By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
Ween gets press for the strangest shit. They go into Nashville to record, with legendary session musicians the Jordanaires and songs such as "Piss Up a Rope" and "Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off my Brain." They dedicate an album (Chocolate and Cheese) to John Candy. An earlier record cover (for The Pod) is a perfect replica of the cover for The Best of Leonard Cohen, except the man on the cover is wearing a gas-mask bong. And now they're getting coverage in Rolling Stone and actual radio play for a 30-second burst of strange calliope funk called "Where's the Cheese Go?" that was rejected by Pizza Hut as a jingle for their stuffed-crust pizza.
What is this, a joke?
Not according to Mickey Melchiondo, also known as Ween guitarist Dean Ween: "We're not trying to send anything up. We're not trying to imitate a band making music. We're a band making music. We've been dealing with it since our first record. I don't know what the fuck we're trying to do, to be honest."
The truth is, Ween is a joke band the way the Harlem Globetrotters is a joke basketball team. They mix a basic disregard for the rules with virtuosic skill to create something completely other. They're perfectly capable of writing a straight-up pop gem, the same way any Globetrotter can pull off a beautiful fundamental layup. But then out come the ladders, and the Washington Senators are all in a pile on the ground and somehow the referee's pants are around his ankles -- and Ween is dropping some strange and heavy madness such as "Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?" (sample lyric: "Mister would you please help my pony/He's down and he's not getting up/He coughed up snot on the driveway/And I think his lung's fucked up.")
It's easier to describe Ween phases in terms of songs instead of albums. Take, for example, a few tracks from Ween's best-known album, Chocolate and Cheese. Ween goes from the creepy plea of a dying child ("Spinal Meningitis [Got Me Down]") to the Philly soul of "Freedom of '76" to the just-plain-odd "Can't Put My Finger on It" to the lovely guitar instrumental "A Tear for Eddie." Also stuffed into the album are a spaghetti-Western epic ("Buenas Tardes, Amigo"), the twisted acoustic ballad "Baby Bitch" and the very, very odd "The HIV Song" (entire lyrics: "AIDS/ HIV"). In the postmodern style of the times, Ween has found its niche by having no niche at all.
Ween was formed in 1984, when New Hope, Pennsylvania, residents Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman (singer Gene Ween) were in their early teens. They wrote hundreds of songs together, releasing occasional outbursts such as The Crucial Squeegie Lip and Axis: Bold as Boognish, before releasing their first formal album, GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, in 1990.
"Not much has changed since we started writing songs together in 1984," Melchiondo says. "It's easy with us, because we're a partnership. It's not like having to keep ten personalities in check. We're friends. We still hang out in our free time."
Though Ween's songwriting style may remain the same, other aspects of the band have changed drastically -- most recently in 2000, when the duo was dropped from Elektra, their home from 1992's Pure Guava to 2000's White Pepper.
"The way it works ... we had one record left," Melchiondo explains. "We knew Elektra had to give us something over $500,000 to make our next album, because it was the last one on our deal. We knew they weren't going to do it, because we just don't sell that many records. So rather than wait for that eighteen months, we said 'Would you just let us know if you're going to drop us so we don't have to wait to find out and we can go looking for another label?' And they had a meeting and decided they weren't going to pay us $700,000 for our next record."
But Ween didn't miss a beat. The same year, Rolling Stone proclaimed one of their Web sites, weenradio.com, the third-best music Web site of the year -- quite an accomplishment in that heady era, when Napster and Gnutella came in first and second.
The simple genius of weenradio.com is that it makes every song Ween ever released available in streaming audio, 24 hours a day. It also allows users to upload bootlegs of concerts, which means that almost every version of any of the songs Ween has played in the last decade or so is available to fans.
This kind of grassroots action -- Melchiondo and Freeman have also released official soundboard bootlegs of several Ween concerts -- has allowed Ween's fanbase to grow without any official releases since White Pepper and no major-label backing. Since being dropped, Ween has played for some of its largest crowds ever -- from an appearance at last year's hippiefest Bonnaroo to a headlining appearance at Denver's legendary Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
"We're doing better than ever," Melchiondo admits. "It's not really because we left the major label. I mean, we're doing better financially since we left Elektra because we get to keep the money from a lot of things that we normally wouldn't. We could have never done these CDs through our Web site. [But] I don't think it's because we left Elektra that we're doing better than ever. Ween has progressively gotten bigger and bigger with each record. More people have been coming to see us each year."