For most of his life he’s been Gene Ween, the nimble-voiced frontman of one of rock’s great genre-hoppers – but Aaron Freeman is finally ready to put his alter-ego to bed. “It’s time to move on,” Freeman told Rolling Stone from his home in New Jersey. “I’m retiring Gene Ween.”
So does that mean the end for Ween, the band that Freeman formed with high school friend Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween) in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in the mid-Eighties?
“Pretty much, yeah,” says Freeman. “It’s been a long time, 25 years. It was a good run.”
Freeman, who released his solo debut Marvelous Clouds earlier this month, says there’s no animosity towards his bandmates or Melchiondo, who he met in the eighth grade. He says the pair are still on speaking terms, even though he’s been contemplating the decision for the past eight years.
“For me it’s a closed book. In life sometimes, in the universe, you have to close some doors to have others open,” says Freeman. “There’s no, ‘Goddamn that such and such!’ For me, I’d like to think it’s a door I can close finally.”
Freeman and Melchiondo released a slew of home-recorded tapes in the Eighties before they tasted unlikely MTV success in 1992 with “Push th’ Little Daisies,” from their major-label debut Pure Guava. After that novelty single, Ween went on to release albums that reflected their intense love of music, from metal to MOR and all points in between. On 1996’s Golden Country Greats, they brought in Nashville session players for an album of country originals, while saxophonist David Sanborn guested on “Your Party,” from Ween’s most recent album, 2007’s La Cucaracha.
But question marks over Ween’s future were raised following an onstage meltdown by Freeman at a show in Vancouver last year. The singer spent several weeks in an Arizona rehab facility battling substance abuse issues. Back at home and in good spirits, he says that his solo debut helped him get back on track. “It’s a nice recovery record, definitely,” he says.
Like most of Ween’s oeuvre, Marvelous Clouds is another unexpected detour: a covers album of tunes by the reclusive Sixties songwriter Rod McKuen. In his heyday, McKuen was penning songs for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash and Perry Como, but he’s become somewhat of an obscure figure since he retired from the stage in the early-Eighties.
“I was struck by the simplicity and power of songs,” says Freeman, who came to McKuen through Golden Country Greats producer Ben Vaughn. “Anybody that can accomplish that kind of thing is great.”
Freeman recently spent an afternoon with the 79-year-old singer in his Beverly Hills home. “He’s got this incredible studio downstairs in his house – it hasn’t been touched since 1973. He’s got a room full of master tapes … He’s got probably thousands of songs that haven’t seen the light of day.”
So is another volume of McKuen covers on the cards?
“I could make five more Rod McKuen records, but that could get a little weird,” jokes Freeman, who plans on releasing an album of original material next.
“It’s important to know that this isn’t a side project. I’m forging a new thing for myself. So that’s all. There’s no plans for any records or touring for Ween from my end.”