One fall day in 1984, the demon-god Boognish appeared to Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo, a pair of eighth-graders in New Hope, Pa. The boys followed his command, changing their names to Gene and Dean Ween and beginning a Scotchguard-huffing, mushroom-eating musical collaboration that can only be loosely classified as bizarre.
From there, the story just gets weird.
In 1986, they opened for the Butthole Surfers — Gene on vocals, Dean on guitar, with a cassette tape for a backup band. Four years later, the brothers Ween released the double-album breakthrough God Ween Satan: The Oneness (Twin-Tone, 1990) and, in short order, found themselves embarking on a European tour. In 1993, Elektra picked up one of their 4-track home recordings, Pure Guava (1993), releasing it as is. That album’s demented “Push th’ Little Daisies” cracked the top 10 in Australia (it is a former penal colony, after all).
The weirdness continued, and the two disciples of Boognish began drawing a huge cult following of their own. Just when the growing Ween fan base thought they’d seen it all, the duo threw everyone for a loop with the double-disc 12 Golden Country Greats (Elektra, 1996), Ween-style country music recorded with some of Nashville’s legendary studio musicians.
These days, the Scotchguard and mushrooms are gone, and the band gets high on life — albeit with the help of lots of alcohol and prescription drugs. And out of this pseudo-sobriety comes White Pepper (Elektra/Asylum, 2000). It’s popped-up, toned-down, at times radio-playable, and leaves even the hardened Ween fan asking, “What the f••k is this?”
In a recent pre-show interview with the band at Cleveland’s Agora theater, Gene Ween (formerly Aaron Freeman) answered in kind, “It’s our new f•••ing finely polished f•••ing record.” (Unprecedentedly, the brothers’ favorite word doesn’t appear anywhere on the actual album.)
“People think it’s weird because it’s a real record that was produced, and we’ve never done that before — except for the country record we did,” Gene explains. A layered stream of strings, horns and backup singers completes the weirdness; even the jokes are coyer than usual (though “Bananas and Blow” is a pretty straightforward mockery of Jimmy Buffet, the rest of the songs sound downright normal — until you start to understand the lyrics).
Gene insists, “We’re not a joke band. There’s nothing funny about ‘Stay Forever.’ We have a sense of humor on our records, but I wouldn’t consider [the songs] jokes. We just write about where we’re at in our lives, and with that comes humor.
“Obviously, ‘Bananas and Blow’ is pretty f•••ed up,” he allows.
White Pepper may not be a joke album, but it’s no stars-and-stripes Springsteen effort, either. “Flutes of Chi” isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but buzzes with unworldly sounds that edge it off-kilter. The instrumental “Ice Castles” could be the soundtrack to an old sixth-grade filmstrip, while the lyrics of “Stroker Ace” speak for themselves: “Well it smells like poop and it sure looks crappy/Gotta get back to north pappy flappy.”
Despite the strings, the horns, the backup singers, Ween obviously hasn’t gone commercial. But can fans really be expected to handle such a professional-sounding album?
“If you’re a [true] Ween fan, you realize we allow ourselves the freedom to do whatever the f••k we want. If we want to write a string ensemble, we’ll do it,” Gene scolds. Seems like he’s tired of all the expectations laid on a band that always does the unexpected. Or maybe he’s just tired: The Weens’ reputation for letting loose on the road doesn’t come undeserved. At the start of a pretty lengthy tour, he’s already showing signs of self-induced fatigue.
“Touring is f••king horrible. I went to bed last night at 6 a.m. and got up at 10, after a long, debaucherous night. I had to throw a girl out of my room so I didn’t cheat on my wife. It’s f••king hell, but it’s what you’ve got to do. It’s fun playing, though. It beats working at Shoney’s.”
Onstage, Ween serves up a sampling of all its albums, including a huge helping from its current release — and the crowd gobbles it up. The lights go down, and a huge image of Boognish appears above the stage. The brothers stroll nonchalantly onto the stage, as if they were walking into a friend’s garage to play; but the moment they begin, a mischievous energy flows into the crowd. Revelers dance in the aisles. Adoring young women throw flowers. A teenager brings a homemade “Kill Whitie” poster onto the stage, and Gene places it carefully in the drum kit. A bra and panties magically appear, flung from the crowd.
And the band plays on — for more than three hours. When the last song arrives, women begin pouring onto the stage, until the smiling Gene and Dean are surrounded by 30 or 40 dancing females. The last song gets improvised into a jam session.
“Generally, people consider us their band, and they’re kind of passionate about it, which is really amazing,” comments Gene.
Off-hours on tour include golf for Dean and leisurely hours of personal hygiene for Gene.
“I like to take long showers and clip my nose hairs,” he reveals.
And if you notice a sudden loss in water pressure in the Asheville area this weekend, there’s a good reason: Ween is bringing its show, and its oddness, to town. “Asheville is cool,” says Gene. “You wouldn’t expect it to be there, but it is.”
Speaking of expectations, what’s next from the Ween brothers?
“I don’t know. … We may take this to the lamest place possible, which would be a soft-jazz record.” And if that doesn’t entice you, try this: The brothers are tossing around the idea of making one of their early recordings, The Pod (Shimmy Disc, 1991), into a touring, Broadway-style musical. Gene’s immediate plans, however, are much smaller in scope.
“I’m going to take a shower.”