Ween: An Appreciation


Upon the recent news of the Ween breakup, I was sad, but couldn’t deny the simple truth of Aaron Freeman’s quote: “It’s been a long time, 25 years. It was a good run.”

It was only upon listening to this playlist from Montreal’s tireless compiler DJ Luv that I had the occasion to truly reflect on the band’s greatness and what they meant to me over the years.

I must have first heard of them through the punk rock media. That seems improbable now, but this was before the term, and concept, of “indie rock” had coalesced, and anyone vaguely DIY or underground could find themselves squeezed into the punk box. I do remember reading a great interview with Dean Ween in Flipside magazine. True to the punk-rock model of the time, it was a long, sprawling, seemingly unedited transcript of a conversation. One quote has always stuck with me, which I can’t find online so will paraphrase here: “You know, when you jam for three hours and then realize you’ve just written ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Those are always the best songs, man.”

I bought Pure Guava on cassette. My initial reaction, typical for the time, was something along the lines of “Hey man, this isn’t punk rock.” But I gave it a few more tries. The absurd lyrics and skewed vocals roped me in, but it must have been the pop hooks that kept me listening. And there was something so evocative about the photo of them on the porch of their house, surrounded by local weirdos.

Then I bought The Pod, which a lot of people seem to think is for hardcore fans only, but which still remains my favourite to this day. There was just something about how they synthesized a catchy, melodic pop sensibility with a twisted, alienating, noisy attitude that I loved, and still do.

Detractors claimed that Ween’s stuff was the kind of thing that “anyone could do.” Some of my musician friends argued that their stylistic pastiches, inside jokes and vocal fuckery were no different than what every kid does with their first 4-track. But to me, this quality was an asset: maybe anyone could do it, but these guys were the only ones with the nerve to actually do it—to not only record, but release these damaged, homespun pop gems.

Shortly after Chocolate and Cheese came out, something funny happened. All of a sudden a bunch of “normal” people (i.e. not just stoners and nerds) were into the band, even though they hadn’t really cleaned up their approach much at all—the production was slicker, but the sense of humour was just as sick and the music was still all over the place. I couldn’t figure out how they’d broken through to the mainstream, but as my friend pointed out, “hot chicks like Ween,” so it was all good. This was at a time when genuinely weird, original and creative artists like the Melvins, Flaming Lips and Daniel Johnston were getting major-label deals in a post-Nirvana fervor for all things “alternative.”

Around this time I saw them live for the first time, at the Phoenix in Toronto. The show was sloppy to the point of chaos, yet somehow incredibly engaging. “If you only knew,” Dean proclaimed at one point, wild-eyed. “If you only knew about the last 24 hours!”

For the finale, they started off with one of their own songs—I believe it was “I Can’t Put My Finger On It”—then segued into a bout of jamming with Gene doing a kind of pseudo-Eastern chant on top. This led into a more or less straight cover of “Dazed and Confused,” back into the chanting jam, back into their song. They turned on a drum machine and all left the stage except for bassist Andrew Weiss, who proceeded to perform a solo for about 10 minutes. Then the band came back on and did a cover of Prince’s “Shockadelica.” Between the announcement of the last song and the actual end, it must have been an hour.

It was a bit too close to a waking nightmare I used to have as a kid—lying in bed, I’d imagine a band or orchestra playing out their last note, but I couldn’t get the note to ever stop—so I skipped their next Toronto show, for the country album: a decision I’ve always regretted since my friend described their performance, supplemented with a pro Nashville piano player, fiddler and steel guitarist, as one of the best he’d ever seen.

Although I like it a lot now, the country album seemed a bit too jokey to me, and this marked the beginning of my moving away from heavy-duty fandom. I saw them live again a few years later, this time at the huge Warehouse. They had progressed into a tight ensemble, albeit one prone to incredibly long jams. But their audience was bigger than ever and they still seemed to be having fun. I left when it seemed like they were about to start an interminable jam, with warm feelings intact.

For the next few years, the band was like an old friend that you only check in with from time to time. I heard bits and pieces of their later albums—they had some good tunes and I was happy to hear them still doing their thing, but I didn’t feel any urge to buy the records or see them live. So when I heard about the breakup, I felt some sadness, but it was just another sign of the passing of time. It seemed like towards the end, their legendary appetite for debauchery had caught up with them, as it does for just about everyone.

But listening to the Luv playlist, there was so much to appreciate. The nasty, noisy early stuff; the pastiches of soft rock that approached pop perfection, then subverted it with a gleefully juvenile lyric; the songs so goofy that the band couldn’t even control their own laughter; the unexpectedly beautiful ballads, and the country songs, as ambitious as they are absurd: it was all so good. Like Guided by Voices, another one of my big 90s influences, they inspired with their audacity (wow, you could do that?), their progression from a lo-fi perversion of anthemic rock to the real deal; the fun they had onstage, and above all, their capacity for head-sticking hooks.

So RIP, Ween. Thanks for the memories, the inspiration and the tunes. See you on the reunion circuit—we may all be geriatric, but I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it work.

Precious Memories

Going through some files a little while ago, I found this document (undated, or rather re-dated to when I transferred files from an old computer, but judging by its references, seemingly from around 2004) detailing the best and worst WP shows up until that point.

I’ve had a lot of good and bad shows since then, but there’s something unique about these early, ultra-DIY adventures.

And so, from the vaults, unedited and unexpurged: The Best and Worst WP Shows Ever, circa 2004…

(Update: Part II of this retrospective here.)


1.     Living room show in Kitchener-Waterloo, November 2001

I was doing a weekend excursion with Chris Mills (Just Like The Movies). We had a night off and decided that we should show up in some town and spontaneously play a show. He found out that the Hidden Cameras had a gig in Kitchener-Waterloo, and Chris convinced them that we should play on the bill with them that night. When we got to KW, it became clear that the club was absolutely not into us playing. So we decided to go find ourselves a show.

We drove to the campus of Waterloo University. I got out of the car and walked into what looked like the main building. There were some chicks hanging out, so I went up to them and asked them if they knew someplace where a couple of crazy one-man bands could play that night. One of them says, “Yeah, how about my place!”

So we went to this girl Brenda’s apartment. She invited over a few friends and we did a show in her living room, in front of eight people. There was no PA, we just sang into the air, but we did the whole show with costume changes and everything. It was intimidating but exhilerating to play in front of such a tiny crowd who had no idea what they were getting into.

Afterwards, we headed down the street to the bar where the Hidden Cameras were playing. After their set, Chris and I, still in costume, bum rushed the stage and started singing. After a few songs I declared that we would keep going until we got shut down, at which point the sound guy came and turned off the PA. By popular demand, we headed back to Brenda’s house for an encore.

That night, I crashed at Joel from the Hidden Cameras’ place. I found out much later that he was hoping to get some action, and was all bummed out when he found out that I was not only straight but married. I feel a mixture of guilt and pleasure at having inadvertently cockteased a gay Canadian rock star…sorry Joel!

2.     New Orleans, August 2001

I was opening for Peaches on a tour of the Southern U.S. –  in August. The heat and humidity in New Orleans was unreal. The gig was a party at Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s house; they have a lounge set up in the basement. All the people were so friendly and the cliché is true, people in New Orleans have amazing rhythm. For this South tour I had practiced and reworked my set until the pacing was “perfect.” Miss Pussycat told me some time later that some friends of hers had been there, and based on their behaviour she’d assumed they were on acid. Then she saw them a few days later and they said they hadn’t been on acid, they’d just had their minds blown by The World Provider. To be compared to a powerful hallucinogen is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been paid…

3.     Basement show in Guelph, April 2002

I was playing at a house party with Chris. The Barmitzvah Brothers went on before us and they were amazing. I was drinking malt liquor and getting pretty wasted. So wasted, in fact, that I didn’t think about the fact that I was fiddling with my minidisc player in my pocket. When it was time for my set, I realized that I’d erased half my tracks. I was so annoyed, but somehow the negativity gave me good energy for the set. This show was mostly good because of the Barmitzvahs and the vibe at the house party.

4.     Uno-a-Go-Go – Chicago, October 2002

It was a one-man band festival in Chicago. Jake Austen, who puts out Roctober magazine, was putting on the fest. His wife was pregnant and went into premature labour so he had to miss the whole thing! I saw Shary Boyle’s Honkitonkioke the night before my set. She was great.

My show was in a bowling alley. I was playing on the “side stage” which meant in front of the aisles. There were about 15 other people on the bill; Bob Log was headlining. My wife came into town on a different flight which was delayed, and for some reason she had my costumes and my minidisc adaptor. She got in at the last minute and I did the set. It was my last show doing all the Elements of Style tunes, right before going into the studio to record new stuff, and the crowd was great. A chick came and stuck a dollar bill in my pants – I wish people did that more often. The next night we saw Lonesome Organist and he totally blew our minds.

5.     Sanchez Bros. Vernissage – Montreal, April 2003

The Sanchez Brothers invited me to play at their vernissage. They had made a film in their grandparents’ living room. One room of the gallery showed the film on a loop and in the other one, they recreated the living room down to the smallest detail. I had been playing a bunch of gigs, so I decided to do a set of tunes I don’t do very often: covers, older stuff, and still-in-progress new songs.

The Brothers invited me to come down early because their living-room set had an organ. I came down and figured out some stuff on it. At the show, their whole family including grandparents showed up and hung out in the living room. When I came and did the tunes on the organ, their grandmother was sitting in a wheelchair right beside me, rocking out. It was so awesome.

6.     El Mocambo show with Peaches and Mignon – Toronto, September 2001

This was a month or so after the South tour with Peach. It was her first Toronto show in a while. There were about 600 people packed into the Elmo upstairs, and they were really hyped up. I did the “perfect” set from the South tour and people were just going crazy. The Elmo shut down shortly after that. A few days after the show, I was at the Cinematheque and a guy came up to me and told me that my show changed his life.


1.     Berlin, July 2001

This was a huge bill, put on by the headlining band. They’re a great band and cool people, but as promoters they didn’t have all the bases covered, shall we say. Among those on the bill were Taylor Savvy, Mocky and myself. The gig was in this huge, cavernous club that seemed to have some bad kind of chemical in the air, asbestos or something. I had really bad allergies so whenever I’d step outside, I’d want to go back in, and then I’d come back in and breathe chemical dust until I had to go back out.

The door was at 9 but the show didn’t start until midnight. Because of the delay, the promoters asked us to cut our set short. We explained to her that Mocky, Taylor Savvy and The World Provider weren’t one band. Her response: “Yes you are!” What can you say to that, so we agreed to shorten each of our sets.

The sound guy had cancelled at the last minute, so they got some other guy to come and do it, who seemed none too pleased. During Savvy’s set, the above-mentioned promoter came up to me and said “When is he going to be done?”

“He just started,” I said.

“Well, someone told me he was going to be done in ten minutes.”

“Who told you that?”

“I don’t know – I’m too pissed,” she said.

Shortly after this exchange, the sound guy got on the mic, ran to the front of the stage, and started angrily berating Savvy in German. During his set. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Despite all this, my set actually went over fairly well with the crowd. And I was excited to be playing in Berlin. But there’s no denying that it was a Murphy’s Law kinda night.

2.     Hamilton, April 2002

This was on one of the weekend jaunts with Chris. The show was on a Monday night and it was pouring rain. As we were pulling into town, we realized while listening to the radio that the promoter of our gig was doing a show on the campus radio station. We drove over to the station hoping to do some extra promo. Not only did he not seem particularly happy to see us, and wasn’t into having us appear on the air, but he didn’t even have our CDs to play on his show. That was the first bad sign.

When we got to the club, there was a situation: the sound guy had come and kidnapped the PA because the club hadn’t been paying him. There was some talk of the show being cancelled, but then finally someone came through with another PA.

During the gig, the band we were opening for didn’t even watch our set. They were playing pool in the other room and all their friends stayed with them there. There were five people in the audience during my set: Chris, two guys who’d showed up to DJ (but didn’t because of the PA fiasco), and this couple who’d come from KW after seeing us the night before. I was so tired and out of it that I played a half-assed show. In retrospect, the fact that people came from a whole other town just to see us – and were effectively the only actual audience – should have motivated me to at least put some effort into the show. Giving such a lame performance for those people is one of the biggest regrets of my World Providing career.

3.     Atlanta, August 2001

This was the only bad show on the Peaches Dirty South tour. There’s not too much to say about my set; the people of Atlanta just weren’t feeling it. I went on after Har Mar Superstar, who totally slew the audience, and I guess they just weren’t in the mood for my thing. He’s a hard act to follow, I don’t know why I didn’t go on first.

The vibe of the club was really fucked. Everyone seemed to be on coke. They had set aside a VIP room because it was rumoured that Madonna was going to show up, but she never did, so it was just full of all these sketched-out people.

After the gig we went to a crazy strip club. People had recommended that we stay at the adjacent hotel, but our tour manager went to look at a room (for which he had to be accompanied by an armed guard), and he said that the bed was covered in ants, so he took a pass. At 4:00 in the morning at the strip club, a woman went around shining a flashlight in people’s eyes and shouting, “If you ain’t WORKIN’ here, or you ain’t FUCKIN’ someone who’s workin’ here, GET THE FUCK OUT!”

Afterwards we went to this crazy diner with a bunch of hardcore dykes. The waiter had a necklace made of human teeth, and while he was showing us the specials, he pulled out his dick and slapped it against the menu – a sight which both Peach and I later admitted we thought we’d hallucinated. A really creepy guy came and sat beside me, and was telling me stories about how he sold bulk acid and was part of the Aryan Nation.

In retrospect, it may have been a bad show, but so many crazy things happened that night that it kind of balances out.

Magnetic Powers

Friend of the WP Julia Kennedy recently posted this video on a certain popular social networking site, and it took me back.

The earliest WP recordings contained a lot of blatant, shameless Stephin Merritt-isms. I recall once spending a large portion of a European trip trying to rewrite a melodic line to hide the influence of the Luna song I’d stolen it from, only to realize after it had been recorded and released that the whole song was a total Magnetic Fields ripoff (that also contained a completely unchanged Guided by Voices riff, but I digress).

I have to admit I haven’t kept up too much with Merritt’s output in recent years, but the early albums are brilliant.

This song has some of my favourite lyrics. He goes from this in the first verse:

On a Ferris wheel
Looking out on Coney island
Under more stars than
There are prostitutes in Thailand
Our hair in the air
Our lips blue from cotton candy
When we kiss it feels
Like a flying saucer landing

to this in the second:

In Las Vegas where
The electric bills are staggering
The decor hog wild
And the entertainment saccharine
What a golden age
What a time of right and reason
The consumer’s king
And unhappiness is treason