Dean and Gene talk shop
An interviewer for www.tha-real.com recently asked me whether there was a
message on my EP. I didn't know how to answer. It was a rare chance to say
whatever I wanted. But simplemindedly spelling out the philosophies behind your
songs -- "Think for yourself," "Experiment with your life" -- can be painful.
Besides, sometimes you're simply hit with a story that you follow through on.
You might not have a good explanation for it, or if you do, you may not be able
to articulate it. Plus, a lot of people tend to believe that if you're "funny,"
then you must not be serious about your work. That's a miserable limitation.
Pop music has always been a world that welcomes or at least encourages
self-reinvention. The kids who were chosen last when teams got picked for gym
in junior high, who couldn't get a date to the high-school prom, who plain old
didn't fit in, can and regularly do turn up a few years later making a career
of music, recast as the cool ones at the party. Class clowns become cult stars.
Hailing from New Hope, Pennsylvania, Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman become
Dean and Gene Ween, a pair of merry pranksters who started with little more
than a four-track and a bunch of fully baked ideas to amuse themselves a decade
ago and have been screwing ingeniously with the pop form ever since.
Ween's new White Pepper (Elektra) comes out this Tuesday, the same day
they're scheduled to play the Somerville Theatre. It's yet another in a series
of releases dating back to 1990's God Ween Satan -- The Oneness
(Twin/Tone) that showcase the faux bros.' amazing facility with a
dizzying array of genres, including, in this case, Caribbean pop ("Bananas and
Blow"), metal punk ("Stroker Ace"), and Eastern-tinged psychedelia ("Flutes of
Chi"). All kidding aside (and, as the song titles suggest, there is
plenty of that), Ween long ago reinvented themselves as a seriously good band.
So we figured we'd put them together with a performer who has experienced the
tension between being funny and being good and who's acquainted with the notion
MC Paul Barman, the Brown-educated, New Jersey-raised rapper and Ween fan whose
Prince Paul-produced debut EP, It's Very Stimulating (WordSound), earned
him much critical praise (and some well-deserved laughs, too) earlier this
year, fit the bill. (Besides, he assures me he got dates to several proms.) We
sent him in to question Ween in a forum that would be likely to reveal as much
about Paul as it would about Dean and Gene. Here are the results.
-- Matt Ashare
I believe that only stupid people are serious all the time. Ween are hilarious,
but they also deserve to be taken seriously.
Paul: Do you guys keep journals with lyrics in them?
Gene: I always keep a journal. Lately it's changing a little bit.
Dean: It changes. I think that we can write on demand also. I might be
sitting there and come up with something and retain it in my head, whether it's
words or a guitar part. To write our new record, we went up to Maine and rented
a house. We took a lot of recording equipment. We really didn't have any
material. We arrived with just a couple of songs to get started with. We
recorded a couple of songs every day even with no material. Sometimes magical
stuff can happen, or sometimes you have fun doing it but it doesn't amount to
much. It works both ways.
Paul: Is that what you mean by "writing on demand"?
Dean: Yeah, like we have a day to write something.
Gene: That's always worked well for us.
Dean: I just read an interview with B.B. King where he was talking about
that. He said all of a sudden he changed. When he's on tour, he can still focus
on writing a record. He can just sit and write on demand. We don't have a
process. It's anything that takes.
Gene: You might have little pieces lying around of this and that and you
might have an idea for a song title.
Paul: That's very important.
Dean: Well, that's a great place to start. You know there's a song on
our new record that's that way. We started with a song title, "Bananas and
Blow." We had a long talk about it. We had this guy who was stuck in South
America. You go through the whole concept and then you build it and it makes it
easier to choose what sounds are going to be on it. You start from the top as
you write the story line.
Paul: The steel drum obviously fits into the theme.
Gene: That song is spread out, too, because the concept was there and
then years later that jam is written and we were like, "Aha! There it is! We
found the music to `Bananas and Blow,' so let's complete this process." It's
just parts. I can't remember when I wrote some of the songs. It's just a
Paul: Do you ever hate your music as soon as it's done? Right now
you're promoting something and you're probably thinking about the next thing
that you want to do.
Dean: Yeah, I am. I started recently.
Paul: I think it is common to say, "Well, that seemed good when I was
making it. Sucks now even though I have to tell everyone how great it
Gene: Yes, of course. It's taken a lot of therapy for me to like this
record or tell myself that I like this record.
Dean: The Mollusk was pretty much the only one I liked. And the
first record [The Pod]. The first album is exciting because it's your
first album. You can never have that experience again because it's a one-time
shot. It's all fresh and new and we enjoy it. But then The Mollusk. I
felt that was a killer record. I was really excited about it.
Gene: Every record that comes out, it comes out and you hate it, and
then people tell you that they liked your other record before. Like right now
I'm doing all these interviews, and people are saying, "Hey, your record's
cool, but The Mollusk, man, that's my favorite." Before that it was,
"Yeah, man, The Mollusk is cool but Chocolate and Cheese, man,
that was the record." You already feel insecure and then people are telling you
Dean: It's hard also because you've got to reverse the situation. I met
Alex Van Halen two years ago. Van Halen was like the key band of my teenage
years when David Lee Roth was in the band. What am I going to do, not tell him?
I had to tell him when I saw them, how great it was, what my favorite record
was. I deal with stuff like that. I play shows and kids tell me. He was like,
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." The irony is that the record that Gene and I both hated
the most was definitely Chocolate and Cheese, which has turned out to be
one of our more popular records. The hatred that I felt for that record was so
much deeper than anything before or after. I didn't think that it
sucked, I was sure that it sucked. I hated it, I didn't listen to it, it
was a piece of crap, and no one could convince me otherwise.
Gene: It was tough getting through the making of that record.
Dean: They're all tough. But that one especially. It sounded terrible.
And then last year I took my parents to the airport in their new car. I got
back to drop their car off and I turned on the stereo and Chocolate and
Cheese was on the CD player. I hadn't heard it in five years, since the day
we finished mastering it. I put it back on and it sounded like I'd never heard
it before. I thought about playing those songs live and I enjoyed it. I saw why
people liked it. I probably won't ever listen to it again.
Gene: That's about how long it takes, I think. It takes at least a few
years to even be able to know what you did and whether it was good or not. I'd
be more scared if I was really proud of something when it was done. That's
probably a red flag that it's a piece of crap.
Paul: I know why you would say that, but don't you also want to feel
proud of what you've accomplished?
Dean: I think that as long as you put a certain amount of love into it,
it doesn't matter. We put a lot of love and time and work into White
Pepper, and emotion. If you have that much, then you can stand behind it.
Gene: That's how people relate to a lot of good music. They can feel
that the artist put love into it and in turn it comes back to them. It's pretty
much all you can do.
Dean: It's not just man hours, either. I'm sure they put a lot more
hours into Christina Aguilera's record. Those productions are so intense. But
it's just a lot of hours and money.
Paul: Another reason it's not man hours, in my opinion, and I learned
this from Prince Paul, is that spontaneity is important. I want my lyrics to be
the best stuff in the world, really smart and intense. But that element of
spontaneity -- whether it's an ad lib or that lilt in your voice that says,
"I'm not reading from a tome" -- can express more of the love, or whatever you
want to call it, than a million hours in a recording session.
Gene: You're right. It gives more room for magical things to happen.
It's imperfections, too. Everybody has to be able to relate to an imperfection.
Paul: You guys can actually sing. Do you have breath exercises or
anything? I've always thought it was amazing how many rappers smoked, since
they need the most awesome breath control.
Gene: I smoke. I always sang. I didn't start making music to make any
kind of statement. I like to hear myself on tape, singing into a microphone.
It's progressed into writing songs.
Paul: On the new Blackalicious album, they advise rising pop stars to
"stay humble." What if you've never been humble?
Gene: Then you're doomed.
Ween headline the Somerville Theatre this Tuesday, May 2. Call