Music is My Life: Episode 018
Dean Ween (AKA Mickey Melchiondo) on the Guitarists That Shaped Him
If the name Michael Melchiondo does not ring a bell, it’s because he is known professionally by his stage name of Dean Ween, one half of the band Ween, who for nearly 30 years—along with Gene Ween (whose real name is Aaron Freeman)—have been releasing into the world a very unique style of music. Deaner (as he is also known) is currently touring with the Dean Ween Group—which features all of the touring members of Ween, minus Gener—and the Dean Ween Group have an album called Rock2, coming out in March.
The full lineup of Ween has also recently announced their first show of the summer at Red Rocks in Colorado on June 5th.
Melchiondo and Freeman met in 1984, adopting the Ween surname in their early teenage years, but for Melchiondo, his love for music began with his father.
Yeah, the red and the blue.
Yeah, the red one, ‘62 to ‘66, and then the ‘67 to ‘72 or ‘70 . . . and it had the lyrics, if you remember, on the original sleeves, and that stuff, man, that was just like an endless . . . I think when you’re a kid, like, mystery is like a really big thing in rock ‘n’ roll. It should be mysterious and dangerous and The Beatles, man, those lyrics to like “I Am the Walrus” and of course their voices on the older stuff and just . . . that was really what kind of, like, turned me out. And then, I’m just going to keep rambling, if you don’t mind.
Yeah, go for it!
To answer this question properly, I have to. And then, it’s a shame it doesn’t really happen anymore, as far as I can tell, but the radio was huge. I mean, growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the radio was everything. That’s where I’d listen to The Dr. Demento Show religiously, so did Aaron when he was a kid. That was a big part of the weird things and later on, and the King Biscuit Flower Hour, doing the whole concerts . . . I guess those are my roots. I mean, and later on, I went on to find my real influences after that, but that’s the original stuff. After that, I just became all about the funk and all about the guitar for a long time . . . Bob Dylan, very classic, standard, normal taste . . . Zeppelin, Hendrix, Carlos, P. Funk, The Beatles, The Stones, and I don’t think your influences ever change, really. I think that shit is over when you’re like 16 and 17. You’re always going to go back to those records, you know?
Yeah, and was it a bonding thing with you and your dad? Or was it just kind of you raiding his collection?
It was a bonding thing, but not nearly compared to what it is now, you know? ‘Cause I know what he’s going to like and he knows what I’m going to like and surprisingly enough, my mid-seventies father could send me a YouTube video of something that I’ve never heard that’s so funky. It’s pretty amazing, actually, because he’s not a musicologist by any means, he’s not . . . I doubt he has an iTunes account, you know what I mean?
Right. Did anybody else in your family play?
No, that’s the other really strange thing, is I have two halves in my family. My mother’s Canadian, so I really didn’t grow up . . . obviously, I never lived in Canada and I never really was nearly as close with that half of my life as I was with my Trenton Italian family. And everybody named Melchiondo has great taste in music and has incredible sense of rhythm and appreciates and buys and goes to see live music but no, I’m the only player, as far as I know.
And when did that start?
That started in around ‘84, when I met Aaron.
Oh, so you hadn’t been playing on your own at all?
I had. The way that started was, my father’s a used car dealer, he’s retired now, but he had a car lot down in Trenton and there was a music store across the street and I was really flipping out on everything at once. I was just taking it in, everything. So, I got him to buy me like a crappy pawn shop, twenty-five dollar guitar, and I just tuned the strings so they would make a chord. I didn’t know how to actually play it. I got a drum set first and then I got the guitar. So I was making these, like . . . I’d take a tape recorder down the basement, play a drumbeat, and then take it upstairs and while I was overdubbing it to another cassette, I’d play guitar over it.
So just like boombox to boombox?
Yeah, pretty much. No, no, no the four-track didn’t come into play until, surprisingly, like five years later, even though they were available then. I just didn’t know it.
Right. So how old were you at this point?
I was 14. Maybe 13, but I met Aaron when I was 14 and it turns out, he was doing exactly the same thing with more, like, cassios and the built-in beats from cassios and it was like a little weirder . . . I hate to just make Ween sound so simple, but I mean, at first, I was like the punk rock, not . . . I was just getting into the . . . I was looking for the most abrasive, hardest music that was out there, no matter what it was. And he was into the weirdest stuff out there, no matter what it was. And then there was stuff where we met on common ground; we both love Devo very much. We both loved Laurie Anderson’s “Superman,” we both loved The Dr. Demento Show. His father was a hippie. His father was at Woodstock, okay? My father was probably the guy that would fucking throw rocks at hippies. So, there was . . . Aaron had . . . Aaron’s dad didn’t have a lot of records either, but between the cool ones that I had and the cool ones he had, that’s kind of what Ween is. He had everything from Nina Simone to the first two Velvet Underground records, to Richie Havens’ Alarm Clock, to . . . I mean, everything, Beefheart . . . and so, those influences together, that’s kind of . . . and then we turned each other onto music, as it was coming out.
And were you guys teaching yourselves, like going straight up punk rock ethics, or were you taking lessons as well?
No, no, no, it was totally, totally taught ourselves everything. That didn’t come until a little bit later, or a way bit later, actually. For a while, it was just drums and guitar tuned to an open chord and it didn’t matter how many strings were even on it, I just tuned it to whatever chord, and that was the chord I would play with my thumb, across all the frets, so it’d move around. And then, I think it took us a year or more to get a bass . . . pawn shop kind of bass . . . and then, like one day, we wrote that song “You Fucked Up,” it’s the first song on our first record, and it actually had a verse and a chorus. I think that’s one of our first, if not our first “song” song. And then, by that time, I thought I was the only one in the world of course, like only a teenager would, to know about Jimi Hendrix. Like, “Oh, this is a secret only I know about.” And then from there, Zep, and then I wanted to play guitar, like really, really bad. And I had a friend that was willing to teach me. So, I learned a little bit and then I showed Aaron what I was learning and we were figuring it out on our own.
Well, it’s so interesting too because that first album, it feels like your sound is like already developed.
Yeah, that stuff . . . it’s really, really strange ‘cause that . . . I mean, talking about this sounds really pretentious, but that record . . . our first few records are really kind of . . . no one has ever really gotten it right. The first record was a studio record and there’s a huge, huge thing that happened that no one . . . I don’t know why no one has ever mentioned it, but everything that we did was with real drums. Everything from ‘84 to ‘90 had real drums on it because we were living at my parents’ house and we were in high school. We graduated in ‘88 but they sold the house in like ‘89, ‘90 and we got our own place. So, we did that first record to 16-track tape in Andrew Weiss’ living room, and we got to re-do, like, all of . . . the first record was kind of like the greatest hits from the first six years of Ween, and it’s a rock and roll record. It sounds like a band, it’s really distorted and it’s full on drum kit on almost every single song. And then we moved, and then the next two records is when we got the four-track and we were living in this tiny apartment and we had to get a drum machine because we couldn’t even fit a kit in there and the neighbors would have gone insane. So our sound just completely changed from the second and third record . . . we went from being a four-track, people started calling us lo-fi and . . . experimental and all that, but it was just out of necessity but it never comes up. People think . . . I don’t know if they’ve ever heard the first record, but they just think it was done on a four-track.
Right. Well I was actually particularly talking about, like, your guitar sound. It feels like that was developed by the debut. That lead on “LM . . .” or however, you know what song I’m talking about.
Yeah, yeah, “LMLYP.”
Like, that lead is the Dean Ween sound!
Thank you, I mean, I’m assuming this is for Berklee, right? School of music?
Well, I mean, I don’t know . . . so, I’m assuming you’re a musician?
Are you a guitarist?
I play guitar, yeah.
I mean, have you ever wondered if you’re getting worse? Like, I’m serious, and I don’t mean that in a way . . . ‘cause I know I’m getting better, I’m positive of it.
I’ve only wondered when I stagnate, you know?
Well yeah, yeah. I hear some of that stuff. I really go back and . . . I’m not very reflective. I still want to make new music but I go back and I listen to some of the stuff that we did, like, if it’s a live thing from ‘89, ‘88, ‘87, ‘90, you know, and it’s really fucking rad, the guitar playing is really rad, it was almost like . . I almost have to dumb my thing down to get back to that spot. But you know, I mean, then you listen to Neil [Young], you know, Neil has never played better guitar than he has in the third chapter of his life, you know what I mean? Or whatever chapter he’s in, he’s playing the best guitar of his life. Prince was easily playing the best guitar of his life, year after year, you know what I mean? It only got better.
And I’m not really a fan, but I’ll say it, Clapton’s playing . . . I’m not a Clapton fan, I never really was, but . . . and Carlos, even though he’s making these pop singles and all, Carlos rules! Carlos is shredding, you know? I know I’ve got more skill and more knowledge and more gain now, but . . .
But it was like at that point, you had already figured out like, “Okay, I like a phaser, I like distortion, I like . . .”
Phaser, a Wah-Wah, and Echo, that’s still what I use.
That’s pretty much it . . . but then there’s other people, like you listen to, like, Ritchie Blackmore. I see him . . . even from like the mid to late ‘70’s, and he can’t play the solo from “Highway Star.” Like, he just can’t play that fast or that whatever, it’s like . . . but you’ve got to keep yourself scared, you’ve got to keep challenging yourself. But I’ll deconstruct if I need to, you know?
And was it always the Strat for you? From the very get-go, after that pawn shop guitar?
Yeah, yes, absolutely was and is. I have like 40 or 50 guitars, but I mean, my thing is so simple, it’s really funny like, I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix. That was, to me, to this day, from the first day and to this day, that’s the greatest guitar player in the world. There’s no argument that can be made for anybody else in a close second, you know what I mean? And so, I wanted to know what he had, so it was like, okay, a Strat, a Wah-Wah, and a loud amp. That’s all I needed to know and as it turns out, my friend Billy Tucker taught me to play guitar, played exactly that. So, you know, I never changed. I just like started there and Tucker played it, too and these were the gauge strings he bought and this was the gauge picks he used and this was the kind of guitar and I just have never really . . . I’ve tried other stuff, but that’s my thing now, at this point, you know. There’s no backing away from it.
Right. It would almost be weird if you switched now.
I mean, I do . . . I’ve got a really nice Alembic guitar now, like a really beautiful one they made for me. It’s probably the nicest guitar I’ve ever played in the whole world but I can borrow anybody’s Strat from any year, in any condition, made in any country, could be Japanese, Mexican, vintage, custom shop, and I can go to an amp and turn . . . without even it being on, turn the dials, kick that thing on and know exactly what’s going to come out of it, you know what I mean? That’s my shit, the Strat, yeah.
So, let’s back up a tiny bit . . . with those first three albums, at what point did you know it was a career? You knew that this was . . .
I’m still waiting for people to figure out that we don’t know what the hell we’re doing at all, to be honest with you.
Well I remember, I first saw you guys on the . . . I think it was the Chocolate and Cheese tour, it was in Providence, it was a small room and I think that was your first tour with the band, right?
Yeah, that was the second . . . that might have been the second show. We played Maxwell’s the night before, it was the very first, and then that was the second one.
It was great, but it was just interesting because . . . there were some songs that the band would sit out ‘cause they had . . .
Yeah, that was the last time we did that, too.
So, when we went through this thing where Ween was so closely identified as the two of us and the tape deck, you know what I mean? Going to see us live was not going to see, like, a rock concert like in any other . . . I don’t think you could compare us to anything ‘cause it was just the two of us and a cassette deck of me playing the real drums on it in the back. So, when we went and made that record, it was very slick sounding for us, first of all, and we were very insecure about it. It was like, not in a sell-out way, but just sort of like a change, a dramatic change from the sort of vibe that we’d established with the second and third one. So, to go out with a live band, it was like . . . I mean, I think I still have close friends that believe that, like, that was it for Ween, when we went to the real band. It was like 30 years ago now.
That’s funny. I remember from that show, it was interesting, there was this guy there who was just yelling like, “Chocolate and Cheese is a great fucking album!” and that was what he yelled between songs and it was not that well attended, which is surprising. It was interesting because it felt like that was almost the affirmation, like, he almost perceived the insecurities of the band or something, and he was just yelling that.
Yeah. Now, that was . . . that’s a really funny . . . I’m positive I’ve never met anybody that was there. I remember that I wanted to kill myself after that show.
Really? I loved it!
It was so, I thought it sucked so bad, but we were going through an identity crisis, and like I said, I have an elephant’s memory, but I remember playing “Voodoo Lady” that night with the backing tracks behind us and like, something else, played a couple songs like that, and it was just totally, like, a sign of weakness. It was like we weren’t committed completely and within like two or three weeks of that, we were playing three-hour concerts, like the Ween of today, you know what I mean? We just totally ditched it, abandoned it, never had that insecurity again. It was just those first few shows and it was like, “Screw that!” All these songs that had always been exactly a minute and 30 seconds, like played ‘I Gots a Weasel’ the same way for like seven years up to that point, could now become 30-minute songs, you know? And we were having such a ball figuring out how to do it. And then it just got like . . . from there . . . it just got like way, way, way over the top, like I said, three-, four-hour concerts. So, you saw something that was, like, a three-hour transition phase.
Right. Right, and it’s interesting too, like coming from such a punk rock background, and I had a punk rock background as well, and watching that show . . . it was really exciting to see the possibilities of what two people can do and what a band can do, and then, it was interesting to . . . I think it was The Mollusk tour, it was after that, or maybe later on . . . Chocolate and Cheese, seeing you guys, watching when jam kids were coming out.
I kind of forget that it was something so weird at first, for us when that happened, ‘cause now it’s so ordinary. But, you know, it’s like the last thing in the world you would expect would be for Ween to play on a bill with Moe. and Phish and, you know, shit like that. But we had the stuff in common . . . we actually jam and . . . I’m not going to name names, I’m just going to diss every single band on that scene at once. I mean, jamming is Deep Purple Made in Japan, you know? I mean, that’s jamming, the rocking out. Yes [and their live album, Yessongs] they’re jamming . . . [King] Crimson, you know? It rocks, but it jams, but it’s in the context of the song, it’s not just all the jam. Plus, it has no teeth, a lot of that stuff doesn’t rock, at all. I haven’t found anything that really rocks, you know? I mean, The Allman Brothers are a jam band. The Grateful Dead jammed . . . Deep Purple jammed . . . Carlos jammed. James Brown jammed, you know? Shit . . . but you can’t just start off with a jam, you know? If you’re going to do a 20-minute song, and it’s pre-planned, well that’s bullshit right there. Like, I’m always waiting for that moment where the distortion kicks in, you know, like ten minutes into the solo, all of a sudden, the flanger and the distortion and then you get the Echoplex, and you’re freaking out on acid, and like fists are in the air, you know? It just doesn’t happen, like it doesn’t happen. I think that’s where we come in.
Right, right. So, throughout that period when you’re going in Chocolate and Cheese and you’re on Elektra, you know, the previous album was on Elektra, and that’s big at the time, and are you, at that point, realizing this is a career or are you still just . . .
[Unwrapping a pack of cigarettes] The only time that I ever realized that I had a career honestly was, and this is totally true, I pumped gas six days a week and Aaron worked at the taco place and we never got paid for anything and then we were expected to . . . I don’t like when bands play my local bar and then expect to get a couple “hundo” or something, you know? It’s like, “Man, you ain’t getting it. Forget it.” Like, don’t assume . . . if you get a couple bucks, that’s great, at that point in your life, but we’d made God Ween Satan and we made The Pod and we got a publishing deal with Warner Chappell for a whopping $3,000 advance, which we had to split and pay the IRS, which of course, we didn’t set any money aside for them. So I had $1,500 and I was like, “Man, I’m a working musician!” I mean, I was like, that’s the best check I ever got in my life, was that first check, that publishing check. And we had just signed away like 150 songs for like 20 years, you know? For three grand. But we got it all back eventually, all that shit expired, but I mean, that’s . . . I think that’s the first time I quit the job at the mobile station, ‘cause we had obligations on the road and my boss was so happy for me and . . .
He was “the man” in “Pumpin’ for the Man,” right?
Yeah, but I mean, I think that was when I felt like I was like really, like, working . . . I don’t know. I mean, I say things in interviews, Aaron does it too, and maybe you lie to yourself or you hear about it from other people, then you start to remember it that way, [different from] how it really was. I mean, how it really was was like no thought went into anything. It was just go, go, go, go, go! But, you know, when we were 18, what does any 18-year-old at a high school want to do? We wanted to record and we wanted to tour. We wanted to travel. And our first tour, right when we got out of high school, with God Ween Satan, was Europe. I mean, what the fuck? That was . . .
I guess, when did you guys realize that, “Hey, oh my God, we really do have a unique offering,” you know, “in our combination of songs that are really good, songs that are serious, songs that are silly, songs that are making fun of other bands . . .”
Well, honest to God, I mean, and I wish I had more of it in me now, and I know that every band has it at that age of your life . . . I was so positive that I was in the greatest band of all time, in the history of all recorded music, better than Bach and The Beatles . . . and we sucked at that point. I felt that way for a really, really long time and . . . it was just righteousness, young righteousness, you know? I thought we were punker than anybody . . . but that’s a great thing, you know? And then, later on, when your grow up or whatever the expression is, you find out . . . or, you realize that you’re just, like, part of the eternal song that’s been going on forever, you know what I mean? . . . We’re all contributing to it. It’s not right to . . . if you don’t like some other band’s music, I’m really guilty of it, you shouldn’t diss on them, you know what I mean? ‘Cause if it gets somebody off out there, if they have fans and it gets them off, who am I to spoil it for them and say, “No, that blows,” you know? But don’t mistake what I’m saying for . . . we don’t have that righteousness. We’re just not as fucking obnoxious about it now.
I was so positive that I was in the greatest band of all time ... better than Bach and The Beatles ... and we sucked at that point! ... It was just young righteousness, but that's a great thing! Dean Ween @weeninfo #MusicIsMyLife Click To Tweet
Well, you know, with the way you guys have made fun of bands in song . . .
Oh no, no, no, that’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean, I’m talking about in the press.
I was pivoting!
I’m talking about in the press. I don’t think Ween has ever been guilty of making fun of a band on a song, and if we are, it’s so obscure, that nobody . . . it would go over so many people’s heads . . .
Right, well I guess the tributes, the humorous tributes, like “Gabrielle” sounds like Thin Lizzy . . .
But it’s not though, it’s, I mean, the way that song went down, if I remember it correctly, I wrote that song, I had just discovered Thin Lizzy probably that week. And so, I fucking listened to nothing but that, and I wrote that song. That’s about as much thought that went into that. . . . There was no whatever about it, there was no . . . I don’t even . . . we had to answer that kind of question for so many years, and we don’t anymore, which is great, it’s like, you know, what . . .
No, it’s okay! But, you know, “what are these guys’ intentions,” you know? “They’re trying to . . . They’re trying to do everything,” you know what I mean? It’s like, where in the rule book—if there is a rule book—says that you can’t do everything? You know?
Right. I mean, I always took it to be a tribute, you know, like “Old Man Thunder” being kind of a Bob Seger tribute.
Yeah, there’s a . . . it’s like a little thing, you know? It’s just a little . . . put it on there, you know? I’m glad it’s on there.
Well, with the Dean Ween Group project, I guess, what’s different aside from the obvious and Aaron being absent?
Well, it’s not a project, it’s very much its own thing. I fully intend on making records if that’s how making them forever, ‘till I can’t anymore. I mean just, you know, the obvious thing is that I have to do everything myself, which I hate. I’m starting to really get old. I’m actually recording with Kurt Vile, he’s going to walk in any minute.
Yeah, yeah, we just started recording together recently.
That’s so funny, the last episode was Charlie Hall from War on Drugs, so Kurt Vile’s been such a weird character in our podcasts.
There’s a lot of synergy there?
Yeah, we interviewed Jen Cloher, who’s Courtney Barnett’s partner, and they were on tour together, Kurt Vile walks in in the middle of that podcast to take a shower.
Right, yeah. I’m just learning about all this. I just met Kurt when we did Bonaroo last year. We both live right in the same area and he’s a really nice dude and a cool vibe and we love the same records and I knew immediately we’d be able to play together and write together.
So, we have been and it went way better than either of us could have expected, so now we’re all over it. But Ween is . . . I hate the expression . . . Ween and Dean Ween and Moist Boyz, everything I’ve ever done is totally DIY. I mean, I have engineered, produced, recorded, played, written, sang, mixed, mastered every single note and it’s so much work. Then you have a business side of music that no one needs to know about if you’re a music fan, you know what I mean? But that takes up 90 percent of what I . . . if it’s 100 percent of Ween, 10 percent of it is me making music. 90 percent is me on the phone, making sure shit is right . . . and so, when it comes to the music thing, I have to motivate myself to go to the studio alone and . . . sit there alone all night . . . and see a song through . . . I can do it, I mean I’ve been doing it my whole life, but I really love bouncing ideas and collaborating and I guess that’s the biggest difference, you know? . . . And also, with Ween . . . we never thought of things as a band when we were recording it. The adaptation for the stage was a whole different animal. And I think I’m working so much with a band now that I really like it, you know, maybe subconsciously think of things . . . I’m starting to think more in terms of the stage. I love it. ‘Cause right now, that’s the only way to make a living as a musician, is touring. . . . You never got record royalties even 30 years ago, so now, you’ve . . .
Well, I guess the “Ocean Man” commercial, whenever that was, must have helped out, right?
Oh, yeah. I mean, that made us a whopping $6,200 I think, before commissions.
Oh, that’s it?
Something like that.
Oh man, I thought that was everywhere.
No, “Like a Rock” by Bob Seger made a lot of money. “Ocean Man” for the one week it was on for Honda . . . no, I don’t even . . .
Right. How is the dynamic of the Dean Ween Group and then when Aaron comes back into the fold, is it just seamless?
Well, I don’t really want to go into that very much. It’s not any different, really, I mean we learned to play together, you know? We learned everything, you know what I mean? We were on exactly the same page when we stepped on the stage. Especially the Dean Ween Group is . . . most of the guys, or all of the guys are from Ween!
So, if anything, I like to kick back and not have to sing as much. . . . I love both. I’m getting the best of everything right now, in my mind. . . . I love it.
What do you make of all this? You know, you’ve been doing this for 30, 40 years . . .
34 years. . . . You’re not going to believe me, no one believes me, so I don’t even know if I should say it but, I don’t do anything any differently, honestly. I mean, we’ve got nicer gear, I’m better at writing and better at playing, better at performing, but I approach it the same exact way. I don’t take away any sense of pride or, a better way to say it is I don’t reflect at all. I feel like, I know I can speak for Claude and most of my friends that play. You know, I’m only as good as the last song I wrote, or the last gig I did, you know, that’s how I feel about it. Hold on a sec . . . I think Kurt’s here, can we wrap it up?
Yeah, we’ll wrap it up. So the last thing is just what’s the song you enjoy playing the most, after all these years?
The song I enjoy playing the most is “Roses Are Free,” the one that Phish covers, and the one that, like, people that have no idea what the hell they’re talking about on the Internet assume is, like, something . . . if we play it on a jam festival, they think that it’s some calculated thing. I love the song, first of all, but I love it because every single guy in the band is doing something different and is playing full tilt the whole song. It’s like the ultimate sound check song, you know? It’s like everybody’s doing something tasty at the same time, as hard as they can and it makes this one big, beautiful sound. So that’s actually my favorite song to play live is “Roses are Free.” The one that started the whole Phish jam band thing, yeah.