Three Men Out at Sea: A Conversation with Dean Ween

[15 September 2010]

By Drew Fortune

The last six hours have been a blur. My friend Matt and I landed at Newark Airport at 11:00pm, rented a car, and drove straight to the Lambertville Station, a beautiful and quaint B&B nestled between New Hope, PA and the historic Delaware River. It’s still dark when I step outside the Station and see Mickey Melchiondo—aka Dean Ween—leaning against his truck, the smoke from a Marlboro Red obscuring his face.

From this angle, he looks somewhat like a cowboy, and hell, Mickey kind of is a rock and roll cowboy. For the past 25 years, Mickey and Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween, having been making music on their own terms, casually tossing the middle finger at the music establishment and stuffy critics. A lifetime fishing fanatic, Mickey recently attained his captain’s license and launched a professional guiding service, with charters running the Atlantic on his boat The Archangel and freshwater trips on his beloved Delaware. Mickey stubs out his smoke and greets us warmly, my eyes still crusty with sleep. Mickey appears completely fresh and ready to attack those Striped Bass waiting for us on the Atlantic, just off the Asbury shore. It’s immediately apparent that Captain Mickey is living his own version of the American Dream.

As we drive the 45 minutes to Mickey’s pier, talk mostly centers on fishing. As I take my Dramamine, I offer one to Mickey and he explains, “Man, I take so many fucking illegal drugs that shit doesn’t even affect me anymore.” He swears like an old salty, and he’s got the leathery hands of a fisherman, the knuckles raw and the fingers calloused from years of baiting hooks and shredding in Ween. The sun is just beginning to rise over the New York skyline when we arrive at the pier and begin loading the Archangel, Mickey’s 23’ Center Console Jones Brothers boat. It’s a motley crew consisting of: Mickey the Expert, the novice Matt, Mickey’s First Mate, and myself, the somewhat skilled fisherman. Soon we’re out on the open waters, netting a huge livewell of bunker, the surprisingly large baitfish that we’ll be using to catch those monster Stripers I’ve been hearing so much about from Mickey. We’re live-lining five rods, hooking a bunker and casting it close to the boat. Without a weight, the bunker swim close to the surface, luring the 30-40lb. Stripers to attack the struggling baitfish from the depths. With a perfect forecast predicted for the day, I could really care less if I catch anything. The early morning fog has departed, the sun is shining, and Mickey is like a kid behind the wheel, his eyes constantly darting between reels and depth monitors.

Suddenly, two of the rods on the stern bend and Mickey exclaims, “Fish on!” It’s a double header, and Mickey and I both grab rods and the fight is on. After a tense five minutes, Mickey and I both land our fish, 34 and 32lbs. respectively. My arms are on fire as Mickey and I share a quick high five. After Matt lands the catch o’ the day, a 37lb. Striper that we were unable to revive and instead feasted on that night, prepared by Mickey’s friend and excellent French chef Francois, the bite completely drops off. As we hear over the CB radio, we were the only boat to land fish that day. Around 1pm, exhausted and sweaty, we head back to New Hope with our prize catch in tow. Soon we’re sitting down to beers and Philly cheese steaks at Mickey’s local watering hole J & P’s. As we strolled through the bar dragging a cooler containing a huge striped bass, locals stopped to admire the fish and Mickey beamed, proud as a kid bringing home an A+ paper. People also stared at Matt and I strangely, as if they couldn’t comprehend what we were doing hanging out with a rock star like Mickey. It suddenly occurred to me that I’d forgotten how surreal the situation actually was. After all, it’s not often that you get to hang out with one of your musical heroes, let alone spend a day fishing and shooting the shit.

A week later, I caught up with Mickey over the phone for an in-depth interview. After all, who the hell wants to talk business on the open water?

+++

You’ve spent more time on the water than you have on the road touring in recent years. Are you discovering things about yourself out there on the water?
Fishing is one of those amazing things that’s a lifetime of learning. You never stop learning, and it’s not possible to know it all. There’s so many different kinds of fishing and so many species of fish and a million different ways to target them. My attitude is that I want to be the best that I can at the fishing in my area. I don’t need to go out and spend $100,000 on tuna gear and all the stuff that’s out of my range. Fishing is very good for me. It’s very relaxing, and I hate to say it because it sounds cliché, but I kind of get the same experience fishing that I do from playing music. It’s totally relaxed and totally in the moment. I’m not in my head at all, and I’m blind to everything else that’s going on in the world around me. It’s a great thing to be able to have a release like that in your life. To have two releases like that in life is a major privilege.

For me, being onstage in front of thousands of people would be the opposite of relaxing. Have you always felt comfortable in front of an audience?
(Laughs.) It’s not relaxing until you’re actually doing it. The rest of the experience is kinda stressful, with the traveling and the anticipation leading up to a show. But once you’re actually doing it, it’s almost like muscle memory or something, you know what I mean? I would imagine it’s the same for an athlete. I always forget that there’s a crowd out there to be honest with you.

What’s the rehearsal schedule like for Ween at this point in your career? Do you guys hammer out a bunch of stuff before a big performance like Bonnaroo?
Not so much this summer, but believe me, Ween has spent more time rehearsing than I could possibly estimate. We’ve had the same lineup for about 15 years now, and this summer we’re playing every two weeks, so we don’t really need to rehearse. If it was six weeks between shows and then we had Bonnaroo, then yeah, we’d rehearse. Not because we forget how to play the songs, but just to be together in the same room and use all the touring equipment which is the big amplifiers and all the stuff that we don’t use apart from touring. It’s more of a ritual than something that we need to do. But yeah, we’ve spent a million hours in the rehearsal room during the life of this band.

With fishing becoming an increasingly large part of your life, have you encountered any negative reactions from the band or the fans?
Shit, I don’t care. It hasn’t happened, and I can’t foresee any instance where that would happen. It’s not like I tell the band I don’t wanna tour because I’d rather be fishing. I don’t think it’s standing in the way of anyone’s progress. The fans I could care less about what they think. If they don’t want to read my fishing website, they don’t have to. I don’t shove my fishing down people’s throats. My fishing reports aren’t even on the Ween website anymore.

With Ween celebrating its 25th Anniversary,  do you ever see the fishing rod replacing the guitar in your life?
No, there’s plenty of room for both things to coexist in my life. When you’re busy in a band, you’re gone and completely unavailable for anything. When you’re home, it’s 100% downtime and freedom, so fishing makes perfect sense in that respect.

Drew and Dean

Drew and Dean

In regards to Ween’s 25th and Bonnaroo being an absolute sweatbox, do you ever find yourself saying, “I’m getting’ too old for this shit?”
(Laughs.) Sure, we say that all the time. Everybody in the band does. But the fact is that I still enjoy it. I think I appreciate the road and the idea of being in a band now more than I ever did. I appreciate it a lot more now than I did 15 years ago. The more you do it, the more confidence you build over the years. You learn to take the low points with a grain of salt, and the highs with a grain of salt as well. When you actually can attain that attitude and get to that point, I find that our gigs are consistently better now than they ever have been. I think we’re playing better and we’re better musicians than we were even two years ago. I hope that this trajectory continues forever. I think Neil Young is a better guitar player now then he was at any point in his career. I could probably say the same for Clapton, Prince, or anybody that’s been around long enough to have that kind of longevity. That’s where I’d like to see Ween get to at some point.

So the goal has always been to age with Ween into your twilight years, and there was never a point when that trajectory changed?
With Ween, and not to downplay the contributions of any of the other band members in any way, but Ween is basically myself and Aaron, and it always has been. When we record and write, it’s just he and I. It was the two of us who started it, and we write all the songs. So with the two of us, it’s not like keeping Led Zeppelin together, or the Beatles or whatever, which is a group unit with strong personalities. As long as Aaron and I are friends and communication is wide open, then there’s no reason for us to say that Ween is ever going to end. Do we need a year or two off every now and then? Yeah sure. We’ve taken long breaks before in the past between records and touring. I don’t see us ever officially throwing in the towel, unless he murders my wife or something (Laughs.). When it comes time for us to do our next record, it could be this winter or whenever, it’ll be Aaron and I sitting somewhere working. It’ll be no different than us sitting in my bedroom in my parent’s house when we were 15. I know for some people that sounds really hard to believe, but it’s always the exact same process. It’ll just be in a different room somewhere. The dynamics of two people versus four different songwriters in a band is very different. I still think that if we want to, we have a lot more records left in us.

The words “scatological” and “joke” get brought up in almost anything I read about Ween. After all this time, does it piss you off that some critics dismiss Ween as serious songwriters because you enjoy politically incorrect humor?
No, not really. That whole critical perspective on our music has never affected us at all. If it did, we probably would have stopped after our first record. It’s such a stupid thing anyway being a music critic. It’s like, “Who’s an expert on music? A musician or a journalist?” It just doesn’t bother me at all because it’s never really had an impact on our band. We’ve never really had a commercially successful record. We’ve had records named Album of the Year by a major publication and our next record given zero stars by the same publication. That’s the reaction that Ween always gets from people. Not only music critics but people in general, which means we’re doing something right (Laughs.). Nobody thinks we’re mediocre I guess.

So, why the humor? I’m sure you’d sell more records if you played it straight.
I don’t know. It’s just us being ourselves. It’s not a conscious thing really. It’s not like we approach records thinking we need to have a certain level of humor in it. We write a bunch of songs, we pick which ones we like the best, and we put those on the record. Are they always funny? No. Are some of them goofy? Maybe. You have to have that element in music. Everybody has levity, but with us it’s just more pronounced. I think the Beatles were hilarious. Prince is fucking hilarious. He’s laughing all the time. He’s like, “I’m gonna change my name to an unpronounceable symbol.” People think he’s actually being serious when he’s just fucking with people.

Are you living your version of the American Dream?
I’m very happy right now. Am I living the dream? My life isn’t all just Ween and it isn’t all just fishing and golfing. Ween is actually something that I don’t live 24 hours a day. It’s something that I do and have done my entire life. We’re really, really good at it. I also leave it at the studio when I’m done for the day and I leave it on tour when the tour is over. It’s just a part of who I am, but it’s not who I am. It doesn’t completely define me. Ween is doing really well, and I think we’re at a level that I would have never dreamed we could reach. We just closed two stages at two of the biggest festivals in the country. We’ve headlined Lollapalooza. We sell out every show. I guess I am at a really good place right now.

What are some of your favorite Ween moments. Do you wish that you had done some things differently?
I have zero creative regrets with Ween. I wouldn’t go back and take a single song off a record and I wouldn’t delete a record from our catalogue. I wouldn’t change anything about the records. Each one is very honest. If I could do anything differently, it would have been business related. But that shit is boring, and people shouldn’t know about that stuff anyway. They should only think of a band in the way that I think of a band, which is I dig the music and could really give a fuck about the internal politics of the group. Anything beyond the albums they release and the concerts they put on is none of my business. I don’t like doing interviews because I don’t want people to know too much about me or the band. I don’t know if you’re a Pink Floyd fan. I’m a huge Pink Floyd fan, and the best rock movie ever made is Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. During Live at Pompeii, they show them making Dark Side of the Moon. They’re in Abbey Road Studios and it shows them making the record. Dark Side is one of the five greatest records ever made. You listen to it, and it’s just such an intense record. It’s basically all one big, epic track. Now, when I listen to the record, I get images from the movie of them sitting there with headphones on and I can’t think of anything else. Before, that record lived in my head and my imagination. Now, all I picture when I listen to the record is them in the studio as regular guys, and there’s no mystery anymore.

You’ve seen numerous shifts in the music business. How do you feel about the current state of the industry?
I don’t know what the hell is going on! I don’t know anybody who knows what the hell is going on, and that includes friends who are in the industry and people that have always worked at record companies, producers, and guys in bands. This is a really, really bizarre time, and it’s been going on for almost five to ten years, and still nobody knows where it’s going to go. I’m really disheartened by what’s going on. People aren’t buying albums anymore. That includes me. The art of the record has died. The art of making a 40-60-minute record and putting all this work into the cover art and the sequence of the songs is dead. It took a big hit when the vinyl to CDs crossover happened which is about the time that Ween started making records. We thought the CD was a really shitty format, and little did I know that the CD would be outdated in 2010. Nobody is buying CDs.

What I’m getting at is making records is what made me want to be in a band. It wasn’t about getting on stage or getting laid every night. It was about making records and doing something artistic and creative, and leaving behind a long catalogue of albums. That’s something we take very seriously to this day. I hate the current state of the industry. We live in a high speed, digital world where everything is faster and bigger. The local video store in my town just closed because they can’t compete with Netflix. All the independent record stores are closed. So, who knows? I would consider Ween to be old school in that way. It’s very frustrating to me and hard for me to think about making another record with things being the way they are right now. We’re thinking about things differently. I mean, why should we put all this time and energy into a record if nobody is gonna buy it? Should we just record songs and release them every now and then and put them up on our website for free? That’s not what I want to do.

What’s a perfect day for Mickey?
A perfect day would be getting up early and catching a ton of fish. Coming back, getting drunk and going to bed (Laughs.). That’s probably the honest answer. Wait, no. Same thing but in Key West where there’s bigger fish.

* * *

To book a chartered fishing trip with Mickey, contact visit www.mickeysfishing.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/130929-three-men-out-at-sea-a-conversation-with-dean-ween/