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HEADLINE: Aimee Mann: "I would have to sell a million records on a major label to break even. Literally. They're all fucking criminals."
BYLINE: By Joshua Klein
After what must have seemed like an eternity in a comically horrible major-label hell, Aimee Mann has enjoyed an amazing winning streak. Her songs helped buoy Paul Thomas Anderson's epic 1999 melodrama Magnolia and the companion soundtrack became a surprise hit. Her third post-'Til Tuesday solo album, Bachelor No. 2 was released independently just in time to coincide with her Oscar nomination, and a string of sold-out tour dates solidified her stunning comeback. The Onion A.V. Club recently caught up with Mann to talk about killing time between releases, the music business, and Phil Collins.
The Onion: On a serious note related to contemporary news, how exactly would you describe Jakob Dylan's eyes?
Aimee Mann: [Laughs.] You know, I've never really gazed into his eyes. You mean from TV and pictures?
O: Well, would you consider them "dreamy" or just "blue"? This is important stuff.
AM: I think they're more on the piercing side. Piercing blue.
O: That sounds scary.
AM: His eyes can be a little scary. Those are eyes that could easily cross over into psychopath eyes. The piercing is sort of the midway point.
O: Did Michael [Penn, Mann's husband and the producer of The Wallflowers' new Breach] ever come back from the studio with a dazed look on his face, saying, "I've been pierced"?
AM: He came back from the studio with a dazed look many times, but I don't think Jake's eyes had anything to do with it.
O: Well, that's it for hard news on my end.
AM: You know, I was at rehearsal the other day, and my bass player had The New York Times. I was just glancing through it and going, "Wow, I forgot about intelligent, interesting stories." The whole setup just assumes that you're intelligent and can actually understand the stories. There are idiots everywhere, but there's just this assumption of intelligence that doesn't exist in, for example, The L.A. Times.
O: You could maybe say that for L.A. in general.
AM: The local news... Half of it is, like, "John Travolta does..." It's just marketing for movies. I mean, I understand that it's an industry town, but that's not really a news story. You know, covering some stunt where they blow something up.
O: So what are you doing out in L.A.?
"There are lots of interesting people here, a pretty high concentration
of creative, interesting, smart people. You just have to make an effort
to group them together, because they're interspersed with a lot of morons.
But that's real life."
AM: In general, I kind of like it out here. I came out here when I finished up I'm With Stupid--we mixed it out here--so I was here for several weeks. Almost all my friends from Boston had moved out here, so L.A. seemed like the place where all the good friends were. It still seems like that, actually. There are a lot of interesting people here, a pretty high concentration of creative, interesting, smart people. You just have to make an effort to group them together, because they're interspersed with a lot of morons. But that's real life.
O: A lot of the smart, creative people seem to be pretty close to your orbit. The reason I asked about Michael Penn producing The Wallflowers is because The Wallflowers are managed by Andrew Slater, who also works with Macy Gray and Fiona Apple, who in turn both work with Jon Brion and/or go out with Paul Thomas Anderson. And it all leads back to you. How did you all gravitate toward each other over the past few years?
AM: I don't know how Slater met... I think someone gave him a tape of Fiona at a party, so he met Fiona that way. She was very, very young back then. I think he was already managing Michael, and I already knew Jon Brion because he produced two of my records. Paul Thomas Anderson called up Michael to score his first movie [Hard Eight], because he was a big fan of Michael's, and then we introduced Paul to Jon Brion. And then he met Andy Slater through Jon Brion, and then Fiona. You go to a party and everyone knows each other.
O: Your music seems to pop up in a lot of movies, not just Magnolia.
AM: Yeah. That's one of the benefits of living out here. You realize that a lot of times the way that happens is... Well, I don't go to a lot of parties, so it's not like I meet people at parties, but you sort of know somebody who knows somebody. Or there's this place called Largo that we play at a lot. Before Michael and I went on tour last year, we played every Tuesday night. It was kind of a hip place, and people would come to see that. You get a music supervisor who goes to one of those shows and goes, "Oh, that's right, maybe I should put some of her music in this movie I'm working on." It helps to sort of pop up on the horizon when people are working on certain projects.
O: Whatever even takes its name from your album.
AM: I like that movie. Nobody talks about it. It came and went, but I thought it was really good.
O: And you yourself pop up in The Big Lebowski.
AM: Yeah. And once again... Paul Thomas Anderson's then-girlfriend was one of the casting directors. She called me up and asked if I had any interest in auditioning for this movie. The other casting director, who I had met at a party, had suggested me for a part, and I thought, "Sure. Two seconds, how hard can it be? For two seconds, I'm sure anyone can act well enough." Especially if it's in a foreign language.
O: Do you have any proper lines in that movie?
AM: Well, I'm supposed to be German, and me and the other Germans are sitting around the diner talking. One of the other guys actually was German, so he and I got together and actually figured out a little dialogue in German so we'd actually have something to say, because otherwise, when they say "action," you have to make up some fakey German-y fake language. Which is what Flea did, and the other guy is Swedish, so he kind of spoke this Swedish-German composite. He didn't care.
O: What were you talking about in German?
AM: Um, he says to me, "Do you have the key?" And I say, "No, you have the key." We had an argument about who had the key. "Well, you had the key, you locked the door!" "No, I didn't lock the door, it locked by itself." It was really stupid. Then the waitress comes and we order pancakes.
O: That's like method acting.
AM: Well, also, at that point in my life I was so full of disgust at the music business that I would do anything that wasn't music, just because it wasn't music. I would never have been in a movie otherwise, I think. The record-company thing--my company was merging with another company and nobody would tell me what was going on--was just full of bile. As long as it didn't have anything to do with music, I was game. I just didn't care. So I think that's mainly why I did it. And for some reason I've always wanted to learn German. [Laughs.] I did take a couple of classes in high school, but learning German is hard. With any language, you kind of want to take it with someone else so you can speak it, but no one wants to learn German. It's impossible to find anybody up for that language.
O: Well, it's kind of a scary language.
AM: I know. But the reason I liked it is because it's so similar to English, so I figured it would be easy. You have compound words to deal with, but that has a certain logic that appeals to me. If you separate the language from its association with actual Germans. [Laughs.]
O: The only German I know is from movie Nazis. "Schnell!"
AM: Yeah. "Mach schnell!"
O: Speaking of popping up in weird places, what are you doing on that Rush album? [Mann sings on "Time Stand Still" from Hold Your Fire. --ed.]
AM: They called me up and asked me if I would sing. And I thought, Rush? That's not my kind of thing. So I listened to the song, and the part was this little falsetto thing. It was cute.
O: It's a fine enough song.
AM: Yeah. I don't mind the song.
O: Do you still get royalty checks from that?
AM: Oh, I don't think so. I doubt it. They gave me $2,000. That's a lot of dough.
O: Canadian or American?
AM: [Laughs.] That's the question! I think American. They flew me up to Toronto, and they were really funny. Well, except for Neil [Peart]. He wasn't very funny.
O: Well, he's a serious drummer. He's got to write all those lyrics.
AM: Yeah. But the other two guys are very, very funny. Canadians are funny. People are finding that out.
O: Neil Young isn't funny.
AM: Okay, how about this? They're either funny or crazy.
O: Now that all that record-company trouble is behind you, and you seem to be doing pretty well, do you think it was worth it to get where you are now?
AM: That's kind of hard to say. The last record-company trouble maybe was worth it, but there have been three separate incidents that have just... I think that's why I had come to the end of my rope so thoroughly. When I was at Epic, there was another situation where it was like, "We really like what you're doing, and we're not going to release you from your contract unless you completely change the kind of person you are and deny your personality." I was kept there without being able to release a record for three years. With that kind of thing, you sort of feel like... I can't really make a statement like, "It was worth it," because it goes over a 15-year period. I think that when you get so soured on something, it's hard to work your way back to feeling optimistic and positive about it again. There was a point where I just felt so wretched about everything--and this was even before the merger; this was when I was at Geffen--I felt that even the fact that I cared about music had brought me trouble, and that the best thing to do was possibly just to stop caring altogether. Which is a pretty hard position to work your way back from. It was difficult. Then you harden into a cranky old kook.
O: Did the Internet-only system work out for Bachelor No. 2?
AM: I think it made for a really good beginning. I mean, I don't think I could have made a living off of it, but it helped to springboard me. We sold 25,000 records just from mail order off the Internet. That's a lot of records, and it helped get us a distribution deal. It still mostly happens in regular retail stores. It's pretty difficult to do anything that doesn't involve that. And making enough money to finance your record and finance the operation... It's a pretty expensive little hobby.
O: It was a neat experiment, but I bet it was corrupted by Magnolia.
AM: Oh, Magnolia was the plow that got the three feet of snow off the ground, and then I came along with the broom. So that helped enormously. That was not only a major label working that record, but a major studio, so they really put some muscle into it. Obviously, that introduced me to an audience, helped market me to an audience, and I could never have done that on my own.
O: When you noticed that your songs on the soundtrack and in the movie itself were starting to resonate with people, were you at all worried that that might overshadow your own album?
AM: Nah. I didn't really think about that. If it did, it did, whatever. The movie was a really powerful experience, and if people are like, "We're not having the same experience now that we're not watching Tom Cruise crying," that's just the way it goes.
O: Since your new album is on your own independent label, was it tough to get it into stores?
AM: You have to have a distributor to get into stores. I've heard from friends of mine that Tower Records, HMV, and Virgin actually have displays. The albums are sort of displayed up front with the new artists. I mean, I'm sure we're paying, but I'm also sure we're not paying that much. But that's the kind of thing you pay for: visual space in the store. People keep telling me, "Yeah, I walked in and saw a big display with your record," which is amazing.
O: That must be a good feeling.
AM: It's incredible! I expected that it would be a situation where you go to the record store, hunt around, and there would be one in the bin if you were lucky.
O: Don't you ever wonder, "Where were you 10 years ago?"
AM: Well, the stores take their cues from the distributors, and the distributors take their cues from the record companies. We have an independent distributor, and we've sold over 100,000 records. That's a big seller for a independent record.
O: It's big compared to most major sales, as well.
AM: I think that for Interscope records, if you're not shipping a million records then they're not even interested in hearing about it. They don't care about it, so you probably get lost in the shuffle.
O: How about radio?
AM: [Sighs.] Radio is another thing that's bought and paid for. The payola burden shifted to the artists so the record labels would be ostensibly uninvolved. They would appear to have their hands clean. But the radio system is... This is how my manager describes it: You have a radio station, and maybe artist number one and their label are doing this thing where they're in town and they give away tickets to a show, and they have a contest for those tickets. And then maybe artist two has a thing where they have a contest and then fly the winners to Hawaii for a show. And then artist number three, like Sting or Limp Bizkit will give you a car. You know, we can give away tickets to a show, but we can't really compete with that. And that's the kind of thing that gets you on the radio. You have to agree to do deals like that. The most we could ever do is give away tickets to a show, and if we're not touring constantly, even that goes away. So you not only pay independent promoters to get your music on the radio, but you're also expected to be involved with each radio station in this way. It's just too much. Too difficult.
O: One advantage you have over the competition is that you're a good songwriter.
"I don't think radio stations care about content. I think there
are isolated DJs or programmers to whom your music might mean something,
but it's very few."
AM: But nobody cares about that. I don't think radio stations care about content. I think there are isolated DJs or programmers to whom your music might mean something, but it's very few. They're all run by consultants, and they're all going for the 18-to-34 male demographic, so the consultants tell them what to play. In certain formats, I can pay to get my record played, but it kind of requires the aforementioned involvement that I can't necessarily do. I can't tour constantly, because it's too exhausting. So your hands are tied, and if it's me versus some other band that has lots of funding and can pay for the contest-winner trip to Hawaii giveaway thing, they're not going to play my record. They're going to play the other guy's.
O: There's always been crap on the radio, but it's pretty dire now.
AM: I don't know. It seems that once upon a time there was programming that reflected what people wanted to hear, or new music that DJs thought was really good or interesting. There was a place for that. It doesn't seem like there's a place for that anymore.
O: It's reassuring what happened with Radiohead.
AM: What's happening?
O: It hit number one. It outsold Madonna and all those acts with little promotion and no singles.
AM: Really? That's amazing. Wow. Good for them. That's incredible.
O: Do you think people are more receptive to good music these days?
"It used to be if you could sell 250,000 records, they would come
out with guns blazing. But an assessment of 250,000 records, they don't
even get out of bed for that now. It's got to be a million records, at least."
AM: Yeah, but people who are in the position of second-guessing what the people want are the problem. That's the problem with record companies, too. You know, there are all these great bands that don't get supported at their record company because the people in charge have decided that the people would not come out in droves to buy them. It used to be if you could sell 250,000 records, they would come out with guns blazing. But an assessment of 250,000 records, they don't even get out of bed for that now. It's got to be a million records, at least. It's really come down to that.
O: Since the vast majority of artists will never sell a million records ever, total, why do you think so many bands still deal with the majors when there are so many alternatives?
AM: I don't think they know. I really don't think they know the reality of it. And also, if they're getting courted... If you're a young band and you've played a couple of shows and there's a big buzz about you, and somebody from Interscope is assiduously pursuing you, you're going to think, "They think I'm great, so of course they're going to promote it and make a big deal out of it." But in reality, from the record company's point of view, Mr. Big says, "There's a band out there getting a lot of buzz, and I want that band!" So the A&R guy goes out, comes up with a million-dollar deal, and signs the band in order to ensure that they get the band and no one else does. But once they've got the band, their job is done. It's over. Half of it is just like a competition with other labels to get the hot band. It's like competing for a girl you have no intention of marrying. You get the girl, and then, what, you're going to get married and have children? No, that wasn't your intention. You just wanted to get the girl from the other guy! At least these bands get a lot of money up front. The take-the-money-and-run aspect is helpful.
O: Unless they spend it all too fast and end up in debt to the record company.
AM: They're always in debt to the record company. I've made record companies money, but I'm still technically in debt, because the way you pay back your debt is through your tiny little chunk of the percentage.
O: Steve Earle claims he never got a royalty check until he recorded his first indie album a couple of years ago.
AM: Oh, I've never made money selling records. Never. It doesn't happen. I would have to sell a million records on a major label to break even. Literally. They're all fucking criminals.
O: What were you thinking when they were courting you?
"When 'Til Tuesday got signed to Epic Records, I didn't sense enormous
amounts of excitement. Actually, they told me I couldn't sing."
AM: I didn't really get courted that much. When 'Til Tuesday got signed to Epic Records, I didn't sense an enormous amount of excitement. Actually, they told me I couldn't sing.
O: That must have been encouraging.
AM: Yeah. "Go take singing lessons." Our deal was fucking tiny. That was nothing. You couldn't even make a record on what our advance was.
O: Did they pay for the hairspray?
AM: [Laughs.] Well, we were on the road, and from whatever we made on the road we were paid a salary, and we made $150 each a week. That's what we got. Our advance was $140,000, which is a very, very tiny amount to make a record on. There's no money left over. We never made money selling that record. It's pathetic.
O: On an indie, the opportunities for massive wealth are probably minimized.
AM: The majors have a system in place, but on the indie route, you pay for everything. I pay for the publicists, I pay for the lawyers, I pay the independent promotion guys to get it on the radio, I pay the photographers to do publicity photos. Though in my case, a lot of people have donated time and services. Photographers just let me use pictures they have taken, and so on. People have been extremely nice.
O: You do get a lot of freedom.
AM: And it's totally worth it, because at least I can make decisions about what to spend money on. My decision was really easy, because I was not a favored player at Geffen. I was not a priority, so I wasn't giving up two videos that cost a million dollars each for each album. I didn't make videos. They weren't about to do that kind of thing. They put ads in magazines. They may have paid some indies to get some airplay, and you get tour support, which is helpful. We can't really pay our musicians what they usually get. But the upside is, in lieu of getting this big record-company support, you can come up with alternative ways to market your record. I mean, maybe they're small-scale, maybe they're little, but they're your ideas, and you can decide whether to implement them. When I was at Geffen, or Imago, or Epic, if you had an alternate idea, they were like, "We don't do that, that's not what we do." They just don't do it. "Well, it won't cost you anything, and people might..." "Nope, we've never heard of that and we're not going to do it." It's very difficult to get anything happening, and you couldn't really do it yourself.
O: In many ways, it's exciting what happened to you with the Oscars. You're the third person with independent ties in almost as many years to get nominated for Best Original Song.
AM: Who was before Elliott [Smith]?
O: Adam Schlesinger, from Fountains Of Wayne.
AM: Oh! Why did he get nominated?
O: For "That Thing You Do!"
AM: Oh, I had no idea. Good for him.
O: No one can accuse Elliott Smith of bowing down to the system.
AM: He is on DreamWorks, but believe me, he's not modifying himself at all.
O: What was your Oscar experience like?
AM: Well, I had the whole Phil Collins thing. Did you hear about that? I was playing a show in New York with Michael Penn. It was part of the Acoustic Vaudeville tour, and we had a comedian come with us to do our banter. So it was that show, and at some point somebody yells out, "What's your Oscar speech going to be?" And I said, "Here's my Oscar speech: Phil Collins sucks. How about that?" It was just a gag. And then I said, "Wouldn't it be funny if he wins and I boo him?" I thought it would be so funny, not that anyone would do it, but I'm always waiting for someone to be a sore loser. That would be so hilarious. Anyway, some jackass from Newsweek takes that quote--"I'm going to be the first person to boo one of the winners; when [Phil Collins] wins, I'm going to boo him"--totally minus the sarcasm and irony, and reports it as straight reportage. Like I'm announcing that I'm going to boo this guy and that he sucks. Of course, it was like, "Well, that sucks, because I'm not a Phil Collins fan, but he does what he does and I don't want him to think that I think he's some kind of asshole. How creepy is that?" So I sent him a fax that said I was just joking, and that Newsweek is a bunch of morons. So I ran into him backstage, and he was really nice. They had a little meeting--him and his people--and decided I was joking.
O: So the possibility of you two working together in the future is not completely ruled out?
AM: Well, there was a big project pending, and I guess I just have to write it off.
O: Genesis may be looking for a new singer.
AM: Oh, my God. It's time for me to go prog-rock. I don't really have that many ties to prog-rock, besides my Rush appearance. You'd be surprised how many Rush fans come up to me and ask about that. Rush fans are pretty diehard.