Aaron Freeman is no longer who he once was. On his upcoming as-yet-untitled solo album, due this summer, the singer-guitarist has opted not to go by the moniker of Gene Ween, under which he performed as part of cult rock act Ween for nearly 30 years before leaving the band in 2012. More importantly, though, Freeman, 44, has transformed himself from someone who'd long struggled with drug addiction into a sober and healthy new man.
Freeman, who released Marvelous Clouds, an album of covers of folk songwriter Rod McKuen in 2012, spoke to us about his first solo album of all-original material (credited to FREEMAN), overcoming addiction and why Ween are never coming back.
Your first solo album was all covers. Was that something you had to do to get back in the swing of recording after leaving Ween?
That was kind of like a bridge album. I was in a bad way when I recorded Marvelous Clouds, and I loved the fact that it was there. It was a great opportunity for me to do something else and work with a friend — [producer] Ben Vaughn — and it was just a therapeutic thing for me to do. Honestly, in reality I had no idea whether I was ever gonna write a record again. So I see that as a bridge moment for me. And I love it for that.
It was a bridge from what to what?
It was my recovery and realizing that I'd been creatively and personally disattached with Mickey [Melchiondo, a.k.a Dean Ween] in Ween for years. And so it was just kind of that point where you're just realizing that things are changing and that was a wonderful opportunity for me to get into a different space. But I wrote the new record, god, a year-and-a-half later.
During your rehabilitation, were you apprehensive about whether or not your songwriting or relationship with music would change as a result of getting sober?
Absolutely. First, getting sober is not a thing where you've reached nirvana all of a sudden. When you really get sober after a long time, after years and years, you're left feeling very vulnerable. And in fact, your brain is really trying to repair itself, and it takes a while. So I held onto the belief that well, I've been writing songs — pretty much the same kind of songs, very present, journalistic songs — since I began writing songs when I was 18. And from the day I stopped panicking about "was I ever gonna write again?" — within a couple weeks, [songwriting] started. It really is like a muse that comes to you, and it was wonderful. So now that portal is open again and I'm really looking forward to making music in the future.
It's striking that on "Covert Discretion," the first song on the new album, you sing "Save your judgments for someone else" and "Fuck you all, I got a reason to live." It's easy to read those lyrics as being addressed at fans who wanted you to continue with Ween. Is that an accurate interpretation?
Yeah, I think so. That's the only song I wrote after a major breakdown in Vancouver when I couldn't play [with Ween]. I wrote that about a week after that show. It's about addiction and people not recognizing that you're hurting so bad. And yeah, it is clearing the air of the last couple of years, which is why I wanted to put it first. At that point Ween had been over for years and I wanted to put that down in a way. Anytime there's a major change in your life, a lot of people don't embrace that, and it's something that you have to get through on your own. I had some wonderful supportive people with me during that period who helped me through. But it's tough, and it takes a while to turn people around, if I'm making any sense.
At any point, did you feel resentment towards Ween fans, like you were being forced to do something you didn't want to do?
To be honest, for me, Ween was turning into a showcase band and there wasn't any creativity left. So I thought I was doing a disservice to not only myself but to my fans, who over the years have been so loyal and wonderful.
Did you and Mickey end on good terms? Could you see yourself playing with him in Ween again?
No, I had to put it to rest. Leaving things open can lead to negative things. It's like divorce: the only way to get a divorce is you make it final, you move on, and that's the healthiest thing. I don't think about it day-to-day; I don't see a reason for it to happen. It's a wonderful chapter in my life.
Was Mickey understanding about your decision?
I really don't know. I don't want to talk about that.
There's sort of the cliché post-recovery album that's very self-help-y and bland. It was a relief to hear a song on the new album like "Golden Monkey," which shows that you still have a sense of humor about your music.
I believe you have to sit with yourself and get to know yourself again [after addiction]. You need to continue to be yourself and the things that make you who you are. There's your recovery side and there's a part of you that has always written these songs and now you can be free to write them and record them. Humor and whatever it is that comes out of me hasn't changed at all. I wrote similar stuff in Ween, only it was through Ween. These new songs are really what I've been doing forever.
I know that you were listening to a lot of reggae and Paul McCartney while you were working on the new album. Did that music have an influence on what you wrote and recorded?
They really mean more in terms of positivity. I have a very intimate relationship with music. I've always loved reggae, I put on reggae music in real hard times in the last couple of years to lift my spirits, to get through despite the pressures of Babylon. It would make me feel better. With Paul McCartney and John Lennon and the Beatles, they left because it just wasn't working anymore. It was just the end of relationships, personally and creatively. You listen to the Paul McCartney solo records and he's just having fun and creating his own identity. I really looked up to that. They got me through a lot of self-doubt and insecurity.
Moving forward, do you want to take the new songs on the road?
Yeah, I got this record to play, I got Ween songs to play. After Ween, I went out and played acoustic guitar, played acoustic shows. It was very awkward at times but it was a great thing to do for myself. It gave me a taste of the real fans that supported me. There weren't many of them in the beginning but they were great, they gave me real incentive to push and to keep going and play more shows.
What do you see as being the next step in your career? Have you written more songs?
Really what I would like to be is an artist. I want to be able to create my music and make people have passionate moments, just like I have passionate moments with my music. I love the idea of helping and touching other people. That's all I want to do. No big shakes. I don't ask for much: to be able to make a living and feed my family. That's all.