Staff Pick: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists still chugging, even in hard times

By Columbus Alive
From the July 25, 2013 edition

When Ted Leo and the Pharmacists played Skully’s three years ago, Leo — the perennially spunky, piercingly clever, bleeding-heart liberal falsetto bomb — was already talking about moving away from music as a full-time career. He was still talking about it when he called last week from New York in advance of his band’s show Monday at Double Happiness with Connections and Les Roms.

At the moment, though, there’s no scaling back. In fact, Leo might be busier than ever; he’s putting the finishing touches on a new Pharmacists record plus the debut album by #BOTH, his collaborative project with Aimee Mann.

“I still am a full-time career musician — it just doesn’t pay the bills,” Leo said. “I am literally currently overdrawn in my bank account. The older you get, the less you want to live like that. So it remains to be seen. I’m going through another two album cycles, both this one and the record that I’m making with Aimee Mann. So it’s not going to change overnight, but I have to really start thinking about some way to not be constantly living hand-to-mouth.”

Leo’s partnership with Mann sprouted last year when the longtime friends toured together, including a stop in Columbus at the Riffe Center’s Capitol Theatre. The old friends realized a strong creative connection, so the subject of making an album together came up.

“Probably 99 percent of the time, that gets left on the table and never actually dealt with. That’s where she and I were at. ‘We should write together,’” Leo said. “Within two weeks of me being home from that tour, she had already emailed me the first verse and chorus of a new song. I probably would not have kickstarted it, so credit to her for stepping up and doing it.”

The collaboration has been so fruitful that it’s extending to Mann’s and Leo’s own projects. Leo said his next release will feature at least one song co-written by Mann and vice versa.

Speaking of that new Pharmacists record, it’s been in a state of perpetual refinement. Leo’s recording at home, taking his time to learn the ins and outs of engineering and assemble the best possible set of songs. As usual, there are a lot of ideas packed into those explosive little punk songs.

“I’ve got about 20-plus songs that I’m going to be choosing from for the record, and there’s about 20 different things that go into each song,” Leo said, “so that’s about 400 topics.”

Monday’s show will be a bit of a reunion for Leo, and not just because he’s traveling with a full band again. (He tends to tour solo these days because it’s more affordable.) Leo goes way back with Double Happiness owner Yalan Papillons.

“I’ve actually known Yalan since before she moved out East, when she was doing house shows in Columbus way back in the early, early ’90s,” Leo said. “And then I got to know her better when we both lived in DC in the mid-’90s. And then I moved back (to New York) where I’m from, and she eventually moved back up and started booking at the Knitting Factory.

“And then I hadn’t seen her for a while, and it was actually odd; when I was in Columbus with Aimee last fall, we had a night off, and we went to Double Happiness. I didn’t even know that it was Yalan’s bar. And we had a really fun night there. And then I started looking around, and I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute! I think Yalan opened a place in Columbus, and I bet you this is it.’ So I asked the bartender, and he was like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’ So we got back in touch.”

Shawn Brackbill photo