The wait is over. After four years of being officially broken up, Ween will return to the stage. The much-loved alternative rock band has announced a pair of reunion shows in Colorado during the weekend of February 12 & 13, 2016. Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween) and Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) formed the band in 1984 and went on to play together as Ween for nearly 30 years. During the breakup both continued making music. Melchiondo performed Ween songs with The Dean Ween Group and Freeman recorded a solo album and did some gigs with his Billy Joel cover band. We spoke with Freeman in March about Ween, his solo album FREEMAN, Billy Joel and more.
When I tell people that Ween is my favorite band and I think some of their songs rank among the most emotional and honest songs of the past twenty-five years, they look at me funny. Surely I’m not talking about the same guys that wrote “The HIV Song,” whose only lyrics are “AIDS” and “HIV” over a rolling calliope beat, or “Pandy Fackler,” a jazzy little number about a brain-damaged girl who enjoys giving blowjobs under the boardwalk.
But I am talking about that band. The same band whose catalogue also includes heartbreakingly tender songs like “Birthday Boy,” “Stay Forever” and “Sarah.” Ween’s music (specifically the songs written by Aaron Freeman) has touched me – sometimes in inappropriate ways.
Those are the extremes. In between, Ween tackled every genre of music – from funk to country and reggae to Irish ballads – with their own idiosyncratic spin.
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After meeting in 8th grade in New Hope, PA, Freeman and co-founder Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) performed as Ween for nearly 30 years. Freeman left the band in 2012. Breaking up the beloved band (which was never shy about having an affinity for drugs and alcohol) was something he needed to do in order to get sober.
Now Freeman is back. After his 2012 album Marvelous Clouds – a tribute record dedicated to the songs of the poet Rod McKuen (who passed away in late January) – he’s released his first batch of post-Ween songs on the 2014 album FREEMAN. It’s a stripped-down collection of music that illustrates a man surfacing from the depths of addiction and despair.
The album opens with “Covert Discretion,” a song that deals directly with an on-stage meltdown in Vancouver during a Ween show in 2011. Freeman also addresses his temporary inability to write music on “(For Awhile) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man,” gives a nod to the Stallion character from his Ween days on “The English and Western Stallion;” throws in some psychedelic weirdness and spaced-out spiritual nonsense on “Golden Monkey;” and finds peace on the meditative “Delicate Green.”
Fans of Ween shouldn’t hold their breath for a Ween reunion. When I brought the subject up, Freeman didn’t want to talk about it. Instead of being bummed out; fans should be glad that Freeman is healthy and making great music again – and Melchiondo is back on the road and kicking ass with his new Dean Ween Group.
I called Freeman at his home in Woodstock, NY. I had some serious questions about identity, his songwriting process, the state of Ween and his new record.
But it only took about half a second before I totally “fanned” out on him.
Mike Andrelczyk: Hey, Aaron, I’m a big fan. I could probably do this interview entirely about Quebec outtakes.
Aaron Freeman: [laughs] Quebec outtakes. That’s pretty awesome.
MA: I was playing some of those songs for my Mom. I put on “Hello Johnny” and she was cracking up.
AF: That song is fuckin’ amazing. It cracks me up every time I hear it.
MA: So, what are you up to today?
AF: Well, I just ate some cold beans. I’m gonna go teach some kids in a couple hours. Then I’m gonna start rehearsing with my Billy Joel cover band.
MA: Is that a real thing?
AF: Yeah, it’s real. I’m doing it with Paul Green and the School of Rock. I love Billy Joel so I had this idea to do a complete cover band. We’re going to be doing at least a 90-minute set and a couple cool shows.
MA: When you do covers you really embody the artist while still kind of doing your thing.
AF: I’m like a chameleon that way. I’ve been listening to Billy Joel all my life, but I’ve started to study how he sings. He is a really intense singer, so I’m gonna be working on singing with the power and veracity of Billy Joel.
MA: Do you guys have a name yet?
AF: It’s going to be Gene Ween Does Billy Joel.
MA: So you’re going back to the Gene Ween name for this?
AF: Yeah, I think so. At the end of the day, people know Gene Ween. It’s not anything I should be ashamed of.
“Well, I just ate some cold beans. I’m gonna go teach some kids in a couple hours. Then I’m gonna start rehearsing with my Billy Joel cover band… It’s going to be [called] Gene Ween Does Billy Joel.”
MA: You went away from the Gene Ween name for awhile. Did Ween fans expect Gene Ween to be constantly eating mushrooms and chugging Jack Daniels?
AF: Yeah, a little bit. I was really having an identity crisis and that happens – just what you said – so it’s important to separate those things. You get lost in who you are. As I grow and get more confident in who I am and my sobriety it’s like, “Oh yeah, Gene Ween.” It’s a positive thing and it represents the work I did since I was 16.
MA: You mentioned that you’re teaching music to kids now. That’s kind of an unexpected twist in your career.
AF: It’s really good for me – especially in the beginning, to actually get me out of my writer’s block. I was just sitting there singing with kids all day and it really helped me. It got me out of my own shit, and I love it for that. When I’m teaching kids, I have these weird little tips that I never even thought about. Like, if you’re singing like this person try to imagine you’re vomiting. Or like, the first word of a song your singing has to be really pronounced. Or how to phrase a rhyme. It’s really cool. I’m still surprised people even wanna hear what I have to say. It’s cool as hell.
MA: What do your kids think of Ween songs?
AF: They dig it. It’s a weird question, because they know me. My 16-year old, she just got into it. My son, Benjamin, was here while I wrote the whole new record and I would literally ask him, “How does this mix sound?” or “How does that mix sound?” He was like a co-producer. When you’re playing a song for a kid, they don’t bullshit you. He actually coined the phrase “Black Bush.” [from FREEMAN] He had no idea what that meant. He was talking about some story and there would be a black bush and he literally meant a black bush, and of course, I started thinking about vaginas (laughs). Your kids are important in weird little ways to your art.
MA: With Ween you guys always kind of joked it was about “quantity over quality.” Did you take that same approach with FREEMAN?
AF: No, it’s kind of slowed down. When I write, it comes in waves. I’m not one of those guys that sits down every day with a guitar. I’ll get deep into it for, like, a month. Like the typical crazy author-type thing – my hair’s growing out and I haven’t showered. That’s how I wrote this record. One day it just started coming out. And now I pick up my guitar, but it’s not really anything. I’m just a slave to that, which is kind of cool and kind of a hindrance. Before I wrote this record it was since La Cucaracha, and I hadn’t written anything. So it was the end of, like, a seven-year writer’s block.
MA: FREEMAN features a lot of acoustic guitar. Is that how you like to write?
AF: This record I did. I’ve been playing a lot of acoustic since I left Ween, and I love it. It’s very cathartic for me. End of the world, you know, you just got your guitar. I’ll just grab my guitar and walk out into the woods. That’s what it all boils down to.
MA: I was surprised to see The Source by James Michener was an influence on the new record. Are you a big reader?
AF: I am a big reader. Reading is definitely what keeps me grounded. If I don’t have a book I kinda freak out a little bit.
MA: What’s on the Gene Ween’s book club list?
AF: I should start Gene Ween’s Book Club. Yeah, The Source, it was a book I read when I was younger. My parents had it, and I read it and then I reread it again before the record. It’s a really cool book about ancient Judaism. I love that stuff. I like to imagine what life was like back then and their attitudes. That’s what “El Shaddai” is all about. But that book is great, you should read it.
MA: Are you reading a book right now?
AF: I just finished a John Updike book called The Village, which was pretty cool. It’s all about his sexploits. And now I’m reading the new John Irving book, In One Person. Add that to my book club (laughs).
“I’d never made a record before, just for my personal music career… From start to finish I was involved. I was actually coherent enough to talk about, like, how I wanted the cymbals to sound or this or that. It was the first time I ever did any of that sober.”
MA: You always talk about being a fan of punk rock. Do you think the most punk thing is to be honest?
AF: Absolutely, it is. Yeah, you pinned it. GG Allin really affected me. Talk about fuckin’ honest. He would shit onstage and be bloody because he’s doing it for the honesty. He wasn’t bullshitting you. He lived it. I do think the best music is honest.
MA: Didn’t GG Allin kick you in the face?
AF: He did kick me in the face. That was a big crossover moment for me. It was at the Khyber Pass in Philly, which is a great bar. I don’t even know if it’s open still. I was screaming at him. I was so into it. He makes you just want to fucking yell at him. He’s yelling at you and he hates you and you wanna hate him. Before I knew it, I got knocked back. I got the boot. He just fuckin’ kicked me right in the head. That was the shit, like I won [laughs]. That’s when I learned what punk rock really was.
MA: [Ween drummer] Claude Coleman said that in the early days of Ween it was sometimes like a war between you guys and the audience. You guys would be singing the same Cat Stevens songs like 20 times in a row for a punk audience and they hated it. Do you love fucking with people?
AF: Yeah, that was incredible. I’m still like that. That was at City Gardens and we were playing in front of a bunch of skinheads and they just hated us. Mickey and I were on mushrooms or something. The audience hated us so much that they were literally crying. They threw gum in my hair. And I just kept fucking going. I was like, “Well, I’m either gonna get trampled by like 200 skinheads and be killed or I can just go for it and make them even more pissed off.” It was totally punk rock. Breaking these people from their bullshit and provoking reaction.
MA: Chocolate and Cheese just turned 20 years old. I read that you recorded some vocal tracks for the song “Candi” in the back of Mickey’s trunk as he did donuts in the parking lot. Do you have any other crazy stories from the recording process?
AF: Not really that I can remember. But I remember that part – trying to get a vocal. We strung like 50 feet of mic cable together and I got in the back of Mickey’s trunk. We did a couple vocals like that. He would just do circles in the driveway and I sang and it worked.
MA: When was the last time you spoke with Mickey?
AF: I don’t know how much I want to get into it. It’s cool you know.
MA: Do you miss playing with him?
AF: Nah. I got bigger fish to fry.
MA: For a year with no Ween, it was a good year for Ween. Mickey’s new band kicks ass and your new record is awesome.
AF: Yeah, exactly, that’s how I saw it. Sometimes that stuff is best for the music. It was good for me to write a bunch of stuff and sing it the way I wanted to. It was a great experience. I’d never made a record before, just for my personal music career. It was really neat getting in there and literally producing stuff. From start to finish I was involved. It was the first time I ever did any of that sober – I was actually coherent enough to talk about, like, how I wanted the cymbals to sound or this or that. It was a real growing experience for me and I was really pleased with it. I agree, I think it was a really good year for Ween.
MA: Remember when everybody thought you were gonna get a sex change? Even Entertainment Weekly ran with that story.
AF: Totally, totally. I did that with – what was it? Jambase or something? There was a writer, he was a friend of mine and he always interviewed me. I think it was probably like six months after I left Ween and I had that song written – “Genene” – and I was like, “Let’s fuck with people.” Let’s tell them we just talked about me going to Belgium and having a sex change operation to just kind of make light of everything. It worked – it totally got picked up.
MA: Don’t they fact-check anything?
AF: No, no, and that was the thing and then they took it down. They didn’t fact-check it. They had no idea. Then my old manager had to come in and say, “He’s not having a sex change.” I was really pissed. I would’ve let it keep going. He blew it. That was really fun.
MA: Some people really struggle with music that is both funny and serious – like they want one or the other.
AF: Mickey and I have known that from the beginning. If you have a sense of humor they automatically think you’re like “Weird Al” Yankovic. But, even the Beatles had humor in their music. It’s just not taking yourself so seriously. Randy Newman is a great example. He’s written some of the most heart-wrenching, honest songs I’ve ever heard in my life, and then he’ll write this song that’s totally easy-going and funny. It seems like people never really got that about Ween, either. We’d be like the goofy rock brothers. Fortunately our fans really did know the deal. The mainstream people can’t get that concept. It’s very strange.
“I’m having a little bit of trouble embracing the whole “indie folk” thing. I think maybe ’cause I come from the punk rock background and punk rock is about as far from that music as you could imagine. I try to listen to it, but it’s like I’m fuckin’ fallin’ asleep.”
MA: Yeah, I don’t get that, because really life is both funny and sad. It’s never one or the other.
AF: I agree with you 100%.
MA: You’re known for your range of voices you employ in your songs. You could’ve had a career in voice-overs.
AF: I tried to have a career in voiceovers. Right after I got sober.
MA: How did that not work out?
AF: It was funny because I got an audition and it was for a Jack Daniel’s commercial. It was very ironic. I went in there and I’m trying to do this smoky voice of a Jack Daniel’s guy and I just failed miserably. A lot of the voiceover stuff is acting, too, and I’m not very skilled at that stuff. But I would love to be a cartoon character at some point.
MA: Is there a song that you just hate?
AF: I’m having a little bit of trouble embracing the whole “indie folk” thing. I think maybe that’s just my own hang-up ’cause I come from the punk rock background and punk rock is about as far from that music as you could imagine. I try to listen to it, but it’s like I’m fuckin’ fallin’ asleep. This guy is just talking about himself for five minutes. It’s like, “Dude, I don’t wanna hear your story. I really don’t give a shit about your American clichés, you know, sittin’ on the tracks or harvestin’ your crops. What the fuck are you talking about?”
MA: I saw a headline on Upworthy’s Twitter account – “Two Guys Get Commisioned to Write The Gayest Song Ever” – and I thought maybe Gene and Dean are back together.
AF: Totally. Always a goal to write the gayest song ever. Always will be for me. I’m still working on it.
CapLive presents an Acoustic Evening with Aaron Freeman at the Strand-Capitol (50 N. George St., York) on Saturday, March 21. 8pm. $20. Click here for tickets.