Dean Ween of Ween
Initially regarded as a novelty act that supposedly recorded under the influence of Scotchgard, Ween transcended its early jokey image by touring regularly and outlasting (and often outperforming) most of its '90s alt-rock peers. Still living and working out of their home base of New Hope, Pennsylvania, Aaron "Gene" Freeman and Mickey "Dean" Melchiondo rented a dumpy 200-year-old farmhouse to write and record Ween's latest, La Cucaracha, a characteristically sprawling record touching on a variety of musical styles. Several weeks before La Cucaracha was released, Dean Ween hooked up with The A.V. Club to discuss the new record, his relationship with Gene, what he hates about iPods and the Internet, and dealing with drunken idiots on the road.
The A.V. Club: Why did it take four years to make another Ween record?
Dean Ween: We kind of flamed out for a while there. [Laughs.] It's mostly personal shit. It wasn't like we worked on this record for four years, but it was about two years. We demoed like 50 songs.
AVC: What do you mean by "flamed out"? Can you elaborate?
DW: Not really. It's all mostly personal stuff. There was a rough patch that we had to go through. We've been in the band for 23 years now. We had a way of doing things that worked for us for a really long time because we weren't accountable to anybody. And then you get further and further away from it: You go on tour more, and when you come home, you don't feel like doing anything. I hate to sound fucking cheesy, but we were sort of spiritually wounded, and we needed to get back into a positive place where it was fun and enjoyable again. With Quebec, I like it as a record, but it's very negative. It's one of our darker records, I think. I don't listen to any of our records, but I have never listened to that one. Basically, I was all fucked-up, and Aaron was all fucked-up. [Laughs.] We had to un-fuck ourselves to make a new record and sustain this thing, Ween.
AVC: Friendship is one of the big subjects of La Cucaracha, and your friendship with Aaron has always been at Ween's core. Does being in Ween enhance your personal relationship, or is it a strain?
DW: The best I can say about that is, there are things in my life that no one can understand except Aaron. We kind of have a parallel life. We went through everything together: junior high school, high school, being broke, getting evicted, meeting our wives and ex-wives, having kids. We make, penny-for-penny, the same income, because we don't do anything other than the band. He's like my brother. And a lot of getting this record together was getting back to that. But there are other things where I can talk to anyone but Aaron. [Laughs.] And I'm sure it's the same for him. When it comes down to doing what we do in Ween, I don't have to say anything or second-guess. If Aaron gets a CD that he likes and he tells me to go get it, I know to just go get it. We come from the same thing, you know? But we see each other so damn much, and we're 37 now, so it's not like, "Hey, let's go to the movies now!" I don't do that with any of my friends.
AVC: When people talk about John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Lennon is often described as the angry rock 'n' roller and McCartney the nice pop tunesmith. Is there a similar yin-and-yang dynamic in Ween?
DW: I'm definitely more of a guitar player, whereas Aaron writes songs on a guitar, but it's a means to an end with him. He can write on a piano or a bass or whatever. I don't know if I've written a love song before, though there's one love song on this record, and I wrote it. But I tend to get inspired when I'm really pissed off. Aaron is the opposite—when he's filled with joy, he's inspired. But there's only a little bit of truth in every statement. I don't think I could generalize whose role is what in the band. We both do everything. All that matters is what the other guy thinks about it.
AVC: Why did you write 50 songs for La Cucaracha?
DW: That's just how we do it. It's quantity, not quality. [Laughs.] If you write 50 songs, you're bound to write at least a dozen good ones. The way that we do things has never changed, honestly, since I was 14 years old. It's me and Aaron, alone, sitting somewhere with a recorder of some kind, and that's it. There's no outside influence. I play the drums and we both play whatever—bass, keyboards, guitars, sing. It really can't happen any other way.
AVC: Do you stockpile a lot of song ideas before you start working on a record?
DW: We go in with nothing. The best is when you have a title of a song: "I've got a great idea for a song—it's called 'Let's Get Divorced.'" That was one of the songs we left off the record. We were really more focused on this record than we were on the last one about getting together on a regimented schedule—we both have kids, and it's not like when we lived together, where we were always working on something. A lot of times, I'll lay down a beat, and then I'll start fucking around with a guitar over it. Then Aaron will take out the notebook. That's how we end up with so many songs. I didn't say they were all good. [Laughs.]
AVC: How many songs have you and Aaron written over the years?
DW: I have no way to know. While we were on our little break between these two albums, I tried to transfer just our four-track tapes, which were from when we lived at The Pod for two years. And I couldn't do it. I quit after the third day. It was such a massive undertaking. I felt like they were weighing me down, having every Ween tape ever at my house. So we got a storage bin, and I took every single thing we've ever done and put it there.
AVC: Do you ever go back to an old tape for new song ideas?
DW: No. I'm not really interested in that. We put out [the unreleased-songs compilation] Shinola, and I had really mixed emotions about doing it. I don't like to do anything that feels reflective or retrospective when we're still making new records. It's not a healthy thing to do. We called it Volume 1, but I don't know if I want to go through that again anytime soon. The songs on that record are songs we regretted not putting on other records. There was no going through tapes trying to find stuff.
AVC: There's a lot of good stuff on Shinola. "Gabrielle" is one of Ween's great straight-ahead rock songs.
DW: There are a lot of stupid things we left off our records that are better than some of the songs that ended up on the records, but whatever.
AVC: There are 13 songs on La Cucaracha—are they the 13 best tracks out of the 50 you wrote, or did they just fit together the best?
DW: The thing about La Cucaracha is it's a lot more fun than the last record. It's like a party record. When we decide what's making the cut, we factor in how it works with the other songs. I don't think enough bands think in terms of records any more, but we definitely do. I get sick when I think about someone going to iTunes and downloading two songs off our album. It's not meant to be listened to that way. But you can't expect too much of people. That's how people listen to music and buy it. But we put a lot of time into sequencing the record, and making it flow. We put a lot into the artwork, the whole package. And we take a lot of time to make it sound good. We recorded this record to tape, which is expensive, and those big machines are cumbersome and require a lot of maintenance. But we try our best to make it sound as good as we can. And then I think of somebody with those little fucking ear buds stuck in their head—whenever I see someone with an iPod, I want to take it and smash it or steal it. I hate everything about it, especially since it says "Designed In California" on the back. It's fucking gay. It sounds like shit.
AVC: Do you prefer to buy music at a record store?
DW: No. I buy my albums from Amazon.com and have them mailed to me. I have no interest in downloading someone's record, whether I'm stealing it or paying for it. The Meat Puppets just made a new record, and they came on tour to Philly. I love the Meat Puppets. I probably could have downloaded the record if I wanted, but I ordered it, I got it in the mail, I listened to it, and then they came around on tour and I saw them. That's how it's supposed to work. Or it's not how it works—our record is all over the Internet right now, and it doesn't come out for another month. It's upsetting.
AVC: La Cucaracha was recorded in a 200-year-old farmhouse. It sounds like a real dump.
DW: Yeah, it's an awful, awful place. Actually, we're getting out of there, which is great. We were in a church—the same church I got married in and got my Catholic confirmation in, and my son was baptized there. I don't know if I should be telling this story, but I was able to get in there through this priest I know—he married me—and he got defrocked. So we got tossed out of the church. Then we ended up in this place that was amazing, it was the greatest studio we ever had. But we had a month-to-month lease, because they were waiting on their permits to tear it down and build office buildings. All of a sudden, it was like, "You guys have to go, we're digging tomorrow." I was like, "Fuck!" because we were just about to start working on this record. So the only thing we could get—we didn't have any choice—was that farmhouse. The first day I was in there, I was just trying to clear out the cobwebs, because it hadn't been occupied in years, and these fucking bats starting flying around the place. I woke up them up out of some sort of hibernation—they were coming out of the chimney. I've hated that place ever since. The next time I came down, the heater blew up and all of our gear was covered in ash and oil and soot. That was when we started getting tuberculosis every time we went to the studio. The drama this week is there's a dead raccoon in the walls.
AVC: How much does the recording space influence the record?
DW: I don't think that that place had as much influence as others. The Mollusk, that record wouldn't have sounded like it did unless we did it where we did it. We rented a house down at the ocean in the middle of the winter, when the whole island was abandoned and it was freezing cold. That record is a direct result of our environment. This place, it sucked. We rose above it. [Laughs.] We transcended the evilness of the farmhouse.
AVC: Do you pick your recording spaces based on how creatively inspiring they are?
DW: We used to have to lie, so we really couldn't be too choosy. When we were younger, nobody would rent to a bunch of dudes in a rock band that wanted to make a record. No landlord in his right mind would do that. So we used to take whatever we could get. The only thing we look for is a place where you can make noise at 2 o'clock in the morning, so there can't be any neighbors anywhere.
AVC: Did the Friends EP come out of the sessions for La Cucaracha?
DW: Aaron did a demo of "Friends" for this record—it was one of the 50 songs—and he really wanted to work with, as he says, a gay Euro DJ. It was something that was very important to him for some reason. My feeling was, this should be the first track on our record. But he felt so strongly about doing it that it was like, "Okay, let's see what happens." I figured in a million years, he would never pull it off, like find a gay Euro DJ to do it, and it only took him about five seconds to find someone. He found the guy that did the Crazy Frog stuff. Then I had to cop to it. It was the first time we ever tried that. It was sort of an experiment, I guess. Aaron got his gay Euro fucking DJ song, which I take absolutely no responsibility for.
AVC: Really? The Friends EP seemed like a pretty faithful homage to Euro dance-pop.
DW: Yeah, it's cool. I was always really focused on the album. To me, that's what counts. When we go on tour, we do a three-hour show, and then it's over. I stop thinking about it two minutes later, and I go back and have a beer and talk to some fucking drunken idiots that tell me stupid stories about Ween that I don't care about and I've heard a thousand times. [Laughs.] But when you make a record, it actually stays around.
AVC: Speaking of fans, do you still interact with them online?
DW: I used to—really, really, really actively—because it was new and exciting. Ween got our online thing together really early, like '95 or '96. I got really, really into it for a long time, and it's so great for us. We have a huge online community of fans—we've got Ween radio, Ween forums, there's fucking trading circles, and the website, of course. But in the past two years, I've found that the Internet is a really cowardly, evil place. Like, our fucking album is on the Internet. That feels like such a betrayal to me. It took us two years and $100,000-some to make, and people are downloading it for free a month before it comes out. And there's no stopping it—it's like cancer. I don't feel like I can complain about it, because you don't want to sound pissy or something, but what the fuck? And you play a show, and that night in the hotel room, you get a shitty e-mail: "You guys suck! You were better last year!" So finally, I've come to terms with it: I read all the emails I get, but I don't answer them, and I don't look at our message boards ever, for any reason. And I focus on the parts that are enjoyable. I have fun updating the website, but the Internet can be a really creepy, evil place. Somebody posted my phone number earlier this year. My phone was ringing day and night for two days, waking up my son.
AVC: Do fans ever try to find you in New Hope?
DW: All the time. There aren't many people with my last name. In fact, there are no Melchiondos in this country that aren't related to me. Some kids came to New Hope from Kansas—they're going to read this, and they actually turned out to be nice guys—to make a documentary on Ween and New Hope. So for two days, I'm hearing everyone in town—including my father, who owns a garage and a car lot—saying, "There's these guys here, and they want to talk to you for a movie they're making." I was like, "Dad, tell them to fuck off. Pull out a gun and tell them to get the fuck off your property." Then they went to my uncle's car lot. Then they parked themselves in front of the New Hope Wawa—it's like a 7-Eleven—and they asked people as they were coming in if they knew Ween. Finally, they went to John & Peter's Place, where we drink every night, and John called me. That was it, I couldn't take it any more. He told me where they were staying, so I got fucking drunk—I was doing the fourth Moistboyz record at the time—we finished our session, and I went to the hotel and woke them up at 2 o'clock in the morning. I took them to the studio, we smoked a bunch of weed and listened to Bob Marley. And their movie turned out great. [Laughs.] I don't want to tell these stories, because I don't want to encourage any more of this shit. Next time, I won't do it. Truth be told, I was going there to slash their tires.
We love our fans. They are passionate about our band. We are totally grateful and privileged to have it that way. But that doesn't mean that I want to get to know them or hang out with them. That's only because we've been touring for 17 years now. For the first 10 years, we hung out with everybody, everywhere we went. We did their drugs with them. But you can't sustain that. Now we're a lot more insular. The guys in our band and road crew are all brothers. There's a level of trust from being in a band and a road crew for a really, really long time. We guard it on the road. There isn't one guy who will bring a drunken idiot on our bus.
AVC: Where will Ween be in 10 years?
DW: I never really think about it. We used to joke about how we were going to become lame—we're going to get the guy onstage who just plays the egg-shaker. We're going to start doing medleys: "Here's all of Pure Guava in two and a half minutes. Just one chorus from each song, and then 'Push Th' Little Daisies' over and over." If you had told me in 1984 that Ween was going to make a record and people were going to listen to our music in 1990, I never would have believed it. We didn't really have a goal set. It's just sort of something that happened. We happened to play in front of a guy from Twin/Tone Records, and they put out our first record. When you do your first record, you're pretty sure you're never going to make a second record. It's easy to make it, because you have all the time to do it. Then you go out and support it on tour, and then you come home and you have to live life a little bit before you can do another one. Every time you do it, you have to start completely over.