Interviews

"You Can't Plan a Jam": An Interview With Dean Ween

"If it's going somewhere, it might get a bass solo and a drum solo for two minutes. But that's jamming, you know?"


The Dean Ween Group

The Deaner Album

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2016-10-21
UK Release Date: 2016-10-21
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Dean Ween's most popular group, Ween, is unique among American rock acts for being capable of playing all styles of popular music and virtuosic in its execution of those styles. When Ween broke up in 2012, Dean, co-founder Gene, and the rest of the band left behind a catalog that offered something for every taste. If there's any legitimacy to the claim that Ween was "polarizing", it might be found in the way they frustrated the expectations of anyone trying to listen to them too straight. The smart songs mixed with silly; the silly songs mixed with smart; the pathos and humor both touched with a crude streak that in retrospect makes the band's major label run a rare case of the industry letting a gonzo act do its thing unfettered by commercial considerations.

It was an awesome sound.

When The Deaner Album, the new release from The Dean Ween Group, was announced, a narrative about the immediate post-Ween period was included in the press release to contextualize Dean Ween's reemergence. The account of his putting down the guitar and taking a break from music took this Ween listener by surprise. I'd heard of his charter boat fishing business and assumed his activity with other acts like Moistboyz continued after Ween was over. But to hear him tell it, there was a period in which much of his life ground to a halt. Here Dean Ween takes us through those bad times from a few years ago, the good times of today, and the creation of The Deaner Album.

Sometimes, he says, a break from music can be restorative. "Putting the guitar down is a good thing, like I'll do it on purpose. You pick it back up, you didn't lose anything. You just start playing different licks. Especially if you've been on a tour promoting a record and playing -- well, Ween plays 200 songs -- but we're playing our songs over and over and over again. Writing is a whole different animal than touring. It's a whole different thing." But when he put down his guitar "four or five years ago," he says "it was just for the wrong reasons. I was in depression. I'd never had depression before. But I learned a lot about it, unfortunately."

He recalls that after Ween broke up, "I wasn't getting out of bed. I was very, very, very upset and depressed. It was all I'd ever known, since I was like 12 or 13 years old. Then it was gone. It's hard to explain. It's really hard to explain. You lose your identity. It's like, 'Am I Dean Ween?' Do I talk about Ween as if it's in the present tense? It was really, really heavy. So the guitar was just a byproduct of that. There are a lot of things I didn't do. I didn't go to movies. I didn't shower. I had depression.

"And then through the help of my friends, I saw what was happening and it was like, 'Okay, I'd be grieving too, but, enough. It's enough time.' And it wasn't a year. It was six, seven months, something like that. But they forced me to start playing again. They forced me to start doing gigs. They forced me to go to jam nights and sit in. I was still like, I was forcing it, you know, forcing myself to do it until it clicked."

However, merely playing again also pointed to how special his former band was. "I was so used to playing with the best musicians in the world, with my band, and I was playing with lesser musicians now. I was feeling really awful about myself because the music didn't sound as good as I thought it would. All this goes on and on, and then finally, when I started to emerge from it, I got my band back together. Just without Aaron [Freeman aka "Gene Ween"]. The music was there. It clicked, and I started to come out of it. We went out and we were killing it, we were destroying it as The Dean Ween Group and I was writing songs again."

Amidst this creative renewal, he built a studio, "and then right about the time when it was all established Ween got back together." He says he sees some design to the series of events. "Everything happens for a reason, you know. That's sort of how it went down. Then I went on a writing barrage, just a tear. I have a second Dean Ween record done already. This one's not even out. It's better than the first one, which I love the first one, but it sounds better, it was written quicker. So, all's well that ends well, you know? I've never been happier than I am right now. I can honestly say that. It's easier to mark bad periods in your life. It's harder to mark the good ones. This is a really good time right now."

To hear Dean Ween talking about going into depression and clawing back out of it brings to mind the degree to which depression was part of the package the music industry was selling in the 1990s when Ween released its classic albums. Some of the best Ween songs are downers, and the group does have a 2003 song called "Zoloft", but Ween 's image never intersected with the romanticization of depressed rock stars who rose and fell in comparatively quick succession in the '90s. When I bring this up, he outlines the difference between anxiety, which can be a kind of fuel, with depression, which he likens to being "filled with cement."

"You know I've had anxiety my whole life," he says. "There's a very big difference between anxiety and depression. Anxiety's like an energy. It's too much energy. Panic attacks, you feel like you're about to fall off a cliff all of a sudden. Depression was the opposite. I'd never had it before. I hope I never have it again. I couldn't motivate myself to do anything. Like I said, I stopped eating, showering and waking up. Lying in bed all day. I racked up an enormous amount of debt. I couldn't help myself. I couldn't get out of it. Nobody could get me out of it. It was really like being stuck. Nothing to romanticize about it, man. Elliott Smith, is that romantic? We don't have him anymore, you know what I mean? Did we benefit from his songwriting? Yeah, but I'm sure he would have rather traded his career to be happy."

I ask if he puts up any safeguards to defend against falling into that state again, particularly as it concerns his identity and career as a musician. The answer is no. The answer is to be productive. "I don't think so much. I do a song a day. I do a song a day and I don't have to force myself to do it. I get up. I spend all day in my studio every day, when I'm not on the road. I spend all night, every night, here. I'm either writing, recording, rehearsing, or recording the rehearsals, coming up with new ideas. Getting the guys here and laying it down."

From all of this activity, one new challenge that could arise is the dilemma of where to channel these new songs, to the Dean Ween Group or to some other group he's involved with. He says this is not a problem where Ween is concerned, because "Ween's not working on a new record currently, so it's all going" to the Dean Ween Group.

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