Staying Brown: Gene and Dean Ween in the 21st Century (Relix Revisited)
Photo by Stuart Thornton
“Well, that’s true to an extent,” laughs Freeman about the drugs-as-concept concept. “You could definitely break down some Ween albums by the drugs we were taking, yeah. But, you know, Ween is just life. Whatever waist size we have or drug we happen to be doing at the time will have an influence, of course.”
If track titles are any indication, fans might look to 2003’s “Zoloft,” for the mythology’s most recent update. Or perhaps the inside-out psychobabble of La Cucaracha’s “Shamemaker.” And if Ween is just life, the phase which they recently concluded was primarily spent at their farmhouse bachelor pad.
A projection screen pulls down from one wall, and DVDs are scattered everywhere: a pirated multi-disc documentary about Vietnam, Black Sabbath on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert circa 1975, a Daffy Duck best-of. A tattered Boognish drumhead is on the wall. A Philadelphia Flyer goalie doll guards the toilet paper atop the john, just below a framed picture of Joe DiMaggio. Ashtrays overflow.
Though La Cucaracha has been said to mimic the genre-drunk Rosetta stone of 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese, it is an album of comfort, not experimentation, despite marking Ween’s first forays into house music and in-studio jamming with their nimble live band.
“I don’t listen to anything,” says Melchiondo of his current musical tastes. “I listen to sports radio.”
“I can agree on that one,” Freeman chimes in. “I listen to conservative talk radio.”
“I stopped listening to music completely. If I listen to music in my car, I put on smooth jazz stations or the oldies station.”
Despite their current existence—which includes fatherhood for both men, as well as weddings and divorces—the life of Dean and Gene Ween also once encompassed a gas mask. It appeared on the cover of 1991’s The Pod and was described as a “Scotchgard bong.” The reality may have been far, far worse: injected with nitrous the mask would force the pot smoke into the user’s lungs. “I felt I was permanently stoned for the rest of my life,” Melchiondo told High Times.
“We didn’t know how intense that was,” says Aaron of the icon.
“No,” Mickey counters. “We knew. Bad intentions on our part. Bad intentions.”
“We definitely had this thing that we wanted to do,” he says. “It was like a Residents-thing, where there were no pictures. The picture that came with GodWeenSatan was a morph of our two faces. We were very conscious. It wasn’t until [we signed with] Elektra [in 1992], until we started touring, that it changed. It was intentionally ambiguous at first, to make people imagine something worse than it actually was.
“It was a very conscious thing, to leave that mystery, and make people think the absolute worst. I think they do still think the worst. I think they think we sit around and smoke pills and sniff grass and whatever.”
“The only system I recognize is sheer quantity,” says Melchiondo of the duo’s songwriting process. The two demoed 50 songs for La Cucaracha, a process of mass production begun many years ago, and which has encompassed perhaps twice as many songs as have been officially released on their 10 albums.
“I think we went three years before we actually had something you could call a song, [something] that had a part that was repeated,” Mickey says.
“Most of it was just that we wanted to hear ourselves on tape, and hang out, so we screamed and played,” Freeman adds.
“It wasn’t experimental, it was completely improvised from every track. There was no repeating theme or part or whatever. The title always didn’t have anything to do with the song.” And, save the occasional surf-punk number, a garage genre for decades, what Ween did had nothing to do with parody.
It is pretentious (and maybe inaccurate) to compare Ween to Rembrandt, but here’s Frank Zappa: “Rembrandt got his ‘look’ by mixing just a little brown into every other color—he didn’t do ‘red’ unless it had brown in it. The brown itself wasn’t especially fascinating, but the result of its obsessive inclusion was that ‘look.’”
In Ween world, “brown” is tongue-in-(ass)cheek shorthand for everything musically wrong with them. One can guess where the term originated. “Absolutely,” says Andrew Weiss, when asked if Ween talk about brownness in the studio. “It’s always there. It’s firmly engraved in the genetic coding of Ween.” (“He has the brown gene,” says Mickey of Weiss.)
“Brown could be the way it sounds,” notes Freeman. “Brown could be the way it’s interpreted. There are many shades of… brown.”
Often, the color manifests itself in humor. Sometimes, it’s noise or an out-of-tune guitar. Elsewhere, it’s some heathen genre, like AM synth-pop. It doesn’t always go any deeper than that, but—just as often—it is something to listen through: a juvenile defense mechanism guarding a vulnerable center.
On “Birthday Boy,” circa 1990, Freeman slathers pure hurt in ugly metallic distortion, an answering machine message from his aunt, and the dim hum of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” which he was recording over. “Help me now, I’m going down,” he sings, “and I don’t know if I’ll be okay.”
“We call them Dudes,” Freeman says of the funny voices he sometimes employs to sing. “Let’s try it with this Dude or that Dude.”
“Sometimes, it’s abstract,” adds Melchiondo. “Think of little mutants.”
“Try the Mute Deaf Retard. Let’s try him.”
“Michael McDonald,” says Mickey.
“Michael McDonald,” laughs Aaron, who doesn’t speak in funny voices as often as he used to.
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