"Cleveland's amazing," singer Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween) says via cell phone, while he's relaxing at the park with his 18-month-old daughter. "It's funny, because when you're growing up, you hear "Cleveland rocks' on Spinal Tap and whatever. But it's true. It always rocks. It's always heavy, heavy rock. We can always look forward to having a blowout rock show there. The first time we played in Cleveland was at Euclid Tavern. It was like our first tour, and nobody came to our shows ever. But at the Euclid Tavern, there were people hanging off the rafters and breaking bottles over their heads."
When Freeman and guitarist Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween) first met in 1984, they were students at New Hope-Salisbury High School. "Our class was really small -- about 50 people," Freeman recalls. "Everyone was different; no one liked each other, but we all respected each other. It was OK to be a freak or whatever you wanted to be. It was too small to be cliquey." They instantly took a liking to each other, came up with the moniker Ween, and pretended to be brothers Gene and Dean.
Their first recordings together, simple projects that they either self-released or issued through the New Jersey-based Bird O' Pray Records, found them using two channels on a tape deck -- Freeman would sing through the right channel, and Melchiondo would play guitar through the left. Eventually, they bought a four-track recorder and started making more sophisticated recordings, albums like 1990's God Ween Satan -- The Oneness and 1991's The Pod, which they claimed to have recorded after inhaling five cans of Scotchgard. Relentlessly lo-fi and chaotic, these albums established Ween as a cult item that somehow attracted the attention of Elektra Records, which signed the group and put out its major label debut in 1993. That album, Pure Guava, delivered the first Ween single, "Push th' Little Daisies," which became a "hit" of sorts.
"We're not trying to be silly guys," Freeman maintains. "Most articles that are written about us start with the zany duo, funny brothers Ween. They call us zany pop-rock parody artists and things like that. And it goes on for a paragraph -- journalists love to do that. We write about our lives and try to stay true to that. There's humor in our everyday lives, and that ends up coming out on the records. We don't sit down and think about making a joke."
One joke that no one got -- at least at the time -- was 1996's 12 Golden Country Greats. For it, the duo went to Nashville and teamed up with producer Ben Vaughn and multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy (who worked on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline). Many fans thought the authentic nature of the album, which has a tapestry of mandolins, fiddles, and banjos, was too out of character for Ween.
"People freaked out at the beginning, but I think [Country Greats] was so over the top, it just separated the men from the mice in terms of Ween fans," Freeman says. "People who were into "Push th' Little Daisies' were like "ugh.' But now people really dig it. A lot of our records are like that. They come out, and people really hate them, and then a few years later, they like the record. Now, it's happening with The Mollusk. It's hysterical, because people always do that. Every one of our records sounds different, so it takes people a few years to grasp what's going on, but that's cool."
It might take awhile for Ween's latest album, White Pepper, to sink in as well. With the exception of "Bananas and Blow," a calypso track that's a hilarious send-up of a Jimmy Buffett song, the album lacks the kind of satire that has typified other Ween releases. Even the production on White Pepper is cleaned up, and tracks such as "Flutes of Chi" and "Even If You Don't" are pleasant, inoffensive pop songs.
"We always wanted to be able to make expensive, well-polished records and could just never afford it," Freeman says. "This time, we looked at our budget and were like "Shit, bring in the backup vocalists.' We've always been into that. We've never purposefully tried to make lo-fi records. If we could afford it, we'd have the London Symphony on every song."
Chances are, when Ween plays the new songs live, they'll be rearranged from the original versions -- the tendency to stretch tracks such as "Voodoo Lady" out into mind-numbing jams has given the band a following among the same crowd that follows Phish, which has covered songs by Ween. Today's typical Ween fan goes to a show armed with a tape recorder.
"When you see me onstage, you'll never see me jamming out -- that's Mickey," Freeman says. "It's fine with me, because I can go backstage and drink a Jack. They can jam all they want. I'm more of a song guy -- chorus, bridge, verse. I like the Grateful Dead because they wrote songs, but I'm not into these hippie jam bands. I can't stand to listen to someone wank off on their guitar for 20 minutes; it drives me nuts. As long as I'm in the band, we'll still play songs."
It's a mystery how Ween, which continues to put out records on Elektra, hasn't been dropped. Sales haven't been stellar at any point during the band's stay on the label, and Paintin' the Town Brown, an indulgent, double-disc live album that was released last year, couldn't have helped matters. Freeman admits that the relationship with the label has become "cold and distant," but maintains that Ween isn't as adverse to commercial success as one might think.
"We just give [Elektra] the record, and they put it out," he says. "A lot of times, they don't do much with them except put them out. I do care [about commercial success]. I would love the world to embrace Ween. I'd like to make a lot of money. I am happy to an extent with our fan base now, because we get a decent amount of people who come out, and the people who come out are really into it. That's a really good thing if you're a band. You can do whatever you want. We don't have to hold true to anything. I would love the world to shift, so we would become as big as some lameass band like Creed."