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Interview: Aaron Freeman (formerly Gene Ween)

on July 05, 2012, 12:45am

 Interview: Aaron Freeman (formerly Gene Ween)

Note: The news that Ween had officially broken up was released a couple hours after this interview. At no time during the interview did any mention of a breakup occur. It was assumed by this writer, due to Freeman’s responses in other interviews regarding the state of Ween, that the band was on indefinite hiatus.

For almost 30 years, the world has known Aaron Freeman by his more recognized name, Gene Ween. As one half of the eclectic and strangely obtuse Pennsylvania band Ween, Freeman, along with partner Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween), blended a penchant for experimentation with humor and satire to create some of the funniest, silliest, and perhaps most absurdly fucked-up songs in the rock canon. After an onstage breakdown in 2010, Freeman removed himself from the spotlight and entered a rehabilitation program in Arizona. Upon exiting treatment, he ran into longtime friend and producer of Ween’s 12 Country Greats, Ben Vaughan. It was Vaughan’s suggestion that Freeman’s solo project–one that Freeman had been contemplating–kick off with an album covering the songs of Rod McKuen, a poet and songwriter who was a contemporary of Beat Generation poets before finding his own musical fame in the ’60s and ’70s.

This year’s Marvelous Clouds is Freeman’s first “official” solo album (not counting a cassette-only release 25 years ago) that strips down his style. Gone are the crazy voices and goofy effects, and in their place is a gentle, warm voice, delicately singing along with acoustic instruments like celeste harps. Though the idea of one half of Ween covering songs that many critics once derided as schlock and tripe may cause fans to wince, upon listening to Freeman and his interpretations of McKuen’s work, it will become evident that this album is as natural an extension of Freeman, the man and the artist, as anything he has done previously. We caught up with Freeman to discuss the new album, how McKuen himself felt about the album, and how he now aims to be a little lamer, but in a good way.

The new solo album has been compared by some to albums like Nilsson Sings Newman and even artists like Harry Chapin, names not normally associated with you or Ween. And even doing an album of Rod McKuen songs puts you up there with Old Blue Eyes himself. When you were asked in an interview, “Why Rod McKuen?”, I was really surprised by your response. You said that aside from his more well-known songs, you had never heard of Rod McKuen. What do you think it was that made your friend and producer Ben Vaughan realize the fit?

Well, that’s an ongoing question, and, in fact, I was just listening to Rod McKuen the other day, and I heard a song called… oh, what was it called… something about liking your wig, which was an old song of his, and Ben Vaughan had a song called “I Dig Your Wig”. So, I’m wondering if Ben Vaughan’s love for Rod McKuen doesn’t go way back, longer than any of us know. So, it was simply him turning me on to a singer-songwriter that he loved. A poet. That was the beauty of it: I’d never heard him before, so I could start off with a relatively fresh template.

One of your fans, commenting on this album, asked, “Can a thing feel nostalgic and fresh?” I think that nailed it for me, because I felt this album, in multiple ways. I can imagine Ween covering “A Man Alone” or even “Mr. Kelly”, but when I close my eyes, sometimes, I can even be taken back to the ’70s, in my parents’ station wagon listening to songs like “Love Is in the Air”. Is that the intention?

Yeah, I think the intention with a lot of my music is to not have an intention, and therein lies creative and spontaneous work. Really, how we did it was Ben sending me the original songs that appeared later on the record, me interpreting them in my own way, and re-recording them as demos, sending them back, and through that I put my own thing to it. I didn’t really try to put my own thing to it. But, for example, a lot of his chord progressions and such are pretty complicated, so I sort of simplified them, and in that, it got this great feel. And I guess as far as it sounding retrospective in the ’70s, I would say that my musical brain draws a lot from that era, the layered vocals and things like that. So, it’s pretty natural for me to have something sound like that.

The record itself is pretty simple. It’s a band playing instruments and then me doing vocals for a week. Lots of harmonies. And then this gentlemen Schmed coming in and adding all the extra stuff you hear, like the synthesizers and celeste harps and things like that over top of it. So, it’s pretty much a three-part record. In that, I guess it’s simple. We weren’t really going for anything, just wanted to make the songs sound honest and sincere. When you love music and when you love a project you’re doing, especially if it’s a cover record, it just comes through.

 Interview: Aaron Freeman (formerly Gene Ween)

Like you, I’m kind of passingly familiar with Rod McKuen. I was familiar with his poetry. I don’t know if you remember in the ’90s, Rhino put out a box collection called The Beat Generation, and he had some spoken word on that. As far as music went, like you, I was more familiar with his songs as they were sung through other people. Do you know how Ben Vaughan went about choosing which pieces for you to cover, and were they all McKuen songs, or did you pull anything from his books and his written word?

Yeah, yeah, the only thing we took from the written word was “The World I Used To Know”. I do a poetry piece at the end of that, a spoken word piece; that was from his book, one of his books. But pretty much everything, yeah everything on that record was recorded by Rod.

Love’s Been Good To Me”, one of his bigger hits, has a similar feel to “Seasons in the Sun”, but I wanted to know, did you guys intentionally avoid “Seasons in the Sun”?

Yeah, yeah, “Seasons in the Sun”… ’cause, I mean, none of those songs had been recorded. I think “The Lovers” was recorded by the Arctic Monkeys, and that was just some demo that they had on YouTube. Besides that, none of… well, no I’m sorry, the songs have been covered, but the “Seasons in the Sun” song, it’s so famous and so tied to him that to re-record it again would kind of be superfluous. There’s so many, there’s so many songs; I could do a parts two, three, and four for this record.

Easily, easily. When I started looking over McKuen’s catalog, you could easily [do that]. Even songs he never sang himself, just wrote, you could easily do two or three or four or five albums.

Oh yeah, absolutely. And actually, “Seasons in the Sun”, I’m doing it live when we do this record live. And it’s interesting how it’s coming out, because it’s sort of a mixture of the Terry Jacks version and Rod’s actual version. And they’re so different that to meld the two together is a very cool mixture.

I remember when Too Much Joy did a satirical version of the song in the early ’90s where they changed the lyrics up a little bit.

Yeah, yeah. It was funny. When I met Rod he was still a little bitter. He’s certainly not a bitter man, but when it came to talking about the version of Terry Jacks doing it, he was rubbed a little the wrong way, I could tell. He was like, “Yeah, he changed the lyrics on it. I know it was a big hit but…” It was really funny. That was like 1974 or something; he was still holding a grudge.

 Interview: Aaron Freeman (formerly Gene Ween)I understand that Rod McKuen loves the album.

He does, he does. And that was really the main goal when I was recording it. To be able to, at the end of the day, give the record to Rod McKuen and have him appreciate it. I got it to Rod, and he appreciated it and really gave it accolades, and it was very, very special.

I read you got the chance to tour his studio, and it’s filled with vintage equipment from the ’70s. Any thoughts of actually recording there?

I don’t think it’s an actual studio anymore. What he was doing there was remastering. Yeah, I guess you would call it remastering. He just had a 16-track setup, and he was throwing old reels of his recorded music, and I guess he was transferring them onto another format. It doesn’t look like that studio’s been recorded in for a long time. But, yes, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And there was talk when I visited him about us collaborating at some point, and that’d be a wonderful thing.

That’d be really cool because he’s been retired for almost 20, 30 years now, right?

Yeah, he has. He still writes everyday, has his cats, and does his thing.

Marvelous Clouds is being called inspiring. Not only do you sound good (I mean, your voice sounds good), but you sound in good spirits. But you also said that you and Ben Vaughan approached this idea of the album after the incident in Vancouver. Do you think that this album would have been  possible if that bad stuff hadn’t had happened? Do you think you could have still come out with this album?

Well, yeah, sure. Everything would have been different. I was pretty tied up in some abuse, some alcohol and drug abuse there, which I’ve consequently been tackling and will tackle. So, I’m in a much, much better place. But, no, you know. I don’t think this record and a lot of other things in my life would have happened. And I think that goes across the board. When you’re under that kind of veil, you can’t do much.

Can you credit some of this album with helping you get through your problems, or is the album more a result of you getting through your problems?

I do. I think it’s both. I think in a very esoteric way when it comes to that stuff. I believe it’s the universe reacting with the right thing at the right time.

You’ve said as a member of Ween, you can relate to critics’ negative attitudes with regards to Rod McKuen’s work because you feel a sense of parallelism. With regard to people relating to this album, it seems a lot of them are falling in line with 12 Country Greats and The Mollusk era, especially with regard to how well your voice is on display (but I guess, also because Ben Vaughan worked with you on 12 Country Greats). On this album, though, I’ve noticed that you definitely spent a lot of attention on your vocal tracks. The attention to detail on your vocals is very apparent. Was there an intention behind you doing the vocal tracks separately from the rest of the band?

No, no. That’s just a way that is commonly… that’s a method of recording.

I understand that, but what I was understanding with this album, it seems that you personally were focusing on these vocals, and I was just wondering if there was a reason why.

That just goes back to my love of vocals. I started out making music so I could sing–or scream, as it were, in the beginning. I consider myself a vocalist first and foremost and then a writer of songs. So, if you get me in front of a microphone, that’s where I feel very comfortable.

You said singing another person’s music was a good exercise for you. How so?

Yeah, well, it absolutely is. It takes you out of… I wouldn’t say it’s a good exercise; it’s just fun. And it’s a great thing when you can relate to their vocals. Everybody has different cadences and different ways of putting words together. So, for a vocalist to do that and tackle something like that and make it sound natural and real as it was written by the person who wrote it is a fun challenge. And I certainly had a lot of fun with it. When I finished the record and I listened back to Rod’s original, there’s a lot of changes. And it’s fun to hear yourself, how you naturally change words or change phrases around. You don’t necessarily change the words and phrases, but you manipulate them to fit with the way that your musical brain works. That’s really fun. When you allow yourself to do that, and not get so strict with the vocals, and so strict in trying to keep in line with the original, and just let it morph a little bit so it fits your natural rhythm. It’s a beautiful thing, and I think with Rod McKuen’s lyrics and his delivery, it was very easy for me to do that because I see a lot of similarity in my writing and his.

 Interview: Aaron Freeman (formerly Gene Ween)

Did you have a bunch of second takes, or do you think that when you were recording it, when you and Ben were discussing things, that the first approach on each of your songs was the right approach?

Yeah, yeah. It was interesting. The approach was actually forged when I heard the original songs and then at home re-recorded them. And then, after that, when we went into the studio, we really based the whole record on the demos I made at home, and they were just a little different than the originals. And after you make a record based on the demos, they just get a little different. And then, eventually, you find yourself getting this original sound on record, which is uniquely you, uniquely me.

How long did it take you to work on the album?

It didn’t take long. It went in three one-week spurts. We recorded the basic tracks, and I was in the studio with the band doing what are called “scratch vocals.” They aren’t intended to be used, but you sing with the band to get them used to it, and then I came back five months later and just spent a week in the studio behind a microphone. And that’s where the crux of it went down; that’s where I did all my vocals, layers and layers of vocals. And then another week brought in Schmedly, who did all the stuff on top, and that was it. It was like a three-part thing. And then you mix it, you master it, and done.

As for the tour, you said you are trying to model it after Leonard Cohen’s Live in London and along the lines of McKuen’s live performances that were captured on record, doing mini residencies in cities, playing two or three nights at a time. How is that shaping up?

We’re working on it. It’s a work in progress. Unfortunately, I need a whole lot of money to do that. We’re working on getting something happening like that with the finances we have. This is a new project; I don’t have the Ween machine behind me. It’s like starting off new and fresh, which is very exciting, but you have to work up a little momentum. But, as far as the live shows go, yeah, they’re modeled after an intimate evening with the artist, and that’s an old-school way of approaching things. Talk a little between the songs, maybe read a poem or two, and introduce the song. It’s not just, “Here’s the next song, here’s the next song.” It’s more involved than that, and there’s a definite art to doing that. So, I’ve been doing that, and it’s great. The audience appreciates it like they appreciated Frank Sinatra in 1968 doing it.

I don’t know how serious you were when you said that you’d do a Motown record and a standards record or how you are aiming to be more “Adult Contemporary.” I believe you put it that you want to get lamer and lamer, but in a good way.

Yeah, that was a little much. I’m still honing my interview skills.

Yeah, I guess in the history of Ween, it would have been the other half of the duo that was doing most of the talking.

Exactly.

You said your next solo record is going to be all original material. I know this horse is barely out of the gate, but how is the original material shaping up?

Oh, it’s shaping up; it’s a work in progress. I’m taking my time with it. Like any artist, when it’s done, it’ll be done.

Any chance–I don’t know if this has actually ever been released–your first solo album, from what is it, 1987, Synthetic Socks… Is there any chance you’d release that on disc, or is that just going to be lost to the cassette era?

Yeah (laughs). No, no, no. That’d be released on disc if anybody wanted to put it out, but I don’t know if anybody does, dude. I have all the original stuff, so that’s something I have ready to go. We were talking about Rhino. That would be right up Rhino’s alley.

I think your fan base alone, just with Ween, would warrant a small release.

Yeah, yeah. Those things are definite possibilities.

Well, I have to say that I enjoy hearing your voice. I like the effects that you used to sing with and the vocal strains that you would do, but it’s really kind of nice, just putting on a record and hearing somebody with a very soft, nice, well-delivered voice singing some songs.

Thank you very much. That’s a big compliment. I will keep doing that.

Do you think on the next set of albums, once again, this may be looking too far ahead, but do you think you’ll be working with Ben Vaughan again, or did that just happen?

Yeah, Ben and I are… absolutely. I love working with Ben Vaughan. He’s a very hard worker and gets very great results out of the artists he works with. And anybody who can do that is a great producer. So, yeah, absolutely.

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