Alternative rockers Dean and Gene Ween—also known as the unrelated duo of Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman—invented a style that both satirizes and pays homage to pop, blues, punk, rock, country, Latin, reggae, and folk. They often start with conventional melody and sentimental lyrics, adding noisy sound effects and distorting their voices with deliberate low-tech production. Their lyrics bewilder most adults. Indeed, song titles such as “Touch My Tooter” and “Spinal Meningitis” are adolescent to the extreme, but Ween has been known to occasionally hit upon an intriguing mix of sarcasm and tenderness. And with their 2000 album White Pepper, Ween displayed a little more of their serious side. Whether performing cock-rock, Philly soul, or a western ballad, Ween perfected the art of nailing down the musical styles they parody with uncanny precision, playing out their songs for all they are worth. They have received comparisons to everyone from Prince to Captain Beef-heart and Frank Zappa.
Regarding the parody-sincerity line they straddle, Melchiondo explained to Boston Globe writer Jim Sullivan, “It’s a variation on the same question we’ve been answering for years about everything we do. We’re not trying to send up anybody. It’s just that at the core of
Members include Aaron Freeman (born in 1970 in Philadelphia, PA), guitar, vocals; Mickey Melchiondo (born in 1970 in New Hope, PA), guitar, vocals.
Began writing and recording songs together in early teens; signed to Twin/Tone Records, released debut album God Ween Satan—The Oneness, 1990; released The Pod on Shimmy-Disc Records, 1991; signed to Elektra Records, released major-label debut Pure Guava, 1993; released Chocolate and Cheese, 1994; released all-country album 12 Golden Country Greats, 1996; released concept album The Mollusk, joined H.O.R.D.E. tour, 1997; released the White Pepper, 2000.
what Ween is, playing funk or whatever, we just try and go for the essence of the thing. We skip all the fluff and go for the meat of the matter.”And Ween take their music more seriously than one might expect.“We are thought of as a novelty band by the majority of people who write about us, and that’s the price we pay for having humor in our music,” Melchiondo said to Magnet contributor Jonathan Valania. Ween has been around for 16 years. We just made our eighth album. We’ve outlasted every band—we will outlast every band that’s around now—and it’s not because we’re a comedy band. People have been writing the same review about us since the first record, just switch out the song titles: evil twins of They Might Be Giants, Zappa-esque, sense of humor, dead-on parodies, etc. We’re not trying to imitate good music—we’re trying to make good music.”
The story of Ween began when Melchiondo and Freeman (both born in 1970) met in the eighth grade in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Outside Mrs. Slack’s typing class, the two pranksters developed an elaborate story about a god they worshiped called Boognish, who supposedly created Ween for mischief-making; he still exists today as the duo’s official team mascot. As light-hearted as the duo’s make-believe religion sounds, the creation of Boognish became more than a joke between Melchiondo and Freeman. His arrival resulted in a life-changing friendship and creative partnership based on taking music to the limits of immaturity and eclecticism. In the alternative universe of Boognish, Ween are the unquestioned gods of rock.
Melchiondo was born and raised in New Hope, a rural town located on the Delaware River across from New Jersey. The son of a used-car dealer, he poured over his father’s record collection, consisting mainly of rebel country stars like Hank Williams, Jr., Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings, as well as some Beatles and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a group known for its own musical and lyrical absurdities. At the age of 13, Melchiondo began teaching himself how to play the guitar and drums, and the following year, applied for an FCC license to host a show at a local college-radio station and started his own music magazine called Yuck. In addition, he took a job at the soda bar at a now-defunct club called City Gardens—a popular stop for underground rock groups during the 1980s—across the river in Trenton, New Jersey, just to see the shows.
Freeman, the other half of Ween, was born in Philadelphia and recalls listening to his father’s Mothers Of Invention records and singing along to his mother’s collection of Earth, Wind, and Fire albums during his formative years. After his parents divorced, Freeman, then in his early-teens, moved in with his father, a psychiatrist practicing in New Hope. Although his dad bought him an electric guitar, Freeman developed a greater interest in tape recording. He learned that by pushing in the record button halfway, he could slow down the tape to give the vocals a higher pitch, a discovery that would later impact the production techniques employed by Ween. In contrast to Melchiondo’s punk-rock leanings, Freeman as a teen liked new-wave artists like Devo and Laurie Anderson, Prince, and pop radio. “He had this whole world to open up to me that I was totally unfamiliar with,” Freeman told Valania about the duo’s different tastes. “But I was the one who turned Mickey onto Prince.”
Spending their high school years writing and recording songs together at Melchiondo’s house, the duo managed to capture the attention of the Minneapolis-based label Twin/Tone Records. In 1990, Ween released their first album, God Ween Satan—The Oneness, a collection culled from the hundreds of cheerful songs recorded throughout their teens that sampled styles such as reggae, space metal, Flamenco, and blues. Although artless and sophomoric, the album was enjoyable and included parodies of Bruce Springsteen, the Beastie Boys, and other well-known members of pop’s aristocracy.
Following a brief European tour and learning that their record label was going out of business, Ween returned to New Hope and moved into a carriage house on a horse farm dubbed “The Pod” just outside town. By day, Freeman worked at a local fast-food joint, El Taco Loco, while Melchiondo pumped gas at a Mobil station. After work, however, the two would rush back to the carriage house to write and record new songs, sometimes all night long. By now, the pair’s relationship with Twin/Tone had deteriorated, so much so that they stopped calling the label altogether. Meanwhile, Kramer, a noted producer, musician, and owner of Shimmy-Disc Records, had expressed an interest in Ween and released their follow-up, appropriately titled The Pod, in 1991.
Unexpectedly, several major labels started to take notice of Ween after Elektra Records A&R representative Steve Rolbovsky stopped by a local studio for a tour, and Melchiondo happened to be adding drum and bass tracks to some new songs. For about 45 minutes, Rolbovsky stood over Melchiondo’s shoulder laughing, obviously enjoying what he heard. Soon, word spread throughout the A&R circuit about Ween. Following a minor bidding war, the duo opted to sign with Elektra, figuring that if the label would release Ween’s self-produced home recordings, they most likely wouldn’t push them to become a huge, hit-making enterprise.
In fact, Ween’s major-label debut, Pure Guava, contained many of the songs Melchiondo had been working on the day he met Rolbovsky. Released in 1993, Pure Guava showed Ween had lost none of their idiosyncrasies with memorable, though adolescent songs like “Hey Fat Boy (A**hole)” and “Poop Ship Destroyer.” A favorite among the college crowd, the album made it onto the Top 10 of the alternative music charts and sold close to 200, 000 copies, largely by the strength of “Push Th’ Little Daisies,” a song Freeman wrote for the girl he would eventually marry. The single received regular airplay in the United States and became a certified hit in Australia.
After a round of tours to support Pure Guava, Ween set about recording their next record, renting an office space in nearby Pennington, New Jersey, buying new studio gear, and enlisting the aid of producer Andrew Weiss, former bassist for the Rollins Band and longtime Ween collaborator. With 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese, Ween wanted a more polished sound and to extend their appeal. Although Melchiondo initially thought they had failed, Elektra was so impressed with the album that the label devised a two-year marketing plan and a detailed touring schedule. However, one week into the tour while in Toronto, Ween received word that most of the Elektra staff, including their A&R representative, had been fired by the chairman of parent company Time-Warner. The new regime assured Ween that they stood behind Chocolate and Cheese one hundred percent, but soon reneged their commitment.
Taking a bold new musical direction and irritating their record company, Ween traveled to Nashville and gathered a crew of top session musicians—among them Charlie McCoy, Buddy Spicher, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins—to record an entirely country album. Released in 1996, 12 Golden Country Greats is probably the only country album ever made that carries a “Parental Advisory” sticker and included the twang fest track “Piss Up a Rope” and a heartfelt plea for whisky entitled “Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain.” Ween stressed that despite their poking a little fun at country music, the album was not intended as an all-out spoof. “We wouldn’t go down [to Nashville] and try and make fun of everybody,” Melchiondo said to Sullivan. “We never really do that.” Likewise, Freeman called the group Ween assembled for the record “some of the greatest musicians in the world,” as quoted by Valania. “That’s why it’s called 12 Golden Country Greats, even though there’s only 10 songs on there. The ‘greats’ are those Nashville session guys.”
Ween returned to more familiar territory for The Mollusk, a sort of seafaring concept album about a boy and his pet clam recorded in the dead of winter at a cheap, rented beach house on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, and released in 1997. That year, Ween joined the H.O.R.D.E. tour and became fast friends with the members of Phish. Reportedly, the two groups have talked about recording an album together. Following the 1999 release of an eccentric double live set, Paintin the Town Brown: Ween Live ’90-’98, Ween returned in 2000 with White Pepper, surprising many, including executives at Elektra, with a more accessible and musically mature collection of songs. “Nobody knew who the band was until the end, and then they revealed that it was Ween,” Freeman recalled to Billboards Jonathan Cohen. “Everybody freaked out and said, ‘Don’t we have some kind of image problem here?’ Everybody was really bummed that it was us! But they liked it anyway.”
Dean and Gene Ween, now in their thirties and supporting families, underwent a successful transformation with White Pepper that is rare in rock. While not devoid of comic relief, the album, recorded with producer Chris Shaw at various locations, including the same beach house that inspired The Mollusk, expressed fairly grown-up subject matter like anxiety (“Exactly Where I’m At”) and found and lost love (“Even If You Don’t”). A duo long dismissed by critics as little more than underground rock pranksters, Ween beat the odds and proved themselves highly skilled, imaginative pop musicians. “We’re kinda evolving into something, but I don’t really know what that is exactly,” said Freeman, as quoted by Cohen. “It’s always been that way for us—just a free-form evolution.”
God Ween Satan—The Oneness, Twin/Tone, 1990.
The Pod, Shimmy-Disc, 1991.
Pure Guava, Elektra, 1993.
Chocolate and Cheese, Elektra, 1994.
12 Golden Country Greats, Elektra, 1996.
(Various Artists) The X-Files: The Album (soundtrack), contributed “Beacon Light,” Elektra, 1998.
Paintin’ the Town Brown: Ween Live ’90-V8, Elektra, 1999.
White Pepper, Elektra, 2000.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 1, 1997.
Billboard, August 10, 1996; June 6, 1998; April 1, 2000.
Boston Globe, October 25, 1996; January 30, 1998.
Guitar Player, October 1996.
Los Angeles Times, April 27, 1997.
Magnet, August/September 2000, pp. 57-62, 111.
New York Times, May 21, 2000.
People, March 15, 1993.
Rolling Stone, December 29, 1994; April 6, 1995; July 10-24, 1997; October 2, 1997; August 19, 1999; May 11, 2000.
Stereo Review, September 1993; November 1996.
Washington Post, January 19, 1998.
Sonicnet, http://www.sonicnet.com (August 25, 2000).
Ween, http://www.ween.com (August 25, 2000).