Q&A: Shooting The Breeze With Aaron Freeman

Aaron Freeman’s new record, FREEMAN, was a long time coming for fans. It’s been two years since the former Gene Ween broke up Ween, and seven since their last album La Cucaracha. Freeman sat down with American Songwriter to discuss how he broke his writer’s block, his relationship with his former bandmates, and more.

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You didn’t write at all for awhile. What inspired you to start back, and what was that like?

You know what really inspired me to write this record or just start writing in general was… Well y’know, the end of Ween, the breakup, going to rehab for six months, all of this stuff, I just didn’t write, and that happens. But I was worried about it for awhile; was I ever going to write a song again? As time went on, I was up here in Woodstock for probably a year, and then it was the summertime and I just started writing again. It always comes to me like that. I’ll start writing everything in three or four weeks. I wrote this entire record in about three weeks. And that was it man. I got it. I needed to break through that wall finally and I did. I’m really happy about it. Now it’s kind of smooth sailing I think, I had to get through that shit. Now I feel much more free to write.

How do you write these days versus with Ween?

It’s very particular because for all intents and purposes, I’ve never made a record. Everything was new, not being in a partnership with Mickey. In the past, in Ween, I would do much the same thing as I did on this record. I’d have an idea, I’d write it on guitar, maybe a bass/drum thing. It was all pretty much the same. I’d have a straightforward song or it would develop in the process with Ween. Mickey and I would co-write something and it would evolve into itself. On this record I just let it happen. Looking back now, when I was writing, and basically in the past couple of years, the one thing I’ve clung to was my acoustic guitar. I’ve probably written 80 percent of my songs on the same Martin D-28. For coming at stuff in the past couple of years, that was my baby, and I leaned on it. It’s kind of like when Jimi Hendrix would say “shit was falling apart, but at least I’ve got my guitar.” And that’s what I did, man. I just say out here on my porch with my acoustic guitar and wrote new songs. On the record, it’s all really basic and driven by acoustic guitar, with bass, drums, little synth, lots of vocal overdubs. I had the ability to visualize what it was going to sound like with the band, so I got a lot of things done that way.

The record is a great, but it’s hard not to remember how well you sing punk rock. I know Freeman is a young band, but do you think it will end up being genre defying like Ween, or do you see it more as a softer, more song-based project?

No, I really don’t. This is like, if I look at it, very soft, and “holy shit, I’ve just come down from a lot of stuff and I’m going to keep it really basic.” But I’ve never tried to fit into a genre. That was a big thing with Ween. “Oh they’re really going for this kind of thing or that kind of thing.” I never let myself worry about those things. If a song sounds like death metal or electronica, I’ll never limit myself if that’s what the song calls for. Same thing with the shit I’m writing now. If the song calls for whatever, I’ll go in that direction. This record in particular was strange because I only had nine days to record it. 14 tracks in 9 days, which I’ve never tried to do. And if you really listen to the record, it’s sort of like a basic track record. There’s really no overdubs on it other than my vocal overdubs. I didn’t really have the time to take these songs into any particular direction. But yeah, my days of screaming “Common Bitch,” and “You Fucked Up,” I might do those live sometime, but I’m 44 and I believe in being age appropriate that way. I’m not going to sit there and fucking scream my lungs out and pretend I’m 25. Because I’m not. But shit can go anywhere, same way it was in Ween, it’s limitless. The next Freeman record could sound completely different than this record, and that’s where it goes. The Rod McKuen record is the only thing I’ve ever made that was really a consistent thing. And actually when you hear these new songs live, you’re going to hear a lot more edge. It’s not going to be as controlled as the record, much like Ween. You’d listen to the records, and you’d see Ween live, and it was a completely different experience. And that’s what I do, and you’ll see that at our shows.

So you’re still playing songs you wrote in Ween at the shows?

Oh yeah, definitely.

How do you feel about that culture in your music? Is Boognish still a thing to you? Or are those days gone?

No. No no no. That’s a good question. I still very much believe in the Boognish. It’s amazing. The whole thing was kinda cosmic. We created this deity, Mickey and I, in 1986. And we called it the Boognish, and that was our little dude. But over the years, and I really believe this stuff, so many people, whether they had it tattooed or whatever. I set the groundwork that it was a demon and a god. Yin and yang. The forces of good and darkness in all the universe. That’s what the Boognish represents. He’s also a total fucker. I blame him for a lot of things. The more I try to get away from the Boognish deity, the worse he’s going to make it for me, if I ever really try to ignore that he exist. And I know Mickey’s the same way. So no, the Boognish was not just some little fanciful thing that I’m above now. The Boognish is very real, and it will haunt me, and control me for the rest of my life. I always have to beware of it, or I will pay the price.

I know a lot of fans are upset about Ween breaking up, but for me, you and Mickey’s friendship was one of Ween’s most charming qualities. I think a lot of people grow apart from their best friends, so to see a band that formed in the 8th grade still touring, I think you guys represented some kind of unbreakable bond to some. Are you guys on good terms at this point, and if not, do you hope to repair that relationship at some point regardless of Ween?

Yeah… I mean, eventually… but I think it’s personally… No. (laughs) It’s not as dramatic as people think. We were together since 1986, and we just fell apart. And we did not just suddenly fall apart, it was happening for a long time. Our musical tastes differed. There was all kinds of things that, when a relationship is going sour, will manifest themselves. I think Mickey’s been more upset about this over the last couple of years. I mean, I’ve been talking about this in multiple interviews. What I’m hoping to see is eventually Mickey coming out and talking about it a little bit, saying some things that could alleviate people from this whole “dramatic rift,” that we may have had. I’d like that for the fans. As far as Mickey and I go, yeah, we’ll always know each other, but I think there’s still a lot of healing. There was a lot of terrible stuff that happened behind the scenes. I think that has to work itself out. In the meantime, it seems like Mickey is doing really good with the Moistboyz project and Dean Ween Group project. I’m doing this. I think we’re both going in the direction that we always wanted to go in and that we couldn’t really go in as a partnership anymore.

While we’re reflecting on Ween, bassist Dave Dreiwitz used to be your bassist for Gene Ween solo tours. Do you see yourself working with him or any of the other old band members for future projects outside of Ween?

Yeah, absolutely. I talk to Dave all the time. Like I said, the last couple years have been very strange, and I think everybody just needs some time, and everyone is enjoying playing with different people. And I certainly am too. There’s a ton of musicians out there. It’s kind of like just giving everybody a break. But y’know, I know everybody, we’ve spent a lifetime together. I’m very happy with this new band. There’s no old mojo going on. It’s great.

When you first struck out as Aaron Freeman, you had to cancel your first solo tour due to low ticket sales. Did that shake your faith in your decision to go solo?

Yeah! That was fucked up! Honestly, I don’t even remember that six months. It was such a fuckin’ weird thing. I was still in early recovery, and anybody that knows about recovery, knows that you don’t have it all together, but I had my gut instinct, which made me go down the line and do the things that I had to do. Which was A) Get out of the Ween mess, and B) I had to change a lot of other circumstances. There was something that happened I think. I’d just left Ween, and I had the Marvelous Clouds campaign, with a whole band, but it was so fucked up that I don’t think anybody bothered to get tickets. A few people, but we honestly couldn’t afford to do a bunch of these shows with the band. Especially in the beginning. I forget the real circumstances, but basically we couldn’t afford it. We played Philly and there were like 50 people there to see us. It was all crazy. Two and a half years later, I’m definitely going to play those shows, and they’re going to get walloped. I remember that Philly show was the most awkward shit. I’d broken up Ween like a week before that and I’m sitting there, and we’re playing, and I remember Ben Vaughn, who produced the record, had this idea that I would come out like a slick, 60s, Frank Sinatra guys, with my hat on, and sort of tell stories with my band like “Hey, this next song is by Rod.” It was the most unnatural thing. There were like 40 people there in a big, big room. There’s 20 people on one side, 20 people on the other, and right in the middle is my old Itallian grandmother with a walker. She’d fucking kill somebody if anyone said the wrong thing to me. So I remember being on stage singing Rod McKuen songs and looking at my grandmother right in the face as I was singing the songs because nobody else wanted to stand in front of me. I can’t even tell you how fucking surreal that was *laugh*. After that everything sort of changed. That’s when Joe and I decided to continue on acoustic and ease up a bit. Freeman looks forward to playing those places again.

Do you think the name change affects that at all?

The whole Gener thing, that’s the weirdest part. Huge fans will have that awkward moment where they’re like “Oh is it okay, I’m sorry, I called you Gene Ween.” It’s like “No dude, it’s okay, you can call me Gene Ween.” Like I’m going to throw a chair at them. “How dare you call me that!” I’ll have the Gene Ween name my entire life and I’m fine with it.

What are some of your favorite records you’ve made in your life, and where does this new record fit into that?

My favorite records I’ve made, shit… Probably, I really liked making White Pepper. I really liked going into a fine-honed studio situation. I think that was the first time we really go to do that. But I like all the records for different reasons, and they all represent different places. The Mollusk was amazing to make, because we were in a barren beach house on Long Beach Island. We’d wake up in the morning and the whole house would smell like ocean. Then recording songs like “Ocean Man,” and “The Mollusk.” And then for different reasons Quebec was one of my favorite records, because it was very cathartic. I was going through a lot of shit and I got to put it directly down on people. And that’s how I write. I’m not a very sentimental writer. I like to be very present, autobiographical. And that’s what this record is too. The first song is just about me not limiting myself and telling it like it is, and I love Quebec for that same reason. When you achieve the most honest music, it’s the best. But fucking even God Ween Satan was amazing. I don’t think I could pick one record over another. Except La Cucaracha. That was a big piece of shit. I think the songs on it were good, or a bunch of songs, but overall that was a big clue Mickey and I were finito.

I agree, though I would say maybe you’re more sentimental than people notice. It’s certainly combined with a lot of strangeness, but you’ve been writing personal songs since you were a kid, like “Birthday Boy.” Do the songs feel more able to be personal now that you’ve ditched the Ween moniker?

Absolutely. They are sentimental, but it’s not like “I remember the days…”

 It’s not cheesy or phoned in, that’s for sure.

If it’s honest, then it’s great, no matter how much it sucks. If I keep it honest I can’t really feel bad about it. And if you’re going to make shit, make it honest. Unless you’re like The Beatles and you can make it address different things and places. But one place in writing songs is where I can be open, and I think people need to hear that in music. And over the years I’ve written enough songs like that, like “Baby Bitch,” and “Stay Forever,”where I’m brutally honest and people love it. I can tell it touches them, so I’m obviously doing something right.. When I write songs I like them to be simple, I don’t like them to be too dated, because my favorite musicians and music, you can’t tell it was written at a certain time or for a certain place, you’re not addressing specific things, you’re addressing the human condition. That’s what I like. And I love to make people feel uncomfortable sometimes. I like to make myself feel uncomfortable sometimes. I like to make it feel like we’re all standing naked, and we’re all the same people I dunno, I’m cheesing out a little bit, but y’know. If it’s not honest, then you didn’t give it your whole fuckin’ try. It’s not worth it.

Some musicians don’t even care about that, which blows my mind.

I think about that too. You go to Europe or something, and all it is is techno, and they love it. It’s very physical music. I think there’s physical music and there’s poetry/word music. I love physical music just as much as the next person, but when I do write I’m looking more toward the happy median. Like a lot of soul music will kick your ass and the words are great too. But in Europe a lot of people are happy to just go on with their lives with their techno music behind them. I don’t think they want to be bothered with somebody getting really deep on em. I respect that, and then I respect the kind of music I make which is more journalistic, and more intimate. I think music goes everywhere that way. I don’t really judge it. The only shit that I really hate is when people try to write journalistic music, and try to get deep with you on their words, and it’s just so stupid that they don’t even realize. It’s not making sense.

A leaf blowing in the wind. A babbling brook. The clouds, etc. 

Exactly. I think it’s just some of these young songwriters, I guess they’re in the indie rock thing, and they try to sound like they’ve had a lifetimes worth of experience. They try to sound like they’re from somewhere off the railroad tracks in Indiana and they’ve seen it all. *sings* “I remember seeing the war and the people…” If you’re going to write that shit, you’ve got to make it really awesome. That’s the only thing that really bugs me. I’d rather them make techno music. And you’ve got to keep it punk rock. The great punk rockers, they were honest with you, they tried to make it uncomfortable, they didn’t give a shit. So, I really try not to put too much thought into my words. I think that can really snag you.

I heard you mention in an interview possibly wanting to collaborate with Skrillex. I’m not sure if you were joking or not.

Yeah, I‘d love to do that! That goes back into the physical and the word thing. I’d love to put some of my lyrics over an amazing techno beat. I respect that kind of music, some of it, and I think the way that I write it could turn out amazing. Like with “Friends.” I really had a good time with that, the techno version, not the La Cucaracha version. If it makes me happy, that’s all that matters. But no, I love that stuff.

Well that’s about all I’ve got. Thanks for being so honest and candid with me. I think the best interviews feel like a conversation.

Absolutely, I agree. And I’m getting more comfortable talking about all of this stuff.

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