[3 December 2008]
From the moment that Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) picks up the phone, I hear a terrible roar on the other end of the line, his voice a distant echo amidst the sonic chaos. I ask if something is wrong, and suddenly the line clears. “Sorry, that was my boat motor,” says the thirty-eight-year-old Ween guitarist. “I’m out here on the Delaware River fishing for smallmouth. Let me drop the anchor and we’ll get started.” This is the life of Deaner, aka Miggy, aka guitarist for one of the most influential bands of the late 20th Century. What many outside of the loyal cult of Ween enthusiasts don’t know is that Melchiondo is one of the most avid fisherman you’re likely to meet, recently transferring his passion into a web-based fishing show, Skunked, at www.brownietroopfs.com. During our interview, Melchiondo ‘s voice is tinged with excitement, occasionally breaking our conversation to declare that huge smallies are breaking on the surface, and that they must be feeding on the shad fry that hatched in late April. Along with the fishing advice, Melchiondo discussed what it takes to be in Ween, his relationship with founding partner Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween,) and his sexual attraction to Sarah Palin.
“As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a fishing maniac,” said Melchiondo. “We had a house on the shore growing up, and my dad had a boat, so I did a lot of bluefish and fluke fishing, but I was also always fishing in the canals for trout and sunnies, carp and catfish, and whatever the hell else I could catch. I’m still pretty much the exact same way. I have my rods with me all the time in my truck, and I’ll fish in a puddle if I think I might catch something.” When he is not cruising the Delaware in his self proclaimed “junker” boat with struggling 4hp outboard, the life-long Pennsylvania native attacks the Jersey shore, surfcasting for bluefish, brown, thresher and bull sharks, and whatever else will take the bait. Lest one perceive the fishing show as a goof from the notoriously scatological band, the site has sponsors, celebrity guests, and has even launched a fishing contest, the first annual “Freshwater Shit Fishing Derby”.
“I’ve been running our official web site, ween.com, from my house since 1995, and I’ve always been really in touch with our fans,” said Melchiondo. “A few years ago I started putting up fishing reports on the site, and it started getting such a good response that I felt like I should take it off the web site and put it somewhere else because it was kinda getting to be a distraction, as I didn’t want the Ween web site to become my own personal fishing diary. So I moved it to a free blogging site, and from there it has just sort of organically mushroomed into this thing that I just love doing. I fish about four days a week minimum, so if it helps me to meet people and be able to fish some exotic places, so much the better. I got to shoot an episode with Gibby Haynes and Jeff Pinkus from the Butthole Surfers, which was awesome, so it’s definitely something that I love doing. It’s kind of like being in the band ... it allows me to be creative and have fun.”
As someone who grew up watching early Saturday morning fishing shows on ESPN, I can testify to the fact that the market is not saturated with hip, fun, drunken fishing programming hosted by rock stars. When asked if he’d like to take Brownie Troop to a network, Melchiondo laughs. “I’ve thought about it, but right now I don’t have the energy to get into something where there’s business and deadlines and shit like that. I like it where it is right now, but sometime down the road I’d definitely like to pitch the idea to cable. I’d have to think about it more, though. It wouldn’t just be what we’re doing now, which is a bunch of drunken schlubs having a good time. The show would have to have some kind of concept and it would have to be something that was central to New Jersey, with me taking out celebrities. I’d love to take out Springsteen. The Boss would be fucking awesome to have in a boat. I’d also like to take George Clinton fishing for catfish. Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, or anyone who you know is down to earth and a really cool cat would make great guests. I wouldn’t want to take someone like Robert Fripp from King Crimson out on my boat as I’d probably cut him up and throw him out as chum.”
Ween has been unleashing their bent, cosmic assault on pop music since forming in a New Hope, Pennsylvania, typing class in 1984, and have recently completing a globe-trotting tour in support of their ninth studio release La Cucaracha. In the wake of the tour, the band has found itself free to explore differing interests and projects: Long-time drummer Claude Coleman has taken a leave of absence to focus on his band Amandla, while Aaron Freeman has been sharpening his extracurricular photography skills, leaving Melchiondo to indulge in his two passions, fishing and golf. “There’s only a few things in life that I’ve found that put me in a state of complete relaxation where I forget about everything else in the world,” said Melchiondo. “One of them is golf, which takes about four or five hours, is quiet, and when I’m playing really well I’m focused and able to tune everything out. The other is fishing, because I have a lot of fun doing it, just like when Ween plays live. I’m definitely really focused, just like when I’m up on stage. I learn something every time I fish, and I take it very seriously, while also having fun. That’s what I get out of it; it’s a Zen thing.”
For a band approaching its third decade of existence, Ween has had its share of tragedy. Claude Coleman suffered debilitating injuries in a car accident, while in 2004 the band cancelled tours after citing a “problem” in the band that required immediate attention. Approaching forty, Melchiondo and Freeman have aged as brothers, and suffered equally in each other’s highs and lows. “Aaron’s sobriety changed everything for the better,” explained Melchiondo. “There was a period that went on forever where Aaron and I were never more than ten feet apart from each other. We lived together and we were always touring. All that started to change in the mid 1990s when we both got shacked up and married. I remember when we started to get all fucked up, I mean we’ve always gotten really fucked up, but when it started to become a problem, communication definitely ground to a halt. The band was basically on four flat tires, and it was impossible for us to continue, leading up to and around the time of Quebec . We just couldn’t continue to use the same formula that always worked for us before, which was every night on tour was fucking party night, including putting whatever up your nose or down your throat.”
“I’m not going to talk about Aaron’s personal life, but after he went through his battle and got sober, we were able to get the fucking thing back to where it should be, and that required us learning how to communicate. It wasn’t like Metallica in Some Kind of Monster, but it was close. This album was a lot of fun to write, and a lot of fun to record and tour behind. There was no bullshit and no fucking drama, you know? I went through a lot, as did the rest of the band. Claude broke every bone in his body in a car accident and Dave Dreiwitz [bass] lost his best friend and partner in his side project Instant Death Scotty Byrne. Have things changed? Yeah, but it’s all for the better.”
The Cucaracha tour was the band’s most successful, building on the fanbase that has been cultivating since the early grassroots, word-of-mouth shows of the early ‘90s. “I thought that we had our best gigs on this tour, in terms of quality and consistency,” said Melchiondo. “But as I get older, it’s harder for me to be away from my son. I’ve never found a balance, even after touring for the past eighteen or nineteen years, I still don’t know how to balance my personal life and touring. Going on tour is like going into combat, at least it is for me, and you sometimes forget that you have this other life off tour. When I come home it’s really unsettling, because I always have one foot out the door all the time. It took me a solid six or seven weeks of being home just to remember how to relax after this tour ... dude, a fucking huge bass just exploded on the surface 15 feet to my right! Anyway, it took me six or seven weeks in order to wake up in the morning and not be in a rush. When I first get home from touring I can’t sleep, and I still struggle with adjusting after all these years. The tour was great, but I hate touring. I love playing and I love being on stage, but the other 21 hours in the day when we’re not doing anything, just sitting there suffering fucking sucks.”
For a band with no concept of the term “overnight success” it’s shocking to see the group achieve a level of superstardom that was previously unthinkable. “We played to the largest crowds on this tour,” said Melchiondo. “We’ve sold out Red Rocks and headlined Lollapalooza. It’s so gradual for us, though, as nothing ever happens to Ween overnight. We’ve done it the very old-fashioned way and people don’t do things this way anymore, and that’s because the whole industry has changed. We made our first record in the ‘80s, so we’ve seen the industry change a bunch of times. It was unthinkable that we could be on a major label when we put out our first record. We toured behind our first record and played to twenty people who didn’t know who we were. When we came back around we played to 50 people, 30 who knew who we were, and 20 who were dragged there by their friends. It’s happened like that for our whole career, to the point where we’re selling out theatres and getting to headline festivals. There was never one thing that put us here. It’s always been very piecemeal.”
It’s not uncommon to see Melchiondo at local bars for impromptu sets, drinking everybody under the table and smoking like a chimney. It wouldn’t be hard to walk past him, never realizing he’s one of the great guitar virtuosos of this era, whose due may never come. “It’s very ironic that I’m in a band, because the last thing I feel like doing is being somebody’s entertainment,” said Melchiondo. “We never wanted to live in L.A. or New York because it’s just not us. To be honest with you, I never set out with any goals for Ween. If I did, we’ve met them like a 1,000 fucking years ago. My only goal was for someone to pay to come see us play. I don’t measure myself by the success of the band. My happiness and peace of mind is not affected. We’re very fortunate and privileged to have made a living off of it, and to have it reach people and have any impact on their lives is great, even if it’s only for one night at a concert. All this stuff is extras ... it’s all bonus.”
When asked what still fuels him about creating music after all these years, Melchiondo paused in contemplation, responding with a story poetic in its simplicity. “You know, the other night I got home from tour and I didn’t want to touch my guitar. I met this guy at a bar who rents a house on my street and we got to talking. He told me he drums, and since we were neighbors we decided to jam. So I took this stranger, for no money, back to this shack that I rent behind an auto body shop where I’ve got a couple chairs and some amps, and we jammed this one song out for like four hours, no structure, just jamming, and that shit gets me off every bit as much as standing in front of a crowd that paid 20 dollars to be there. That’s what keeps me going ... you can’t ever forget that simple joy. I enjoy sitting in that shack on any given night, just sitting with a friend or two and playing guitar. It’s the most enjoyable thing in the world. If the business part of it and all that drama shit gets you down, then you stop. You have to constantly keep it in check, and I think that’s why Ween has had longevity. When shit gets fucked up, and it’s not fun, that’s when something is wrong, and it’s time to rethink you’re strategy, and get back to the essence of it.”
I hear Melchiondo fire up the boat engine, and I can tell that he is dying to get to those smallmouth. I leave him with a hypothetical question, asking whether he would get in a boat with Sarah Palin for an epic Alaskan halibut fishing expedition. Melchiondo cuts me off mid-sentence at the mention of her name. “I want to bang Sarah Palin,” he exclaims. “I’m not a political person so I could care less what they say about her in the news, but she’s fucking hot! She’s got that librarian thing going on, and she’s sort of tall and I bet she’s a freak. I bet she’s a dirty, dirty woman. So yeah, I’ll go fishing with her. But I’ve been anchored in this one spot since we started talking, and I’ve got about a mile to go upstream, so I’ve got to go.”