Storytelling keeps Mann focused


January 27, 2006


With 2005's "The Forgotten Arm," Aimee Mann attempted to craft "a novel in musical form," following two losers -- a drug-addicted boxer/Vietnam vet and his small-town girlfriend -- as they crossed the country in search of a better life, only to lose everything in Las Vegas.

The 45-year-old artist wasn't entirely successful -- the plot was a bit too much like a Lifetime Channel combination of "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Thelma and Louise" -- but Mann remains one of the most inspired singers and songwriters on the current pop scene, continually expanding the form with elements from other mediums. (Witness her amazing work for Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film "Magnolia.")

I spoke with Mann from her studio in Los Angeles as she prepared for an acoustic tour with bassist Paul Bryan and keyboardist Jamie Edwards that brings her to Chicago for a sold-out show next week.

Q. You're doing something different from your summer appearance on Navy Pier.

A. Yeah, we're going to do a stripped-down trio thing and keep it pretty much acoustic, with a couple of drum machines or something. It's more challenging because we really don't have a record as a blueprint; we sort of have to start from scratch and see what kind of arrangements we can come up with. We haven't started rehearsing yet, so I don't know what to expect.

Q. Does it give you a chance to go back to the songs on "The Forgotten Arm" and reinvent them?

A. Yeah, and also I want to try to include some songs we don't usually do that I hear requested at shows and try to change the set up a little, because we've pretty much honed a specific set over the last few months.

Q. You have a reputation as a slow songwriter -- you really labor over your tunes. How do you know when you've written a keeper?

A. When it resonates emotionally and you feel like, "This feels like it's true." Even if it's not true in the sense of something being from your life, it feels like it's true. Also, there are technical details that I like to have in songs, like where the rhymes are exact, or having the meter change for a reason, like maybe to give the third verse a lift. Little craftsmanship details make me happy, though I don't know if anyone else even notices them.

Q. Does having the storytelling format of a project like "The Forgotten Arm" motivate you as a writer?

A. It doesn't necessarily motivate me, but it helps focus me and it makes it more fun. If I can allow myself to write about the same characters, I find it really enjoyable, because it's fun to go more in-depth than to write one song about something and go, "OK, what's a totally different thing I'm really interested in?" I think I have to be pretty interested in something to be able to finish a song about it. I have to be emotionally invested in some way for it to keep my interest, and writing about characters just helps keep me focused on it.

Q. Was it the same writing the songs for "Magnolia," and have you considered collaborating on another film?

A. Oh, yeah. And I'd love to do that, but it's up to the director, and I don't think many directors get that opportunity. With filmmaking, they have producers that they have to answer to, and the producers have their own idea about what kind of music should go in or where it should come from. There's really not much influence I can have over whether a project comes about; it's a matter of luck.

There's actually a song on ["The Forgotten Arm"] that was originally designated to be in a movie called "The Human Stain" with Nicole Kidman. There wasn't any other pop music in it, and in the end, they decided that they wanted to keep the score and not have any songs. Yet while watching the movie, I took notes, and the Anthony Hopkins character had been a boxer when he was younger, so I was using things that were similar to people I knew.

Q. I know you're devoted to boxing, but I have a hard time picturing you in the ring.

A. Well, you know, there are all sorts of weight classes. Actually, in the gym where I train, most of their best boxers are lightweight or bantamweight. The real star there is Manny Pacquiao ... Michael [Penn, my husband] and I are going down to Vegas to watch him. (Pacquiao knocked out Erik Morales last Saturday night.) They are pretty little guys, but they're amazingly hard hitters -- crazy good. When I watch boxing, we hardly ever watch heavyweights because we're not that interested. I like the 125- to 135-pound categories. They're faster and tougher; they just go on and on and on.

Q. Being a boxer must help to keep the band in line.

A. [Laughs] No, because the bass player [Bryan] has actually been boxing, too!


Playing second fiddle -- rhythm guitar, road manager and chief b.s. detector -- to a mercurial frontman like Ben Weasel had to rank as one of the most thankless jobs in rock history, but Screeching Weasel would never have been the inspired and hugely influential pop-punk band it was if not for John "Jughead" Pierson, who stood beside the former Ben Foster for two decades.

Foster took his turn at telling the Screeching Weasel story in Like Hell, which Pierson published through his indie press, Hope and Nonthings (, in 2001. For his troubles, Pierson found himself killed off at the end of Foster's book, which the author labeled a novel, though he noted in a recent post on his blog ( that it was much more factual than, say, James Frey's supposed memoir.

Now, after six years in the making -- in between his other roles as leader of folk-punks Even in the Blackouts and a playwright with the Neo-Futurists -- Pierson has published his version of his old band's tale, Weasels in a Box (Hope and Nonthings, $13.95). The subtitle labels it "a not so musical journey through partially truthful situations with 80 percent fictitious dialogue," but it rings even truer than Foster's book, and if it's never quite as wickedly funny as Like Hell, it is certainly enlightening, and very often poignant and poetic.

Fans of Screeching Weasel -- and who isn't? -- need both of these books, as does anyone with even a passing curiosity about life in a punk band in the '80s and '90s.