Dean Ween :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Here’s how I first encountered Ween. I’m in junior high and in the lunch line at the school cafeteria, shuffling my tray along that metal railing, as my buddy, who as an adult would do some terrible things and spend some time up behind bars, tried to explain to me who Ween was. Or rather what Ween was.

He had a cassette copy of 12 Golden Country Greats in hand, the band’s fifth album, featuring 10 C&W songs recorded with producer Ben Vaughn and a crack team of Nashville session players. We walked with our plastic trays and sat down at our normal table. Tables weren’t formally reserved, but seating was in its own way assigned by a complicated equation involving class, status, fashion, and the number of comic books stashed in backpacks. We had more than a few. Sitting down, he passed the tape to me, over our plates of cheap gray hamburgers. I giggled reading the song titles.

“So they are a country band?” I asked confused. He explained no, they weren’t. With no Walkman handy — I’m uncertain why he had the tape with him at all, but I think it was his older brother’s — he resorted to singing “Piss Up a Rope” to make Ween clear to me. I was nervous one of our teachers might overhear him.

It would be many years later before Ween made any kind of sense to me. And to be honest, Ween still doesn’t. Not entirely, which is part of the charm and appeal. For every perfect pop song — and the band has a bunch, especially on Chocolate and Cheese or White Pepper, like the mournful “Baby Bitch” or the perfect power pop of “Even If You Don’t” — there’s a prog anthem, noisy screed, mutated funk, or art-damaged Pizza Hut jingle. Every band, from the most secluded garage outfit to arena-filling acts, produces its own culture: lingo, in-jokes, insular ways of thinking. But there are rare bands where that culture just sprawls outward, drawing listeners all the way into it. The lingo becomes a language, the in-jokes develop even deeper punchlines. Fans begin making obsessive lists and gathering in spaces to dissect and construct elaborate theories. Dean Ween (Mickey Melchiondo) and Gene Ween (Aaron Freeman) helm one of those kinds of bands. Growing up together in New Hope, Pennsylvania, the two formed Ween in 1984 at the altar of Boognish, navigated an improbable major label career at the height of the ’90s alternative rock boom, amassed a fervent fanbase, and then imploded in 2012 after 28 years of baffling and delighting. It didn’t take long to mend things — now, Gene’s Freeman and Melchiondo’s Dean Ween Group exist symbiotically with the greater Ween apparatus.

Last month, the DWG released  Rock2.  Like 2016’s The Deaner Album, it’s packed with loose funk, boogieing choogle, Allman Brothers strut, and Steely Dan swank. There’s heartland rock (“Don’t Let The Moon Catch You Crying,” written with Adam Weiner of Low Cut Connie) and The Wire-inspired organ rock (“Someone Greased the Fatman”) and though the core members of the DWG, Dave Dreiwitz, Claude Coleman Jr. and Glenn McClelland, along with most of Ween’s live lineup and guests like Parliament-Funkadelic’s Michael Hampton and Electric Six, play these songs exceptionally straight, there’s no denying the inherent weirdness that exists wherever Deaner gets going.

Recently, Aquarium Drunkard rang Dean up. Worn out from a day of interviews and a gig the night before, he was loopy but still in good spirits, ready to let some ideas out into the wind. “I’m talking shit,” Dean laughs. “But it’s the real shit.”

Aquarium Drunkard: I want to ask you a nerdy music question, but it’s tempered by my lack of solid music theory.

Dean Ween: I love those kinds of questions actually.

AD:  On “The Ritz Carlton” from Rock2,  you’re playing my favorite kind of chords. Are those major sevenths?

Dean Ween: Major sevenths and minor sevenths. Yeah, that’s like my thing.

AD: I feel like some people find sevenths “cheesy” sounding, but they sound perfect to me.

Dean Ween:  You learn minor and major chords and you’re more than ready to play rock & roll. You don’t even need minor chords to play rock & roll, actually, like the Ramones. But when I started to put all that stuff together in my mind, how they work with each other, that was the last major revelation for me guitar-wise. It was a long time ago. Some of my favorite stuff that I’ve ever written has been [built] on those kinds of chords.

AD:  That song sounds like a blast to play.

Dean Ween:  It’s the most fun to play. I got hired to play this party for a tech company in Florida on a cruise ship for their year-end bash. I went down and they put me up in the Ritz Carlton. So I got back to my suite at seven AM or some shit and I was fucking wasted. I mean absolutely blotto. I had my guitar and I ended up writing the most elaborate song — for me, anyway — in that state. Because it was so top shelf, I called it “The Ritz Carlton.” Even for an instrumental, it’s very biographical. I thought I was going to forget it, so I put my phone touching the body of an electric guitar, you know so it would vibrate, and recorded it. I literally went, in that state, to the airport, flew home, got dropped off at the studio, and cut it before I forgot it. Then crashed for two days. [Laughs]

AD: One of my favorite things about you as a player, both with Ween and the Dean Ween Group, is your willingness to go  after whatever works for you, and really go for it. There don’t seem to be many musical restrictions.

Dean Ween:  To me, that’s not anything unique at all. I’ll take the compliment, that’s great, but I don’t get why it would be any other way. That’s art. I don’t mean it in a snobby way. But sometimes my wife will drag me to a museum. I’ll go and be like, “Whoa, that’s awesome.” She’ll go, “Yeah that’s a van Gogh, dumbass.” [Laughs] I know what I like. A piece of pizza can be just as gratifying as a lobster or escargot. If it tastes good, it is good. Music is the ultimate proof of that. I love James Brown…I want to shake my ass. Or cry. That’s the ethic I put into my thing. That’s what I believe. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong. People want to know about “styles” and “parody” and this and that, and fuck, I never think about any of that.

AD: When you’re putting a record like Rock2 together, in terms of tracklisting and sequencing, how do you dictate the flow?

Dean Ween: I’ve written sequence to every fucking record Ween ever did, almost every record I’ve ever played on. At least anything I’ve been 50% or more a part of. That’s my job. I write set lists too, and I apply the same exact thing to a set list I do to sequencing a record. I would never give that responsibility up. I love it. And it’s very hard. There’s a lot more that goes into writing a three-hour set list than people realize, especially if people tape you and follow you. You have a lot of responsibilities to a lot of different people: people who’ve never seen you before, people who saw you the night before, people who saw you last time you were around, five years ago or whatever.

You take all that into account, and then you have to take into account how you feel, and how the band feels, and what’s real. There might be times it’s a Saturday night, rowdy-ass crowd, and we’re gonna take you down. All the way the fuck down. It’s gonna roll. But we’re going to have to convince you first. Sequencing a record is just like a set list — when it comes real quick, that’s the best one. This one, I started the record with two songs with drum solos, “Showstopper” and “Fingerbanging,” because it was the right thing to do. I just wrote it down and I knew it was going to work. But there have been times when it’s really difficult.

AD: How do you know when it’s right?

Dean Ween: You have to listen to it completely all over again. You cannot needle drop it or skip or fast-forward. You have to get away from it, give yourself a distraction for a day or whatever it takes. And then put the whole thing on and listen to it in different states of mind.

AD: People listening to your records on Spotify or Apple Music, there’s a good chance they are only hearing one song, out of context  or…

Dean Ween: I hate that so much. How long has it been that way though? It’s been that way for so long, it’s horrible. Why even make a record? Why not just make a Vevo video of a song? Everybody will think you have a new album out.

AD: Have you always been a “record guy?”

Dean Ween: I am. I’m still distraught over the CD, and that’s a dead format. I thought all integrity had been compromised when we had to make our artwork fit on a little square jewel case. I thought that was awful. It went against everything I loved about the discovery process when I was a kid, looking at a gatefold all stoned, cleaning a joint, reading the liner notes while you listened to a record. Maybe it had an inner-sleeve with lyrics and pictures if you were real lucky. With the first two records, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and The Pod, vinyl was still the choice, but by the third record, Pure Guava, Elektra Records, the major label that had the Doors at one point, didn’t even care about the vinyl rights. They just let us have them. So we had to find a label overseas [August Records] that would take it, just so it could be out on vinyl for us, so we could be satisfied. But we did it, for every record, and now vinyl is back and CDs are gone…it’s just a shame.

Spotify, Apple, whatever, I’m not down. I have no idea how any of it works. I don’t listen to music that way. I won’t want to go to iTunes and hear Natty Dread by Bob Marley on a set of earbuds. There’s no way, it’s not going to happen. It’s bad enough I have to put it on a CD and listen to it in my car. It fucking blows. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here in the studio, and it’s all Neve and vintage Ludwig, Fender, Gibson, classic Marshall shit, tapes, all this stuff, and what does it all come down to? Earbuds. A song on shuffle in some playlist. But, I’m soldiering on, man. [Laughs] I’m a little delirious…I had a gig last night and I’m a little sleep deprived.

AD: This record is the result of you working with your band and a lot of collaborators in your own studio. How much time do you spend in there in a normal week?

Dean Ween: Seven days, first of all. Somebody was generous enough to give me a piece of their land and I built my own studio, I’d never had one, and after all these years I have a place where I can go every single night. I have a wife and kids, and they go to bed at nine, and I can’t smoke cigarettes and listen to Public Enemy on 10 at home, or smoke weed or anything, so I come here and I hang out with my scumbag musician friends and we’re in a loaded studio and we jam and record. It’s a place to come and binge-watch Netflix and do whatever, but you’re surrounded by everything you’ve ever loved in your entire life, every piece of gear you’ve ever accrued. All my friends are bandmates, so we record. Pretty much every day.

We’re constantly pumping out stuff. But it’s never work. I’m not in here slaving away, holding myself to some [goal] of a song a day or anything. It’s just that’s where the chips fall. What else would I rather be doing in the world than playing music with my friends, recording it, releasing it, and playing it live, and touring? It’s awesome. That’s really how it feels here. It’s not about work ethic — it never has been. The last time I had something like this was when Aaron and I lived together. We just recorded every day. It was me and the best songwriting partner in the world.

AD: You’ve played music for a long time now. Do you still find yourself, late at night in the studio, when Netflix is off and you’re recording, surprised by what you and your collaborators come up with?

Dean Ween: Of course. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what I signed up for. That’s what it’s all about.

AD: How do you get there? Is there a process?

Dean Ween: There are a million processes that go into the one process. I mean, every single little thing I learned is up in there. Every engineering trick…little snippets of titles, lyrics, riffs, tasters, melodies in my head, whatever, funny things somebody said that would make a great song title I wrote on the back of a napkin. I’ve got tons of things like that, scraps, in my car, on my desk, in the studio, in my pockets. That’s where it starts and now I’ve got a place where it unfolds, that allows it to happen.

AD: You host a weekly jam at John & Peter’s in New Hope. Are the songs that appear on this record the result of jams or informed by them?

Dean Ween: Nah. That’s certainly possible, that I could remember something that I played in a jam, but that’s just one of the thousand pieces that goes into the process, which isn’t really a process at all, it’s a thousand different things. But the same ethic applies at the jam. In a realistic scenario, the jam is on a Wednesday night. Say I was here Monday and Tuesday, probably hanging out with one of the guys that’s in on the jam, and we cut a track or whatever and I mail myself an MP3, and the night of the jam I play it for everyone. It’s never too hard. We test it right there and find out immediately if it works. You can listen to your own shit all you want and tell yourself this is great or it sucks or whatever, but there’s something that happens when you play it for people or in front of people. You know immediately, you hear it through their ears. It’s really weird. You might think you wrote the greatest song ever, and you sit down with someone and put it on and within 30 seconds you realize it’s a total piece of shit, you know, that you just ripped off. Or, you might think you wrote a piece of shit and put it on like, “Oh, I did this too,” and it’s the dopest fucking thing you ever heard and it’s like you get this huge smile.

The studio and the jam night are mutually beneficial to each other. They’re parasitically linked. [Laughs] It gives us a forum to try out everything. And people come! They love us for it. That’s the great thing. Don’t ever underestimate people in 2018. They still want and love the real shit. They know it. If you try something and you fail, it’s really not that bad if it’s sincere. It’s a reasonable failure. It was an honest to goodness whatever. That’s how the jam night ties into this, that attitude. “Honesty” sounds really self-fucking-congratulating, but it’s very easy to underestimate people in this day and age, and I don’t want to sound negative. I hate talking shit. When people hear something that’s real, they feel it. They hear it. words/j woodbury

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6 thoughts on “Dean Ween :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

  1. I remember picking up ‘God Ween Satan’ at Princeton Record Exchange after I read a crazy rave review in Spin. (Not even a review, really, I think it it was a What’s Hot article that just talked about this mythical mindbending duo that had arrived from outer space or something.) According to the stoned sounding guy at the PRE cash register, one or both of the Ween bros had worked at PRE not that long ago (not sure if that’s true, though New Hope’s not that far from Pton), and he told me I was going to love it. As I paid for the record, I asked “What’s it like? The article wasnt real clear…” The response was perfect: “It’s like a mix of Prince,” then he took a very long pause before continuing, “and everything in between.” I’m sure the guy at the checkout of PRE has long forgotten that sentence, but in my estimation, even Christgau never came up with a one-sentence record review as artful as that one.”

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