How Ween Became Alt-Rock's Ultimate Anti-Heroes

Ween went from an alt-rock novelty courting weirdos and wastoids to genuinely beloved cult heroes with a broad audience.

In his band, Poopship, Aaron Kolbow prefers to stick to the brown stuff.

"Brown" is how fans of Ween—the demented rock-'n'-roll pranksters to which Poopship pays homage—describe the band's earliest material, made back when it was just the faux-brotherly duo of Gene and Dean Ween messing around with a drum machine at home in suburban Philadelphia, indulging whatever bizarre ideas got sucked into their brains along with the hits of Scotchgard that allegedly served as their muse back then.

Kolbow, who grew up in upstate New York and now lives in Portland, stays true to the means of production from those days, performing to prerecorded backing tracks with his partner, Ian Caton. Right now, the Poopship repertoire contains more than 40 Ween songs, including the psychedelic meltdown "Touch My Tooter," the hippie-folk pastiche "Squelch the Weasel" and the straightforward country tune nonetheless titled "Help Me Scrape the Mucus Off My Brain."

But there's one Ween song Kolbow has so far avoided: "Exactly Where I'm At," the majestic opening track from 2000's White Pepper.

It's not that he couldn't figure out how to play it, or that it comes from an album which, on the Ween color spectrum, is light mahogany at best. He's just not sure he could get through the whole thing without turning into a blubbering wreck.

"I have to be cautious of when I put that song on," says the 35-year-old Trader Joe's clerk from his living room in Lents. "I would never just put it on on a whim."

For anyone whose lone exposure to Ween came during the band's dalliance with the edges of the mainstream in the early '90s—having its video for the deliberately grating "Push th' Little Daisies" shredded by Beavis and Butt-Head, and appearing in the regrettable Saturday Night Live spinoff It's Pat—the idea that Ween could induce any sort of emotional reaction beyond stoned chuckling is probably hard to believe.

Even after the band members graduated from bedroom huffing sessions to recording in actual studios, it was never clear how seriously to take them, or if being taken seriously was something they even cared about. While never precisely a "joke band," Ween has certainly treated the American musical tradition as one long, sick inside joke. Across three decades, Aaron "Gener" Freeman and Mickey "Deaner" Melchiondo have made a career of feasting on sacred cows—devouring genres, barfing them up and splashing gleefully in the mess, like a pair of post-punk Frank Zappas. It was music designed to accompany nitrous-induced giggle fits in your parents' basement, not to make you feel, y'know, feelings.

But Kolbow isn't the only person who gets the feels. Somewhere along the line, Ween went from an alt-rock novelty courting weirdos and wastoids to genuinely beloved cult heroes with a broad audience. When the band appeared to permanently implode four years ago, several publications posted testimonies to its genius; Spin called Ween "the ultimate freaks-and-geeks band." And when it first got back together earlier this year, playing a string of shows in Colorado, tickets sold out instantly.

Scan the various online Ween fan forums, and you'll find a cult as obsessive as Deadheads and as fervent as the Beyhive. (Judging by the comments on Project Pabst's Facebook page, for the crime of headlining over Ween at the festival, Tame Impala is their Becky with the good hair.) The band members even worship their own deity: the Boognish, symbolized by a crudely drawn smiley face with a maniacal grin resembling an emoji you might use as shorthand for, "This is some good shit, man!"

Unlikely as it once seemed, Ween is now an honest-to-Boognish legacy act, one with the clout and the catalog to play three-hour sets without any openers. It's especially strange considering that, for many years, the band seemed to actively want to repel people. But then again, if the last decade of popular culture has proved anything, it's that the world loves an anti-hero.

"So many bands take an ingratiating attitude toward their fan base, but with Ween, there's always an underlying 'fuck you' there," says critic Hank Shteamer, who wrote about Ween's masterpiece of mischief, 1994's Chocolate and Cheese, for the 33 1/3 book series. "Even once they signed with Elektra and became relatively popular, they never toned down this middle-finger attitude, and I think for a certain kind of fan, that fearless, defiant and even casually arrogant quality is very appealing."

A quick Ween primer for the uninitiated: As the story goes, Freeman and Melchiondo met in middle-school typing class in the early '80s, bonding over music, drugs and making music while on drugs. After several years of home recording and gigging in and around their hometown of New Hope, Pa., they began to branch out nationally, first with the deranged God Ween Satan: The Oneness, released on influential Minneapolis label Twin/Tone in 1990, then with the even more screwed-up return to four-track strangeness, The Pod. As radio got weirder in the wake of Nirvana, Freeman and Melchiondo suddenly found themselves with a major-label deal, making their Elektra debut with 1992's Pure Guava and achieving peak Weenness with Chocolate and Cheese, an album that bounds from mutant approximations of '70s soul, tropical funk, border-town country and whatever the hell "Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down)" is supposed to be, all of it doused in absurdist humor and moments of unrepentant bad taste (see the jaunty "The HIV Song").

While it was de rigueur in the '90s for bands to mix and match genres, none swung as hard from one to the next as Ween. It has changed directions so drastically that its brand of stylistic hopscotching has always blurred the line between parody and sincere appreciation. But most diehards take a pure view of Ween's eclecticism, regarding it as proof of the band's unique brilliance and virtuosity. And indeed, there's top-level songcraft and musicianship evident in even Ween's most twisted experiments, buried as it often is under layers of 'shroomed-out fuckery.

It's easy to see why there are few casual Ween fans: The band hides its true nature below the music's surface, and rewards those dedicated enough to dig it out.

"You have give it enough time to let all the shades sink in. That goes not only for the messages of the music but for the styles," says Gordon Walker, a fan since discovering Chocolate and Cheese while working at the now-defunct Bird's Suite Records on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. "They're the ultimate postmodern group. They take from everything, they do everything."

Still, Ween might have never developed a following beyond a miscreant fringe if it hadn't made at least a few concessions to maturity. By the time of their 1997 prog-rock opus, The Mollusk, Freeman and Melchiondo were inching toward adulthood, expanding the band to a five-piece, producing higher-fidelity records and sanding down the veneer of ironic goofiness—a little, anyway. (Even White Pepper, Ween's most emotionally open album, contains an unambiguous Jimmy Buffett piss-take called "Bananas and Blow.") About the same time, Phish began covering Ween's paisley-pop jam "Roses Are Free" in concert, introducing the band to the jam crowd. Some longtime fans grumble over the association—Freeman himself once said "all that jam-band shit makes me want to puke"—but without it, it's doubtful Ween would operate in quite the same fashion today.

"Suddenly, Ween had an audience, which they'd already been building all along, that wanted to see them play three-hour shows that shuffled between dozens of styles and moods," Shteamer says. "It was a perfect convergence of factors."

In the last decade, Ween has existed primarily as a live act, when it has existed at all. The band's last studio album, 2007's La Cucaracha, is widely considered a career low point—eclipsed only by the night in 2011 when Freeman suffered a meltdown onstage in Vancouver, B.C., precipitating its four-year hiatus. The break galvanized the fan base, and solidified Ween's long, strange trip, from slaughterers of sacred cows to golden idols themselves. Kolbow attended all three reunion shows in Colorado, and he speaks of the experience in almost religious terms—especially when, on the last night, Ween opened with "Exactly Where I'm At."

"It was the third night of three nights and I should've been completely exhausted. But I was floating," he says. "The music went through me, and the emotions—the good and the bad, the stress and the anxiety of having to go back home versus the freedom of the moment—it's all there. I've heard them play that song a lot, but every time it cuts right through me."

Did he hold it together?

"I'm a crier," Kolbow says. "I'm not afraid to admit it."

Ween plays Sunday at 7 pm.

(Amy Churchwell)

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