Copyright 1999 New Times, Inc.
New Times Los Angeles
June 3, 1999, Thursday
LENGTH: 2164 words
HEADLINE: Taming the Tiger;
Pop couple Aimee Mann and Michael Penn find a comfortable middle ground between premature success and the industry they hate
BYLINE: Johnny Angel
If you're a musician, the worst-case scenario is no success at all; a very close second is a successful debut. Think about it: Your album's out of the box and straight onto the charts--and then what? If there's no follow-up, you're in far worse peril than your hitless brethren. A one-hit wonder. You've peaked and didn't pay your dues, leaving everyone wondering what the hell happened.
Both Aimee Mann and Michael Penn know something about that depressing scenario, and perhaps it was their oddly symmetrical career paths that brought these two precocious pop rockers together. Both cut their musical teeth on left-of-the-dial indie outfits signed to small labels: Mann with her noisy, fractured-pop band the Young Snakes (on Boston's defunct indie Modern Method) and Penn with the semi-experimental Doll Congress on Enigma. Both have had tumultuous relationships with their labels--striking it big with hits early on but never having similar financial success after that. And now, Mann and Penn, who are married, have downshifted to a cozy residency at the club Largo, satisfied that even if they aren't topping the charts they're still making good music.
Sitting in Sunset Sound Studios on a lazy Friday afternoon, the couple, who are both in their late 30s, share more than just affection for each other. They have the same rueful take on the recording industry in private as they do in their duo-not-duet performances at Largo. Penn has a reputation for being dour and uncommunicative, and Mann for being slightly impertinent and occasionally icy. (Back in Boston, Mann was envied and loathed in equal doses for her success and her hauteur, and at least four local bands did nasty send-ups of "Voices Carry." Hardcore punk miscreants GangGreen still perform a snarky version in their live set.)
Despite the stories, they're both in good spirits and regard their circumstances with a bemused and resigned sense of gallows humor. Sitting arm in arm, as if symbiotic, they recite their war stories. Penn is presently ensconced in Sunset Sound, cutting Resigned, a follow-up to his first work for the 57/Epic label. Mann has moseyed on over to cut a backing vocal track for a tune entitled "Trampoline."
Back when they first graduated to majors, Mann and Penn had considerably more mainstream product, and both hit the bull's-eye with maiden-voyage singles. Mann joined Boston new wavers 'Til Tuesday, and the band's "Voices Carry" was quintessential early '80s post-synth pop/rock in a Thompson Twins-lite mode; Penn's "No Myth" was late '80s neoconfessional, like a more focused or slicker Aztec Camera. Both were enormous hits that set the stage for endless battles with their major-label keepers, probably because neither artist chose to continue in the same musical vein. Mann and 'Til Tuesday made two more discs for Epic, both of which were considerably more evolved artistically than the hit debut (Mann's "Coming Up Close" is the greatest song ever written about New England--perfectly evoking the feel of leaves turning and falling on a September afternoon), but neither was supported by her label much. After 'Til Tuesday, Mann's luck with the labels hasn't gotten much better--Imago, on which she released her first solo records, Whatever and I'm with Stupid, self-destructed, and her next label, Geffen, was just swallowed up in the Unigram merger--but not before leaving her in limbo. "I've killed two record companies," jokes Mann. "And I'm kind of proud of it!"
Penn's story is same plot, different person. After his 1989 hit debut for RCA, March, he released Free for All for the same label. But when the company underwent an early '90s shake-up, his identification with the old regime made him a marked man. "I was the president's personal signing," says Penn. "The new guy came in and asked me if I wanted to stay or go, and I knew that the rest of the company wasn't behind me, so I went. It was nice of them to give me the option--they could have held me captive forever."
Even if it hasn't changed their feelings about the music business, the Largo residency has fired their passion for making music. For Mann, it has completely rejuvenated her interest in live performing and songwriting.
"I'm not a fan of touring at all," she says. "It has no attraction to me. I can sing my own songs in my living room and get more pleasure from it. But Largo gives you the opportunity to feel like a real musician, a professional, because of its atmosphere."
Unlike the rapid-fire pace and jaded show-us-what-you've-got vibe that is one of the most repellent aspects of Los Angeles' live club circuit, Largo is as artist-friendly as advertised. This manifests itself to great effect in Mann and Penn's intimate performances. After an opening set by a singer/songwriter favorite (picked by either club or the headliners), Mann takes the stage by herself with just an acoustic guitar and is later joined by a trio. Her set consists of mostly unreleased songs--'Til Tuesday hits and misses are rarely played.
"I have very little feeling for those songs anymore," she says. "You know, at this point if they made 'Voices Carry' into a soap commercial, I wouldn't even mind that much!" After a break, Penn takes the stage and plays a set that's far tougher than his records; see the cantankerous music-hall rumble of "Long Way Down" from Free for All. Interestingly enough, this makes for a captivating show. Most "solo-acoustic nights" usually amount to nothing more than self-indulgent, drumless snoozefests. After all, the original purpose of songwriter nights was to showcase material for song pluggers who are no longer needed in this era of high-quality home recording. Penn and Mann take a different tack: Their anti-music-industry diatribes underscore the fact that they're hardly pimping their songs to the industry; their well-crafted, Brill Building-style songs hold up by themselves--meaning they don't need more technology than what's available on Largo's simple stage.
Also, it's pretty rare for an act to employ offstage entertainers to fill in musicless gaps. Because neither of the two see themselves as stage-patter whiz kids ("We suck at it," Mann says), they enlist one of many stand-ups who frequent Largo's popular Monday Night comedy showcases to do their talking for them. During a recent Penn set at Largo, the singer and comic Paul Tompkins did a hilarious bit with Penn posing as a Balkan emigre unable to communicate in English, and Tompkins as his stern translator. (Penn: Eastern European-accented gibberish. Tompkins: "What he says is that he cannot understand the American Music Awards and your culture--how can any human being with an ounce of brain prefer 'N Sync to the Backstreet Boys? It is shameful!")
Given that the audience was largely comprised of industry insiders pretending to be otherwise, this schtick produced much jocularity, which is needed given that the pair's animosity toward their industry patrons can reach critical mass after a spell. However, for those of us who genuinely dislike the bean-counting, impersonal monster that is the record business, it's a breath of fresh air: Finally, someone willing to testify in public--saints be praised! Mann's overt dislike of the entertainment industry's Satan-like machinations first appeared on her song "I've Had It" from her astonishing, underappreciated Whatever. In the song, Mann sings: "I guess this is our prime/Like they tell us all the time/Weren't you expecting some other kind?/I've had it."
"I was describing the feeling of heading from Boston down to New York in a van for another damned showcase for the label--the same kind of thing we did before 'Voices.' It was like nothing had changed, and I'd had enough," she says. From the stage at Largo, she freely lets loose volumes of ire at the business and gladly bites the feeding hand. In short, she hardly hush-hushes or keeps it down, to paraphrase her most famous lyric.
"The day after Epic released our third record, they said, 'So, let's talk about your next record,' " she says in disbelief. She parted company with both her band and Epic shortly after that.
At one Largo show, she admitted to the packed house that she had no idea if she was even still on Geffen/Interscope after the winter purge of 1998. "I wasn't kidding,'' she says. "I can't get a straight answer out of them. Lots of promises, no action, and lots of hints that there's no single on the finished master, which they always complain about--from Imago to Geffen."
Mann's records do about 100,000 units in sales, a semiprecipitous drop-off from her glory years with 'Til Tuesday. But like so many rock acts before and after her, she had little to show for their success.
"Just getting them to get us a tour bus to promote our second disc was like pulling teeth with our managers," she says. "They'd tell me that they wouldn't ask for tour support because they and we wouldn't want to be in debt to our record label, and that sounded sensible to me. But when we were playing arenas opening for Hall & Oates and Don Henley and showing up in a freezing, cold passenger van and I still had no money after these measures, I began to wonder what the hell I was doing. The Young Snakes actually made a living playing Boston clubs, and as a theater-sized headliner, we were in debt? 'This is crazy,' I thought."
But one industry source who chose to remain anonymous thinks that Mann is just blaming record labels for her own failings. "She can complain all she wants," he says, "but musicians who say that the business screwed them are those who took their eyes off the ball--it's no one's fault but their own."
She and Penn treat Largo, the club that has fed their muse, as a haven from the industry bullshit, and, in her words, it "reconnected" them to the music scene. "It's funny how Largo sponsors a lot of antirecord-business acts like ourselves and Andy Prieboy's 'White Trash Wins Lotto,' which is essentially an antibusiness piece," says Mann. "I think it's because the owner, Flanagan, has that attitude himself. He's a lover of music who despises the industry, and we pick up on that, I suppose, as if we didn't have enough reasons to hate them already."
Indeed, the club owner is no myth himself: A former bouncer, he's hands-on and a real physical presence in the club. Flanagan will happily clamber onstage to help tune Mann's guitar, and he'll shush an audience that isn't paying attention. He'll even eject chattering biz types if the spirit moves him. "One guy even whipped out his cell phone during a quiet passage in a song," Flanagan says. "I tossed him on the spot!"
"Largo is the only place I can think of that is totally artist-friendly," says Mann. "I don't blame Flanny for giving the boot to those rude record company or publishing company types. They'll call the room and ask for 10 comps, which is like one-tenth of the club's capacity, and then yak all the way through a set. No wonder he eighty-sixes them."
Shades of Folk City circa 1963. Well, that might be too sunny an analogy, but suffice to say that Mann and Penn have a perennial Tuesday night residency, albeit one that goes in fits and starts and appears to be subject to their own whims. "We began last November with a month of these, and it was a surprise success," says Penn. "Then we did it again in February and March and are starting it up again in May--we hope. You never know."
Penn is finishing his disc at Sunset, Mann is waiting on Interscope, and that's what the life of a professional music-business couple seems to be about. Mann did a small part in The Big Lebowski as a German-spouting tourist, which was her first foray into the acting end of the entertainment maw. (Before her acting foray, her song "That's What They All Say" appeared prominently on the Melrose Place soundtrack.) Penn appeared in Boogie Nights and did excellent work on the soundtrack. In the meantime, they ply their trade on the tiny stage at Largo and sing their carefully crafted, intelligent post-folk-rock songs with great relish for the small crew of appreciative types that never miss a show. "They call out for unreleased songs, which is gratifying," says Mann. "It isn't a drunken bar scene filled with dummies. It's like an oasis in a world where the public is so overentertained that they don't care much anymore." Or as Penn puts it: "Largo in general and our gigs in particular are like a sore thumb in L.A., where music is like this strange kind of Guitar Center commercial or sporting-event thing. It's a wonderful gig."
Says Mann, "It keeps you working, which is the lifeblood of any musician. You don't wonder why you ever started playing in the first place or feel that you want to retire because you're so fed up. It's special in a time when so little is in this business anymore."
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn perform on Tue., June 8, 22, and 29 at the Largo, 432 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles.