"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?"
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.
However, after working with another songwriter so closely for so many years, he says "The hardest challenge for me is to work alone -- that kind of ties into your question. If you have someone else to bounce your stuff off of, they'll go, 'Well, I don't like it, or, whatever, it sucks,' so I go by the people that are here every day. The guy that works for me, our roadies, my best friend, he's here every day. I play the music for all the people whose opinions really count, the musicians, you know what I mean? The producers, the mix engineers, my wife ... myself. But I'm a very, very good editor of my own shit. I don't have any creative regrets in my lifetime, put it that way. I wouldn't go back. For all of the stuff we've ever done, I might take one song off of a record and replace it with something we've left off the album. For the amount of material we have, that's not even a drop in the bucket."
Additionally, he says the new studio is a great source of inspiration. "Having my own studio here -- and this is not like any other place we've ever had -- this is my forever studio. My friend has 200 acres, his father does, and he said I could build a studio on it and it would be mine, if I made it nice. It's so far out of everyone's vision and sight. We went all in on it. I spent $130,000. We built it ourselves with everything in mind that we would want from a dream studio. Then we soundproofed it and all that stuff. We filled it with this really, really nice equipment. All my vintage stuff that's out of storage, it's all here, it's all getting used. I was at storage last night, and there's nothing there, it's great. Every pedal and guitar and amp's here. Having the studio gives me a lot of time to listen to the material. I come every day and tweak stuff, too."
Another strand of promotion for The Deaner Album is the lineup of heavy hitters Dean Ween recruited for his group, featuring "current bandmates as well as old friends including the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood, legendary punk drummer Chuck Treece, and guitarists Mike 'Kidd Funkadelic' Hampton, Scott Rednor, and Bill Fowler". The ability to play and record live with those musicians is another development that suits his evolution as a recording musician.
"With Ween and everything else we did back in the day, it was very much designed to be heard on a record. But people stopped buying records and appreciating the art of a record. And that was the part of being a musician that's always interested me the most, making records. The touring thing was something ... I mean when Ween first started out I thought we were going to be like the Residents. I didn't want anyone to know our identity. I didn't realize we were going to be a touring act. Now Ween is famous as a live act that puts on three or four hour shows. So I've started writing now with the stage in mind. Because if my record does tremendous, I mean tremendously, what does that mean? We sold 70,000 copies? You know what I mean? Nobody even buys them.
"So I started thinking for the stage and having those musicians around. Instead of thinking of it as, or not considering whether or not it's got to be performed live and what we did in the studio is so fucked up it can't be reproduced (laughs), I've started thinking about it in terms of how we're going to execute it live. Like, 'oh this would be a great closer' and 'we could stretch it out for 20 minutes'. So having those collaborators around is really important. Most specifically, cutting as a band instead of just me and Aaron sitting there with a drum machine and doing it piecemeal, first the drums, then the bass, then the guitar, you know. So that's how that affected it."
The invigorated sound of The Deaner Album is a result of that group approach to live recording, as well as the arrangement of the studio he built. "The way the studio is set up, all mic'd up, if you have an idea, you're just two steps away from turning it on and me shouting to my engineer, hit record. Boom, there it is. It's a great way to work. Because you get it when it's fresh, you know?"
That desire to get the fresh take and move on extends to the album release. "I haven't listened to the record since the mastering session," he says, adding, "That's very common, though. That's usually the last time I ever listen to any record, Ween or otherwise, Dean Ween Group, Moistboyz. Because you hear it so much during the process, the demos, the live, the mixing, approving mixes and approving mastering; then listening to the CD version, to the vinyl version."
I observe that the live version must therefore become the most familiar version of the song, and he agrees. "Exactly. On the occasions that I do hear my music, like in a bar or something, I'm always amazed at the liberties. Sometimes we change melodies entirely. Or chords, we miss a chord or lose a chord. Or Aaron will embellish one part and that's just the way it is, and I'll hear the album and I'm like, 'We're playing this twice as fast, or twice as slow, listen to how fast the album version is!' Normally people play shit too fast live. A lot of the time, we play shit too slow."
Ween's live albums and concert videos available on YouTube and elsewhere reveal how skilled Dean Ween and his fellow musicians are when it comes to stretching songs into new shapes. He describes the classic rock context for his form of jamming. "Our fans are more concerned with that than whether Ween is a 'jam band' or not. Like, we're not a jam band, but I don't take any umbrage to, any offense to, any labels. The closest you can get, and this goes for Dean Ween Group, is that we have very classic tastes, very old-fashioned. My record collection reflects it, and Aaron's does too. I listen to music every day but it is stuff made before 1980 usually. So our points of reference are the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Prince, P-Funk. Very old Neil Young. Very old, classic tastes.
"So when we take to the stage, it's like, we jam in the context of a song," he continues. "The most important thing is the song. That's what I don't like about the jam band scene, in general, is that you don't remember anything you heard when it's over. You don't know the title of the song. The title of the song doesn't even matter. You don't remember a chorus, you know what I mean? You don't walk away with anything. It blows. We use to call it musicians' music before it was called jam band music. It was like, guys that were into Spyro Gyra or whatever, Steely Dan. I love Steely Dan, by the way, but I'm talking from the mind of a 14 year old. Yeah, that was like a musicians' band to me.
"Dean Ween Group jams in the context of a three or four minute song, if it's the right song to stretch out on. If you see us live, I was looking at [another band's] set list the other day, we were at a jam festival -- it was like six songs on there. I looked at our set, and it was 40 songs on ours. We played the same amount of time. We go out and we play a bunch of three minute songs. Then when the time has come, you never know which one is going to be long. That's called jamming. It should be impromptu."
I point out Deaner Album opener "Dickie Betts" as a track that both honors the classic rock influence as well as seems like a good candidate for jamming. "Live," he says, "that song could be 25 minutes, you know, turn it into 'Mountain Jam' by the Allman Brothers. That's what it's supposed to be. We could play 'Dickie Betts' and it could be six minutes, you know? If it's going somewhere, it might get a bass solo and a drum solo for two minutes. But that's jamming, you know? You can't plan a jam. That's what rubs me wrong about that whole scene. They go out knowing they're going to do six songs. Suppose you're not feeling it 20 minutes in? You still gotta play it. I just don't get it. I just don't get it."
Ultimately, The Deaner Album is a guitar album through and through. "The one thing I wanted to achieve with this record is my guitar playing. Ween didn't deny me anything. Ween is an outlet for any kind of music. Anyone who tells you that Ween broke up because of creative differences is full of shit. Aaron could bring me a Slayer-sounding song, and if it's a good song, then it's going to be in contention. But the one thing that I did want to achieve differently with Dean Ween Group was to focus on my guitar playing a lot more.
"When Ween started out, I never thought of myself as a guitar player," he notes. "I was the drummer, I was the bass player, I was the guitar player, I was the singer. Aaron was those things too. Over the years it became obvious that I was better at guitar and he was a way better singer. So I assumed the role. Now I've come to accept the fact that I'm a guitarist, first and foremost. So that was what I wanted to get across on this record, was my guitar more than anything. I just really wanted to focus in on that and to try to live up to the output of my idols. Like Neil. And Prince. I've spent too much time practicing and refining my thing to just make that a byproduct."
Or to put it down again? "No, I don't think I ever will. Luckily I didn't do anything stupid and sell all of it. It's all here. It's all set up. It's all mic'd up."