For Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman -- known to their fans as Dean and Gene Ween, respectively -- Ween's new album, White Pepper, was a long time coming. The duo released a double live album, Paintin' the Town Brown: Ween Live '90-'98, last year, but it was a quickly assembled archival set; they haven't made a new studio album since The Mollusk, which was released back in 1997. So while White Pepper is still new to those outside the band's inner sanctum, the brothers Ween have come to regard it as an ever-present part of their lives, kind of like smoker's hack.
"I'm just burnt on it," Dean says, speaking about the new album by phone from his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania. "We've been living with these songs for the last couple of years. We took a lot more time with the writing this time. We rented a couple of different houses to write the material and record the demos, and then when the live album came out, we opted to tour just to have something to do last summer. We played these songs live, so when it finally came time to make the record, we knew exactly what we wanted to do, right down to having our ideas together for the overdubs. Now that the record is finally out, I feel like it's something we did back in 1998."
Though sometimes unfairly dismissed as a joke or genre-mongering band (the Beatles put "Bungalow Bill" and "Honey Pie" on one album, and no one called them a novelty act), the brothers Ween are known for their sometimes-sophomoric humor. Reportedly compelled by a demonic entity known as Boognish, the band specializes in ditties that sport less-than-genteel titles like "Don't Shit Where You Eat," "Waving My Dick in the Wind" and "She Fucks Me." However, for the new album, uncharacteristically recorded in a multi-track studio with a full band, the pair has -- to a degree -- canned their familiar freewheeling style in a rare, if not particularly conscious, stab at gaining accessibility by a wider audience. (Those who fear the humor is gone completely should take heed: Amid the George Harrison and even occasional Jethro Tull stylings found on Pepper are numbers like "Pandy Fackler," a breezy, jazzy ditty about a mildly retarded prostitute, and "Bananas and Blow," an exact replica of a Caribbean island song that indulges Dean and Gene's fantasy of being stranded on a desert island, blissfully subsisting on nothing but potassium and speed.)
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"I think that's probably a good way to put it -- the album is accessible in terms of what we normally do," Dean says. "But we never really think about these things while we're recording and writing. It's just like, 'All right, this is what we've got, so we'll put it out.' I don't have any delusions of this record outperforming other things in terms of sales. I'd love it if it did, but I know what people listen to and what's popular, and I just don't see Ween competing with Korn or the Backstreet Boys. We have our niche, and that's fine with us, though we'd always like to see it grow."
One way the group has increased its audience is to become Internet-savvy -- Dean oversees the band's official Web site (ween.com), and counted among the Ween resources on the Net is a radio station (weenradio.com) broadcasting the band's songs, including rare and unreleased material, 24 hours a day.
"Something strange happened after our album Chocolate and Cheese," Dean says. "After the tour for that album was over, we sat around my apartment for a year, not knowing what was going to happen. Then our country record, 12 Golden Country Greats, came up as an impulse. But when we came back out on that tour, we sold out all of our gigs. What happened was that our fans started talking to each other on the Internet. After that, we started allowing taping at our shows, and people started trading them. If you look on the Web, people don't have tapes from '90 to '95 or '96. So it's weird -- we got more popular by more or less doing nothing. Suddenly, instead of playing to 600 people a night, we were playing to 1,200 people a night."
The phenomenon of fan taping, and the level of interest it generated for Ween's older material, is what led to the live album. Initially it was to be released only through the band's Web site, a move okayed by the group's label, Elektra Records. At the last minute, Elektra decided to put it out themselves, a move that earns an appreciative chuckle from Dean.
"We couldn't have been more surprised," he says. "I mean, here's a record -- the second disc has only two songs on it, thirty minutes apiece. It's made off of cassettes, a lot of which are seven years old and I've had in my car for that long. It's not something that anybody other than the really hardcore Ween fans are gonna buy."
But those fans exist and are indeed hardcore. "I get a kick out of all these kids who argue online on these message boards," Dean says. "They say like, 'Oh, The Pod is the best record." And the funny thing is, they were like eleven when that shit came out, and we were playing to like 75 people a night. I hear 'em tell me this or say, 'Why don't you play this song?' and I go, 'Fuck you -- we played that shit every night for four or five years. You were just like ten when it was happening.'"
Some developments on the Internet are less desirable than others, though. While Dean and Gene encourage tape-trading of live shows and even post otherwise-unavailable material on the Web site, they're less than thrilled with sites like Napster, which is currently fighting the record industry because it allows the free download of copyrighted material without generating any royalties for artists.
"In the weeks before our record came out, I would get like eighty e-mails a day from people downloading the album from Napster," Dean says. "I don't care what they do with our outtakes and our live stuff, but our records are what count to us. We put a lot of time and anxiety and love into our records, and they are thought of by me as a different thing altogether.
"I don't think stuff like that is gonna affect our record sales that much, but with cable modems and CD-burners, they can just suck down our record in minutes and burn the stuff to disc. Meanwhile, all the shit that we put into the artwork and everything else gets lost."
Generally, he says, Ween fans protect the band against anyone hoping to profit from the band's open taping policy. "Occasionally [a bootleg] will pop up on eBay, and the Ween kids will bid it up to like $10,000, with no intention of paying it, just to stop it. Go check eBay today. It'll be like Ween Live in Athens, 3 CDs, and the bid will be like $648. The guy who's bidding will have zero feedback and no user ratings. It's an account that was created to run the price up."
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Whether they hear it by way of morally odious download or store-bought CD, Ween fans may be surprised by the contents of White Pepper. There's a decidedly psychedelic pop feel to the opening trio of songs, "Exactly Where I'm At," "Flutes of Chi" and "Even If You Don't." Think XTC with an even ditzier lyrical sense. "Back to Basom," meanwhile, takes the duo into trippy Pink Floyd territory, and the woozy instrumental "Ice Castles" sounds like it was pulled off of a Moody Blues disc left in the sun too long.
"There's definitely a heavy British rock happening on the record," Dean allows. But then there are things like the aforementioned "Bananas and Blow," "Stroker Ace," a speed-metal tune, and "Stay Forever," an honest-to-goodness love song.
"That's always a problem for us," Dean says. "We'll write something, and it's like, 'What do we do with this? Well, let's just put it on the record.'" There may be no method to Ween's madness, either musically or businesswise, but Dean does say they have something of a goal in mind for the future.
"My model for what I'd like to see Ween get to be is the Grateful Dead -- to get to the point where we don't have to make videos, we don't have to get played on the radio, we just keep doing what we're doing and it gradually expands itself -- you know, kind of like a disease."