Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) of Ween: The White Pepper Interview
TapeOp #17 May/June 2000
Ween gets away with murder. It is one of the few bands that writes, records and releases exactly what it wants. The group’s songs can be daring, funny, offensive, and tender. Composed of Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) and Aaron Freeman (aka Gene Ween), Ween has released nine full-length records so far. Melchiondo was kind enough to share his thoughts on recording when he should have been shoveling snow.
Okay, the first thing I have to know is what the hell is the end solo in "Voodoo Lady"?
If I remember correctly, Andrew Weiss did a lot of that. I think it’s a [Yamaha] SPX90 or an old rack mount Effectron-type delay that has knobs you can turn and hold buttons. So you can go, "WAHH UNH EEH AHH!" and scroll through the programs while turning the knobs. A lot of the stuff we do, especially when we do things with Andrew, has tons and tons of tracks. And then when it comes time to mix, you just sort through it. It’s sort of the P-Funk way, except white. [laughs] It’s actually a huge part of our listening. Up against The Beatles, Parliament Funkadelic has been my favorite band since I was a teenager. I started buying the Funkadelic records when they were still a quarter. Andrew turned me onto them.
So you’ve known him for a long time?
Yeah. We’ve known Andrew and been working with him since around ’85.
I was curious about what his role is exactly. Calling someone a producer can mean a myriad of things. How early does he get involved in the production?
We didn’t work with Andrew on this last record actually.
Yeah. But in the past, except the country record, he’s had a huge, huge, huge role in all the records. And it’s been different every time. For the first album, we went to his house, sat in his living room and made "GodWeenSatan" for about a year. We did tons and tons of songs starting with the first track. While we were doing that, we were also working at home. Aaron and I lived together then, and we were doing things on the four-track. But the stuff at home was more who we were, because we did it every single day. So when it came time to do the second record, we decided to use the four-track stuff rather than rerecord everything at Andrew’s. So we did the next two albums that way, except Andrew mixed all that stuff and made it sound a hell of a lot better. In my opinion, "Pure Guava" is one of the best-sounding records done on a four-trackbecause of Andrew mostly.
So that’s a cassette four-track record?
That album and "The Pod" were done on a Tascam Porta-3 or Porta-4. It had these dial faders on it instead of knobs.
What were you using for mics?
Just a Realistic Highball. We used this one sucky mic that we got at Radio Shack on all that stuff. And it wasn’t because we were trying to have a low-fi aesthetic about it. Later on, everybody was, "Oooh low-fi." But, to us, we always thought it was dog shit. It was just the mic that we had. We didn’t even have a [Shure] Beta 57 or any other standard mic.
It’s interestingover the years Radio Shack has had some gems.
All my shit is Radio Shack at home, not my receivers. But my speakers have always been Radio Shack. I used to have this little mixing console that we used to do everything on. It was for DJs. I would DJ school dances and parties with that. But in the early days, before we even had the four-track, we would use that with two tape decks and bounce back and forth. We also have one of those cheese-dick reverbs that they made back then. It’s a Realistic reverb unit with only one setting. And we got a Realistic "Moog." Have you ever seen one of those?
No! When did they come out?
I guess in the 70s. The whole "The Mollusk" CD is done with that thinga lot of the synths on it anyway. It was licensed by Moog to Realistic. It’s really small.
Cool. I was wondering what you guys used for a synth. So going back to "GodWeenSatan," you said you were working simultaneously at home and at Andrew’s.
Were you rerecording things at Andrew’s that you had come up with at home?
We brought in all of our four-track tapes and rerecorded everything for "GodWeenSatan" in Andrew’s living room. Except for a few songs at the end, like "Birthday Boy," were from our home tapes. But then for the second record, "The Pod," and the third record, "Pure Guava," we decided, "Fuck that." And to this day, the concept of demos sucks to us. So, we decided to have Andrew just mix our four-track stuff, and we’d put that out. So, he was just mixing the stuff then. But he was doing so much to it as he was mixing that he got producer credits on those records. So the second and third records were done at home.
It’s amazing how clean they are.
Yeah. "Pure Guava" especially for some reason. The thing was, though, for us, a four-track was just four tracks. We very, very rarely would do bounces. Because then it would sound like shit. It’s impossible to make it sound good when you start doing that.
Are you still using a cassette four-track?
Yeah. We’re not making our records that way. But I still have my four-track. I have an ADAT, too. There’s something about the four-track. When you record something on it, it does something to the sound of it. It has an instant vibe. It’s really, really weird. And then when the ADATs first came out, we were really excited about the cheap eight-track format, but they sounded like shit. I’ve heard that since then, they’ve made some improvements.
They’ve increased the recording resolution from 16-bit to 20-bit.
We bought the first batch of them and recorded "Chocolate and Cheese" on them. We spent more money trying to undo that record than we did making it.
What do you mean by "undo"?
Well, we bought three ADATs and rented a studio. And weme, Aaron and Andrewstarted going out there every day to work on the record. And all along, it was like, "Why does this sound so bad?" It sounded like glass or something. Nobody knew about ADATs at the time, and they were real buggy and they would break. So we took the whole record when we were done and threw it to tape. We ran it through tube mic preamps and stuff. There’s the expression, "You can’t polish a turd." Well, that’s what we were dealing with at the time. So we got Howie Weinberg involved. He’s a mastering engineer at Master Disc. And he said people were coming in every day with the same complaint. When it was all done, we were so frustrated with it. We hated it. But now I like it a lot, now that I’m away from it. But we were really upset because we had worked really hard on the music for that for a long time. After we did that record, Howie, who’s a Ween fan, said, "If you can get me involved in the process a little earlier on I’d like to help."
The country record was analog right?
Yeah. That was totally analog. They were amazed at the studio that we wanted to use the tape machine. I think because Nashville is such a music factory that everyone wants to do everything digitally. But we didn’t, and the engineer was like, "Great! I’m glad." The funny thing about that record is that they have such a system for doing things down there. They had all the gear in the studio already. Everyone uses the same shit. They have one of those little AmpegI forget what they’re calledB-15? It’s one of those fold-out cabinet amps and a [Fender] Twin and a piano and a drum kit. And these guys [the musicians] just walked in. The engineer spent about half an hour getting sounds and that was it! We just worked with what the engineer was comfortable with, and what the producer, Ben Vaughn, was happy with. We wanted to let them kind of dictate where it was going to go, so it wouldn’t sound like a contemporary record but like a Nashville record.
For "The Mollusk," I read that you guys rented a house on the East coast to record. What machines did you bring out there?
We bought a Tascam sixteen-track tape deck for that. We took some of the advance and invested in that because we knew we didn’t want to use ADATs anymore. I guess it’s an ATR60.
Is that a one-inch machine?
Yeah. And we had bought a board to do "Chocolate and Cheese"something we could afford. It’s a CAD [Conneaut Audio Devices]. That record we did differently than the other ones. We went back to just Aaron and I during the recording. We holed up at the beach house. There wasn’t a lot of gear. We just threw it down and gave it to Andrew to mix. But once he started mixing, he was, "Look, you gotta redo this. You gotta redo that …"
Just because some of your engineering wasn’t up to snuff?
Our engineering fuckin’ sucks! [laughs] I can engineer on a four-track but … I don’t know. It’s terribleespecially if it’s just the two of us. Because if Aaron’s doing a track, I have to engineer, and if I’m doing a track, he has to engineer. You have to do everything yourself. I think this is why we enjoyed making the country record so much. For the first time, we didn’t do anything. We wrote the songs, and we sang. And I played guitar on a few songs. But that was about it. But on "The Mollusk," Andrew threw a million synthesizers on it. It’s our synthesizer record.
So he added a lot of analog synth after you guys?
Yeah. We added a lot during the recording. But when he got it, he just went to town. He loves to collect [effect processing] boxes, toys, any old broken down synths he can get his hands on. He’s got the shit all over his house. And when we were done, it was almost like a gurgling diary or something. [laughs]
I have to ask, which of you is the Jethro Tull fan?
That’s all of us, actually. We call it the "regal factor," you know, Fairport Convention, Steel Ice Band, Tull, even the more foul shit like Gentle Giant, ELP. We’ve listened to tons and tons of prog rock.
And you came out of it okay!
Not really [laughs]. We haven’t even released the most heinous of that shit that we’ve done. We’ve made some very unlistenable prog rock. But we do want to make a record that’s basically one tune in fifteen parts at some point.
You mean something "epic"?
What’s the new record, "White Pepper" like?
This record we did at Bearsville Studios in New York. We rented a cottage on the ocean up in Maine last summer and wrote there. After that, we took some time off. Then we rented the same house that we used for "The Mollusk" and wrote the rest of it there. This record is all songs. There’s not a lot of jams on it. We were trying to go for a more Beatley thing. It’s very melodic. We played all the songs on tour last year. And we did it more as a full-band format instead of just the two of us. It’s very … I don’t know what to say about it. It sounds like Wings, basically. It’s like the Beatles but not quite as good and with more distorted guitars. [laughs]
So the people you’ve been playing with live went into the studio with you?
Sort of. Mostly it was Aaron and I with our drummer. Our keyboard player plays on some tunes. And our bass player plays on a couple of tunes.
Is there any drum machine on this record?
Do you see yourselves evolving into a more traditional band?
On this record, definitely. But now I want to head back in the other direction. This record is fine. But it’s not ugly enough. And I realized, that in order to do that, we need to revert back. We try to keep it interesting. That’s what Ween has kind of been about. Even for touring, we change our configuration every year.
Just to keep it fresh?
It’s what you have to do if you want to keep going at it for a long time. So for our next record, we want to get a warehouse and setup permanently. I don’t like going to a place for a month to make the album and being on the clock. Everyday there you’re spending your money. I prefer to do it like we’ve done with the majority of our records: to always be working on our record. So every song that we record is in contention for our album. Then when it comes time for our next record, we have 500 songs, or whatever, to choose from. The notebooks come out and everybody writes down what they like. Then you just mix it and fix it.
I’m not sure if Andrew will be involved in your warehouse space or not, but it seems like with all of your experience four-trackin’ and, now, in bigger studios that you and Aaron should be getting more comfortable as engineers and with the results.
How good something sounds is relative, too. You should be able to make do with whatever you have. In theory, you should be able to make anything sound good if you can play at all. We do everything direct. I don’t know anything about microphones at all!
I was wondering if you have any interesting techniques that you’ve come up with? What’s it like when you’re doing your four-track stuff?
Fast, very, very fast. That’s our motto: "Quantity, not quality." [laughs] If you record five songs, chances are you’ll have one or two good ones versus slaving over one that probably sucks. If you have to slave over it, it’s probably no good anyway. Aaron doesn’t like to do vocals after one or two shots. My guitar playing definitely gets worse after the first or second pass. If you’ve recorded yourself as much as we have, you learn what you’re capable of and what your limits are and when it’s counter productive. We sent Aaron out in the snow in his underwear on the first record to sing. On "Chocolate and Cheese," on the song "Candy," we put Aaron with a wireless mic in the trunk of my ’76 Cadillac, and I drove him around the parking lot going about 60 miles per hour while Andrew was recording him inside! He couldn’t even hear the track. So all the stuff you hear on that song was from him being slammed around in the trunk! There’s a lot of really stupid stuff that we’ve done.
That’s the stuff I love, though. So why did he have to sing in the snow?
For the song "Bumble Bee" on "GodWeenSatan." Aaron had been mowing the lawn and he ran over a bees’ nest, and he got stung, and we wrote the song. We were 15 or 16 when we wrote that song. So when it came time to redo it at Andrew’s, it was the dead of winter and the memory of the bees had been gone for almost a year. So it was like, "Hmmm, what would Sinatra do? How do we get Aaron in the original spirit?" So he agreed to take off his clothes and go outside in the snow. And we were just staring at him through the living room window while he’s trying to sing "Bumble Bee" [laughs]. It’s just stupid. It’s more funny to us I think than it actually is. For the ballads and stuff, like on "The Mollusk," we sent Aaron out to the ocean. And he would do his vocals with the waves crashing around him. We always carry a couple hundred feet of cords with us for a microphone and headphones.
I was wondering about "Cold Blows the Wind" (a traditional ballad on "The Mollusk"). Where did that song come from?
That was from the first night at the beach house we rented. We went there in the winter. The beach is really magical and intense in the winter. It’s a totally different thing. It’s freezing cold, no one’s around, all the houses are empty. And we were right on the ocean at the end of this island. So we came down and set up all our gear that afternoon and were waiting to start recording that night. But we didn’t have anything to record. So Aaron had this book with him that was like 15th century folk ballads or something. And that was a tune we found in there. So he started singing it and playing it. And it was like, "Fuck it. Let’s just do this." And it came out pretty well. But as we continued on writing songs for the next few months and recording, that song ended up being more in the spirit of the record than some others that we had done. So we just used it.
So did you guys really use up 3,600 hours of tape for "The Pod"?
Probably. If you add it up, I think we would have had to record 11 hours a day for the two years we lived there. Something like that. That was all that we pretty much did at that point.
Are you intimate with what’s on these tapes or do you forget after a while?
I have really no idea what’s on them. It’s stupid. We made the mistake of saying that on the record. So everybody wants to know why we don’t put it out. But we’re kind of wary of any retrospective thing while we’re still making new records. So I never, ever listen to them. For all I know, the tapes are decayed. I have two big computer boxes filled with these tapes. There’s no labels, or cases or anything. Someday someone is going to have to sit down and check ’em out. There are reasons why you don’t release things. Most of the time, it’s because they’re abominably horrible. But I’m sure there’s some great stuff in there somewhere.
Also, you guys are probably still too close to it. Sometimes what the fans want is totally different.
That’s what I’ve found. Every time we make a record, I’m sure everyone’s going to hate us. With the leap from "Pure Guava" to "Chocolate and Cheese," where we weren’t making the records on four-track anymore, I was sure that everyone was going to think we sold out because we made a multitrack record. But then life went on. Then after that, we made the country record, which I knew everyone was going to hate. There was no question in my mind. But as it turns out, it was a great experience and it’s a cool record. I have the same feelings about this new record. Now we’ve made a hi-fidelity record at Bearsville Studios. It’s thundering. It’s really melodic.
You’re stuff has always had lots of melody though.
I think at the core of everything is songwriting. Regardless of how you make your record. If you record over some band’s demo on a normal bias tape and it’s a good song, it doesn’t really matter. People don’t really listen for that stuff so much. So I think we’ve gotten by on our songwriting.
Well, also, the way you produce each song is a big part of your appeal, too. You always seem to be able to define a mood or a moment or an idea very concisely. It’s always about what the song wants or needs. I guess that’s why you have to genre hop so much.
We’re not even conscious of that. We don’t set out that way. We don’t say, "We have to have a little bit of this and a little bit of that." We just pick the best tunes. I think that’s why most of our recordsthe ones recorded over time instead of in one month in a studioplay more like compilation records. With "The Mollusk," for example, those songs were written during a very defined time frame. When you start writing like that, you get onto a certain vibe and feel and tendencies for a while, six months to a year. A lot of it has to do with what you’re listening to at the time. And when you’re all done, sometimes it can be very cohesive. "The Mollusk" is my favorite Ween record because it’s the most complete thought. From the artwork to the sound of it to the songs and the lyrics, it was done with one vibe.
It sounds like the new record is similarly focused.
I don’t know what to say about the new record. Because, right now, it’s the last record in the whole world I want to hear. It’s like our wives and babies record, because we have both now since the last record.
Did you have to adjust your approach at all to work at Bearsville?
Not really. That’s why we got the guy that we did. The Dust Brothers were going to do our record at one point. And Todd Rundgren was going to do it at one point. But these people have such a "thing." So, do you take a chance, spending all your money to have someone else’s "thing" over your "thing"? In the end, we decided on Chris Shaw, who’s just a great engineer, instead of someone who’s going to put their stamp on itlike Daniel Lanois. These are all great producers, but we decided to go with an engineer and to produce it with him. So, no, it wasn’t hard to adapt to that environment. Recording in a studio is really no different than doing it at home. I mean, when it comes down to it, I don’t play any different because I’m in a studio.