Two years after he laid beloved band Ween to rest in troublesome fashion, spiraling into substance abuse and then sharing news of the breakup with Rolling Stone before he told his bandmates, the artist formerly known as Gene Ween is opting to step outside of its shadow.
Aaron Freeman, as his family calls him, has relocated to Woodstock, New York, where he has spent time sobering up and teaching at a music school for kids. Out of those experiences emerged Freeman, his first LP of original post-Ween songs, slated for release in July. It’s a disarmingly sweet set, full of lush vocal harmonies and emotional pleas that bear much of Ween’s melodic gift but none of its juvenile smirk. It’s also unflinching in its lyrical concerns. The first and best track, “Covert Discretion,” addresses a 2011 onstage meltdown in Vancouver, British Columbia, where Freeman was effectively too wasted to perform, and exorcises a flurry of other Ween-related demons. In it, Freeman affirms his decision to shutter that book: “Man, you’ve got to end this / Just walk away / Your money or your life.”
In a recent phone conversation, the artist shared how Freeman came to be and slowly discussed the Ween breakup, explaining his only regret in ending the cult rock group’s 25-year run.
I opted not to tell him about Demon Sweat, the Ween cover band I briefly fronted in college. This was probably the best choice.
I’ve read several things that talk about this record in the context of your newfound sobriety. Do you think getting sober affected your songwriting?
No. [laughs] Not at all. The songs are the same as ever.
Did it influence some of the lyrics?
The first song, “Covert Discretion,” pretty directly references your time in Ween and an onstage incident in 2011. Can you tell me about that?
It’s like, there’s this whole new thing with music now. I think it’s great how the Internet works, but it’s like, do I really want to explain these songs two months before it comes out? That is just a song that kind of goes over some things, and I’m excited for people to hear it. I’m excited for people to hear the whole record. I don’t want to go over each song. I think it’s all f**ked up.
So let’s talk about the album. Were these songs all written recently or were any of them written when you were in Ween?
The song “Covert Discretion” actually I wrote a week after I played this show in Vancouver. I actually forgot about it. I wrote it in a hotel room. I revisited it and listened to it. I was like, Oh s**t, this should definitely go on the record, this is a great song. I hadn’t written anything in like a year and a half. I came up to Woodstock, and I started working at this place called the Academy of Rock. It’s sort of similar to the School of Rock. Founded by a very close friend of mine, Paul Green. So we moved up here. I was ready for a change. This is basically kids 7 through 15.
Like the movie School of Rock?
It’s exactly like the movie! I think it’s really based on Paul. He’s such an amazing teacher.
So anyway, long story short, I came up here and started working there, teaching vocal lessons and guitar lessons. And what happens is I’m sitting there and I found myself singing all day, teaching these kids. These kids have no frigging idea who I am or where I came from. Suddenly I’m sitting there singing all day and playing guitar every day, and it was like, Oh s**t, this is what I do.
After a few months of that, it broke through to me that I’m a musician. I can write music, and I can sing. Shortly thereafter, I’m sitting on the porch, it’s July, and bang—these songs start coming to me. They’re really simple. I didn’t worry about the content of them. In about three weeks, I had the whole record written. We didn’t have any money to record the record, but eventually I got nine days in the studio. So we had 14 songs to do in nine days, which I certainly never did anything like that.
Not even the early Ween records? The ones you recorded in your apartment?
Nah, man. We’d take like a year. We had studio time for a few of our records because back in the ‘90s there were still major labels and they dumped a ton of money to have their artists record. Now it’s a whole different thing. You get like a five-minute window.
So with Paul’s help, we scraped up the money to get nine days in a really nice studio. I got Chris Shaw, who’s a really legendary producer. He recorded that record White Pepper with us. I was like, “Chris, we can’t afford you, but I would really like you to produce this record and record it and I can give you like a quarter of what you usually get.” And he agreed. So we went in there and pounded out 14 songs in nine days. They were all written and we had them well-rehearsed and ready to go. It was like 15-hour, 12-hour days. There’s no overdubs.
No overdubs with those layered vocal parts?
We recorded the basic tracks and then I went into the vocal booth for about two days in the end. So basically what you’re getting is a basic band and you’re getting a s**tload of my vocals, which is what I wanted. I’m very proud of it.
Some of those harmonies remind me of [2003 Ween album] Quebec.
I’ve heard that before. And that’s awesome. Quebec is probably one of my favorite records. That record was pretty much all me anyway [laughs]. This is how I’ve always written. And I’m a huge fan of harmonies. On this record I was clear-minded, I was on my game. That made me very comfortable, all these harmonies and layered vocals.
And then your vocals on “I Couldn’t Play My Guitar Like a Man” sounds like a Ween throwback.
Yeah, man. You’re definitely going to hear Ween in there. Everything you hear on this record is very much my writing style and the way it’s always been.
There’s also a spiritual side to it. Two of the songs reference Jewish texts.
I’m Jewish, but I’ve never been too practicing about it. I read this book called The Source by James Michener, and it’s all about ancient Judaism. It takes place probably 2,000 years ago. And that stuff just really spoke to me. I guess one of the songs on there is about that.
And then I got into this book [The Essential] Kabbalah by this author Daniel Matt. He writes really interesting basic stuff about the Kabbalah. There’s a lot of just free association as there is with all my music. The s**t you’re hearing is just stuff in my subconscious that’s coming out on paper. It’s a very spiritual record. I think. I’m very spiritual [laughs].
You’ve cited Paul McCartney as an influence on this record. Were you listening to any newer artists as well?
Not really. I’m not really into the solo voice/guitar dude with his acoustic guitar who is chock full of wisdom about the world. It seems like there’s a lot of artists like that. I love all the mainstream stuff. Miley Cyrus is awesome, and all those guys. When I need something in particular, like comfort food, there’s a few people I turn to for that, who always make me feel good and get me out of my own head, which is what music should do. That’s why I make music. And it doesn’t really matter who it is as long as it has that effect on my brain.
Ween was known for having an obsessive fan base. Are you worried about how Ween fans will respond to this stuff?
I don’t know. And I can’t think about that. With Ween, there was always a process of weeding out the weaker ones. That’s a part of my personality. But I still feel really confident about this record. It’s all honest. There’s no f**king around. It’s very vulnerable. It’s not a smash-out rock record. And that’s what I wanted to do. I think a lot of people are going to love it. I’m hoping to garner a new audience, too.
Fans are going to be in for a very, very pleasant surprise when they see Freeman live. I am f**king ready to play. I’m itching to play. We’ll probably play for a couple hours. There’s going to be smoke machines involved. There’s going to be other Ween songs. I got a lot of s**t to pull from.
Which Ween songs will you be playing?
Eh, I’ll probably do mostly songs that I’ve written. I haven’t really decided. It’s going to be a rock show. It’s going to be a beautiful rock show, which is kind of what I do.
Will you be playing with members of the Gene Ween Band?
It’s not really any members of the Gene Ween Band. It’s these new guys. And my manager, Dave Godowsky, collaborated with me on this record. He lived in North Carolina and knows the three guys that played on my record. Brad Cook played on the studio record. When we play live, unfortunately, he’s not going to be able to do it. So I’ve got Joe Young, who plays guitar with me acoustically. I’m going to have to de-program a little bit. And they’re very willing to de-program to get down with the program a little bit more. They’re just the musicians that fell into my lap. They’re really good. And I can’t wait.
You released covers album Marvelous Clouds as Aaron Freeman. Are you dropping the “Aaron” now?
Yeah, that’s my new thing. I thought calling myself Aaron Freeman was a little too pretentious and singer-songwriter-y. We’re doing a band. And I think Freeman is a lot cooler. There’s a little dot between “Free” and “Man” [on the album cover], which gives it a little logo thing. My friends have been calling me Freeman since I was f**king 10 years old, so I’m very acquainted with being called Freeman.
Are you still in touch with Mickey [Melchiondo, also known as Dean Ween] these days? Do you think you guys will collaborate again?
Ah, man, I don’t know. I feel really good about things. I know he’s doing great. And I’m doing great. So, you know. We did a whole ton of music. And you know, I believe in rounding things off.
It seems like you’ve both moved on.
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what I intended when I left Ween. It’s kind of a funny story. When I left in Rolling Stone, it wasn’t my intention to make everybody surprised and come at it like that. I actually had this Australian interviewer who said, “So you’re taking the Gene Ween mask off to do Marvelous Clouds?” And something hit me. I was like, “F**k that. I’m never putting the Gene Ween mask on. I’m leaving!” And I’m thinking, Oh s**t, I gotta talk to Mickey about this. We gotta formalize this. I know he knows that the end is coming. I know the end is coming. So hey, I have at least two weeks to talk about this. It’s got to get from Australia to America, which is first off going to take at least two weeks to cross the Pacific Ocean.
I’m sitting there thinking it’s going to be on a boat, and suddenly it’s 24 hours later, I get a call, it’s all over the Internet, it’s on CNN. I’m like, F**k! And that was that. I didn’t really get a chance to explain. It was a total Homer Simpson thing. I seriously thought it was going to be on a boat from Australia to get here. So that was kind of weird for me. I haven’t regretted a single day. No matter what anybody says or does, I think it was the best decision. The only thing I would apologize for is taking the Ween fans off guard. That was a little intense. Personally, I don’t like surprises either.
No more surprise scoops?
No more giant scoops. I’m pretty sick of that, to be honest. I don’t really give a s**t about interviews and reading about everything. I just like listening to music.