Breakups happen. Whether it’s a rock band or any other type of relationship, things don’t always work out. And that’s fine. That’s life. But one would hope that all the parties involved — those being “broken up” with, as it were — had some first-hand knowledge of the loss before, say, everybody else in the world with an Internet connection. When Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman casually announced to Rolling Stone a few months ago that Ween, the weirdo cult rock duo, was “retiring” after a quarter-century, it wasn’t a complete surprise. The band hadn’t recorded anything since 2007′s La Cucaracha, and their most recent tour had featured some epic and embarrassing drunkenness. But before publicly declaring Ween’s demise, Freeman forgot to mention it to his bandmate, the guy who’d co-founded Ween and shared his fake last name and knew every chord to every Ween song because he’d co-written them: Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo Jr.
“This is news to me, all I can say for now I guess,” Melchiondo posted on Ween’s official Facebook page shortly after Freeman’s bombshell. Whatever your personal opinions of Ween — even if you thought “Push Th’ Little Daises” was the most annoying song of the ’90s — you have to admit, that’s cold.
But don’t feel bad for Melchiondo. Long before the Ween breakup he apparently never saw coming, he’d already launched a second career as a fishing guide. It may sound like another sad example of a once great artist pursuing a wacky non-music profession for lack of anything better to do. (Remember when David Lee Roth was driving in ambulances around New York, pretending to be an EMT?) But Dean’s (sorry, Mickey’s) Archangel Sportfishing is a completely legitimate business. He’s a Coast Guard licensed captain, and Red Cross certified in first aid and CPR. He’s got a 23-foot charter boat docked in Neptune, N.J., and six days a week, starting every morning at the oppressive and very un-rock-star hour of 5 am, he takes paying customers out to the Atlantic Ocean to catch fish. Reading his website, you get the distinct feeling that nothing happens on these excursions that will ever be grist for the Ween songbook mill. “It is not necessary to tip the Captain,” Melchiondo’s site informs potential customers. “But if you want to buy me a beer afterwards I will totally drink it.” Shine on, you crazy diamond.
I called Melchiondo after he’d finished an almost 12-hour day at sea. He was cooking burgers and watching the Dodgers/Phillies game on TV out of the corner of his eye, as was I. Many words were said, many of them curse words, especially when Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer in the 12th inning, giving the Dodgers to an arguably undeserved 5-3 victory. But that’s neither here nor there.
On the “general information” section of your fishing website, it says “No bananas on board the boat.” Is that an inside joke I’m just not getting?
That’s actually a really old and real superstition. In a sailor’s world, it’s like breaking a mirror or seeing a black cat. Some people will go so far as to not allow Banana Boat sunscreen on their boat. Or Banana Republic shirts. Or anything with a picture of a banana on it. A lot of tackle shops sell “No Banana” stickers. It’s pretty gnarly. It’s not unique to me.
Why are bananas so scary?
There are a lot of theories on how it originated, but I think it had something to do with early explorers. They’d go to these tropical islands and load up on bananas, and the bananas would be infested with spiders and snakes and all kind of critters.
Snakes would burrow into bananas? Were they huge bananas or tiny snakes?
I don’t know, honestly. The other thing is that bananas accelerate the rotting process of other things that are around it. So bananas are just bad news.
But you don’t actually believe in this, right?
I totally do. I’ve seen it. It’s bad luck. I don’t even like it when I see someone eating a banana before they get on my boat.
Seriously? Come on.
It causes everything from the not-so-bad side, like you’ll end up having a really crappy fishing day, to the really severe side, like engine problems or getting stuck in a storm. It’s funny, a lot of people saw that on my site and thought it was a reference to the Ween song “Bananas and Blow.” They thought it meant no cocaine on the boat.
And that’s verboten too?
Of course there’s no cocaine allowed on my boat! It’s against the freaking law.
Just checking. I don’t think cocaine and fishing would go well together anyway.
It’s a terrible idea. Who the hell would want to do that on a boat on a rough sea? But whatever.
There’s a photo of you holding something huge on the front page of your website. It looks like a dinosaur.
Hold on, let me look. [Pause, the sound of clicking computer keys.] That’s a striped bass.
Is that typical, to get something that big?
We catch fish like that all the time. That’s a big one, but it’s only bigger by like five or ten pounds over something I would expect to see every day. Striper season just ended on July 1st, but it’s nothing for us to catch twenty fish like that in a day.
When you’re catching fish, does size matter, or is it the motion of the ocean?
Size doesn’t matter at all. I have a creek behind my house filled with little sunnies and small mouth bass. When my son was little, I’d take him out there with corn or bread and catch ’em. I just love to fish. Your objective is different based on what you’re doing. The really memorable ones aren’t always the biggest. It’s the ones that put up the biggest fight. Like tuna.
“Of course there’s no cocaine allowed on my boat! It’s against the freaking law.”
Tuna likes to brawl?
Tuna are brutal. When you’re trying to reel in a tuna, you don’t see anything. Your line is going straight down. I’ve been on boats where people have fought with a tuna for three hours or more. They get exhausted after awhile and another guy comes in. A tuna will break your spirit.
How often during a typical fishing trip do you or your passengers quote Jaws?
Every single day we do it. What are you, crazy?
It’s that common? And that doesn’t get annoying?
Well sure, yeah. Especially when they do the obvious stuff. There’s always some guy who says, “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” and then I have to pretend it’s funny and I haven’t heard it eight million times. But I’ll join in sometimes. I was doing it today. [With a surprisingly good Quint impression.] “Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark.”
[With a not surprisingly rotten Quint impression.] “This shark, swallow you whole.”
It never stops. Especially when we’re shark fishing. Then you’re almost morally obligated to quote Jaws during the entire trip.
One of my favorite scenes in Jaws is when the three shark hunters are in the hull, comparing scars and war stories. Do you have a story like that? A tale where you’re like “That’s the fishing trip where I thought I was going to die?”
Well, I never thought I was going to die, but I had a scary run-in with a shark about a year ago this week. I took these two guys from Philadelphia flounder fishing, and they got seasick. They were throwing up over the side of the boat, and my mate and I were fishing in their place, trying to decide how long we should keep them out. And all of a sudden, a great white comes right up next to the boat. It surfaced like a submarine. It was small for a great white, like 800 or 900 pounds.
Yeah. It was right next to us, and it looked at us with, you know, the doll’s eyes.
Did the seasick guys stop throwing up after that?
Not really. [Laughs.] I don’t think they noticed.
Do great whites care if there’s vomit in the water? Isn’t that reason to look for food elsewhere?
I would bet it attracts them because they’re basically feeding on everything. They have an amazing sense of smell.
And to them, Phillie dude vomit is a delicacy?
Sure, why not? It’s just chum. For me, the scariest moments of being on a boat aren’t the fish. It’s the really rough seas, when the wind comes up out of nowhere and starts knocking you. Or fog. Fog on the ocean is really horrible, because sometimes it gets so thick you can’t even see the guy standing right in front of you. And then you’re navigating completely by instruments, and you don’t know if someone else is going to run into you. But I’ve never been afraid of a fish. I’ve had moments of “What the hell?” Like when a whale comes up right next to the boat and sprays you with water.
See, that’s how you and I are different. A whale squirts me with his blowhole, I would defecate myself in terror.
Yeah, but they’re smart. They know you’re out there. They’re not going to crash into you.
Have you had scarier moments on the ocean or on tour with Ween?
On tour, definitely. Without a doubt.
Can you give me an example?
A lot of times — well, most times when you’re on tour — you don’t know where the hell you are. Especially when you’re overseas, not only do you not know where you are, you don’t speak the language. I have this bad habit of going out after shows to get something to eat. I can’t eat before a show, I can’t be on stage filled with food. I like to play hungry. So I go foraging for food usually at two or three in the morning. I walk out of the hotel with one of the roadies or whoever and we go looking for a Waffle House. And that’s how you can find yourself in the wrong part of town.
Which countries have the most dangerous 24-hour Waffle Houses?
We do. The United States, hands down. You want to be terrified, walk into any waffle house in Gary, Indiana at 3 am.
Are you familiar with Krusty the Clown?
From The Simpsons? Yeah, of course.
There’s an episode from the late’90s, I don’t know if you remember it, when Krusty fakes his death and becomes a fisherman.
Yeah, yeah, I remember that one.
But then Bart and Lisa track him down, and remind him how much he loves being a star, and how he can’t live without the adoration of strangers. Do you have any of those regrets or reservations?
Do I miss being a star? [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s how I’d describe it.
But do you miss the attention? Ween was never U2, but they had and have a loyal cult following. Can the quiet life of a fisherman compare with that? If I can steal a line from Lisa Simpson, what about the great feeling you get from knowing you’re better than regular people?
Well, for me that’s not the great feeling I get from playing music. What’s rewarding about being in a band has nothing to do with crowds and adulation. It’s the music. I’ve been trying to tell people this for years, but no one really gets it. I get together with my friend Tom Matthews, who’s a great guitar player that lives around here. I have a little shed that I rent, it’s behind a body shop, and I go there to write and record and just play with Tom. I get just as much if not more satisfaction doing that, when the music is really good, then I get being on stage in front of a huge crowd.
I love a good shed hootenanny as much as anybody, but isn’t there something to be said for making a connection with an audience?
I don’t even notice the audience half the time. I’ll communicate with them if I feel like I have something to say, but I’m really more locked in with the guys on stage and in the moment. I’m very anxiety prone by nature. I always have been, it’s in my family. But when the music is good, I forgot sometimes. It almost freaks me out. I don’t know where I am and what I’m doing. It’s almost like I’ll be in the middle of playing and I’ll just wake up and realize, “Oh my god, I’m in front of 10,000 people that are staring at me.”
You black out?
Not black out like you do when you drink too much. I just get lost in the music. And that’s awesome. You can’t buy that. The rush is incredible. It doesn’t matter if I have the flu or problems at home, I get on stage and it all just disappears. And it’s the same way when I’m on a boat. I have to wake up at a ridiculous hour, like 4am or earlier, because I have a long drive down to where the boat is docked. And sometimes I didn’t get any sleep the night before. But when I get there and I step on my boat, the anticipation hits me, and all my anxieties are gone.
How far does that adrenaline take you?
All day. Until I’m back on shore, when the sun’s coming down or already gone, and then my body just quits. It’s the same thing with touring. When you’re on a really long tour, out on the road for two months, on the last night of the tour your body just quits on you. It’s like your brain sends a message to your body saying “It’s over. Shut everything down.” You can barely lift up a pencil you’re so tired. Fishing and playing music are very similar for me in that way.
Watch the video for Ween’s “Push Th’ Little Daisies”:
When Aaron announced that Ween was over, you posted on Facebook that it was “news to me.” Were you being sarcastic?
No, that was genuine. I was taken completely by surprise. It didn’t throw my life into chaos, because I was already operating under the assumption that we were going to take a long break. Aaron had just gotten out of treatment, and I knew that the best thing for Ween was not to go on tour right away.
“I can only speak for myself, but as far as I’m concerned, as long as Aaron and I are both alive on this planet, Ween is still together. We’ve never broken up. The idea of quitting is just laughable. This isn’t something you can quit. This is a life sentence.”
Treatment? Meaning …?
It’s no secret that he’s been battling alcohol addiction for a long time. I thought we were going to take a break, and I was excited about it not because I wanted the time off but because I wanted Ween to be spiritually happy and healthy again. It was becoming a drag.
Because of Aaron’s drinking?
Touring was really tough on Aaron’s addiction, and I want him to be happy, first and foremost. He’s my best friend. There’s no reason to put yourself to the test in that environment. But no, it wasn’t just a drag because of that. It’s … [long pause] being in a band should be fun. It’s a great feeling to write a song and record it and know it’s going to be around forever and you get to release it and play it a thousand times in front of people. It’s a really cool feeling. And when it doesn’t feel fun anymore, it’s time to take a break because something is wrong.
Ween’s 30th anniversary is in 2014. Is there any chance of a reunion by then?
I don’t think it’s going to take that long. But that’s just my opinion. I can’t tell you what Aaron is thinking or what he wants to do. I think there’s a little tinge of regret there. I can only speak for myself, but as far as I’m concerned, as long as Aaron and I are both alive on this planet, Ween is still together. We’ve never broken up. The idea of quitting is just laughable. This isn’t something you can quit. This is a life sentence.
You make Ween sound like Scientology.
It’s close. You can’t get out of this band. [Laughs.]
I was listening to that old Ween song, “Cover It With Gas and Set It on Fire,” and one of the lyrics is “He’s a hobble with a wobble at the gang rape.”
Were you at all hesitant about mentioning gang rape in a song? And not just once, it gets called back again and again.
It’s about a mutated troll on LSD. I mean, it’s got the word “rape” in it, but it’s got nothing to do with rape. Nothing in that song is supposed to make any sense. The next line is “It’s an earth chock, war plot, peppermint lasso.” If you think there’s some kind of statement in there, you’re fucking doing more drugs than we were.
Well, what about “Piss Up a Rope?” It’s got lyrics like “You can wash my balls with a warm wet rag” and “On your knees, you big-bootied bitch, start sucking.”
I wrote that song for my wife.
Really? Are you being serious?
“Piss Up a Rope” is just a funny expression that I copped from my dad. When I was a kid, he used to say, “Aw, go piss up a rope.” It was just nonsense. It was like, “Aw, go shit in your hat” or whatever. It was funny because it was stupid and meaningless.
What’s the trick to writing lyrics that are both misogynistic and funny? Is it just not caring if the listener gets offended?
I never think about how people will react. And the humor part of it, that occupies a very small space of what we do. It’s not like we have a quota for each record of how many songs have to be funny.
But a lot of your songs are funny. Are they not intended to be funny?
They are, sure. But there’s a lot of humor in music in general. Even Prince has a wicked sense of humor. When he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, he obviously wasn’t taking himself seriously. The Beatles were funny as hell. If you watch those early interviews with them, their shit was so witty and off-the-cuff. And they were constantly being misunderstood. It’s the price you pay for trying to bring some humor to music.
But the Beatles never wrote lyrics like “You fucked up, you fuckin’ Nazi whore!” Lucy was in the sky with diamonds, not at a gang rape.
You’re asking can anything be funny? Can things like rape be funny?
I guess I am, yeah.
[Long pause.] There are probably things that should be off limits, but it’s all about the context. It’s how you use it. A line like “he’s a hobble with a wobble at the gang rape,” that’s probably the right context.
Because it doesn’t make any fucking sense?
Right, right. [Laughs.] There aren’t any women advocacy groups who’d have a problem with a hobble with a wobble, even if he is at a gang rape. I don’t think so, anyway.