For nearly 30 years, Aaron Freeman was known endearingly to his listeners as Gene Ween. The co-founder and lead singer of the surrealist and whimsical psychedelic band Ween, Freeman was a vocal shape-shifter that helped define the continually evolving sound of a band that innovated through emulating. From a lo-fi bedroom band to an epic live act, Ween recorded 11 studio records in 28 years before Freeman put an end to the project in 2012. Realizing the band’s loose lifestyle had led to a life of addiction, Aaron decided to get help.
Thankfully Aaron has come back to music. After battling a creative block and recording an album of Rod McKuen covers, Freeman, now two years sober, returns with his first album of original work since the band’s demise. While the album is a rebirth for Freeman, fans will still find those unmistakable Gene Ween stylings that have always tied his songs together. Using his given name with an undeniable and inherent metaphor within, FREEMAN shows Aaron at his most honest and heartfelt, but it certainly didn’t come easy.
NG: Hello sir. How’s everything?
AF: Everything is good, man.
Are you still living up in Woodstock?
Yeah, I’m in Woodstock, but I was in the city for a couple of days. I did a couple of shows and New York City-when-your-record-comes-out stuff.
How long have you lived up there?
I’ve been in Woodstock about a year and a half now.
Has it been a good place for creative energy?
Yeah, absolutely. I lived in the same town of New Hope, Pennsylvania since I was 11, so I’ve never really lived anywhere else. But yeah, the New Agers and the Jewish momma hippies will tell you that there’s some sort of crystal alignments in the geology of Woodstock.
Oh well that’s good.
It’s good for creativity and things like that. And I think it’s true. I came up here and I love it.
How did you get into teaching at the School of Rock?
That was through my really good friend Paul Green who started the School of Rock and he sold the franchise a few years ago and I called him from New Hope right after Ween broke up and said “Hey Paul, this town’s getting kind of weird. People are turning on me. I’m getting all kinds of weird glances and I want to get out of here and Paul said, “why don’t you come to Woodstock? I just moved up here and I’m starting basically a school of rock but with me as the head.” And he had some other plans too, like maybe a college of music. He basically convinced me to move up here and it was the greatest move I could have made, because now I work with kids doing the School of Rock thing.
Do your kids know your pedigree yet, or do you try and keep that part of your past hidden?
They do, but just by default. They don’t because they’re young. Their parents have heard of Ween, that’s for sure. But I’m just a 90’s guy to them. “Push the Lil Daisies” came out before three-quarters of these keys kids were born. It’s really good, I basically found myself playing guitar all day, teaching these kids how to play songs by other bands and that’s just been really inspiring and it kind of broke me into getting back into music. I really do. I love the kids. I walk around Woodstock and they’re like “Hey Aaron.” They look at me like I may as well be a math teacher at their school. I absolutely love it.
How long were these songs on the new album in the making? Were they written over time or did they all hit at once?
Yeah, I think with my music it all gathers in my subconscious for a while and a lot of these songs (and this isn’t a negative thing or a recovery thing), but they’ve been playing around in my brain. Some of it is stuff that I’ve read or done or explored. Anyway, usually what happens is it gets stored in there and then it just spills out. That’s just always how I’ve worked. One day I was just sitting here on the porch that I’m sitting on now, looking out at the rocks and the chipmunks with my guitar and it just came out. It just kept coming and all of a sudden I had 15 or 16 songs. It was great. I really didn’t know if I could write again, so to feel it coming out of me from that same place that it always had was just great.
Would you say these songs are more honest than a Ween song? For the most part this seems like a more personal and from-the-heart kind of record.
Yeah, absolutely. Sure. I’m 44. I really do believe in that stuff. I remember thinking ‘oh everyone I know has two kids” or something like that. We’re all getting up there. I don’t have to sing about that Jimmy Jack Pammity Flack like Ween did. And it was fun and it was great. Mickey and I were growing up, but my songwriting hasn’t changed much. If you listen to songs like “Birthday Boy”, I wrote that was when I was 20 and I think it’s very similar to songs on this record. “More than the World” is like my second “Birthday Boy.” Things change, but they don’t change that much. This record is stripped-down too, which I’ve always wanted to do. There are no bells and whistles on this one. Basically because I did write it on acoustic guitar and I did want it like that. I was feeling simple and tender and I wanted it to feel like that. And we only had 8 days to do it. This was just bare bones, all about the songs and get them out. And I love that about this record.
Were you at all afraid that you would have trouble writing in sobriety after all these years of doing the opposite?
Yeah, absolutely I was. I think anyone in recovery has that problem. Especially when they’ve been in the act of addiction most of their life like I have. You realize that you don’t have many coping skills. Especially if you’re in rock n roll, you don’t have many responsibilities, even though I probably should have. I DID have responsibilities; I just pretended that I didn’t have responsibilities. I got out of it and in the last two years I feel like I’ve been catching up on 20 years of growth, just on real simple things and how to be an adult. It’s cleared up my creativity for sure, but that’s just one of those things, I’ve read so much on artists and writers block and how the creative mind works, but in the end you don’t have much control over it. You can work on trying to be creative for two hours a day and it still might not come back. It’s just one of those random things in the universe. I don’t even want to talk about it because I’m superstitious, but it came back to me and I’m just so glad.
When you first went solo, what prompted you to do Rod McKuen songs? Was that in anyway because you had your own writer’s block? Use someone else’s stuff?
Yeah, it really was that simple. After the last Ween record, “La Cucaracha,” even before that, I hadn’t written anything. I’d written two songs and really, the writer’s block went on for 7 years. It really was that simple. My friend Ben Vaughn had this project that he always wanted to work on, and that was bringing Rod McKuen to more people. I thought it was perfect for me because I love to sing, I wasn’t writing anything and it sounds great. So that’s why I did it. And I liked his music and I liked his lyrics. It was just a great opportunity to do something and get out of my headspace a little bit. It was great though. I got to meet Rod McKuen, he said he loved the record–there was a lot of good energy. I was pretty fucked up, but it was still good energy.
In the in between time, were you curious about what would happen next? After the Rod McKuen thing were you already considering your restart?
No, because I was too lost in my addiction. I really can’t say. The only real thing I thought about was how to get some help. And I did. But at that point, I just kept thinking about how to make this better– maybe I could just do festivals and not tour so I don’t have to tempt myself. But basically my brain was fried and I just couldn’t get out of the cycle of addiction. Everybody knew it like my family and friends, but it takes the person to finally get it. So that was it and I went in and 6 months in, it finally clicked and I realized things had to change. If you sit in the barber shop long enough, you’re going to get the haircut. I knew that I had to change a lot about my life and change things about my life and really protect myself from things that aren’t necessarily other people’s fault. I have to protect myself because I may not be strong enough to protect myself. Really it was just a one-day-at-a-time thing and that’s how I live now. When I first got home from rehab, I didn’t know if I was going to write another record. I didn’t know if I was going to make music again. I had to get my priorities straight with sobriety. They say if you keep going with something, good things will happen by default. And they did. I just see this record as a really nice bonus to the bigger picture. I really identify myself as an artist and songwriter and I can do it in a healthier way.
The Ween audience probably has addiction issues similar to yours. Do you have any advice for them, or do you stay out of those matters?
I mean it’s hard. It was hard. I’m really sensitive to things, especially in recovery, you’re just an open sore. I had to end all that stuff. I made the mistake of going on the internet all the time. I was reading what the people were saying and this and that and getting vibed out. But I’ve always given credit to Ween fans for really going through just about everything with Ween. We put them through all kinds of shit and they stuck there. I think and hope that this is the biggest thing that they’ll be stuck with. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because they’re Ween fans. But then the whole time I had to think, none of this matters– whatever anybody thinks, says, talks about, pontificates about, it doesn’t matter. Only the music matters. You know, that’s really the bottom line. I made this record, and even if this record sucked, it would be a statement that ‘hey you can move on and you can do this’ and I think a lot of people appreciate that in life. I’m glad to maybe be an example for some people. If there are some fans that are pissed because maybe we broke their adolescent dream, whatever! There are always going to be haters and lovers. I mean the record has only been out for two days and I’m already getting tremendous feedback from EVERYBODY. I’m really happy about that.
Are you excited to get back on the road? Or does that make you nervous?
It’s all new to me. It’s a new band. What I do know is it’s all great people and incredible musicians. We just did two shows in New York. They were cool. They were definitely new shows where we’re trying to figure out where we are as a band and its definitely going to evolve into a new and different thing. Being on the road is always a grueling thing to do in general. You’re living on truckstops and crappy food and hotels, but what’s nice is I can have control over how things go. If I don’t want to party backstage then there’s no party backstage. And there’s nobody that argues with me. I’m looking forward to it. I’m playing with younger guys and I’m psyched and they’re excited and it’s going to be really positive when we gel. I know what I’m doing. I know how to put on a good show whether I like it or not.
So are Ween songs off limits?
No, not at all! That’s never an issue and it was never an issue with Mickey either. He plays shows as the Dean Ween Group and they play Ween songs. It was never a thing. It was never that dramatic. This never had to do with the music itself. That’s something that Mickey and I can both have for the rest of our lives to be proud of. I will definitely be playing Ween. I’ll be playing things you never heard from Ween that I’m excited about, Rod McKuen songs, the new record, some covers I’ve always wanted to do. I got a lot to pull from.
When you went into doing the new record, was there a conscious idea to sound or not sound like Gene Ween or is that something inherent that never came up?
Yeah, it’s never anything I thought about and never anything I thought about when I was in Ween. The motto is it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a good song. If it sounds like Ween, that should be obvious. It’s a very fine line. When you start making efforts to sound like something else and don’t let it come somewhat naturally and somewhere it feels good you can really screw things up. It was when I dumbed myself down enough to make music, that’s when it happened.
Did you embrace your Jewish roots with this record?
I did! I did. I did. I’ve always been interested in Jewish history and religion. What happened? I was reading the Kabala right before I went into rehab and they have this old thing where you would envision the word of god which is the name of god which isn’t to be spoken. You’re supposed to envision it burned on to your forehead facing the sky and I remember thinking WOW. I read the Kabala and the Old Testament. My family has never been completely practicing, but I am very interested in that stuff. I think Jews have very similar blood and DNA going through them and that always fascinated me. There’s that and I was really into New Age stuff when I was a teenager.
Who are the “fuck you’s” for in the opening song?
Haha. I don’t know. Maybe the whole world. Maybe everybody who, I don’t know. Maybe it was a 9-year-old Aaron screaming from his bedroom when his family divorced. But maybe it’s a latent “fuck you all”. It came from the last couple of years when there isn’t a single person who believes a fucking word you say, except maybe 5 people. You are getting better, you are getting sober and maybe you are doing it for the right reasons. It’s one of those things where you figure out who your friends are when you go through something like this. And you have to be okay with that. I had a lot of people who I was seemingly friends with who dropped off the face of the planet when I left Ween and proceeded getting healthy. I mean fuck them.
Was it a conscious decision to start off with that song and move on from there? A clearing of the air and then the rest of it…
Absolutely. It’s totally autobiographical. Okay, this is the past two years, get this out of the way and here we go on the new journey. Who knows where we’re going together but we’re going.
So how are relations with the old guys?
You know it’s such a loaded question. I know you’re not doing that on purpose, but there’s not really much of a relationship, but we all had so much time together, so SO much dysfunction, I think everybody just wants some peace and quiet and that is just perfect with me right now.
Well, congrats to you and thanks for taking the time. I know you probably have to do a million of these when a record comes out.
It’s cool man. This is good. Some interviews are good; some are torture. This is good.