Ween: A Band Of Superbad Brothers

Great bands don’t form via drummer-wanted ads or happenstance encounters at the local guitar shop. Instead, they come together in a fashion similar to New Hope, Pa.’s Ween, whose two members met in a middle-school typing class and decided to jam later that day. Twenty-three years later, Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman and Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo have given the world nine studio albums featuring some of the weirdest, most disturbing and utterly glorious rock ’n’ roll imaginable. (Incredibly, six of them were released by a major label.) Ween has become the quintessential cult band for stoners, meatheads and record geeks who remain united in their worship of the duo’s uniquely “brown” sounds.

Guided by their demon god/mascot Boognish (whom Freeman says appeared in a window and told the boys to go hang out at Melchiondo’s house after school), the 14-year-olds begin making music every day, even though they can barely play guitar and Freeman does little more than scream about his stepmother.

“It was this great outlet for two little teenage dudes to get out their anger,” says Freeman. “We made this horrible, horrendous music.”

“We became Dean and Gene right away,” says Melchiondo. “I didn’t know I was going to have to answer for it 23 years later.”

Slowly but surely, they start recording original songs using one tape deck for the drums and another for guitar and vocals. It takes a couple of years, but Melchiondo, who publishes a fanzine called Yuck, befriends older musicians amid the scene centered on Trenton, N.J., punk-rock club City Gardens, helping Ween score its first live bookings. Onstage, Melchiondo plays guitar and Freeman sings over pre-recorded drum tracks.

“Andrew Weiss and his friend Jeff (Rusnak) had this tape label, Bird O’ Prey Records,” says Melchiondo. “Basically, I would just badger them until they let us into the scene. I’d mail them a tape of new stuff every two or three weeks, then they finally bent to my will and agreed to put out a Ween cassette.”

After opening for a band called Skunk (featuring future Ween drummer Claude Coleman and future Chavez frontman Matt Sweeney) at a Maplewood, N.J., party the summer after graduating from high school, Ween is offered a record deal by Twin/Tone, the Minneapolis label that was the early home to the Replacements and Soul Asylum. GodWeenSatan: The Oneness consists of re-recorded versions of the best songs from the duo’s first five years of existence. Ween’s drug-addled sense of humor and experimentation (particularly Freeman’s penchant for bizarre vocal effects) is finally introduced to an audience beyond the Philadelphia/Trenton area through songs like “Fat Lenny,” “You Fucked Up” and “Don’t Laugh (I Love You).”

Through Weiss (who’s playing bass in the first incarnation of the Rollins Band), the boys make connections in the Netherlands and tour there, playing bingo halls and, in Freeman’s case, getting “some sort of worm” from sleeping at a friend’s apartment in Eindhoven. When they return home, they move into an apartment together on a horse farm; Melchiondo pumps gas and embezzles money from a Mobil station, while Freeman becomes a manager at El Taco Loco and steals food so they can eat at night. All the while, the four-track is running.

“We were just total dopes,” says Freeman. “Drugged-out, fucking freaked-out dopes. It was a fun time. We would spend a week straight on mushrooms. I met Sarah, who comes up in a lot of our songs; my first big love affair. Every day at the end of the day, we’d catalog all this on our four-track.”

Kramer—the eccentric New York City musician, producer and owner of the Shimmy-Disc label—takes a shine to the duo after seeing its first Big Apple gig at the Pyramid Club and offers Ween a deal, which Freeman and Melchiondo accept. The fact that Ween is still signed to Twin/Tone makes little difference to anybody involved. “We breached our contract, which only a 19- or 20-year-old would have the balls to do,” says Melchiondo. “We never called Twin/Tone again.”

Sophomore effort The Pod is even farther out in left field than its predecessor. Opener “Strap On That Jammypac” is an outro maddeningly repeated for three minutes, while “Pollo Asado” is a Mexican restaurant order set to near Muzak. Elsewhere, the slamming “Doctor Rock” and “Sketches Of Winkle” prove the duo is just as interested in blowing the roof off the dump as it is in fucking with people’s heads.

For his part of the deal, Kramer pays the band $2,500 and takes Freeman and Melchiondo on a trip to Jamaica with drug smugglers who sneak copious amounts of weed back into the U.S. in coffee cans. Not surprisingly, the Kramer/Ween union is short-lived and dissolves after a U.K. tour during which Kramer plays bass.

“If you don’t get hung up on the humor of Ween, you’ll see that we’re a total punk-rock band that is trying to save the world,” says Freeman. “So it made perfect sense that Elektra Records would pick us up. At least that was our pompous attitude.”

Pure Guava, Ween’s major-label debut, somehow proceeds to out-weird The Pod. It also turns out to be the group’s final album made on a four-track. Rumor has it that Oliver Stone nearly drives Woody Harrelson insane by playing opener “Little Birdy” incessantly on the set of Natural Born Killers, and Bobcat Goldthwait reportedly blares the album on repeat loud enough to wake his entire neighborhood while in the midst of a domestic dispute. As alternative rock becomes big business around the world, it almost makes sense that the helium-voiced “Push Th’ Little Daisies” becomes a modern-rock hit and is featured prominently in an episode of Beavis And Butt-head.

“What Elektra saw in them was that underneath the weirdness, there’s an amazing musical sensibility that you can’t obscure no matter how many effects you throw on,” says Weiss. “Unfortunately, six months later, the whole label got fired.”

Ween is transferred to the A&R guy responsible for Better Than Ezra and Third Eye Blind, and the band/label relationship turns dysfunctional. “We never involved them in anything,” says Melchiondo. “We never went to marketing meetings or made any suggestions. We sort of felt like, ‘Well, we’ll take over the world one record at a time on our terms.’”

With Coleman on drums and Weiss on bass, Ween becomes a fierce live band, routinely playing three-hour shows with set lists that are never the same. Ween’s drug and alcohol intake on the road also becomes prodigious, ensuring that a new, fucked-up situation—crazy groupies, homeless people breaking into the dressing room and drinking all the liquor, the band being abandoned on the side of a European highway by a tour-bus driver having a nervous breakdown—is always right around the corner.

Comfortably ensconced in the studio, Ween seems capable of mastering any genre of music. Chocolate And Cheese features Philadelphia soul (“Freedom Of ‘76”) and AM-radio folk (“Baby Bitch”) alongside creepy, borderline offensive tracks such as “The HIV Song” and “Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down).” For 12 Golden Country Greats, Freeman and Melchiondo go to Nashville to record with a crack band rounded up by veteran session musician Charlie McCoy (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash). The result is country music as only Ween could produce, highlighted by top-shelf kiss-off “Piss Up A Rope” (sung by Melchiondo) and the alarmingly upbeat “Mister Richard Smoker.”

This period peaks with The Mollusk, a nautical-themed concept album brought to life via sessions at a house on the Jersey Shore. Freeman and Melchiondo indulge their love of prog on “Buckingham Green,” “Mutilated Lips” and the title track. Melchiondo says The Mollusk is his favorite Ween album, but he gets a rude awakening when it’s delivered to Elektra.

“The mastering plant sent it to the label, but we didn’t hear from our A&R guy,” he says. “Ten days later, we called them. The guy had the new Ween album sitting on his desk for almost two weeks and didn’t even bother to listen to it. They were content to just sell records to our hardcore fans and have that be it.”

Ween’s Elektra deal comes to an end with White Pepper, a shiny pop album with a number of more straightforward—but no less compelling—songs than usual. “It is amazing we came out of the other side of a deal that big and that long,” says Melchiondo. “We made the most fucked-up records for them.”

Ween launches its Chocodog label in 2001 with the release of Live In Toronto. (The imprint has since issued two other concert documents and an odds-and-sods collection.) Musically, things take a turn for the dark with Quebec, the band’s lone studio release for Sanctuary Records. The album “followed me through a divorce and a lot of consequences of being crazy all those years in Ween,” says Freeman. “I always want Ween to be fun, but I also don’t want to beat around the bush. If there’s a problem, I want it to be right at the forefront.”

Now signed to Rounder, Ween makes a triumphant return to absurdist form with La Cucaracha. Cornball instrumental opener “Fiesta” sounds like the outro to a ’70s game-show theme, while smooth-jazz saxophone god David Sanborn sexes up dark, groovy closer “Your Party.” Other highlights: an 11-minute epic (“Woman And Man”), a hick-friendly ditty with nonsense lyrics (“Learnin’ To Love”) and a dose of bad-acid-trip mysticism (“Spirit Walker”).

“This record is good because I’m certainly out of that dark period I was in with Quebec,” says Freeman. “The songs still have issues with women, but it’s a lot more fun and uplifting. I think it is going to dwarf everything we’ve ever done.”

Says Melchiondo, “The difference between Ween 10 years ago and Ween now: Instead of talking about something, we can actually do it. David Sanborn is playing sax. ‘The Sound Of Philadelphia’ strings are on the album. We’ve gotten to the point where we can pull off our fantasies.”

—Jonathan Cohen; photo by Nicholas Burnham