"I don't know if I'd give Ween a chance if I heard about us," says guitarist Mickey Melchiondo Jr. (aka Dean Ween, aka Deaner). "People need to put a label on something. They need to identify it with something, so the humor in our music is usually the first thing that they target."
Over the course of their now-27-year career — a discographical hodgepodge of head-first flirtations with styles as wide-ranging as punk, prog, R&B, world and any and everything in between, cast through their own dilated pupils of oddball pop and prodigious chops — no other band in rock has ever really lived up to the term "genre-benders" more completely than Ween.
But — as anyone familiar with their varied, vast canon of demented, lo-fi works of art rock (Pure Guava and The Pod), piss-take, maniacal musical-history lessons (Chocolate and Cheese), and lush, expansive exercises in progressive-pop (The Mollusk, White Pepper) can tell you — trying to place Ween in any one idiomatic pigeonhole is like trying to win at Whac-a-Mole.
Nevertheless, those who know the band only from their days as quirky MTV buzz-binners (or their cameo in the 1994 film and multiple Golden Raspberry Award nominee It's Pat) still think of them as a novelty act. But if Ween were a novelty act, they would've paid homage to an artist like, say, Prince, possibly by writing and recording a cute, throwaway parody like, say, Beck's "Debra."
Instead, the band — led by duo Gene (Aaron Freeman) and Dean (Melchiondo) — opted for "Roses Are Free," a Paisley Park-meets-trailer park triumph in pop hookery that not only sounds like a Prince hit, but is actually as good as one to boot. It just happens to use the imagery of melon slabs, wrinkled raisins, lasagna heaps and throwing pumpkins at trees to convey how man's ultimate challenge is to see situations as they truly are, and squeeze as much joy as one can out of life without bummin' anyone else's trip. Also, Gene and Dean aren't exactly sexy motherfuckers like The Artist — or The Scientologist Currently Known as Beck.
While it isn't all a joke with Ween, few rockers laugh as much — or as hard — as Melchiondo does when speaking to the Scene. But just as the riotously candid Ween co-leader and co-founder never wastes an opportunity to crack wise, he spares no humbling self-observation, and doesn't pull any punches when talking about his band's quarter-century rollercoaster ride as one of underground rock's most celebrated cult phenoms.
"I remember, like, way back when we were 15 years old, we used to joke about being in the place we are now. Like, having beards and divorces and wives and kids. And how we wanted to be lame at this point," Melchiondo says with a chuckle. "I wouldn't say I ever expected it [to last], but I am not surprised. It's like being sentenced to death, being in this band."
But Ween have had their share of surprising milestones. The fact that a record like 1992's Pure Guava was, warts and all, released by a major label (Elektra) isn't only a staggering triumph of art over artifice — it's also one of those magic moments when something truly wacked-out slips through the cracks and makes its way before the eyes of 11-year-olds watching Beavis and Butthead (as was the case with the "Push the Little Daisies" clip). Moreover, Pure Guava was perhaps the most tangible example of the risks major record companies (remember those?) were willing to take in the wake of Nirvana opening the alt-rock flood gates.
"That was a really pretty cool time. It's really easy to mark a bad time and say shit was so much better 20 years ago. But that was actually true in that era," Melchiondo says, reminiscing on Ween's days playing MTV Spring Break, sandwiched between RuPaul and Mötley Crüe. "That was around the time when bands like Pearl Jam and The Red Hot Chili Peppers were right up on the top of the charts next to the Mariah Careys and Janet Jackson."
Throughout the Clinton-era ups and the Bush-era downs — drug problems, uneven record sales and a serious auto accident, which temporarily sidelined criminally underrated and regrettably uninsured longtime drummer Claude Coleman — Ween have never slowed their roll. Instead, they've cultivated what is perhaps rock's most diverse niche audience through a relentless commitment to the road, and through consistently outdrawing mainstream and cult contemporaries alike with one of the most consistently lauded live shows on the midlevel circuit. Melchiondo does have one regret, however, given the 27 years — 27 lives, really — he and Freeman have dedicated to the band: "I wish we had some money, but we don't have any money. No, really. Honest to God."
Currently, Ween don't have a new record to promote, and Melchiondo says fans shouldn't expect to see anything outside the standard modus operandi on Thursday night. "We have nothing special planned," he says. "We're just going to [play] our songs."
Of course, anyone who's seen Ween before knows all about their mind- and mood-altering three-hour onstage party — set to an onslaught of assorted catalog cuts and true-to-form left-field cover selections (often including Metallica's "Enter Sandman," CSNY's "Ohio" or David Bowie's "Let's Dance") and bolstered by one of the most musically adept backing bands this side of King Crimson. It's an experience that's sure to send shivers of shock and awe across their faithful — not to mention their incoming demographically and diametrically opposed cult of punks, metalheads, hippies, folkies and frat boys who uncannily coalesce under the band's big stylistic tent.
While Melchiondo hazards that his aim is to capitalize on the band's dynamic repertoire and tailor every show's set list like a mix-tape compiled specifically for each crowd, he suspects there's a greater force at work unifying their far-flung followers: the love of marijuana. "It's probably the common denominator anyway," he says.
Nice piece, Jim.
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