A Conversation with Aimee Mann

Patten Oswalt
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Remember the end of the video for “Voices Carry,” when Aimee Mann goes bugshit at the opera? She starts singing while her wife-beating boyfriend (who literally wears a wife-beater T-shirt and, like all domestic abusers, loves the opera) hides his curly head in shame. That was back when Aimee was still the lead singer of ’Til Tuesday, spearheading the New Wave out of Boston in the early eighties.

Here’s a quick, Scientific American-style bullet point overview of her career since then:

  1. ’Til Tuesday disbands. Aimee goes solo. First album, Whatever…, critically acclaimed. Record company confused. Second album, I’m With Stupid, even better. Her label collapses or goes bankrupt or something, and her third album, Bachelor No. 2, gets caught in limbo.
  2. Aimee buys back Bachelor No. 2 (which the label didn’t like anyway) and forms a record label with her husband, Michael Penn. Releases the album. Critical acclaim. Songs used for Magnolia soundtrack. Oscar nomination.
  3. Follow-up album, Lost in Space. Innovative song-cycle. More critical and fan acclaim.
  4. New album, The Forgotten Arm, came out in May. Continues quietly to show musicians and artists how to live with a solid D.I.Y. ethic.

Also, here’s a quick overview of my career:

  1. First open mike 7/18/88 at Garvin’s in Washington, D.C. Gets a laugh with the one cancer joke near the end of the five-minute set.
  2. Repeat for the next seventeen years. Add fart and zombie jokes to repertoire.

Aimee and I went to dinner at Café Capo in Los Angeles, where we drank one and a half bottles of wine and recorded our conversation. We are fucking cool.

—Patton Oswalt


PATTON OSWALT: Let’s get started. Actually, Believer readers, you missed out on some great conversation before this. We’ve already talked about deep psychological trauma, my minor victory in a comic book store, and Aimee listening to stereo noises in her ear and sorting out her head.

AIMEE MANN: And now we’re on to cotton candy, corn dogs, and candy apples.

PO: Ironically, the first two words on her new album are “cotton candy.” But it does manage to get really dark from there.

AM: Very true.

PO: OK, what should we talk about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how so many of us, people like you and me, are living in a weird post-defeat state because of the Bush victory. We have no choice but to be psychotically upbeat about everything.

AM: It’s hard not to feel like we were totally screwed. The only thing left to do is say, “OK, let’s tighten our belts and get it together.” Because it’s clear that we didn’t do everything we could’ve done. I mean, I wasn’t at the polling places, helping out and volunteering, y’know? I didn’t contribute money to any of those campaigns.

PO: And we got behind a guy that we could not openly admit was gonna lose.

AM: I didn’t think he was going to lose. I really thought Kerry had a chance.

PO: Oh, really? I always had a gut feeling we were doomed. Somebody sent me a tape of a performance I did months before the election. I was just laughing and saying: “Bush is gonna win, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. We picked the wrong guy.”

AM: But there’s no right guy, really. That’s the problem. The people who win are always puppet heads. You know what I mean? Bush was perfectly cast to win. As Democrats, we always end up going for the guy who is a great actor and not a great movie star. The Republicans have a movie star. All we’ve got are these actors from Australia that nobody has ever heard of.

PO: We’ve got Paul Giamatti, and they’ve got Ben Affleck combined with Colin Farrell.

AM: They’re much better at casting.

PO: We just weren’t smart about it, especially in terms of how we responded to all those morality arguments. We should have said: “Look, there’s nothing wrong with caring about values. There’s nothing wrong with that intrinsically. But we’ve got a better deal. You’ll benefit from what we have to offer.” What we did—and I did it too—was come out too aggressively. “You guys are fucking morons! Wake up and come over to our side.” When you have that kind of attitude, people will go against you just out of spite, because then they want to see you fail. We weren’t wrong; we just had the wrong approach.

AM: Bush was never really judged on his merits. It was all about image, and he played into it very well. I think there was something about Bush that reminded people of the dad they never had. He’s more of a dream phantom president. He doesn’t exist as a person; he exists as an image that people want to buy into.

PO: We were idiots. Just come out and say it. We were idiots.

AM: I think what Democrats need to do is keep their eyes on the ball. We’re so easily distracted by weird, obtuse arguments. Or we worry too much about what the other side thinks of us. And the thing is, I don’t believe the Republicans honestly believe half of what they say. During the Condoleezza Rice hearing, the Republican senators would say, “Democrats are just sore losers.” But that’s just bullshit. It’s like the woman who walks down the street and gets bent out of shape when a construction worker calls her a bitch because she won’t stop and talk to him. It’s a tactic to get her to stop and talk to him. It has nothing to do with reality. It’s a manipulation to get her to do what he wants her to do. All of that nonsense about the Liberal Media, it’s a manipulation to get the media as attuned to the Republican agenda as possible.

PO: I realized something even darker when you mentioned Bush being the father that they never had. I think that actually applies even more to liberals. I know so many liberals who grew up with liberal parents that were always fucking around and using drugs. They were very nice, permissive parents, but they didn’t give them a home life that they could rebel against. They were raised by parents who wanted to be twenty-two years old forever. So not only does Bush appeal to the Republicans, he cryptically appealed to liberals because he had that daddy image. Even though Bush is kind of an awful father who clearly doesn’t like his daughters, there’s something appealing about the way he sets boundaries.

AM: Or what appear to be boundaries.

PO: Yeah. Whereas my dad was always more concerned with being cool and being my buddy. As for a lot of liberals, the idea of a disciplinarian father figure has a very strong allure.


PO: I want to talk a little about all the press I read about you back in the early nineties. A lot of these articles played on the same underdog story. “Aimee defiantly walked away from her record company and said, ‘Fuck you, man! I’m doing it myself!’” I didn’t know you at the time, but even then, it seemed a bit too simplistic. It probably wasn’t that easy. I’m sure that you had doubt. It’s actually more heroic if there were moments when you thought: “What have I done? Oh my god! What the hell?!” But then you found the courage and did it anyway.

AM: It was both positive and negative. It was so unpleasant dealing with those people [at Interscope Records] that I completely didn’t care what happened to me. When I decided to put out Bachelor No. 2 on my own, I didn’t think it was going to be a big success. I thought we’d sell a few records off the website, or maybe out of the back of a van.

PO: There’s something liberating about being in a situation where there’s nothing you can do. Every door has been shut behind you; the iron gate has been brought down; you have no choice but to go forward.

AM: Yeah, it is pretty liberating. It’s like something out of the twelve-step program in Alcoholics Anonymous. You have to admit that you’re powerless. What’s awesome about that is you stop expending energy on things that you can do nothing about. It’s amazing how much energy you have for other things—more important things—when you stop worrying about what some record company suit thinks of you.

PO: It’s so easy to get caught up in that. And caught up in this race for fame and riches. I think that all of us, comedians and musicians, start out with that obsession to take over the world. When I was younger, I was so driven to become this huge star. But if you don’t become huge fast enough, there’s a part of you that goes, “Oh wait, this is bullshit.” Or you get a taste of it and go, “Uh, this is absolutely not worth it.” You had that more than me.

AM: I really didn’t care for any of that celebrity nonsense. You lose too much of yourself. I just don’t think the loss of privacy is worth it, to have strangers coming up to you at the airport and saying, “Are you somebody?” What is that worth? It’s nothing. I think the problem, at least for us, is that whatever fame we achieved never translated into goods and services.

PO: Exactly! I got nothing out of it.

AM: Where are my free Marc Jacobs bags? And my Calvin Klein gowns? If we would’ve gotten more free schwag, it would’ve been a whole different realm.

PO: I didn’t even care about the expensive shit. I don’t need the J. Crew and the Humvees. I wanted my nerd stuff. I wanted Brian Michael Bendis to call me up and say, “How’d you like to get an advance copy of the Powers script?”

AM: I have a weird fondness for the goody bag. I got one when I played at the Oscars.

PO: The goody bag!

AM: You know what the problem with a goody bag is? A lot of it’s like, “One free night at the most expensive resort.” You know you’re not gonna go for just one night. And if you do go, you feel like you’re out of your element. Do I tip the valet dude? I don’t know what to do!

PO: I was writing for the Oscars the year you performed. I was punching up something that Ben Stiller did. I remember being at a rehearsal and dealing with the producers and all these shallow assholes. I was sitting there and thinking, “This is everything that’s wrong about show business.” And then, as I’m leaving, I saw the goody bags lined up, and I thought, “Oh, that’s why people sell out.”

AM: I love getting free stuff anyway, even if I don’t use it.

PO: I give everything away. I have a lot of friends who work for charities, and I can give it to them for their auctions. But it makes me feel like a gangster. [In a mafia thug voice] “Here’s this lovely Rolex watch. Auction it off for the kids.” I just feel like a crime lord. But I just can’t keep any of that stuff. If I wore a Rolex, I wouldn’t be able to do anything but look at it.

AM: I got a free watch once, and I wore the thing day and night. I wore it all the time.

PO: Earlier this year, I was finally at a point financially where I could conceivably afford to buy a tailor-made suit. I realized that this is why people become evil heads of corporations. It was amazing. I looked completely different.

AM: Oh, wow, that’s great. You should enjoy it.

PO: Yeah, I know, but I literally spent ten minutes just standing in the store, thinking: “Should I be doing this? It’s such an unnecessary extravagance.”

AM: Of course you should. The reason it’s evil on the other side is that they don’t enjoy it. They don’t get any joy out of it. It’s totally glorious.

PO: OK, fine. But it’s hard not to feel guilty.

AM: You just have to remember to be grateful. Once you start taking stuff like that for granted, that’s when it becomes evil. That’s when you’re just some oblivious bastard.


PO: Is it just about confidence, or the appearance of confidence? Is that all people want from their leaders or artists?

AM: That’s probably at the heart of it. It’s like training a dog. Just show a little assertive energy and they’ll follow you anywhere.

PO: I suppose that’s true. We’re all just dogs underneath.

AM: It’s not that it’s enticing or seductive; it’s kind of natural. If you’re waiting to cross the street and some guy bolts past you and starts walking before the light turns green, you’ll probably follow him. We’re always looking for somebody to take the initiative, who seems like they know what they’re doing. People really respond to that. I think you can literally get away with murder if you have the appropriate amount of confidence.

PO: I once knew this hack stand-up comedian, and his material was just awful. Just completely terrible. But he killed every night. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. It used to mystify me. But then I noticed, when he went on stage, he would lean back and thrust his crotch towards the audience’s faces.

AM: Oh my god.

PO: That was it. That was his only secret. He would stand there with his crotch out front. And the audience immediately thought: “OK, I’ll listen to whatever this guy says. He must know what he’s talking about.” It was intimidating. I’ve seen so many mediocre rock performers do the same thing. If you think about it, everything about being on stage puts you in a position of power. You’re raised above them, and your voice is amplified, and you’re lit. I guess there’s something to that.

AM: Everything about you says, “Pay attention: this person is important.”

PO: And the Republicans have started to pick up on that. All these evil conservative demigod motherfuckers have stolen the language of rebellious rock and roll. They’ve taken the funky, cracker swagger and used it to their advantage.

AM: They’ve taken that cowboy flavor.

PO: They’ve also stolen the stance of black bluesmen and jazz musicians. You know the way jazz musicians will lean back with the horn in that really cool way? It’s all about understanding what gets a reaction from an audience. Who do they stare at? They’ve created a version of that hip jazz poise. It’s eerie. I’ve got to watch a Bush speech again and really pay attention to what he’s doing.

AM: He has a speech tonight.

PO: Oh, that’s right. I hope I remembered to tape it.

AM: I think it’s all just about how he’s going to take over the world.

PO: I hope he just comes out in a Dr. Doom costume. That would be cool. At least it’d be more honest. He should just start wearing a cape and a mask.

AM: I would probably like him more.

PO: Speaking of confidence, I was watching an old episode of Carson’s Tonight Show. It was the one when Frank Sinatra was a guest. Right in the middle of the interview, Don Rickles walked out unannounced. The audience goes nuts, and he sits down and starts talking to Frank. They’re both cranking out the funny, and Johnny just leaned back in his chair and lit up a cigarette. He doesn’t say anything, just let them talk. He was like, “I can take a five-minute break.” That’s that kind of confidence we’re talking about. It’s amazingly powerful. And I think that’s what Bush has tapped into.

AM: It always shocks me just how little Bush gives a shit. He doesn’t care what people think, because he’s pretty sure we can’t rise up against him. That’s what comes with thinking God is on your side. I guess we kind of gave him that sense of entitlement after 9/11.

PO: I remember watching those planes hit the World Trade Center, and it was horrible, and I thought, “Oh my god, those people are dying.” There was about an hour where I wanted a fascist violent response. I wanted a Judge Dredd. I wanted a Dirty Harry to wipe out every fucking person in the Middle East. But then I thought, what do I believe in as strong as flying a plane into a building? You know what I mean? Everyone’s first response to that was: “Those countries are all violence and religion. That’s all it is.” Well, yes, it’s all violence and religion to the terrorists, but we’re the Peter Frampton of violence and religion. We’re the bloated, overproduced, Emerson Lake & Palmer, late-seventies Led Zeppelin of violence and religion. The terrorists are like the Ramones. “I’ll carry my own amp, thank you. I don’t need anyone to set up for me.” They’re willing to fucking burn it to the fucking ground. And that’s why we had such an angry, violent response. Just like the mainstream music industry’s response to the Ramones. No wonder we went fucking crazy.

AM: Well, we didn’t go crazy.

PO: I think we went crazy. We attacked the wrong fucking country.

AM: Yeah, but Bush didn’t attack Iraq because it had anything to do with 9/11. He was planning to do that anyway. I think he just went: “Oh, thank god, this is the perfect opportunity. How can we parlay this into an attack on Iraq?” It wasn’t a response; it was just an excuse.

PO: Do you think the music industry’s secret plan to kill off Peter Frampton and Zeppelin fit in perfectly with the arrival of punk rock? A rebel sometimes justifies the establishment killing off the dinosaurs. The Iraqi regime was a dinosaur that the Bush administration had to get rid of. It was an albatross.


AM: You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to do something totally selfish. Like have a movie night or something. I never get a chance to see movies anymore. I was going to see On the Waterfront a few weeks ago. It was playing down at the Arclight theater. But I got sick and decided against it. I’ve always wanted to see that film.

PO: You’ve never seen On the Waterfront?

AM: No, never. That’s really embarrassing, I know.

PO: You’re gonna love it. Marlon Brando’s acting is just startlingly good, even by today’s standards. And some of my favorite scenes aren’t even the famous ones. Everybody knows about that scene in the back of the car with Karl Malden.

AM: Oh, yeah. My father used to do a terrible impression of that. The “I coulda been a contender” line.

PO: But my favorite is the one where he and Eva Marie Saint are in the park. He’s talking to her and he’s trying to impress her by appearing smart. He’s all heart and no brains and he really loves her. At one point, he picks up her white gloves and he’s trying to put them on, and of course they don’t fit. And Eva has this expression that’s like, “What are you doing?” And I don’t even think that was her character. The actress seems genuinely confused by him.

AM: I always want to watch movies and it’s something that we [Michael Penn and I] never do. I really want to set a precedent for it. I just don’t have the whereforall to set aside two hours to sit and watch something.

PO: OK, let’s do a movie night. Next Sunday, get your ass in the car, drive up the five minutes to my house, and we’ll do it. That’s a great idea. I love watching movies with other people. You get so much more out of it. Even if it’s a movie that you’ve seen a thousand times before, you get a different perspective on it if you watch it with somebody else. They’ll notice things that I never saw before, or they’ll say, “That was bullshit, and I’ll tell you why.”

AM: Let’s have an evening where we watch only old boxer movies.

PO: You mean like City for Conquest? Oh, and Champion. And Body and Soul.

AM: I don’t know those. Champion is the Midge Kelly film, right?

PO: Wait till you see it. Just remind yourself that Kirk Douglas didn’t get an Oscar for that role. It’s so brutal.

AM: I saw Raging Bull when it came out, but I barely remember it. It was so long ago.

PO: Oh, that’d be a good double-feature, because Champion is like an hour and change. That’d be perfect.

AM: Yeah, especially with a bottle of wine.

PO: Speaking of movies, I read a cool theory about Jaws. Remember when Jaws came out? The people at Universal said: “This movie will do very well in the coastal cities. But in the Midwest, which is where we make our money, Jaws is gonna bomb. They don’t know anything about the ocean.” And then Jaws opened and it was fucking huge. They can’t believe the money they’re making. And the reason it was so huge is because Jaws, even if you’ve never seen a shark before and you don’t live anywhere near the ocean, triggers something in our sense memory.

AM: How do you mean?

PO: The shark is a prehistoric animal that never evolved. It just got smaller. It used to be a hundred feet long, but it shrunk down to twenty feet. One of the reasons that we crawled out of the ocean was…

AM: To get away from the sharks.

PO: Exactly. So we have a DNA memory of sharks. Even people that were born in Kansas are like: “That’s not good. That’s bad. I remember that. I don’t know why.” And in the same way, if we can remember this shark from 100 million years ago, I think we remember the Big Bang as well. Because all of our atoms were in some way culled out of that Big Bang from the dawn of time.

AM: Is that because all atoms are recycled? They all have a little bit of memory. That’s like a lot of current psychological thinking, that we all have the sense memory of trauma floating around our bodies at a cellular level.

PO: And that’s why we have explosions in every superhero myth. Superman was born in the explosion of a planet. Or Batman, who was born in the explosion of a gun. It’s an innate myth.

AM: I assume you have a fairly good working knowledge of superhero myths.

PO: The Hulk was born out of an explosion. Peter Parker, the explosion of a gun that kills his beloved uncle. Daredevil, a truck crashing and blinding him.

AM: Well, maybe they’re all just imitating the first. Maybe it’s just a retelling of the Superman myth.

PO: Yeah, but what was Superman imitating? They’re all explosion myths. They all come back to explosions.

AM: It could be. Or maybe it’s just the glass of wine that’s making this more interesting.

[Both burst into laughter.]


AM: I suppose we should talk a little about music, huh?

PO: So when does the new album come out?

AM: Sometime in the summer. May or June.

PO: I was really happy that it had this gritty, teenage garage-rock feel to it. And some of the lyrics, like on “King of the Jailhouse,” had an almost over-the-shoulder snarl. It’s like these weird, cut-off conversations where both of you want to say something and no one’s gonna say it. It’s what’s unspoken that’s more important than what’s said.

AM: I’m very happy with it. And I like that it tells a little story. It was kind of inspired by Two-Lane Blacktop. I must’ve seen it on TV at some point. I don’t even remember it, except that it entails people driving around the Southwest.

PO: I own it. Maybe we’ll do it on movie night.

AM: That’d be great. I don’t remember anything except that it’s a road trip. Oh, and the model with the gap in her teeth. I remember her.

PO: She committed suicide.

AM: Really? What was her name?

PO: I forget, but she killed herself after that film came out.

AM: You’re kidding. I think I’m mistaking her for the other model with the gap in her teeth.

PO: Do you know what I just realized? The song “Lost in Space,” which I also listen to way too much, had this very strong narrative about two people and their inability to communicate with each other. It’s just a snapshot of their lives. For some reason, that reminds me of what you were saying about Two-Lane Blacktop and On the Waterfront. You remembered seeing them, you remembered certain scenes and moments, but you didn’t remember the entire movie.

AM: Yeah, that’s right. I only have these flashes of memory.

PO: But isn’t that what a good musician does? They’re just writing songs about these individual moments. It’s not a full story, just a glimpse at a fractured scene. I mean, think about any great Rolling Stones album. I remember the songs, but I don’t always know which album that came from. It’s like: “Oh, I love ‘You’ve Got the Silver.’ What album was that on again?”

AM: That’s true. My memories seem to come in small fragments. I don’t know if that’s a good thing, though. It can be disconcerting. It’s happened a lot to me recently. There are times when I feel like I can’t remember stuff. I know how a normal brain should work. You should remember things that happened to you recently. But I’ll find myself thinking, “Wait, did I just say that?” I wonder, is this early Alzheimer’s or something? I only remember bits and pieces from my life. Maybe it’s all just too much for me, and I need to block most of it out.

PO: I can’t believe I’m bringing this up, but I watched Fellini’s Amarcord again recently, which is about growing up in fascist Italy during World War II.

AM: Yeah, I saw that. I couldn’t tell you what the hell it was about.

PO: He was honest with his memories. He basically said: “I was a teenager. History was happening around me, but I was obsessed with big tits. That’s all I remember.”

AM: All I remember about that movie is the close-up of a woman’s butt.

PO: I would like to write a screenplay about a kid in the mid-eighties, growing up and rebelling against all the New Wave shit, but really, I was just obsessed with big tits. I was obsessed with big-breasted girls at Howard Jones concerts.

AM: Remember Howard Jones had that dancer guy and the mime guy? What was his name? Jed something.

PO: And the mummies that would walk out during “Everlasting Love”?

AM: Are you kidding?

PO: I went to one of his concerts. I was trying to impress this girl who was really into him, so I soldiered through this whole concert.

AM: I just saw it on TV. He had a mime with him. That’s awesome.

PO: I was just blown away by Fellini’s honesty. There’s something so great about embracing the fact that sometimes we miss the bigger picture because we’re caught up in our base needs. Amarcord is all about that. It’s the frustration of: “Goddammit, is that all I fucking thought about? Is that what I kept from that experience?” But there’s a joy in that, too.

AM: I have this terrible feeling that my life is getting away from me. My life is just falling in half, and I’m focused on these crazy, stupid, mundane things. But in a way, it also stabilizes me, too. If you obsess about something, even if it’s something small and trivial, it kinda brings your life into focus. It becomes your entire life. Everything else just becomes irrelevant.

PO: Yeah, but I think those small, trivial moments are what’s important. Because those are the moments that everybody can relate to. And if you create art around that, it makes a person think, “Oh, shit, yeah, I know what she’s talking about. I can’t believe they wrote a song about it.” They did a Seinfeld episode about trying to find a car in a parking garage. It was stupid and mundane, but it was also brilliant, because it’s something that everybody has experienced. All this shit that we think gets in the way of being an artist is really what being an artist should be about.

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