Ween's World

In the postmodern style of the times, Ween has found its niche by having no niche at all

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."

Of course, allowing bootlegs and playing Bonaroo have brought a new type of fan to Ween shows -- the dreaded (or dredded) hippie. "Yeah, we sure are [attracting hippies], huh?" Melchiondo says. "It's cool. If they dig it, they dig it. We openly kind of mock that scene. I don't really give a shit, though."

To be fair, though, part of the appeal of a Ween show is the monumental jams: The band has been known to stretch its epic Prince tribute "L.M.L.Y.P. (Let Me Lick Your Pussy)" out to twenty or 30 minutes.

"We definitely jam," Melchiondo admits. "We come from a jam mentality. We don't have rehearsals. We jam for five hours -- probably not unlike fucking Phish or moe. or anybody like that. Except with us, that's not where it's at: With Ween, we write songs. We don't just jam on our two-minute, three-minute songs. We have a few songs that are a little more groove-oriented that we stretch out onstage. But we don't abuse that right. I think some of these bands will jam on fucking anything for three hours. You've got to have peaks and valleys and dynamics for it to be good. You can't just play for hours and hours and hours. I guess there's a crowd for that, and they want to drop acid and do the hippie dance. And that's cool, and they know where to get it, which is not at a Ween show."

Indeed, it would be a gross injustice to label Ween a jam band. The group's setlists bounce from the pro-rock weirdness of "Buckingham Green" to absolute barnburners such as the appropriately named "Dr. Rock." Live, as in the studio, Ween defies pigeonholing.

"We definitely stretch out, and we can hold our own," Melchiondo says. "We're a good band for those kids to latch on to, because they can actually hear some good songwriting for a change -- and hear a singer who's really good, and see me smash my guitar, which is what I'd rather do than see some dude wank on his."

Now securing distribution for their eighth studio album, quebec, which Melchiondo describes as "psychedelic, a bong record," Ween isn't planning on quitting anytime soon. "I don't see why Ween would quit," say Melchiondo. "We've never had a really gross careerist work ethic. We'll go a couple of years without a record. We defiantly pace ourselves. We're just going at our own pace. We always said we were going to make twenty or 30 records. We've been in Ween for twenty years next year, and we're both 32 years old. We have room -- another ten years before we're embarrassing ourselves onstage."

So, the only thing left seems to be a rock opera, right?

"I'd be into doing something really gross, like Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth," Melchiondo says. "We got an e-mail a year or so ago from some dude who wanted to adapt The Mollusk to an ice show. It required too much energy on our part, but I'm sure Ween will get into some really stupid shit like that someday."