- Fionn Reilly
Don't read this too fast.
"I just had oral surgery," says Aaron Freeman at the corner table of a Woodstock cafe. "So I'm talking really slow today."
To these ears his voice doesn't sound particularly sluggish at all. It is, however, several registers lower than the voice most people know him for. The electronically altered, helium-squeaky one that sang "Push th' little daisies 'n' make 'em come up" almost 25 years ago. The voice of Gene Ween of the cult rock duo Ween. But that's appropriate, really. Because Gene Ween—at least Gene Ween as we knew him—is dead. Freeman killed that Gene Ween off when he left the band in 2012. According to Freeman, it was either the old Gene or him. "If I hadn't left my partnership [with Mickey Melchiondo aka Dean Ween]," says the singer-songwriter, "I'd probably be dead."
Ween was born in the brains and bedrooms of Freeman and Melchiondo in New Hope, a quaint Pennsylvania arts-and-antiques town just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. "It's a lot like Woodstock, actually," Freeman says. "Paul Simon used to live there. So did Pearl S. Buck." Still, though, not exactly the kind of spot one pictures as being the birthplace of too many rock bands, especially one as experimental and insanely warped as Ween. "No, there wasn't much of a music scene, besides bar bands," he recalls. "But my parents were into music. My dad went to the Woodstock festival in 1969 and had a vast record collection that I listened to." Freeman and his fellow guitarist Melchiondo first encountered each other in their junior high typing class in 1984, and although initially wary of one another—"He was a jock and I was more of a trench-coat guy"—soon discovered they shared an interest in music and certain mind-altering extracurricular activities. Thus, mushroom-fueled home-recording sessions began taking place after school, and the two adopted their individual pseudonyms and christened the project Ween, a made-up word that combines "wuss" and "penis."
The duo began releasing their weird, four-track freakadelica on cassettes with titles like The Crucial Squeegie Lip (1986), Erica Peterson's Flaming Crib Death (1987), and The Live Brain Wedgie/WAD (1988). Crammed with obnoxiously absurd, juvenile humor, the group's surreal, noisy experimentalism saw their music described in fanzines as "Frank Zappa meets hardcore." "I never really liked Zappa," confesses Freeman. "The Mothers of Invention, yes. My dad had Freak Out and We're Only in It for the Money [1966 and 1968, both Verve Records] and I loved those albums. But Zappa's later stuff was too self-indulgent, too literary. Mickey was into punk rock and I was more into new wave and synth pop. We both loved classic rock. I remember being 17 and listening to Jimi Hendrix while I smoked pot for the first time. That was life-changing."
Ween made their live premiere at the New Hope-Solebury High School talent show in 1986 accompanied by some classmates on drums and bass. Although Freeman and Melchiondo occasionally performed early on with future Rollins Band drummer Sim Cain and bassist Andrew Weiss, for the most part their stage act was pared down to just themselves and their homemade backing tapes. The twosome goofed around the New Hope area, playing parties and local bar John and Peter's until they befriended Randy Now, the booking agent of storied Trenton, New Jersey, punk club City Gardens. Now began sticking the starstuck teen duo on bills opening for some of the major acts that were coming through the notoriously rough venue, such as the Ramones, the Dead Kennedys, They Might Be Giants, GWAR, and the Butthole Surfers. They weren't always well received. "I remember Ween opening for Fugazi and the audience just hating them," says Amy Yates Wuelfing, a regular club patron and the co-author of No Slam Dancing No Stage Diving No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens (2014, DiWuelf Publishing). "[Audience members] would chant 'You suck! You suck!' and Aaron would just say something to antagonize them even more. A lot of their lyrics were about local-scene people we all knew and were really funny to me, so I've always found it odd that their songs ended up appealing to so many people from far outside the area. No one really took them seriously at the time—their parents used to drive them to all of their gigs. But you could tell they were serious about their music. Aaron, especially, struck me as being very earnest."