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Fightin' words

Aimee Mann keeps kicking against the pricks

by Brett Milano

["Aimee LOS ANGELES -- Suppose that you sat down with a good friend who dimmed the lights, served you a drink, made sure you were sitting comfortably -- and then proceeded to tell you, at length and in detail, what an asshole you are. That's roughly what it's like to listen to Aimee Mann's long-delayed new album I'm with Stupid (due in stores from Geffen on January 30). If ever an album was summed up by its title or by its opening line -- in this case, "You fucked it up," from "Long Shot"-- I'm with Stupid is it.

With the notable exception of 'Til Tuesday's "Coming Up Close," Mann has never written a thoroughly sweet pop song, but the new album is the first time she's thoroughly vented her crankiness. The people who fuck up within the album are many and varied. Songs are addressed to abusive partners, clueless friends, and her eternal nemesis, the music business. Even the affectionate songs have a defensive air about them. "Sugarcoated" champions ex-London Suede member Bernard Butler against critics who've knocked his attitude (Butler returns the favor by playing on it). And "Amateur" sports one of the prettiest tunes she's delivered; its lyrics defend musical partner and former boyfriend Jon Brion against friends who've chided Brion for working with his ex. Beginning with 'Til Tuesday's Everything's Different Now -- their best, last, and worst-selling album, largely concerning her broken relationship with singer/songwriter Jules Shear -- Mann has had no qualms about using the complicated parts of her life for song material, and it's a frankness that spills over to interviews.

["'Till Yet the album's musical settings are so cushy and appealing that one is likely to miss its underlying venom, just as casual listeners often mistook last year's single, the toothsome "That's Just What You Are" (included on Stupid), for a love song. Working once again with co-producer and multi-instrumentalist Brion -- her main collaborator since the latter stages of 'Til Tuesday -- Mann expands the '60s-infused sound of her solo debut, 1993's Whatever. Classic pop references are everywhere -- for starters, the first tune quotes the guitar riff of Squeeze's "Up the Junction" -- but there's more of an indie-pop flavor this time, reflecting her love for the likes of Beck and Liz Phair. In fact, given Mann's impeccable taste -- she's also collaborated in recent years with Elvis Costello, ex-Cavedog Brian Stevens, and members of XTC and the Loud Family -- she'd probably make a good rock critic if her current career ever falls through.

Although she's still Boston-associated and still maintains a Brookline apartment, Mann has been based in Los Angeles for most of the past year and now shares an apartment with her current significant other, songwriter Michael Penn. It's only a few blocks away from the neighborhood celebrated in Melrose Place, but the feel of their place is more Boston-somber than Hollywood-lush. The lights are dim, antique tapestries are the only decoration, and the floors are covered with stacks of unfiled albums and CDs. It's early December and Mann is nursing a stomach flu. While Penn serves tea and works at the computer, she wraps herself in a blanket and prepares to vent.

Q: Not many people realize that you don't live in Boston anymore. What brought you out here?

A: I've lost the whole thread of living in Boston; I really have only two or three friends there now. I basically moved out here because Michael and I live together. But I don't live anywhere, so it really doesn't matter. I spent a lot of time in London in '94; my record company suggested that. If you're an American artist and you spend a lot of time there, they accept you as one of your own.

Q: Your new album took a long time to get released. You were on Imago and the label went belly up, but they sent an advance tape of the album way back in March. Then there were announcements that you'd signed to Warner Bros.; then another announcement that you hadn't. Finally it wound up on Geffen a year after it was finished . . .

A: Unbelievable, isn't it? Your imagination can never be as bad as reality sometimes. Do you know about what happened?

Q: Well, I assumed there were some label problems.

A: Imago's financing was withdrawn because the label was losing so much money. Meanwhile, [Imago president] Terry Ellis owns my contract. So my label had collapsed and I couldn't look for another deal because it was all up to him. He was busy trying to start another label, and I said, `Look, either you start another label or you work on getting my record out.' "

At one point he was going to make a deal with Warners to have them put the record out, but nobody at Warners had even heard it. So here I am, with my record about to come out on Instant Death Records.

Q: It's not often that Warner Bros. gets referred to as "Instant Death Records."

A: But they were just doing it as a favor to Terry Ellis. And I thought, "What's the point of putting my record out on a label where nobody's ever heard it? How much is that going to do for me?" So I called him up and said, "Look, you put this out on Warners and I'm not fuckin' touring, I'm not doing interviews, no promotion at all because you are killing my record." It was getting to the point where I had to threaten going into another industry altogether. Which wasn't a threat. I was so fed up that I was about to talk to my friends in the soundtrack business and see if I could scratch out another living.

Q: How did you get yourself out?

A: It was a long and complicated process. Geffen wanted to pay for the album. Meanwhile, Ellis tried to charge it to my account; and BMG [Imago's parent company] had already financed it. So how many times does he want to get fuckin' paid? Three times for the same object! I don't want to turn this into a rant about Terry Ellis, but people in this business just don't care about ruining people's careers. The song "It's Not Safe" was about a couple of those situations -- how nobody was giving a shit. Then people ask me, "Are you bitter?" Of course I'm bitter!

Q: There was a time, though, when you seemed to be enjoying the ride. Back when 'Til Tuesday had the big hit with "Voices Carry" you were making the appearances, doing the videos, more or less playing the game . . .

A: Hey, if somebody said to you, "Do you want to be successful and sell a lot of records?", you'd say yes, because you don't know what that entails yet. The fact is that 'Til Tuesday sold a lot of records and made very little money. And they expected us to work 24 hours a day at being completely cheerful and energetic. I tell you, that's impossible. There are superhuman expectations of artists, and I think that's bizarre. I was reading an article about Courtney Love recently, and it kept making references to the way she falls asleep during interviews, with the attitude of, "How self-indulgent and lazy." And I'm thinking, "You moron! Did it ever occur to you that she might be totally exhausted?"

Q: You haven't seemed especially fond of being in the spotlight since 'Til Tuesday broke up.

A: I consider fame one of the stress points of being in this business. The stardom and the people recognizing you . . . That happened to me before; it was unpleasant and awkward and I certainly don't want it again. It's a hard thing for somebody like me to deal with. Take Kurt Cobain: he was obviously uncomfortable with people coming up to him and saying, "Kurt, you're great, you're amazing." He was uncomfortable with that, as most normal people would be. If you don't have an incredibly needy ego it starts to seem surreal at best, incredibly intrusive at worst. You start to feel that these people expect far more of you than you could possibly give them. People have this idea that being famous affords you greater sense of responsibility, a greater degree of humanity, where in fact it's just the opposite.

Q: It seemed that you had some kind of turning point midway through 'Til Tuesday. For a time you were very into playing the glamorous role; you even stopped playing bass on stage for a while. Then after the second album I'd say there started to be more depth in what you were writing, and your whole image changed as well. You went back to the bass, stopped dressing up, no more videos . . .

A: I can tell you exactly what happened. I was on a tour with 'Til Tuesday, the tour was going really well but we'd been out for months. And sleep deprivation is built into the system. I was unbelievably exhausted, which of course causes depression. So I remember being in a hotel room and getting out my Swiss army knife. I started trying to calculate where and how I could cut my hand, so that it wouldn't permanently damage me but would make it impossible to play, just so I could get off the tour. I was such a zombie that it didn't enter my mind that this would be an irrational, problematic answer. And then I caught myself. I knew that if I left the tour, the management would complain, the label would go crazy, and the band would come down on me. And in fact, all those things happened. All the other changes proceeded from that.

Q: So you had a bit of a breakdown.

A: I've had what I would consider emotional breakdowns a handful of times at least. As recently as the last time I was in Europe [in November], I called my manager and couldn't stop crying, feeling exhausted and terribly isolated. And who am I doing this for? For Terry fucking Ellis? I mean, this guy doesn't give his bands enough tour support so they can have a bus to sleep on, and he's sleeping at the fucking Ritz?

Q: Back to 'Til Tuesday. The last album [Everything's Different Now] was the first that really got good reviews, but it was hardly promoted at all.

A: And I had to make a massive diplomacy effort to make sure that there was nothing embarrassing on that album. I had a song that Elvis Costello wrote for us ["The Other Side of the Telescope"], and the label [Epic] wanted me to write songs with Desmond Child and Diane Warren [commercial song doctors of Heart/Bon Jovi infamy]. I had to talk to Diane Warren on the phone, and it was my good luck that she had a scheduling problem so I could duck out of it gracefully.

Q: A lot of that album concerned your relationship with Jules Shear; you even put his name in one of the songs. Did you have any reservations about making them so specific?

A: I came to the conclusion that hiding doesn't make you a better person. I think the Jules thing was so annoying because it was assumed -- and still is assumed -- that every song I write is about Jules. And that just kills me. I mean, it's 10 years later; I am able to attract some other man besides this one guy! What's important is whether they're good songs, whether they can impart a certain emotion. That album got criticized because most of the songs were about that, as if that was a problem. I mean, hello? Remember Bob Dylan -- "Sara"?

Q: You've changed your band a number of times in recent years, but Jon Brion has been consistent. And he gets a lot of rein, writing songs with you and playing many of the instruments. How did he earn so much of your trust?

A: Basically, there are very few circumstances where he'll try something that I don't think fits. We appreciate each other's writing, and if I write a line that's truthful and accurate, he'll understand why it's good. And as you know from my cranky diatribes, I'm not that easy to please. Working with him is very atmosphere-dependent. If there's tension between us, nothing gets done, but if we're getting along there's very little time wasted.

It was interesting how I met him. Mike Denneen's [then-] girlfriend played violin on a couple of songs from Everything's Different Now, and I thought her parts were very compositional. She said, "Oh, our friend Jon Brion wrote those." Jon and I wrote a song together when we first met, and we also became involved almost immediately upon meeting each other -- that proved more dramatic than our working together, and ultimately less successful.

Q: I know Jon is a real '60s pop fiend. Was he responsible for bringing that into your music?

A: Absolutely, and that came from living with him. I went through a period after the initial burst of 'Til Tuesday where I hated listening to any kind of music because it just made me think about the business. But Jon plays guitar when he watches TV, and he plays music all the time. And I started enjoying it, because he'd be playing things I'd forgotten I liked. I'd be saying, "That's Badfinger, isn't it? Straight Up. I love that album." If you listen to Whatever, you can hear everything we were listening to. Here's our Simon & Garfunkel song, here's our Badfinger song, here's our Randy Newman song . . .

Q: And here's a few of our Beatles songs.

A: Right. All my friends, including Jon, have this rule where if they catch themselves playing something really Beatle-y, it gets erased. I don't do that. If somebody plays Ringo drums, I leave them on.

The difference with the new album is that there were some modern records I was listening to that were as much an influence as the older stuff. And that's funny, because it's almost a taboo in interviews to admit you've heard anything recent. If somebody says that you sound like Nirvana, you're supposed to immediately deny it. But a couple of years ago, there were a couple of albums that were so good I would consider them classics: Beck's Mellow Gold, the Posies' Frosting on the Beater, and the first Liz Phair album. And the Loud Family, as you know.

Q: Right, Plants & Birds & Rocks & Things made me see God, and you seemed to have the same reaction.

A: Scott Miller is the best songwriter out there, in my opinion. I often think about that when I'm writing: "Would Scott think this song is any good?"

Q: Would you put yourself in the same category with those kinds of people?

A: I would love it if they put me in the same class. Maybe I have some songs that are better than some of Jon Brion's, and some that are better than some of Squeeze's. But at their best -- forget it. And Scott's definitely better than me.

Q: I know you've performed live with him; you also toured with Squeeze, and you got Andy Partridge of XTC on stage in New York for the first and only time since his nervous breakdown 10 years ago. It must take a lot of nerve to get up and sing with the people you admire most.

A: The Andy Partridge thing happened because I was dating the guitarist of XTC [Dave Gregory], who was in my band for a while. But, okay, here's how my intensive understanding of human nature works to my advantage. Andy came to one of our shows, and I asked him to play tambourine on this XTC song ["Collideascope"] that we were covering. I knew he had severe stagefright, so I said, "You don't have to sing; just play tambourine and have some fun." I knew that he'd be all right once he got on stage; in fact, he's a bit of a ham. So he's standing beside me and I'm singing his song -- not incredibly well, I might add. So I'm like, "Come on, sing along!" Next thing you know, he's singing four times as loud as me.

Andy's the kind of person who's afraid of being a disappointment, because he's got so many expectations on him. You know how I got over that? I don't care about being a disappointment! Maybe I'll forget the lyrics, but who cares, that happens a lot. But I think that people can see I care about what I'm doing, and they pull for you when they see that.

Q: Your single "That's Just What You Are" was a hit because it was on the Melrose Place soundtrack. Somehow I can't imagine you being a fan of that show.

A: I've never seen it. Or maybe I have but I got it mixed up with 90210, which is the one that Tori Spelling's on? [Yes.] I have nothing against soap operas; it's a good opportunity for people to obsess about something besides each other. I wrote that song for a single in England, then I got a call from the producers asking if I had any songs for a soundtrack. I asked, "What's it for?" They said "Melrose Place." I said, "That spoiled-rich-kid soap-opera kind of thing?" They said, "Yeah." I said, "Sure, why not. Whatever."

Q: It was your first real hit in some time.

A: Was it really a hit? I have no idea if and where on the charts it went. If it was a hit, I'd never see any money from it anyway. That's only important in ego terms, and my ego was more satisfied because I got Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford to sing on it. Hearing it on the radio is fun, but nowhere near as satisfying.

Q: There's definitely a lot of bitterness running through that song, not to mention everything else on the new album.

A: Well, you can't exactly call me happy-go-lucky. But isn't it nice that Alanis Morissette has taken the mantle of the relationship angst-driven songs? Maybe now people will ascribe my songs as being about something besides a boyfriend.

Q: There's some pretty obvious subtext in the new songs, though. After all, "You fucked it up" is the first line on the album.

A: And lo and behold, that's the single. They're trying to find a way to bleep it, but you certainly couldn't put any other word in there. That would make you look like a moron. The whole point of that line is to have the impact of colloquial dismissiveness.

Q: Seems like it's something of a concept album about people fucking up.

A: At least in a couple of songs, the basic text is: you're a nightmare, I'm not going to get involved with you, so go away. I have a crush on you, but go away. It's recognizing the nightmares before they happen to you.

Q: How did that relate to your own life?

A: I think that people who are naturally timid are going to go overboard once they realize that they don't have to put up with a lot of shit. And that's me. I think I've traditionally been very timid and put up with a lot, for a variety of reasons. I put a lot of pressure on myself -- are my clothes bad and do I need to hire somebody to outfit me, or does that matter? Or is whatever appeal I have due to the fact that I don't think about that? I'm very strict with myself and don't want people to get angry with me; that's the dilemma of the timid. And what's the line between assertive and obnoxious? That's a female problem as well.

Q: Do I get the impression that you've been in therapy recently?

A: Not now, but I was a couple of years ago. I thought it was terrific -- like a puzzle where you get all these little clues, and if you solve it the reward is that you're happier. That's fun.

Q: I assume that your pal Terry Ellis inspired a couple of songs on this album. Anybody else?

A: There are a couple of people I could name, but you'd have to turn off your tape recorder. [She gives the well-known name of a former friend.] People like that who live in the spotlight, their punishment is inherent in their lifestyle. Everybody I know who's had some success has turned out the same way, whether it's Mr. X or whether it's Terry Ellis. They had no idea what I was feeling because they've made themselves into the kind of people who refuse to feel. That's pathetic, as in deserving of pity. So anybody that comes under my scorn or anger also comes under my complete and total understanding. And total compassion.

Q: People get the impression that you've had a pretty tempestuous life.

A: I definitely have, no doubt about that.

Q: And now things have settled down somewhat. You're in Los Angeles, your album's coming out, you're in a relationship. Does that mean you'll have to give up and start writing happy songs?

A: In terms of love songs, I don't think I have the linguistic skill to express joy in terms that don't sound fatuous. I think that's difficult for anybody. But I'm in the record business, man. There's always going to be something going on that's a drag.

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