Taste the Waste: A Conversation With Gene Ween

[]

By Matt Gonzales

It was getting cold, and the doors at the Newport would be opening soon. I was sitting with four friends in a parked car on High Street in Columbus, Ohio in early 1994, and we were sharing the last bottle of malt liquor. As it was passed yet again to me, I heard the echo of not enough liquid splashing around inside. What was left was nothing but noxious yellow stuff, mixed with the faintly ropy slobber of my friends and myself.

I drank it down. We were going to see Ween—there was no time for qualms or queasiness. Our collective mindset was one of gleeful nihilism. We weren’t drinking for drunkenness; we were drinking to better understand what we were about to witness. We were drinking for communion.

Later, at the show, as the effect of the alcohol reached its summit, I began to sense something strange. A pervasive aura of wickedness filled the air. As Ween built momentum, the atmosphere became more and more unnervingly perverse. At first, I wondered if it was just me. But then I heard something that confirmed that I wasn’t alone.

“Ween stole my soul!”

A guy, around my age, was screaming desperately, and with wrath. The veins on his neck were taut, and full to bursting with blood. His eyes were burning.

“Ween stole my fucking soul!”

He meant it. He believed that Ween had stolen his soul.

Demon Sweat

When I got the chance to tell this story to Ween lead singer Aaron Freeman (also known as Gene Ween, who fronts the band along with Mickey Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween) before the band played again in Columbus, now nine years later, he laughed loudly.

“Awesome. That’s amazing. That’s a great compliment.”

For years, critics and casual fans have repeatedly characterized Ween as goofy, drug-addled jokesters. And while it’s true that they emulate a multiplicity of genres, and make lots of jokes, there’s something indisputably sinister at their core.

“There’s some really dark shit going on in Ween. I consider Ween to be dark, crackwhore, fucking hell. We’ve always been like that, and that’s what has brought us together,” Aaron explained. “We’re fucking really—we don’t go out and do horrible things, but in our minds—”

I interrupted Aaron to tell him about how one of my friends, an otherwise thick-skinned grown man, refuses to stay in the room whenever someone plays “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)”.

“That’s good, and that’s what I want, because it’s fucked up for us, too. That’s why we do it. That song didn’t come out of any kind of making fun of. That song came out of fear of death, fear of needles in the spine, and that’s not cool at all. That’s really bad news. There is a lot of psychological terror going on in Ween, and there always has been. Mickey is totally evil. He’s fucking Satan. He’s not wearing a hemp bead around his fucking neck. I think people who are really into Ween understand that.”

You’d think so. However, Ween’s growing popularity among young hippie types seems to suggest otherwise. It seems that more and more jam band fans are linking Ween with Widespread Panic, Leftover Salmon and their ilk.

“People who think that need to see the light—any kind of light. What happened was that Phish started playing our songs, which was cool. Then we played the Bonnaroo thing, which was totally hippied out. Then our booking agent kind of took that flag and started running with it. Now in a way, money is money, and if it’s going to increase our audience, that’s fine. But the last hippie-fest we did, which was the Adirondack Festival—that was it. Never, ever doing another one of those again. I had to listen to this fucking jam band for three hours in the rain, waiting to go on. I was like, ‘Just kill me.’ I can’t take any more white boys noodling around on their guitars.”

So Ween aren’t in danger of drifting into jam-band territory any time soon?

“God, no. When you listen to Quebec, hopefully you’ll see that.”

The New Album

Quebec, Ween’s first album in three years, was released on August 5th, and finds the boys continuing to travel a more musically sophisticated path. At the same time, the return of Andrew Weiss as producer brings a dash of the old days to the mix. Weiss had helmed all of Ween’s albums up until White Pepper, and his absence on that album, according to Freeman, was due to “totally stupid, Nigel Tufnel Spinal Tap stuff.”

“It’s funny—when I was writing “Zoloft”, there’s a little taster, a backwards cymbal sound in there, and that keyed Andrew Weiss, because it’s just such an Andrew thing to do. Then I realized that he should probably just work on all of the songs, so we got him back.”

But that doesn’t mean that fans should expect a return to the slap-dash, half-assed recording style that marked early Ween albums.

“The musicianship is more advanced, because we’re older. And as we continue to progress, I’m certainly going to take the adult contemporary approach. I want to sound like Christopher Cross in another ten years, and be totally proud of it. I want to play really lame guitars that were custom-designed for me, and be bald and gray and write really bad fucking adult music that sucks. And I’ll embrace that, because that’s punk rock.”

Despite their ostensible devotion to the demon god, Ween has always had a knack for writing earnest, heartstring-tugging love songs. Some think they made the best ballad of their career on White Pepper with “Stay Forever,” a breezy piece of sugar that would give Seals and Croft a run for their money. Some listeners tend to think of such songs by Ween as genre exercises destitute of meaning, but they’re not.

“Those are my songs,” said Freeman. “A lot of those songs are actually about Sarah, who I was recently divorced from about five or six months ago. I’d been seeing her off and on since I was about nineteen, so a lot of those songs are about her. I kind of started off with “Oh My Dear (Falling in Love)” (from The Pod) and, fifteen years later, it’s ending with a song called “I Don’t Want It”, on Quebec.”

Freeman said that the end of the relationship had an impact on the album.

“I wrote most of these songs right before the end. A lot of these songs are about that. Even if it’s not direct, you can feel the beginning of the end of the breakup in these songs.”

Doing It For The Kids

Ween are famously good to their fans. Typically, musicians are notorious for concerning themselves more with artistic or commercial achievement rather than fan satisfaction. Ween is an anomaly in that regard—for instance, when they play live, they embrace their entire catalog. If you get lucky enough to get to a Ween concert this summer, you’re likely to hear just as many songs from their debut, God Ween Satan as you will from Quebec. And not only do the fans dig the old stuff; the band does too.

“I love God Ween Satan, and we still draw a lot from it. It would be really snooty of us if we had the attitude that that stuff was somehow inferior to our new stuff. I mean, we wrote a lot of it when we were fifteen years old, so I feel like it’s pretty good, actually.”

Still, you’d expect them to get tired of playing fifteen year old songs when they have so much new material.

“You’ve got to do it for the kids. Mickey and I have seen enough bands play all of the songs from the new record—it’s just like, ‘Fuck you guys.’ We don’t want to do that.”

Ween’s most recent act of kindness to its fans came in the form of an all-request online concert, web-casted live via weenradio.com. These days the Internet figures hugely into how the band communicates with their fans, and at any given time you can probably find upwards of thirty users logged onto the Ween Forum at ween.com, which has become a meeting ground for fans to discuss the band, trade pictures and footage, and make arrangements to meet at shows. Of course, Ween themselves are regulars on the forum, too.

“I check the message boards every morning. I’m not too enveloped in the web thing, though—I feel kind of a dual thing about it, actually. I don’t want to become like Todd Rundgren or something and be like, ‘I’m just going to sell all of my records on the Internet and I don’t need anything else in society except for the Internet and the Internet is going to take over the world.’ But it’s cool to offer things online, but I don’t believe that the Internet is going to reach every person in the world and all of our fans.”

Freeman attributes the band’s success using the Internet to the intellect of Ween fans.

“Most of our fans seem to be very intelligent people who don’t stand out too much, but they’re still total freaks. I like that - they’re smart and sadistic, which I think is a reflection at us.”

Awesome Sound

Ween started out as very much a two-man songwriting team, and it still pretty much is. But when they play live, Aaron and Mickey join forces with drummer Claude Coleman, bassist Dave Dreiwitz and keyboardist Glenn McClelland. The result is a far cry from the two-drunk-guys-and-a-tape-machine methodology of early live Ween performances.

“When it comes to the recording and writing, it’s still mostly Mickey and I. But now there’s this whole live entity that’s a whole different thing, and it seems to be where we’re gaining the most popularity. In fact, people were just doing ‘Glen’ chants the other night.”

On record Ween has gotten tighter and more focused, but the live Ween unit blends brilliant musicianship with a wondrously druggy, over-the-top, nearly operatic delivery. To be at a Ween show these days is to become a part of a kaleidoscopic universe where the music alternates between woozy psychedelic guitar solos, devastatingly emotional vocal execution, and mayhem-inducing instrumental freak-outs.

“Not to be pompous, but I look at the situation as a Led-Zeppelin-type thing. If you listen to Led Zeppelin records, and then you see videos of them live, the two don’t really sound anything alike. When they played live, they did these really brown versions of their songs that were amazing, yet it didn’t hold true to the record. It was just rock.”

Among His Tribe

There are a lot of people who hate Ween. They can be nasty about it. They call them names. They say things like, “They have no real passion.” “They’re soulless genre-hijackers.” “They’re Weird Al Yankovic on pot and pills and booze.”

“I even read about it today in the Ohio paper, that we’re a satire/parody band. I’d think that after all these years it would stop, but it just hasn’t.”

Many people, it seems, don’t have the breadth of mind to realize that humor doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of gravity.

“Yeah, we have humor in our music, but it can get as serious as a heart attack, too. Our music is just about everything that we experience in life, and a lot of it is funny, and a lot of it—like “Birthday Boy” for example (from God Ween Satan)—isn’t funny. It sucked. I was in hell when I wrote that song, you know what I mean?”

We do know what he means. That’s why we’ve been listening for so long, and why we’ll still be listening for a long, long time.

Matt Gonzales is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis, Ind.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/ween-030819/