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Aaron Freeman: Life After Gene Ween

Playing catch-up with the former Ween frontman

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    On May 29th, 2012, fans of the band Ween, who for nearly 30 years had enjoyed the elite status of being a cult rock band, came across a piece of devastating news in none other than Rolling Stone. Ween lead singer and co-founder Aaron Freeman announced that he was no longer going to be performing as Gene Ween, effectively ending the band altogether. Freeman’s statement came as shocking news to not only Ween’s devoted fan base but to his bandmates, who had no knowledge of his intention to dismantle the band. Needless to say, they weren’t happy.

    The pressure and expectations that came with being the eccentric frontman of Ween, as well as a rigorous tour schedule, had created in Aaron Freeman a dependence on drugs and alcohol that came to a head on January 24th, 2011, in Vancouver. During “Freedom of ’76”, a fan favorite off their landmark 1994 album, Chocolate and Cheese, the band abandoned an inebriated Gene Ween after he basically butchered the song. Describing the performance, one critic wrote, “As his bandmates nailed every stop-and-start note, Freeman stood there like a drunk simpleton who couldn’t, despite his best efforts, figure out how to keep time on a tambourine.”

    Ween at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre - Vancouver, BCIt was clear Aaron Freeman had a problem, and his desire to be sober drove him to steer clear of Ween despite the protests of co-founder, guitarist, and childhood friend Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween). Instead, Freeman turned his focus on building a solo career, releasing a solo album called Marvelous Clouds as Aaron Freeman that consisted entirely of covers of songs by musician and poet Rod McKuen. The album received fairly positive reviews but was met with skepticism by Ween fans considering it was released shortly before the band broke up. Still battling sobriety, Freeman toured behind Marvelous Clouds, playing intimate acoustic shows consisting of songs off the album and a handful of tunes from the Ween catalog. At that point, his future was uncertain, and fans speculated with cautious optimism if their beloved Gene Ween would be relegated to releasing acoustic tribute albums for the rest of his career.

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    Fast-forward to 2014 and things are looking up for Freeman. The singer-songwriter has a new band simply called Freeman, which, besides being his actual last name, seems to hold a heavier significance given his choice to fight off the demons that come with going sober after years of substance abuse. One also can’t help but wonder if the name is a statement confirming that Ween is officially over. As opposed to playing solo, Freeman has assembled a group of younger musicians as his backing band and even plans to hit the road in support of his self-titled debut album.

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    Freeman is the first collection of solo material from the former Gene Ween. It is a record about coming to terms with yourself and reflecting on past mistakes. This is clear from the first song, “Covert Discretion”, which is obviously about the incident in Vancouver and hitting rock bottom. However, instead of wallowing in self-pity, Freeman takes the song – and really the whole album – in an uplifting direction when, nearly four minutes in, he changes the tune and loudly sings, “Fuck you all/ I got a reason to live/ And I’m never going to die” backed by a soaring guitar solo. The rest of the album teeters between jabs at his own problems on songs like “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man” and “One More” and a new, stable Freeman with a spiritual sensibility on songs like “El Shaddai” and “Golden Monkey”.

    Coursing through it all is the same style of darkly humorous lyricism and genre-crossing songs that originally distinguished Ween as one of the more original rock acts to find success. It is more difficult to say if Freeman’s new material holds up to the creativity and instrumentation of Ween. Either way, Aaron Freeman is just as excited as the die-hard Ween fan base that he is still around to make music at all.

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    Hey, Aaron. How’s everything going?

    Things are going good. I’m about to go into work for a little bit, do some teachin’, and sitting on the porch playing guitar.

    What kind of teaching are you doing?

    I’ve been working at the Paul Green Academy of Rock. He’s the guy who founded School of Rock, and he’s a really good friend of mine. I go in twice a week and give lessons about how to bring out your rock ‘n’ roll. I teach these kids how to bend their knees and sing into the mike. I do vocal lessons and some guitar lessons. I’m the in-house rock star that these kids get to be exposed to. It’s a great thing and my students are awesome, and we put on shows! On a Sunday afternoon in Woodstock, we did a death metal show, which was pretty cool. [Laughs.]

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    Do you ever get the kids to cover any Ween songs, like “The HIV Song” or something?

    It’s funny you should ask. Paul [Green] asked me, “Are you going to make these kids do a Ween show?” and I was like, “Yes.” It’s cool. I’m going to hand pick a bunch of Ween songs, and [with my kids] we’re going to put on a Ween show, which should be very interesting. I’ll be the headmaster of that.

    Speaking of School of Rock, Jack Black announced your album release through Facebook, which is kind of random. How did that come about?

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    I’ve known Jack Black for a long time. [Tenacious D] opened for [Ween] at Red Rocks and he’s always been a fan of Ween. It’s cool because all these guys, including myself, we’re all in our mid-40s now, and so we’re all sort of early ’70s kids. We all help each other out in certain ways, so I basically just called in a favor and said, “Hey, could you do this?” and he said, “Of course.” That was that.

    So, with the new album, the first thing that stands out is the name, which is your name, but for any Ween fan, that obviously seems to have a greater meaning. Can you talk about this idea of being a free man?

    That’s kind of an obvious thing, you know: “Look, he’s a FREE MAN.” It’s just my last name; I’ve been called that forever. I’m not making any dramatic statements that I’m a free man. There’s obviously hundreds of musicians who call themselves by their first name and their whole name, but for me and what I’m going to do live, I’d rather just have it just be my last name. Calling myself Aaron Freeman seemed a little too dramatic as well, you know, like, “Look! I can pursue my own thing now. I’m Aaron Freeman” (dramatic voice). When you see Freeman, you’ll know what it is, and it’ll be easier to remember. [Laughs.]

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    It’s a band, and when I play live, I only know how to do one thing, and it’s what I’ve been doing for 25 years. It’s a fucking rock show. Hopefully you’ll cry, hopefully you’ll get really fucking uncomfortable, maybe you’ll leave, maybe you’ll stay, and if I don’t like how you’re reacting, I might just play the same song 25 times in a row until you eventually leave. That shit hasn’t changed, and that’s what I’m going to do with Freeman, because I really don’t know how to do anything else. You call yourself Aaron Freeman and it really insinuates, (dramatic accent) “I’m really going in this new direction, and nothing will be the same,” and that’s kind of bullshit.

    With Freeman as a band, things are pretty new, but is it something you’re already kind of getting the vibe from that you could tour heavily behind it and build up a catalog?

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    Absolutely, and the record itself is really minimal because we had nine days in the studio to record it, which is fucking monumental. Just like a lot of Ween songs, they’re all very basic, and you can go in any direction live as long as you stick to the basic chord structure and vocal.

    Speaking of the songs, the album opens with “Covert Discretion”, a song that is obviously autobiographical, and it’s a pretty heavy tune as far as lyrics go. Why was it significant for you to open the record with this song?

    That song is my thing. I’m not very good with hiding stuff; I’ve always been kind of winged. It’s how I felt at the time, and I wrote that song maybe a week after the Vancouver show; that was one of the low points in my life. I actually forgot about the song, and then when it came time to start writing music for this record, I found it and was like, “Fuck! I gotta put that on the record.” It’s totally punk rock to say all this stuff and to open your record up with it. As far as putting it first, it’s obviously gotta be first because it’s like your last thing, your final dramatic statement, and then you get to move on to the rest of it.

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    With the song “(For a While) I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man”, I’m curious if that’s referring to a creative block that you had or rather that other things were getting in the way of you doing it well?

    First of all, I’ve always wanted to use the name Leroy in a song, and I managed to get Leroy in a song after years, so that was one of the objectives. The first year of all this was fucked up; it was rough. Not only did I have all this heavy-duty shit going on with leaving Ween, but I was also really trying to wire my brain back together. There was a while there when I went away to Arizona where I couldn’t even write a sentence, so here I am like eight months later, and I couldn’t play more than four chords in a row. I couldn’t come up with anything.

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    A friend of mine told me to put anything I had down on my iPhone, and I did that. When it came time to make this record, we just combed through all this stuff, and 90% of it didn’t make any sense. It was all fucked up, and then there was one memo that was like Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson at his worst. Just like (sings lyrics), “For a while I couldn’t play my guitar,” and that was it, and then I listened to it and was like, “Fuck, this is pretty awesome.” I finished writing the song, but I didn’t really know how to present it musically. I was driving around and I heard on the radio “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, and for some reason – not that we haven’t all heard that song 1,000 fucking times – but in this particular situation it just blew my fucking mind. If you’ll notice, there’s a lot of indirect Mark Knopfler going on in that song. I’m taking cues from Dire Straits.

    Going back to the beginning of Ween, there’s always been this balance of really dark things and really humorous stuff in your songwriting, and it’s this kind of back comedy. I’m wondering with the new album – given how autobiographical it is – were there challenges to writing in that style when you’re writing about your own bad situations?

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    That’s a good question, and … no. I’ve always had the ability to do that, and I really enjoy it. For me personally, I’m a pretty shy, mellow guy, and the only way I can really put forth what I want to put forth is through music. Everybody’s dark and everybody’s funny, and I just like to be honest and vulnerable. Otherwise, it doesn’t really do much for me. I’m not very descriptive … I can’t really write about the guy on the train slowly drifting through the thing. It’s very personal and that’s the way I like it. I think when people grasp on to that, it’s much more meaningful. We all have that stuff in us. Really, though, until I got to the point when I could write honestly again and just bare myself like I’ve always done in my songwriting, there was nothing. If I was thinking about other people and would they like this, I couldn’t write a fucking thing, but then it started coming out honestly, and I really didn’t give a fuck what people were going to like or not like. Then there’s that whole humor thing. I don’t understand. If you’re going to cover the scope of a life, you’re going to have humor in it; you’re going to have joy, fucking hate, criticism, judgment, peace, all that stuff. That’s the kind of music I listen to.

    Photo by Alison Lang Jamison

    Have you found that you approach the craft of making music differently now that you’re in this sober mindset?

    No, and that was the most awesome thing. What I realized is that I’m totally fucking permanently stoned, which happens to a lot of people in recovery and people don’t understand. I am so fucking roasted that I see people on TV and I’m like, “They’re talking normally. They can put together sentences to put across their points.” The only thing that’s really great about being sober is that my guitar playing has gotten a lot better. I’ve always been a good guitar player, but now it’s kind of like a veil that’s come off of it. I can really express what I’m trying to get at. I think my vocals are tighter, and it’s just a little easier to write songs.

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    That’s interesting that you say that because you said in a Rolling Stone interview that when you got back to playing solo acoustic shows it felt awkward. Can you maybe elaborate on that feeling of awkwardness?

    It wasn’t awkward for me personally; it was just awkward in that it was totally vibed out. There were a lot of people with their arms crossed with smug faces, like (in smug voice), “This is what Gene’s doing.” It was just one of those weird times. At the end of the day, I really didn’t give a fuck, but I just meant [it was awkward] for the audience at the time. For me personally, the only reason I make music is because I love playing acoustic guitar – I was blown away by Neil Young at a very young age – and if you can only play three or four chords, you can get instant gratification from him. Before Ween, I was always like, if I got an acoustic guitar, I could always strap it to my back and head off into the mountains and always be able to make music on the spot. So, that was a natural thing for me, and it was therapeutic. Also, I couldn’t pay my bills, so that helped a little bit. It was great. I met a lot of great people, and it was a very sincere journey spiritually and psychologically.

    I caught one of your shows back in September, and it was weird because I was probably like two or three feet away from you, and you were just in this zone.

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    I’ve always been like that. Like I have reality, and then when I get onstage and start singing, I totally go into some weird fucking place. I can’t explain it. It’s always been like that, and it’s just this other part of my personality, which has served me very well over the years.

    You touched on people being smug in the audience, but when you first started touring solo acoustic, were there challenges when you knew that most of the people at your shows were Ween fans?

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    I’m just being insecure and underestimating my audience. Actually, I think that was just in my head. At the end of the day, I think people who came to see me knew exactly what they were going to get.

    Back in November, you put out the final Ween demo recordings. How did that come about?

    Oh, uh, I needed money. I was trying to avoid Kickstarter. Obviously, Ween was a good source of income, and when I left, there went the money. It’s cool. I don’t mind being poor. I can kind of get used to it, but yeah, I needed money. I wasn’t really trying to make any statements with it. I guess it felt cathartic a little bit to throw that out there, but honestly, I made like eight grand from it, and that was fucking awesome.

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    Back when you spoke to Rolling Stone in 2012 and broke up the band, what was going on with you at the time that you felt it was a good way to go about things?

    It’s all actually a little retarded in the end. Basically, Ween was dark, and I know for my ex-bandmates, we all read the writing on the wall long before that. I had just got home from rehab, and I was of a sane mind. I got this call, and my manager was like, “There’s this Australian Rolling Stone, and they want to do a Marvelous Clouds interview with you.” I had already done like 10 Marvelous Clouds interviews, and I was really sick of it. So, the dude calls me, and he’s like (in Australian accent), “So, how you doing? Taking off the Gene Ween mask for this one, aye?” I was like, fuck you, no Gene Ween mask, I’m putting it down, blah blah blah. A wire broke and that was it. I got off the phone and was thinking fuck, I gotta tell Mickey, but I got like one or two weeks at least because this is fucking Australian Rolling Stone. For god sakes, it’s gonna take at least two weeks to get across the Pacific Ocean.

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    Anyways, I go back and I was cleaning the leaves out of the gutters or something; it was literally like a day later, and I got this call like, “Did you look, have you looked on the internet?” I turned on the computer and I’m looking and it’s like, GENE WEEN FROM WEEN QUITS WEEN IN ROLLING STONE AND DOESN’T TELL MICKEY. I’m freaking out. At that point, there was nothing I could do, and I was just as shocked and stunned as everybody else. I guess Mickey wrote that thing, and it was fucking like A team versus B team, and all of the sudden I’m like a total fucking dick with all these Ween fans. Trust me, I was just as blown away. I’m not trying to make excuses; I just really thought that I had a little more time than 24 hours to talk to anybody. That was it. It’s not like I wanted it to not happen. I just didn’t expect it that way.

    So, these days, how are your relationships with the members of the band going?

    I haven’t heard a peep from anybody. It’s kind of weird, but it’s cool. Go figure. It doesn’t keep me up at night, but it’s one of those things where there must have been a lot of strong feelings and deep, deep stuff going on because … nothing. I think that’s just part of everybody’s process of going through change.

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    Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and re-evaluate.

    Absolutely. I don’t blame anybody. I don’t get in touch with anybody, and they don’t get in touch with me either. The last thing I want, and I think any of them want, is any more fucking drama. There’s enough of that.

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