Gene Ween on Ween's history, working with Dean Ween and playing in Colorado
Aaron Freeman incorporates a lot of personal history when he takes on the musical alter-ego role of Gene Ween. For nearly thirty years, Freeman and Mickey Melchionda (aka Dean Ween) have been the tongue-in-cheek duo behind Ween, a band that's evolved from the abstract musical experiments of 1991's The Pod to the more expansive sounds of 1997's The Mollusk and 2003's Quebec. In advance of the Ween brothers' three-night stint at the Fillmore to celebrate New Year's Eve, we caught up with Freeman to talk about a musical history that's nearing three decades. Freeman talked about the on-again, off-again relationship with Melchiondo as a musical partner, as well as the challenges of playing songs he wrote as an angry teenager.
Westword (A.H. Goldstein): I'll start with the same question I asked Mickey last year. It looks like you guys have been keeping busy lately primarily with touring. Any plans for a new record on the horizon?
Aaron Freeman: No (laughs). There's not right now. I did a separate record that I don't really want to talk about with a friend of mine named Ben Vaughn. You'll find out about it soon enough, but we're taking a break from Ween recording. I'm trying to convince Mickey to do another Shinola record. That would be stuff that we have that hasn't been released. It would sound great, but he's pretty busy fishing right now. Mickey's going to Key West for two months to fish this winter; so Ween recording a new album is not happening. We'll get around to that at some point, but for right now I'm basically kind of kicking around, writing, doing shows and other stuff.
I know that you supplement full Ween shows with a lot of solo acoustic gigs. What's the appeal for you of the scaled down engagements?
I love it. It's something that I've always wanted to do. I've been doing it for a couple of years now and there's a lot of reasons. First of all, it's just being up there with my guitar. It makes it a lot more vulnerable and in turns makes you step up and become a better musician. I also have my buddy Dave (Dreiwitz) who plays with Ween, our bass player, he's been playing with me. We've been recently playing these shows with this woman Jane Scarpantoni. She's a famous session cellist... She's been on a lot of records. It's basically turned into a trio thing and it's really, really fun. I'm really enjoying it. We play gigs around and do this and that, and I love it. We play some Ween songs, some cover songs, some songs that were never released on any Ween records. You know, it's an ever-evolving thing.
Is it a challenge making new arrangements with a cellist?
She's known David forever. They used to play in a band called the Tiny Lights back in the '80s. We invited her down when Dave and I were doing a solo show in New York, and she lives up around there. She sat in with us on a couple of songs and it just turned into one of those magical moments. It was great. I'm trying with everything I got to get her to play every show that we do, at whatever cost. She adds that thing. She's one of those people where she's so good that even if she doesn't know the song, she just knows the song in about two seconds. That's what really good musicians can do.
Does having that more minimalistic forum help you write new tunes?
Yeah. I'm still writing, but I'm not really sure where these songs are going to go yet, whether they're going to go on a solo record of mine or a Ween record. I'm not really thinking about it right now. I still love to pick up my guitar and write music. I'm still writing, it's just I don't know where they're going land.
The last time Ween did a multi-show stint in Denver in 2008 at the Fillmore, I think you only repeated one song over both nights. Are you going to aim for a similar feat when you play three nights in a row at the end of the month? Are you going to try to keep the set different every night?
We'll try as best we can. We'll probably repeat a couple of songs, but we figure it depends. That would be a good question for Dean Ween, because he writes the setlists. If we're going to be at the same place for three nights, we're going to assume that a lot of people are going to be there all three nights. We don't want to repeat... We have enough of a catalog that we can almost get away with that. Granted, there are three or four songs that we'll play every night, but we'll try our best to mix it up.
You guys do venture pretty deeply into your older catalog, playing regular renditions of tunes from GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and The Pod. How is it for you to revisit and reinvent songs that you wrote and recorded 20 years ago?
I don't regularly listen to our old records, but when I do, I am always surprised. The core elements are still there, but they definitely change. We've never tried to really adhere to trying to duplicate exactly the original recordings. Using Led Zeppelin as template for that, they never did that either. You have this album on vinyl, and now you're seeing us live. It's different, but you're still going to get the point. A lot of bands put a lot of effort into trying to make the live performance sound exactly like the record, and we've never done that. What's most important, I think, when Ween plays live is to make whatever song we're playing sound really good... and stick to the chord structure and the verses (laughs). Besides that, anything goes.
How do you choose covers? That's a pretty predictable elements of all of your live shows, from takes on Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher" to the version of Led Zeppelin's "All of My Love" that made it to the live DVD.
That's a tough one. They just happen spontaneously; we just throw them out there. The version of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" that we've been doing for the past year, I actually had nothing to do with that. It was Mickey and the rest of the band were jamming at some bar and they did the tune. After the show, they were like, "Aaron would fucking kill these vocals." Mickey called me and said, "Let's cover the song," and I was like, "Fuck yeah," because I love that song. But usually, we just kind of throw out songs to each other and decide which would fit our band the best.
Has the songwriting process evolved for you since those first records? It's always been a partnership with Mickey, but how have you been able to grow within that framework?
Yeah, yeah, I definitely think so. I don't mean to pat my own back, but I think they've gotten better. I think with time I've become a better musician. I can put together a song easier that sounds more like a structured song than, say, GodWeenSatan, which was a lot of screaming and a lot more spontaneity. Now, I can sit down and write a song. I think we're both better at writing, at getting across what we want to get across more easily.
It seems like it's been a unique development, just considering that the basic partnership has lasted since you two were in middle school. We definitely drift away, then come back together, then drift away. I would say at this point, we're in the drift away phase, but I'm not going to say we're not going to come back together. Right now, we're basically concentrating on playing live shows while we both pursue our own things. For Mickey, it's fishing and for me it's the solo work I'm doing... It's just like any couple, which basically we are, who have been married for 25 years. That's how we are.
You're still based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Is it odd balancing your musical career with your life in the same town where you went to middle school?
I want to leave the town, actually, really bad (laughs). I've fucking had it here. I'll probably, hopefully, wind up moving to L.A. where I can really get into to doing different kinds of media projects and voice-over work, things that I could have access to that I really don't have access to in the country suburbia here. The closest thing I have here is New York City and that's an hour and a half away. It's really not conducive to pursuing different things. For this last record I did with Ben Vaughn, I had to fly to L.A. twice. I'm not glued here. I've always liked it here, I grew up here, but I'd like to be out of here in another year or two. It's a fishbowl. I'm not really into the "Hey look at me, I'm the guy from Ween and everybody else works for pharmaceutical companies and are lawyers." It's worn out its welcome.
When you say other projects, are there endeavors you'd like to pursue apart from music?
Yeah, I'd like to contribute to the world of creative media. I've got a 7-year-old son and we watch Adventure Time on the Cartoon Network. I think it's the most brilliant show I've ever seen in my life. I think I enjoy it more than he does. Stuff like that, I'd love to be able to surround myself with other like-minded people who do stuff like that, whatever it may be. You really have to be there to do that. New York City I like, but I couldn't imagine myself ever living there.
As simplistic as this question may be, do you have one album that stands out as your favorite from a catalog that spans more than twenty years?
I think for me it would probably be Quebec and The Mollusk. I think those are the two pinnacles of Ween right there. The last record, La Cucaracha, was cool, but ehhhh. I think those two are the peaks of Ween; we'll see if there's another peak. There may, there may not be, but looking back, those two are my favorites. I judge it by the fact that when you're making a record, you never know how it's going to turn out. For me, it's not so much geographic things about recording. For me, the reason I like The Mollusk... it's just the songs for me, the sincerity of the songs, how they went from being ideas to being recordings. For me, on Quebec and The Mollusk, they all went perfectly. All the stars aligned. Those records came out perfectly. I can't really see a flaw in those. As far as continuity and the whole thing, that's why I like those two the most.
Going back to the thematic element of The Mollusk, songs like "The Blarney Stone" and "Cold Blows the Wind" hearken back to Celtic folk traditions, strains that were definitely unexplored on earlier records.
Yeah, I wrote "The Blarney Stone" after a good friend of mine and tattoo artist, Joel Rose, who is a very proud Scotsman... that all arose spending the afternoon with him. He brought some sort of Scottish sword; we were dueling. I came home that day and wrote that song. It was just fun. We play it live and Mickey sings it. You have to sing it really gritty to get the point across. He adds his own personal touches. If I were to sing it I'd just blow out my voice.
I love music from the British Isles and I always have. It's always driven every woman in my life completely insane because I'll be sitting there listening to Steeleye Span ... I love classic Irish folks songs. It's a certain taste that people have to have. Even though it's amazing music, some people find it grating after a while. "Cold Blows the Wind," that song is a really English folk ballad. I eat that stuff up. I think that music is incredible.
The Ween catalog includes tunes like "Baby Bitch" and "You Fucked Up," songs that number among some of the best break-up songs in pop music. Is it hard to tap into the anger and frustration that drove the songwriting process when you play them now? Does it still have emotional resonance, or is it like looking at a journal from when you were a teenager?
That's a really good question. It's hard, sometimes, because I think when you're younger, you're definitely more apt to write the pour-your-guts-out song about this woman who broke your heart. As I get older, it's not so dramatic. Case in point: On the last record we did, it was like, "Hey, there's no dripping, I'm-gonna-kill-myself-because-you-left-me love song. What the fuck?"
I'm just not 25 anymore. There's something to be said for that. As you get older, you're less dramatic about that stuff. So it is kind of weird, although I appreciate the songs for what they are, I do see them as a spot in time for me. I'm not still necessarily feeling that at the moment, although I do try to put myself when I'm playing them back in that time so I can convey it. If I'm sitting up there playing "Baby Bitch," I'm really concentrating on trying to get myself back to when I was feeling that so I can relate to the audience in the best way that I can. But I'm not still pissed off.
"Nan," "You Fucked Up"... All of those songs I wrote when I was a little kid. That was twenty years ago. You just gotta think of them as fun songs to play. I don't feel that way about "Nan" anymore, or whoever I wrote "You Fucked Up" about. I'm not holding that grudge twenty years later. (laughs).
You make a point to come to Colorado at least once a year, and they're usually large-scale shows. Whether it's playing on Halloween or New Year's Eve, or coming together to play again after a long period apart, Colorado seems to be a focal point for keeping your live inertia going. What's the appeal?
It's the fan base, man. Ween just has the best fans out there in the whole world. They are absolutely devoted. That is it, it is cut and dry. I love Denver. I love Colorado, but it's beyond that. That area that you live in, our fans will welcome us with open arms any day of the fucking week, and it's a wonderful thing. I'm really grateful to have that. There are certain cities that are like that and certain cities that aren't. Denver happens to be the biggest one. We're very lucky that we have Denver as a you're-always-welcome-into-our-house kind of place. It's been like that for years, so we try to give it back and play as much as we can there.