Laughs Last

It's time to stop underestimating Ween-just ask David Sanborn.

SERIOUS FUN Gene and Dean Ween’s oddball pop has spawned an unlikely empire.

SERIOUS FUN Gene and Dean Ween’s oddball pop has spawned an unlikely empire. Photograph: Bob Heil

Solicit a description of Ween from the average listener and you’re unlikely to hear words like musicianship and sincerity. But those terms came up early in TONY’s recent phone chat with Grammy-winning smooth-jazz saxist David Sanborn, who has an unlikely cameo on the new Ween full-length, La Cucaracha. Asked whether he regards the track he graces, the sultry ballad “Your Party”—a sung thank-you note in which the narrator recalls delights like “candy and spices and tricolored pastas”—as a parody, Sanborn asserts, “No, not really. They do everything with a level of musicianship and sincerity.” Calling a few days later from his Pennsylvania home, the veteran duo’s 37-year-old frontman, Aaron Freeman (a.k.a. Gene Ween), concurs. “As much as people say we’re making fun of something, I think Ween’s music has a very intense sense of intimacy.”

Some defensiveness is at play in these answers, but the musicians are right to defy the blanket joke-band classification that has always dogged Ween. The outfit started humbly in 1984, as the lo-fi recording project of two New Hope, Pennsylvania, middle-school buddies, Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo (who answers to Dean Ween), also now 37. “We didn’t like each other,” Freeman recalls. “He was a jock, and I was more of a trench-coat guy. But we sat next to each other in typing class and both realized we were into music.” More than two decades on from that fateful meeting, the duo is releasing its ninth widely available LP, its first for Rounder after a long stint on Elektra. To boot, Ween currently presides over one of the most devoted cult fan bases in American music, complete with message-board speculation, feverish tape-trading and all the other minutiae that position them as a grassroots phenomenon to rival any jam band.

“I remember when people first started booking vacations around us, coming to seven or eight shows,” recalls Freeman. “There’s one guy, Johnny, who comes to every single Ween show. He’s this big guy from Tennessee and he’s got this beard and he [Imitates Southern drawl] tawlks lawk theeuz. And this is, like, his lot in life. We always make sure he gets backstage passes.”

Some might find it tough to reconcile such loyalty with the band’s reputation for silliness, cemented when Gene and Dean’s maniacally sunny single “Push Th’ Little Daisies” whipped up a brief MTV buzz in 1992. Sure, Ween’s catalog overflows with undeniably hilarious tunes, from “Pollo Asado,” a meandering taco-shack order recited over a dreamy island groove, to “Pandy Fackler,” the story of a hapless groupie “suckin’ dicks under the promenade.” But no description of the band is complete without a mention of its formidable dark side—witness “Baby Bitch,” a scathingly honest account of a nasty breakup, from 1994’s Chocolate and Cheese—or its penchant for gorgeously lush psych-pop, which came into full bloom on the trio of albums that immediately preceded La Cucaracha.

The new disc contains plenty of memorable songs in the band’s typical smorgasbord of genres, from the thumping techno anthem “Friends” to the rubbery reggae jam “The Fruit Man.” Asked if any style is off-limits, Freeman replies, “If it’s Mickey and I collaborating, then it’s Ween.” The unifying factor is that the band dives headfirst into each piece, which is where Sanborn came in. “Mickey and [producer] Andrew Weiss were like, ‘We need saxophone on “Your Party,” but getting a sax player is pretty uncool, unless it’s David Sanborn—’cause he’s amazing.’ ” Not only was Sanborn game, he saw fit to include an homage to his irreverent hosts. “If you listen very carefully, he even made a retarded noise at the end,” Freeman notes.

The singer found room for a gag of his own in the song’s refrain (“We had the best time at your party / The wife and I thank you very much”), though the target was himself. “Our friends are all married with one or two kids,” explains Freeman, a domesticated dad like Melchiondo. “It’s not very rock & roll to talk about ‘the wife and I.’ So I’m trying to make you realize how very uncool you are—and I am too.”

La Cucaracha is out now. Ween plays Terminal 5 Fri 30 and Sat 1.