Dean and Gene put the Ween in Halloween
Mickey Melchiondo keeps getting distracted.
Speaking via telephone from his home in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Melchiondo — better known to fans as Dean Ween — has taken several breaks to attend to domestic duties. There's the screaming tea kettle on the stove that he's minding for his wife, who stepped out. And then there's the family puppy nibbling at the jack-o'-lantern sitting outside, which he can be heard shooing, in between praising his son's Halloween costume.
For Melchiondo, one of two founding members and creative forces behind Ween, maintaining a stable home life has been integral to his musical career, which spans nearly three decades. Along with his musical partner and adopted brother, Aaron "Gene Ween" Freeman, the guitarist has kept deep roots in his home town.
"Where we live is awesome," he declares. "It's not the sticks. It's a very artsy, creative little town. We're not hicks, but we were never city people, neither of us. I think that staying here has helped Ween; it's had a lot to do with how Ween has been shaped over the years."
The band's shape has actually shifted constantly since the pair met in a junior-high typing class in 1984. From early noise-driven releases like 1990's GodWeenSatan: The Oneness and 1991's The Pod, the Ween brothers' musical palette expanded and evolved in myriad ways. There was the Nashville-soaked country-and-Western sounds of 1996's 12 Golden Country Greats, the sea chanteys and drinking songs of The Mollusk in 1997, the dense mariachi horn lines and smooth-jazz sendups of their most recent release, 2007's La Cucaracha.
But the past year has been all about touring, Melchiondo explains. Since playing at Red Rocks last September, the band has kept up a steady live schedule, most recently playing a large-scale show in New York's Central Park. A Halloween show scheduled at the 1STBANK Center in Broomfield will mark one of the last shows for the duo before they head back into the studio.
"We're very conscious not to overplay anywhere," he explains. "Denver and Boulder are the places I think that we've played more than any other place. We're almost there once a year.... It's the pot-smoking hippies," Melchiondo adds, laughing. "Honestly, it's a very liberal, progressive, artsy community that's rich in marijuana smokers. I'm really, truly excited for the Halloween show in Denver. There's no way it can't be fun."
The band's extended stint outside the studio setting and away from making a new album has been part of a larger transition, Melchiondo admits. It's a symptom of a different industry, a music scene that's fundamentally transformed since Ween cut its first multi-track recordings in a Pennsylvania basement and released its first albums with Twin/Tone and, later, Elektra Records.
"This year was the first time that we ever did this, touring without a record. It was okay for me — once — but I don't think I'll do it again," Melchiondo observes, a bit grudgingly. "I'm just not comfortable with it. I like touring in support of a new record. It's funny, because the industry has been changing in such a way. I always thought it should be the focus: The whole point is that you're out there touring to promote and try and sell copies of your new record.
"It's kind of almost turned itself around now," Melchiondo adds, "where the record is this vehicle so you can go out and tour and make money that way."
He's quick to insist that the band will never rely solely on past accomplishments. He can't see himself playing "best of" concerts, for example, performing medley versions of "Push th' Little Daisies," "Roses Are Free" and "Ocean Man" for small crowds. Still, Melchiondo has had to make fundamental adjustments in how they approach songwriting, album production and touring.
"I just turned forty last weekend," he points out. "Looking back, I figured at this point in our career, we'd probably not be touring very much, that we would just be making records. Well, the rules have all changed in the past five years. Nobody really knows where things are going. The days of Elektra Records giving us $200,000 to make a video are fucking over. It's something that I think we're just trying to get our heads around right now."
One of the wake-up calls came in 2007, when bootleg copies of La Cucaracha hit the web before the album's official release.
"That was a heartbreaker for me," he confides. "Not to sound like a pussy, but I never saw that coming — which is totally naive, because that's what happens now. It's another thing you have to figure out."
It may be a necessary evolution, Melchiondo maintains, but certain parts of the band's creative process won't change, no matter the transformations in the recording industry. When Gene and Dean Ween enter the studio to record a new album later this winter, they'll rely on the same tried-and-true method they've honed since junior high school.
"Aaron and I will get together," he begins. "We'll rent a house, we'll move our equipment in there, and we'll work on the record until it's done. We're not going to change. We have a system that we're married to that works for us. It's kind of funny, because it's the same exact thing we did when we were sixteen in Ween. We still work the same way. It's only the two of us that are there with a tape recorder."
In the past fifteen years, the pair has tweaked its creative approach in subtle but significant ways. When Melchiondo and Freeman started recording what would eventually become The Mollusk, for example, they implemented a plan they'd first formulated as teenagers: They rented a house on the New Jersey shore, sequestered themselves for days, and focused on the music.
"That whole Mollusk record — that's my favorite Ween record, and I think it always will be," Melchiondo notes. "We didn't have anything written; the first seven songs that we wrote ended up on that record. We were writing like one or two songs a day the first week or two there. When we drove home, the best parts had been written and recorded. It just happened really, really fast.
"We always said we have to go down to the shore in the winter, when there's nobody down there and all the traffic lights are turned off," Melchiondo goes on, "There's something about that environment — it's total isolation. You can always just stop and take a walk along the beach."
The Ween brothers have also drawn on input from their rhythm section, which has remained constant for the band's recent history. Drummer Claude Coleman Jr., bassist Dave Dreiwitz and keyboardist Glenn McClelland have figured on all of the band's releases for more than a decade.
"It's been about fifteen years with the five of us," he says. "They're definitely involved. I mean, White Pepper was a band record when we got into the studio. Some tracks we cut as a band. On La Cucaracha, I know we did 'Woman and Man' that way, 'Your Party,' 'Bare Hands.' There are always a handful of songs that are better like that."
But at its creative core, the band is still about a pair of collaborators who met in a New Hope-Solebury High School typing class as teenagers. It's remained rooted in Mickey Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman's common ties, similarities linked to their backgrounds in the same small New England town.
"The best stuff happens really, really fast, and I know Aaron would tell you the same thing," Melchiondo notes with surety. "We both write a lot on our own, but all my favorite Ween tunes were written by both of us. They were done in like forty minutes."
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