to finish the first draft—then we can plow forward. We're waiting on him.

Do these projects take a long time? Yeah, it's years in the making.

So what else is on the cards? You're touring the album... Yeah the tour starts... I'm actually doing a movie. It's a little indie movie. Joe Henry is involved in it and he got me hooked in to it. His brother, I think, wrote the screenplay. It's based on a This American Life episode [TAL is a weekly public radio show broadcast on more than 500 stations, usually centering around a theme that tells stories from everyday life] about this journalist who thinks: suppose she got a bunch of musicians from Craig's List, just kind of randomly posting, 'Looking for musicians,' and forms a band and puts them in a studio for a day—what would that look like? So I'm playing that women. And Joe Henry's going to be in it, and John Doe is going to be in it and Loudon Wainwright... and Joe is doing the music for it. So it sounds interesting, right?

That sounds great. Too bad I don't know to act.

I think you do pretty well. You think?

You have a good CV. The Big Lebowski, you can't knock that. [Aimee has also appeared in Portlandia, and had the excellent line in a Buffy episode, "Man, I hate playing vampire towns."] Hopefully the director will just tell me what to do and I will do it, and then it will be good. That's the plan.

Well, take heart in the fact that you are moving up the list of rock stars who have tried acting. You'll be getting close to David Bowie at this point. He does whole feature movies. He's done whole movies—like more than one! That's a big bar to jump across.

I suppose it's hard, because at one point directors seemed to think all rock musicians could be actors and then we saw Robbie Robertson and knew it wasn't true. Let me just preface this by saying I really can't act; it's madness to have me in the movie. But my goal is to do better at acting then most actors have done at singing.

If you can get to that point, then that's a success. Yes, so we'll see how that goes. Think about all those blues records that actors have made.

I don't want to, but yeah, indeed. Thanks, Aimee. Thank you, Martin. Cheers, bye.

© Martin Colyer, 2012

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