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The Boston Phoenix Ween's World

Dean and Gene talk shop

By Paul Barman

MAY 1, 2000:  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 week. 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 of reinvention.

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, Music Editor

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.

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 haze.

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 is."

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 that.

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.

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