Aaron Freeman of Ween talks about getting older, getting sober, and going solo
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For years, Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo was the unofficial spokesman for Ween, the twisted ’90s alt-rock duo that evolved over two decades from recording sick pop songs on four-track machines to headlining rock festivals as one of the finest live groups of its era. Melchiondo’s partner Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman rarely spoke to the press, and when he did, he could be surly and uncommunicative. But The A.V. Club spoke with a much different Freeman recently, when he called us from a drug rehabilitation facility in Arizona. Sounding relaxed and excited about his future, Freeman had already been in rehab for a few months when he phoned to talk about his new solo album coming out this month. Marvelous Clouds certainly is a different kind of record for Freeman: It’s a relatively straightforward tribute to songwriter, poet, and artist Rod McKuen, who achieved fame in the ’60s when his songs were covered by a wide range of artists, including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Dusty Springfield. Since then, McKuen has been largely forgotten, though Freeman hopes to change that with Clouds, the first of two solo records Freeman plans to release while Ween—which hasn’t released an LP since 2007’s La Cucaracha—remains in a state of flux. The A.V. Club asked Freeman whether Ween has anything planned, album-wise, for the future, as well as the present state of his recovery and his plan to move in a “lamer” musical direction.
The A.V. Club: Was there a specific moment or incident that made you realize that you had to go into treatment?
Aaron Freeman: I would say turning 40—well, it’s 42 now. It gets to a point where you realize that you’ve been in this rock ’n’ roll world for so many years, and it’s time to just take responsibility. Addiction is a very serious matter, and it can kill you. Over the years I’ve developed quite a problem, and I’ve been trying to treat it on and off for years now, and it just has not been working out. So, statistically, these days they say you fare much better when you put some serious time into your recovery, which is what I’ve done. So now is the time. You know, it’s a very common thing with a lot of people, and I just happen to be one of them. It’s a very scary and insidious disease, so I’ve got no shame about it, and I’m very happy that I’m still around to even be in recovery.
AVC: A lot of Ween fans were concerned about your health after it was reported that you had an onstage meltdown in Vancouver.
AF: Sure, sure. I mean, if you follow me, you see my weight go up and down. Vancouver was terrible, but Vancouver is a typical meltdown with drugs and alcohol, and it was very sad. I regret it, but I see it as a stepping block to get me to where I’m at now. I’m in a very good place.
AVC: Do you feel any trepidation about eventually returning to the road and being around those temptations again?
AF: I do. What I’m going to really concentrate on now is this record that’s coming out and a full record after that, and really just taking it down a notch. I’m really leaving things open-ended right now. I obviously don’t want to jump back into any kind of fire. Unfortunately, the world of rock ’n’ roll—as well-guarded as you are—you really have to take a lot of precautions. So, at this point, I’m just taking things day to day, as it were.
AVC: I imagine that’s also why you’ve also been reluctant to return to Ween.
AF: Yeah, you know, Ween has always been part of my life, but at this point I’m ready to put it on the back burner. I’m not making any statements about anything, about Ween. I’m half of Ween, it’s always been part of me, and we’ll see how it goes. But right now, I really want to concentrate on other things.
AVC: You made an interesting choice with your first solo record to do a collection of Rod McKuen covers. What prompted that decision?
AF: Well, I ran into [producer] Ben Vaughn in L.A. It was actually on that tour, the Vancouver tour, we worked our way down the West Coast, and Ben and I started talking. I’ve wanted to do something solo for a long time, but I hadn’t been able to get it together, and Ben’s just a very good facilitator, just getting things done, and he was telling me about this idea for Rod McKuen. And I trust his taste, I’ve known him for years, and it seemed to me a really good way to do something on my own without all the pressure of writing a whole record. So it was perfect. All I really had to do was demos of the songs and then eventually go out there and record them. So, for me, it was very low stress, which was perfect, and it’s getting my name out there and establishing me as an entity separate from Ween, which is what I’ve wanted for a long time now.
AVC: You weren’t familiar with McKuen before making this record. What did you hear in his music that spoke to you as an interpreter?
AF: It was very easy for me to sing it; his cadence and his tempo and all of that stuff, and I really appreciated his music. And the more I got into it, the more I loved it. I mean, he’s got such a catalog. He’s got thousands of songs and thousands of poems, and he’s an artist, and he’s just this incredible guy, but not many people know him. There’s like, this one demographic of 50-60-year-old women who know about him, and they’re huge fans, but it doesn’t seem like anybody else really knows who he is. So it’s kind of a labor of love to get his music out there and to get it appreciated. And for me it was just a great way to stretch out and do something different.
AVC: While you’re playing someone else’s songs, it does sound a lot like a record that you would make, just in terms of how eclectic it is. There’s rock stuff, folk stuff, some jazzy numbers. That’s something that’s obviously carried over from Ween.
AF: Yeah, that’s very natural because, you know, I was into records, and on a record-record you’ll have all that stuff. You’ll have the rock, you’ll have the ballad, you’ll have the mid-tempo song, and those are all very important aspects to any great record. I would think that anyone would make music that way. To stick to one kind of genre is ridiculous, especially if you’re a music lover. I mean, for every genre of music there’s something great, from hip-hop to death metal to country to anything.
AVC: With Ween, there was always the sense that you really knew whatever genre you were tackling inside-out. There’s an attention to detail that came out in the music.
AF: I guess that just comes from experience, you know, from making records for so long. You really do hone your craft, and you learn what’s good and what you should probably leave off. When we made the record, we had studio musicians come in and just lay down basic tracks, and then the rest of it was just me on the microphone for a week. And it was wonderful, because I got to play with layering my vocals and all kinds of harmonies. I love to do that stuff. I’ve always loved to hear myself on tape. [Laughs.] I was standing in front of this $10,000 microphone for a week just going to town, and it’s amazing how you can shape a record just with vocals. So when I think about this record, for me and my achievement for this record, it’s the vocals. When push comes to shove, I’m a vocalist.
AVC: You’ve said it was very important for you not to put any effects on your voice on this record like you do with Ween, because you wanted to sound like yourself. Why was that so important for you?
AF: It’s part of just being vulnerable. I’ve been playing acoustic shows for the last year, and when you’re doing that, you’re very out in the open, so it’s kind of grown on me to make it really simple. There’s a very fine line when you’re hiding behind effects. I mean, I think those things are great, but there’s something about believing in yourself enough to just sing and use your natural voice, and I just really wanted to do that. And I’ve been told over the years by enough people, and by Ben Vaughn making this record, “You’ve got a great voice, just sing it.”
AVC: Was that the fear earlier in your career, that you didn’t have a good voice, and therefore you had to disguise it?
AF: No, actually it wasn’t. Because I know musicians who do do that, like they’re so afraid of how they sound that they put themselves through three amplifiers and a condenser microphone. I’ve never been like that. I mean, in Ween we always just liked to have weird vocal effects. But I’ve always said from a young age that as I get older, I want to get lamer, in a very good way. I want to morph into like, Phil Collins and Elton John-type shit, so that’s kind of what I’m doing with this. This is like a little stepping-stone. It’s going to get much worse, in a great way, but that’s how I want to evolve, or devolve, as it were.
AVC: What is that about exactly? Is it a matter of becoming less self-conscious as you get older?
AF: Yeah. I’ve never worried about being cool—that’s why Ween’s always worn T-shirts and jeans. I’ve never tried to dress up. I mean, there’s a lot of cool kids out there making cool music, and I think as you get older, you just change. It’s the process of life. You’re just not as hip as you were, and it’s always bothered me when I see aging rock stars who don’t embrace that fully and try to be young and hip. You see some wrinkled-up old rocker with tattoos all over him; he’s not fooling anybody, you know, he’s like an old fart. When I’m an old fart, I want to really embrace it. To me, that’s punk rock, and it’s all about punk rock in the end. [Laughs.] I started with punk rock, and I want to end with punk rock.
AVC: There is something very freeing about the idea of, “I don’t care if I’m cool or not, I’m this age and I’m going to be lame, and I don’t want to worry about that kind of bullshit anymore.”
AF: That’s all it is. That’s all it is. And I just am that way because I love music so much, and I hate to see people—I hate to see talented musicians who get older not embrace their true selves. So I’ve always been an old Jewish man in a young person’s body, but now I’m getting to be middle-aged so I’m going to embrace it.
AVC: When you spoke to Slate, you made a really interesting connection between your music and Rod McKuen’s music, the idea that McKuen’s music has this sort of playful façade to it, and yet if you look at the lyrics, a lot of times it’s very dark, dealing with heartbreak and loneliness. And certainly that’s true of a lot of Ween songs as well. What is it about that combination of a playful or wacky exterior and a dark, sick core? Why are you drawn to that?
AF: I believe it’s part of my personality. I think a lot of creative people suffer from that, and just a lot of people in general, trying to fit in with the whirlwind of society. People that are sensitive at all, they have a little extra footwork to do. You know, trying to maintain a family or maintain an appearance or maintain this or maintain that, and yet inside it’s a struggle. It’s very similar to addiction that way. People really try to make it work in this world, but you have to express your sadness or your feelings. So to me, when I hear music like that, I can really identify to it because it seems to me to be very honest. Rob McKuen does that. He likes to have fun, he likes to walk through the fields, and love women and this and that, but it can get pretty dark for him sometimes when he’s alone. And I think that’s just a human condition, so I love to hear—I always love to hear artists do that and portray that honestly through music.
AVC: You’ve talked about how you love Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In The Sun,” and how on one hand it’s this bubblegum-y song, and then on the other hand the lyrics are really dark, and it’s sort of this perfect balance because it makes the bubblegum a little weightier, but it also takes the edge off the darkness.
AF: Yeah, exactly. You put it perfectly. That’s exactly what it does. I’ve written so many songs like that that are—I listen back to them, it’s like, “Jesus, that’s some dark shit!” you know? But you have good intentions. Basically, you just want to make light of a dire situation. But good music, you don’t even—you can’t even analyze it like that. I don’t think Brian Wilson was analyzing himself when he wrote some of those songs that he did. In order to set dark music to dark lyrics, that takes its own special talent. I mean, I could sit down and work on making gothic, dark rock and putting gothic, dark music to it. But I love pop music, and I always have.
AVC: Not to bring up Ween again, but have you talked about making another record?
AF: I’m just leaving it very open-ended. I’m not going to really get into that too much, so it’s just open-ended. It’s all good. [Laughs.] That’s my answer: “It’s all good, baby.”
AVC: You alluded to another solo record, which I’m guessing would be of your own songs. Can you talk about that? Where are you at with that?
AF: I have a ton of songs that I’ve been wanting to put on a solo record for a long time, and I look forward to writing some more songs and just keeping it going. This has really got the momentum going, this Rod McKuen record, so it’s building confidence. When you’re in a band for 20 years, it’s not the easiest thing to break out with solo stuff, so this Rod record is definitely serving its purpose as a stepping stone.
AVC: Do you have a vision for what you want this next record to sound like?
AF: Yeah, yeah. I mean, we were talking about it earlier. I want to get progressively lamer and lamer in a really good way.
AVC: So this is going to be your Phil Collins record?
AF: Yeah, yeah, yeah! I mean, if Phil Collins would produce it, I’d be into that. Or Elton John. Or both of them together. Elton John and Phil Collins together. Finally, after all these years. That’s my dream. That’s where I’m going.
AVC: Will it be No Jacket Required-era Collins? I assume you don’t mean his ’70s prog-rock, Genesis-era stuff.
AF: We’ll probably touch on the No Jacket Required stuff, but we’re definitely going to get into the Disney-era Phil Collins, too.
AVC: You honestly like the Disney era?
AF: I do! Yeah, I do! [Laughs.] I’ve taken so much shit for it over the years, but I really do like it. Really, I mean, I’m just going to take it—and I’ve always been like this with Ween, too—I’ve just never, ever had any kind of boundaries with music. So, I mean, I honestly don’t know how the next record will sound, but it will probably sound similar to the Rod McKuen record, where it’s just pretty straight up. I’m starting to find my individual voice. If I want to make the whole record through a garden hose, I will. If I don’t, I won’t. The only stipulation is that it sounds good and that I love it. And it’s always been like that with Ween, too. It doesn’t appear on a Ween record unless Mickey and I both love it. That’s really the only rule of thumb. It’s just gotta be, you know, fun.