The Ween Machine Wants It All : They look like a classic case of basement-genius novelty, but the real joke is they may turn out to be the second coming of Billy Joel--and not another Frank Zappa

<i> Richard Cromelin writes about pop music for Calendar. </i>

“We are liars. We are horrible liars,” says Mickey Melchiondo, the more voluble member of the rock duo Ween. “We can make people believe we’re brothers, that we’re gay, that we don’t play anything onstage--that it’s totally lip-synced.”

“That we grew up harvesting corn and milking cows,” adds his partner, Aaron Freeman, who’s officially known as Gene Ween.

This is not what you want to hear after spending an hour talking to a band. But the Ween team, finishing up an Italian dinner in Hollywood before their show at the Whisky, senses the interviewer’s distress and offers reassurance.


“We’ve told the truth about everything tonight,” says Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween). “You got to do something to us to make us lie. But once we start we don’t stop. That’s why there’s so many rumors about us. Mostly we started them all.”

Since releasing their major-label debut album, “Pure Guava,” late last year, following two independent collections, Ween has emerged from the mists of self-generated legend to become one of the most captivating, confounding, contradictory candidates for stardom since Devo put on rubber suits.

Famous for filling tape after tape in concentrated bursts of spontaneous creativity in their primitive home studio, combining an uncanny pop craftsmanship with a wicked, twisted edge and freewheeling experimentation, Ween would appear to be a classic case of basement-genius novelty.

Given their predilection for the put-on, most of the reviews assume that they’re spoofing the pop styles they plunder, something they vehemently deny. The real joke is that they may turn out to be the second coming of Billy Joel rather than the reincarnation of Frank Zappa.

“They want it all,” says Steve Ralbovsky, the Elektra Records vice president of artists and repertoire who signed Ween to the New York-based label. “They want lunch pails, they want Saturday morning cartoons, they want big stages.

“That may be hard for people to grasp when they listen to this four-track, voice- manipulated, hallucinogenically inspired at times music, to imagine these guys wanting to have that kind of success. But we firmly believe that they have limitless sales potential, that they’re not sort of this culty joke band.”


That would be music to Gene and Dean’s ears.

“One of the reasons we wanted a record deal is so we could build a studio and get better quality, make a record that sounds like Boston or something,” Freeman says.

Adds Melchiondo: “I don’t understand how you can even bother not setting your goals wanting to have a No. 1 hit. That’s so exciting. That’s why we’re so dangerous as a band. We really could scam everybody. We could fake it and make a pop record. Nobody would ever know. If we changed our name we could totally do it.”


Melchiondo and Freeman, both 22, have been virtually inseparable since they met in a junior high school typing class in New Hope, in an area of eastern Pennsylvania rich in Revolutionary War history.

Both were already voracious music listeners and both had recorded at home before they met. It was natural for them to team up.

Freeman, whose serious, subdued manner is 180 degrees from the ham-it-up personality he’ll become on the Whisky stage in a couple of hours, recalls their formative years.

“The way we would do it was (to) come up with titles to 10 songs or something and go in the basement, put on the tape recorder and just call out the titles, like ‘Jelly,’ and just play the drum tracks for the song called ‘Jelly.’ That was it. Just fill in the blanks like that.”


“I think initially what Ween was was just childhood Angst ,” says Tom Nichols, a school friend who was part of Ween’s tight circle from the beginning. “It was Aaron and Mickey trying to fit in and not, and going back to Mickey’s bedroom and screaming into a tape recorder.

“Ween was just there, it was like water,” adds Nichols, who now lives in Pittsburgh and is the group’s official photographer. “ ‘Oh, Mick and Aaron, Ween, they’re playing. We’ll be there. I’ll take pictures.’ It took going to college and getting out of there to realize, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s just a band, isn’t it?’ ”

Ween was signed by the Minneapolis-based independent Twin/Tone label and released its first album, “God Ween Satan,” in 1990.

Things got serious when they moved to a fly-infested horse farm in nearby Solebury, Pa. Their apartment, which they named “The Pod,” became the cradle of the Ween legend, their counterpart to Dylan and the Band’s Big Pink.

“We were just two guys hanging out recording at our own pace with no boundaries or preconceptions as to what it should be,” Freeman recalls.

“We shared one bedroom. A real small apartment. We were both working real (expletive) jobs. . . . It was real hard to survive. Our rent was backed up like six months or something.”


The result was their second album, 1991’s “The Pod,” a sonic diary of the winter of Ween.

“That’s a really scary record,” says Melchiondo, an outgoing ex-jock. “I was sick, broke. It was a post-high-school, not-in-college, not-making-any-money, not-even-having-a-job-that-promises-anything, behind-on-the-rent, confused, getting-high-a-lot, sitting-around-a-lot kind of record.”

Then things turned. A song publishing deal allowed them to pay off their debts. They got a manager, and their next burst of taping yielded an altogether different record.

“Spring broke and that was ‘Pure Guava,’ ” Freeman says. “It was a better time for both of us in our personal lives. On ‘Pure Guava,’ Ween is starting to get back into the swing of things.”

On that album, Melchiondo and Freeman transform the minutiae of their life into a series of touching pop epiphanies, grating noise and complex sonic collages. Munchkin voices, bullhorn shouts and ominous dialogue combine in a dizzying, maddening house of mirrors that bounces you from Beatles to Bowie to T. Rex to ELO, from funk to reggae to pure psychedelia.

Says Elektra’s Ralbovsky: “It’s incredible the amount of musical history and reference points they’re completely fluent about. Just an amazing breadth of knowledge about records that were made before they were.”

“They’re from a small town,” observes their manager, David Ayers. “They’re definitely a product of heavy media bombardment, and a certain sort of isolation and naivete. They have a tremendous amount of sophistication in pop culture.”


It’s the kind of thing that sends elders like Elektra President Bob Krasnow into reveries of Zappa and Captain Beefheart, old cohorts from rock’s late-’60s golden age of experimentation. But to Ween’s contemporaries, they are addressing the moment.

“I think we represent all 22-year-olds,” Freeman says. “We grew up in the ‘80s, you know. . . . So I guess we are the Reagan-Bush era. I remember disco and all that, but I started coming into consciousness in the ‘80s. It really was a dead-ass time. All that’s come out of it is AIDS and all kinds of (expletive).”

Adds Melchiondo: “People make a lot of jokes about us being like ‘Wayne’s World.’ I don’t want to parallel us to that at all, but at the same time we watch ‘Wayne’s World’ and a lot of that (expletive) is speaking definitely to that generation.

Says Nichols, their old friend: “Ween is a testimony to, ‘Hey, just sit around, smoke pot and things will happen.’ If you’re true to that ethic you’ll get somewhere. . . . I mean, there’s nothing socially conscious in their music, there’s a lot of, like, politically incorrect things, but they don’t care, they just do what they want to do.”

“I’m really proud of our audience,” Melchiondo says. “We speak to a lot of older people and we speak to a lot of little kids in a different way. But there are definitely kids of about our age that really, really love us.” He pauses, adding, “And some who really hate us.”

That’s a frequent reaction to Ween, according to manager Ayers:

“People call radio stations requesting it, and people call radio stations with bomb threats, literally, saying, ‘Don’t ever play it again. . . .’ You love it or you hate it, which is kind of the story of Ween. . . . It almost always guarantees some strong response.”


Still, the Ween buzz is building ahead of schedule. “Pure Guava” has sold about 65,000 copies, a modest count but several times more than anyone expected, and their recent U.S. tour demonstrated a marked growth in drawing power. Both signs have encouraged Elektra as it prepares a long-range strategy for its pop prodigies.

Are the principals surprised that it’s reached this point?

“No, we hoped it would,” Melchiondo says on the way to the Whisky, where Ween’s two-man-plus-backing-tapes performance would elicit conspiratorial screams and raised fists from the young crowd.

“Now that it’s happening it’s strange. I can see the differences all around us every single day. But, no, I wouldn’t say we were surprised. I can tell you we’d be very disappointed if any less than this was happening. We really, really want it to work.”