Since 1984, when they began recording songs together as 14-year-old best friends in Pennsylvania, Aaron Freeman (a.k.a. Gene Ween) and Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween) have made defiantly weird, unpredictable music as Ween. After a string of cassette-only releases and two independently released full-length classics (GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and The Pod), all of which were influenced by narcotics to some extent, Ween signed to a major label, scoring memorable novelty hits with "Push Th' Little Daisies" (from 1992's Pure Guava) and "Voodoo Lady" (from 1994's Chocolate & Cheese). Then the duo drew a figurative line in the sand, alienating critics and fans with 1996's 12 Golden Country Greats, for which Ween hired Nashville session men and embraced country music with more sincerity than anyone might have expected. Greats actually functioned as a legitimate country album, making it all the more subversive: Most Ween fans didn't want country music, and even fewer country-music fans wanted anything to do with Ween. Though Greats sold poorly, the duo released three more records–The Mollusk, White Pepper, and Paintin' The Town Brown: Ween Live 1990-1998–before parting ways with its label. Until this week, when Ween released the ambitious Quebec, the duo's most notable recent project was its unsuccessful attempt to provide a commercial jingle for Pizza Hut. Titled "Where'd The Cheese Go?," and still available for download at Ween's web site (ween.com), the rejected track is 30 seconds of demented, hilarious, insanely infectious perfection. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to Freeman and Melchiondo about drugs, technology, friendship, home, the music industry, children, Pizza Hut, and more.
The Onion: Next year, you guys will have been doing this for 20 years. How has the process changed over the years?
Aaron Freeman: It's changed a lot. We used to live together, and so for The Pod and Pure Guava and those records, it was more spontaneous. Now, when we write music, we get together at some location and just kind of hole ourselves up for a couple weeks and write. But it's still just the two of us, and the relationship is kind of the same.
O: I would imagine there's been a maturation process. You're not 14-year-old kids goofing around at your parents' house.
AF: Exactly. We both have children now. We've grown up a bit, but we still like to rock.
O: Has that affected the music?
AF: I don't think so. When we write, the only prerequisite to a good Ween song is that it be good. Ween has always made songs about our life and what's happening to us at the moment, and that hasn't changed. This new record could have been the same 10 years ago. We're better musicians, but that's about it.
O: How have drugs influenced Ween's music?
AF: Drugs, definitely, have had… We don't do as many drugs as we used to. I mean, I still do a lot of drugs, but in the beginning, there was that period when you first start smoking pot and doing a lot of hallucinogens. That had a big impact, like a burn that never goes away, and it kind of changes your whole shit. That definitely affected Ween, and always will. When we write music now, it's not like we have to be doing drugs or anything. Now, we do more insidious drugs. It's just like pills and booze.
O: Is it true that you guys were huffing Scotchgard?
AF: No, no. That's a big lie. We just thought that sounded cool. You know, the music sounds like we were sniffing Scotchgard, but we never actually did it. Unfortunately, people did it at shows, and I got to see firsthand what happens when people do Scotchgard.
O: What happens?
AF: They kind of turn plaid. It's like a pale, green-blue plaid effect. It's not pretty.
O: People would do Scotchgard at your shows because they thought you guys did Scotchgard?
AF: Yeah, they were trying to get with us. Get into our thing.
O: That's a bitterly ironic way to go.
AF: It is. It's very sad. I watched them and laughed. There's not as much of that now as there was years ago, when we were touring for The Pod. Now, I think people are hip to the fact that you probably shouldn't be huffing Scotchgard.
O: Over the years, you've been known for being pretty prolific and recording sacks of tapes. Are you still like that? You said the songwriting process is a little bit more formalized.
AF: Yeah, I like to hear myself on tape, so we record a lot, but it's not as much as when we were living together and the tape deck was always on. Now, it's more concentrated and not as spontaneous. There are other distractions now. It's not like being a kid: We actually have to make time to do it. But I always have my guitar, and I'm always plunking around.
O: It seems like these days, you guys are known as much for your live shows as for your records.
AF: Yeah. I mean, we hate touring, but we've definitely gained in popularity due to our live shows.
O: It's a three-hour set now, isn't it?
AF: Something like that, yeah. It depends on how fucked up we get.
O: Why do you hate touring?
AF: I don't really hate touring, but it's grueling. So we never tour for more than three or four weeks at a time, and then we take time off. But it's a tough lifestyle. You know, you eat shitty food, and you don't get any sleep, and you abuse yourself. The good time is being on stage, and that's three hours out of the day. I'm not complaining–I mean, it's great. We're just now going on our first real tour in three years.
O: A lot of your newer songs are played totally straight: They just sound like mainstream rock songs, and they sound weirder in context on a Ween record than they would anywhere else. What goes into those songs, as opposed to goofier material?
AF: It all depends on the song, but all that matters is that it's good. It's whatever the song dictates, and we don't limit ourselves. If "Transdermal Celebration" [from Quebec] should sound like more of a pro rock song, then that's what we're going to do to it. We just try to fulfill the destiny of the song as best we can. We're not out to make goofy music.
O: Ween is often seen as a novelty band, though. Does that affect you when you're making records?
AF: Not any more. It used to. There's always the joke that if I want to get into somewhere, I can use my Gene Ween status–like, "I fucking wrote 'Push Th' Little Daisies,' goddamn it!" You know, I don't care. I don't think people see us as a novelty the way they used to, because we've been around for so long now. Ween fans have the full spectrum of what we're about, so it's not just like a "Weird Al" Yankovic thing anymore. We've put out enough music where people get the point and don't really see us as a joke band. We have humor in our music, and that's because we write about life. It's like, just because you have music that's got humor in it, that shouldn't mean you can't be taken seriously. I never understood that.
O: You guys are pretty tech-savvy, and your audience at this point is the same way. Why continue to record for a label?
AF: Just because I'm not interested in the technical or business aspect of producing and putting out records. There are people who are more qualified than I am to do that, and I don't have the time or energy to concern myself with it. That's why there's record companies. I'm not some entrepreneur who wants to put out my own records.
O: You also don't really sound like the bitter musician who feels like the record companies have ripped you off.
AF: No, definitely not. I try my hardest not to be bitter. Once you start doing that–once you start getting your ego that inflated–that's when you go down the tubes. I'd rather think about milkshakes and making out at the Point.
O: You don't want to make a Don Henley record.
AF: Totally no, not yet. I mean, I will gladly make a Don Henley record when the time comes, but I'm not at that point yet. I still like to trust in the goodness of humanity. Little pink panties and things like that.
O: With regard to "Where'd The Cheese Go?," why would an ad agency that wanted a Ween song pass on that one?
AF: Well, they didn't. They got fired. It wasn't like they judged us and didn't use our music. They had the full concept, and it was very cool and very hip, but the Pizza Hut people fucking backed out. So the ad agency got fired, and then consequently we got fired. They were into it all the way. It was all a go, but the Pizza Hut people opted to use the dude with the zoom-in camera on the pizza: "Stuffed cheese pizza!"
O: "Where'd The Cheese Go?" could have been a sensation, like a "Where's The Beef?" thing.
AF: Well, we were trying to be 2003's "Where's The Beef?" My 4-year-old sings that song.
O: Speaking of which, why hasn't Ween made a children's record?
AF: Oh, you know. We're working on it. I've been careful, because I have a child and Mickey has a child, and I know that there's a rule in rock that you have to be careful when you have a kid and you start writing songs about your kid. It's very uncool. You can do a whole children's record, but I'm not going to write songs about my daughter. But you know, our music is kids' music. I mean, it's really weird: My girl is 4, and she's singing "So Many People In The Neighborhood" to me from our new record, and it's really fucked up. I mean, our music generally appeals to children and retarded people, and I'm into that. In a way, we've been making children's records for years.
O: It's certainly not a dramatic stretch, but an actual concept album could appeal equally to 3-year-olds and stoners.
AF: Totally. I'm all for that. That's definitely something in the future.
The Onion: You've never left Pennsylvania. How has staying in your hometown affected Ween?
Mickey Melchiond Well, I think it's crucial to Ween, to be honest with you. I think that in order for Ween to exist, and to do our thing… Most people in our position would have moved to New York right around their first record. I don't know. We're not cool the way guys in bands want to be cool. We're cool in a different way, but it's not like wearing fucking gay-ass black shoes and black pants and all that. We buy our clothes at the mall. [Laughs.] I don't know. I think it's based entirely on our friendship. For Ween to be effective and productive, our friendship has to remain intact, and the lines of communication between us have to be open. We've been in Ween for 20 years, and best friends our whole lives, so it's not a deal where Aaron could live in New York and I could live in L.A., and we could meet to do Ween. That kind of thing just wouldn't work for us. We're dug in here pretty good: I own a house, I'm married, I've got children–and the area rules, where we're at. We're out in the country, but we're not in the sticks. We're not removed from society. Besides, I don't like being in the city. Being here is huge on Ween. It affects Ween in every single way. Aaron, I know, has wanted to move a couple times over the years. He's threatened to move, and I would do my best to keep him from moving to New York. He knows. [Laughs.] Sellout.
O: You've got an elaborate, very interactive web site. How have technology and computers affected your approach to making music and getting it into the hands of fans?
MM: Well, it's tremendous for us, because we're very hands-on about it. I've been maintaining our web site, and our e-mail goes directly to me. It's not like it goes to the guy who runs our fan club or administers our web site. We're into it: We do our own merchandise online and all that. It doesn't work for every band. It works for Ween because of the nature of Ween and the nature of our fans. We're kind of a cult band. I hate to call us that, but we have a cult following that wants to collect all the fucking unreleased songs and the live tapes and buy all this shit, and it's a good way for us to communicate with them. We do a lot of things that are just for our fans: We do lots of shows in our hometown in a bar that holds 150 people, and announce it on our web site. Last night, we did an all-request concert through the site, where we let the fans vote for the tunes. These things are fun and rewarding for us, and great for the fans. So the web is huge for Ween. The new album is just coming out on Sanctuary, and part of what the label guys do when they have a band releasing a record is to hire an Internet marketing company. And these people get all this money… I didn't want to shoot down [Sanctuary's] enthusiasm, so I met with these people and listened to their ideas. And it's so fucking out of touch. I'm like, "If you pay these people any money, I'll fucking kill you." Their ideas were bad, and a lot of it was things we've been doing better by ourselves anyway, some of them for a really long time. People that are computer-savvy, which most kids are nowadays, can smell the difference. It's like some punk band comes along, and they're signed to Sony, and the record label has this brilliant idea to take one bonus throwaway song and give it away to 50 million AOL subscribers. To me, that's not interactive. It may have the appearance of being special, but they do it with every fucking band, you know what I'm saying? It's a joke: "Download the new Sheryl Crow track!" It's like this $10 million transaction that probably went down between AT&T and Coca-Cola and AOL Time-Warner. That's some real grassroots shit there. [Laughs.] This marketing company was like, "We want to give the fans a bonus track!" Really? We give away fuckin' 16,000 MP3s. We give away entire albums on our web site. So, yeah, it's helped us a lot, but that's only because we pay attention and know what fuckin' time it is. There's no outside influence: We run the Ween forum and the Ween chat room, there's Ween FTP sites, there's Ween radio, there's our web site.
O: Usually, the more that bands are involved in the process of getting their music out there, the more disillusioned they are with record labels. Earlier today, Aaron basically said, "Well, the record label does its thing, and that's fine. We're not bitter." Have you had positive experiences with record labels?
MM: No, but I kind of feel the same way Aaron does. I wouldn't say it's been positive… We were on TwinTone originally, from Minneapolis, and that was a great label. They didn't give us any money, and they didn't really actively help us, but they did put out our first album, to their credit. We probably wouldn't have a career if they hadn't thought to do that and say, "This band is cool." I don't have any beef with them. With Elektra, sure, things could have gone a lot better between us and them–it was a really dysfunctional, long relationship–but we made a lot of records for them, and they didn't drop us after one. I know they liked us. I'm sure they would have liked for us to sell more records, and to make some more radio-friendly stuff, but they never even bothered to try to get us to do it. They put out our country record. The first record they put out, Pure Guava, we did on a four-track. That's some pretty punk-rock shit for Time-Warner.
O: Did they have anything to say about the country record?
MM: No! People like to romanticize that, like it was us putting one over on Elektra, or them freaking out and executives having heart attacks on conference-room tables, but really it was nothing. Our relationship with them was very low-key, like "We would like to make a record. Please give us our money. Thank you." They would send us a check, we would make a record, and when we finished, they would release it. That was it. I don't have any beef with them. It's not like Prince, where I'm writing "SLAVE" on my face, you know what I mean? Shit, I mean, they put out almost our whole catalog. I'm grateful. I have a career where I can do what I want and make a living. That's not so bad.
O: At this point, with your Internet apparatus in place, is a label even necessary?
MM: People have been bringing that up a lot, but we were definitely not interested in putting out our own record. Everybody kind of expected us to do that, because we release records through our web site anyway. But they're live records, just for the fans, in very limited editions. I'm a traditionalist about music, in a lot of ways. I hope that music never goes the way of… I'm still depressed about CDs. I miss the days of holding a vinyl album, because it's bigger and more aesthetically cool: You get all that artwork, and it's big, and you can hold it, and while you're listening you can look at the pictures and read the liner notes. There's mystery to it. That shit is gone in a lot of ways, because of CDs being smaller and not as aesthetically pleasing–and now, if you're just going to download tracks off a web site for 99 cents apiece, that really doesn't interest me. That feels like buying bananas or carrots or something. So I want to be on a record company. I don't need to be a businessman. I don't want to do all that work; I want to write songs and play. I like being on a record company, and having my job, and them having their job. We make the music, and they figure out how to sell records. I can't worry about that shit.
O: They're making records as opposed to you shipping out data. They make your music a record that people can hold.
MM: Yeah, but anything can happen. I don't know where all of this is going, this whole… It's definitely headed for the rocks, in a way. Look at where radio and rock and pop are right now: It's very depressing. You've got Clear Channel, where they can try and not call it a monopoly, but it's got a complete stranglehold on every radio station and venue. The music the labels are giving you is so bad, and so devoid of any kind of human element and soul and whatever. There's no difference between something like Christina Aguilera and whoever the nu-metal rock flavors of the day are. It's corporate music. There's no punk ethic to it. It may have the appearance of something aggressive, with piercings and tattoos and mohawks, but it's all the same. It's worse now than I can ever remember in my whole life, and people are fucking not paying for it. They want to download it. They don't feel that they… They know they're getting fucked. They know that a CD was $13 in the '80s and now it's $19. Why is that? And they're not album-oriented anymore. No one's trying to make records, because it's all about a single. And they want to know why no one is sympathetic that their music is getting stolen off file-sharing sites. It's because if you fucking throw shit in people's faces long enough, they're going to give you the finger right back. I think it's funny. They're getting what they deserve. But it's too early to say where it's all going. I don't know how it's going to play out. I don't know how people are going to get their music 10 years from now–if there'll still be CDs, where you go to the store and browse the rack. It doesn't seem likely, but I don't know what else there'll be.
O: All that said, it seems like Ween is in a good place. Your fans are the kind of people who are into experimentation, and people know to expect that from you, so you've got more freedom than ever.
MM: Yeah, definitely. I've come to a lot more peace, and enjoyed Ween a lot more, since about '97 or '98. I think the country record was a really big record for us–not that it was popular, because it was really unpopular at first. It got really bad reviews, and of course, now it's everyone's favorite Ween record. But it didn't help us at the time, and I think that if I'd never heard the record and just read about it, I would hate it immediately, like, "Oh, these guys are going to Nashville and trying to make fun." [Laughs.] And that's not what we were trying to do at all. We're huge country-music fans. But that shit toughened me up a lot, that year, because that was the first time I'd ever read across-the-board bad things about Ween. Even some of our fans were kind of bummed. But they were all wrong, thankfully, once again. [Laughs.] After that, it was like we had taken a really big chance, and the only time you get really big rewards is when you stick your neck out like that, and have it lopped off. Seriously, that's where the true payoff comes. I don't know if it was because of that, but ever since right around that time, I've really enjoyed being in Ween. And we've gotten more popular, which is strange. We haven't made a record in three years, and we've gotten more popular just by sitting around.