- 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."
An A&R man from key indie Twin/Tone Records who caught the duo opening for one of his label's other acts must have sensed something as well. He signed the band up that very night and even became their manager. Ween's sole release for the label was 1990's GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, a compilation of tracks from their earlier cassettes that includes "Mushroom Festival in Hell" and the uproarious Prince parody "L.M.L.Y.P." The disc made swift underground inroads and that year Freeman and Melchiondo made their first overseas foray with some dates in (hmm) the Netherlands. Nineteen ninety-one saw them jump to another respected indie imprint, Shimmy-Disc, for The Pod. Supported by the group's first extensive US tour and a week in the UK, The Pod (featuring "Captain Fantasy," a faux-prog-pomp pastiche that, like much of Ween's oeuvre, foretells Jack Black's later comedy rock shtick with Tenacious D) won the band the favor of the all-important British music press and influential BBC DJ John Peel. By now, grunge had struck and the majors were seemingly signing any young band making waves on college radio. Ween would be one of them.
Elektra snagged the group and put out Pure Gauva in November 1992. Soon after, things started to get crazy. Really crazy. Released as a single, the überquirky "Push th' Little Daisies" became a Top 20 hit in Australia. "It was nuts, getting off the plane in Australia to all of these screaming girls and us just being these two 20-year-old stoners," Freeman says. The track's accompanying video blew up on MTV when it appeared in the network's smash new animated show "Beavis and Butt-Head." "That was definitely one of the greatest moments of my life, I totally loved the stuff that [series creator] Mike Judge did," says the singer, who agrees that perhaps Ween fit so well on the show because at that point he and Melchiondo were basically the real-life Beavis and Butt-Head.
Although they'd never again hit the commercial heights they did with "Push th' Little Daisies," Ween continued cultivating their cult audience, touring steadily and following up with their acknowledged zenith, Chocolate and Cheese (1994), and the other big-production Elektra albums 12 Golden Country Greats (1996), The Mollusk (1999), and White Pepper (2000). Upon leaving the label in 2001, the partners formed their own Chocodog Records to release a series of live albums and cut the lo-fi returns to form Quebec (2003, Sanctuary Records) and La Cucaracha (2007, Rounder Records). The tours—and the partying—continued. And then in Vancouver, British Columbia, in January 2011, everything unraveled. Or, rather, Freeman did. In front of a few thousand people at the Queen Elizabeth Theater, he suffered a substance-and-fatigue-generated meltdown that left him prone on the stage, blacked out and babbling incoherently. Ween finished the tour, but Freeman knew something had to change. "The lifestyle I was living while working with Mickey just really wasn't good for me," says the remarried father of two. "Chances are, when you do something like [have an onstage breakdown], you've got to do something differently."
And so in 2012 he did. That year, after announcing he'd "retired," Gene Ween and quit the group, Freeman got sober, released Marvelous Clouds (Partisan Records), an album of Rod McKuen covers, and retreated to his home in Lambertville, New Jersey, just over the bridge from New Hope. Finding the gossip mill of his former stomping ground to be a bit much, he jumped at an offer to teach at his old friend Paul Green's Rock Academy and relocated to Woodstock in 2013. "I knew Aaron would be a great teacher because he has a real reverence for the art form but doesn't take himself too seriously," says Green. "He's definitely rewarded my confidence, and the kids love him." Since joining the staff, Freeman continues to be involved in the school's innovative programming, such as a 2014 student concert with Yes's Jon Anderson and an upcoming event focusing on Ween's music. "It's great working with younger people, because they don't really know who I am," Freeman enthuses. "They're just focused on the music."
Last July, Freeman released his second solo set, Freeman (Partisan), which has guest work by fellow Woodstockers Tracy Bonham and Marco Benevento and is also the name of his new backing band. Many of the album's songs are on the dark side—something that wouldn't be surprising for another artist, but are definitely out of character for the one-time Ween-er. Two prime examples are "(For a While) I Couldn't Play My Guitar Like a Man" and the pastoral opener, "Covert Discretion," based on the Vancouver incident. But amid the bleakness and the blackness, there's an uplifting dose of redemption; the anthemic, arms-swaying, Queen-like coda of "Fuck you all, I got a reason to live / And I'm never gonna die" in "Covert Discretion" may be Freeman's most memorable moment.
This month Freeman, back under the Gene Ween name, will play two concerts of all Billy Joel songs. "I love Billy Joel—I guess it's an East Coast thing," he explains as talk turns to his newfound sobriety. "Anyone getting sober should be prepared for judgment, because most people don't understand addiction. They think everyone can just have one or two drinks and then stop. But that's not the case for someone like me. You have to know your limits. I had to really sacrifice a lot in order to make a change. I'm really lucky to be where I am."
"Gene Ween Does Billy Joel," featuring the Paul Green Rock Academy, will take place at the Bearvsille Theater on April 10 at 8pm. Tickets are $20-$45. For more information, call
(845) 679-4406 or visit Bearsvilletheater.com.