|“We’re Always Going to Try to Alienate You”: Gene Ween, September 8 at RIBCO|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Written by Jeff Ignatius|
|Wednesday, 31 August 2011 05:28|
At this point in Ween’s career, the only thing that should surprise the band’s fans is the core duo of Gene and Dean Ween (born Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, respectively) doing something normal.
Based on a conversation last week with Freeman – who will perform a duo show with Ween bassist Dave Dreiwitz at RIBCO on September 8 – there’s no danger of that.
“Where I want to go next is the Disney-soundtrack-era Phil Collins,” he said, adding that he was as “serious as a heart attack. ... From the onset of Ween, I always planned on devolving into that. Instead of trying to be cool. ... Partly I like that music ... . I find something very punk-rock about it, and I can’t explain what that is.”
He admitted that he’s not sure Melchiondo “can do it. If he can’t, then step back, and whatever. Go fishing. I think he’s down [with the idea]. But we’ll see. It’s going to take a lot of balls. I want to do like ‘Circle of Life’-type shit ... .” (And, yes, he knows that was Elton John and not Collins.)
For the record, there’s no new Ween studio album in the works in that vein or any other. The band has a few concerts scheduled for the rest of the year, but it’s been relatively quiet since the 2007 studio release La Cucaracha. Melchiondo last month unveiled two discs’ worth of unreleased material recorded from 2001 to 2003, and Freeman is doing his acoustic shows, but otherwise, “we’re definitely taking a break from each other,” the latter said.
That suggests that the two aren’t close these days, and Freeman said he didn’t even know Melchiondo planned to release those sessions. “He never told me about it,” he said. “He’s always done that periodically. ... He released a couple songs that he should have asked me, but he didn’t. I’m glad the fans are happy.” (When I asked Freeman which songs he would have preferred to be consulted on, he said: “I’ll address that with him.”)
Fret not, though, about the future of Ween. Melchiondo said in one interview that “it’s like being sentenced to death being in this band.” And Freeman concurred that Ween “will always be around in some form or another, I think.”
The Gene Ween shows feature Ween songs, covers, and “other stuff,” Freeman said, and they are good exercises for him as well as an opportunity for fans to peek into his creative process. “For me, it’s like hearing the demos of the songs,” he said. ‘I love hearing that from other bands. If I play a Ween song that I wrote ... I play it how I wrote it in my bedroom ... . So you get to hear what it sounded like before all the bells and whistles were added to it ... . I don’t try to duplicate what’s on the records. In fact, it’s the opposite – the more stripped-down the better.”
And some songs are transformed. He cited “The Grobe,” which on 2000’s White Pepper had a “fierce Led Zeppelin element.” But on acoustic guitar and bass, he said, it’s revealed that “the chords are actually really pretty. And it’s not nearly as threatening as it sounds on the record.”
The pair hooked up as teenagers in the mid-1980s and carved out a career defined by willful unpredictability and an unlikely (and shockingly long, all things considered) tenure on Elektra. The All Music Guide summarized that the band is “a prodigiously talented and deliriously odd duo whose work traveled far beyond the constraints of parody and novelty into the heart of surrealist ecstasy. Despite a mastery for seemingly every mutation of the musical spectrum, the group refused to play it straight; in essence, Ween was bratty deconstructionists, kicking dirt on the pop world around them with demented glee.”
For just one example, listen to “The HIV Song” from 1994’s Chocolate & Cheese. It’s a bit of a skewed circus tune with only two lyrics: “HIV” and “AIDS.” Being offended is a valid reaction, except that there’s really nothing there.
“Certainly, when we got signed, we were not the caliber musicians that would normally be signed to a record label,” Freeman said. “So we lucked out.” And once the band got a major-label offer, he said, “we decided to really go all the way. If you’re going to sign us because of a four-track song that we did, we’re going to write up a contract that stipulates whatever we want. And they went for it. ... So we’ve always maintained total freedom to do exactly what we want.”
The All Music Guide wrote that Chocolate & Cheese – recently immortalized in the 33 1/3 book series – proved that “along with their twisted sense of humor and wide musical vocabulary, Dean and Gene are also impressive songwriters.” Ween followed that alt-rock milestone with an exploration of country in 12 Golden Country Greats – which naturally had 10 songs.
“If you’re on-board with Ween or anybody affiliated with Ween, that’s something that you know, that we’re always going to try to alienate you,” Freeman said. “We’ve been doing that since we started. That was kind of our pact to begin with, is to try to do whatever we could do to make the fans hate us. ... I love that. I love throwing people for a loop like that. ... We’re not tied down to any particular sound, so we have the ability to go anywhere we want.”
He admitted that given the group’s devoted fan base, “we’ve totally failed.” And he referred back to Melchiondo’s Ween-as-death-sentence statement: “That goes for some fans, too. They’re going to totally ... go down with the ship ... .”
But he said that to focus on the band’s wild stylistic shifts or its humor is to miss the point. Freeman said his favorite Ween album is 1997’s The Mollusk, and its “The Golden Eel” and “Cold Blows the Wind,” for example, retain the group’s idiosyncrasies but also showcase its musical maturity and capacity for dramatic heft.
“The only thing that Mickey and I throughout the years have insisted on before a record comes out is that the songs be good,” he said. “And that we both agree that no matter how the song sounds, that it’s a good song. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all that matters.”
Although the critical refrain of Ween as a comedy duo masquerading as a band isn’t nearly as prevalent as when the pair broke through, Freeman stressed that it’s a misconception. While there’s humor in the music, he said, “I’ve never been tongue-in-cheek. ... When a record comes out, I mean it. ... We do mean this stuff.”
Gene Ween will perform on Thursday, September 8, at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island). The show starts at 8:30 p.m. and also includes Chicago Farmer. Advance tickets are $18 and available from RIBCO.com.
For more information on Gene Ween and Ween, visit Ween.com.
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