Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Q&A: BRAD DE ROO of "GUELPH WEEN SATAN"
There's an old saying where I come from: You can bring a bud to Ween, but you can't make them dig it. It was a lesson that took me a while to learn. Between the ages of 15 and 25, I did my damndest to buffalo friends and partners into listening to the New Hope, Pennsylvania duo: cranking up albums during parties, monopolizing the tape deck on road trips, striving to put the perfect song in the perfect context on a mix tape. After years of reactions ranging from the confused, to the disinterested, to the offended, I gave up. To retrofit a line from Bruce McCulloch's "Doors", Ween fans aren't made – they're born. Ween made sense to me immediately. I was on board with their pitched up or down vocals, their sometimes-sacred, sometimes-profane, sometimes-bonkers lyrics, and by their donning and doffing of any genres and the denizen narrators of those genres. I didn't sweat whether or not they were a joke band, because I got that – to boost another line, this one from Lorrie Moore – nothing is a joke with Ween. It all just comes out like one.
The point people seem to miss with Ween is how ironic they're not. When they dally in one genre or another, they're not making fun of, say, Prince or Billy Joel or The Beatles. They're a pair of weird dudes with major roots in punk and DIY and lo-fi and small town idle redneckness and when they fool around with whatever style, with whatever points of reference, what comes out is both familiar and sui generis.
The catalog Dean and Gene Ween accrued over 25 years is, by turns, far-reaching, far-flung, and far-fetched. Ideally, there's something in there for everybody. Bookshelfer and citizen Brad de Roo certainly hoped so when he challenged local musicians to try their own hands at songs of their choosing. The result, GUELPH WEEN SATAN, is available now for download. The cassette release of the compilation will take place Friday November 20 at 8:30pm at the ANAF Club, featuring a Ween open mic, followed by karaoke.
What about Guelph jibes with Ween? Why not a compilation of Guelphies pulling off Spin Doctors or Jesus Jones?
I don’t know how much Guelph is a paradigmatic Ween-town. It definitely has its share of oddly pitched voices and lyrically unsettling characters. I imagine there are maybe more Weenish places in Canada that have yet to compile their Weenishness. What Ween lurks in Stephen Harper’s backyard, I wonder? Or in some of our other post-industrial wastelands?
But there is a long history of home recording in Guelph, and there continues to be a splattering of cool home studios and bedroom projects. Some of these sweaty setups and close-knit relationships remind me a bit of what I’ve read of Ween’s early days making tape upon tape of lo-fi music in shacks. There is also an interest in lots of different genres of music in the Guelph indie scene (for a lack of a better thing to call it). There is a jumbling spirit which associatively calls to mind Ween’s genre-shifting ways. It is not strange to find musical-minded folks I know playing in garage rock bands while making homemade hip hop beats between participating in a free jazz improve sessions and crooning standards on karaoke nights.
Compilationally, Tyson Brinacombe (my co-conspirator on GUELPH WEEN SATAN) and I had the initial plan of putting out a Spin Doctors/Jesus Jones split tribute LP, but it seems we don’t live in the right here, right now as much as KW - in some circles known as the Two Princes of Ontario – who’d already beaten us to this poppy punch. I haven’t searched for the Bandcamp yet, but I’ve heard it’s not quite heavy enough on the funk rock.
What sort of Guelph sampler does GUELPH WEEN SATAN amount to?
I think it is an intriguingly incomplete one. This being my first kick at the release can (with the absolutely necessary/awesome technical and organizational help of veteran releaser Tyson), I underestimated a few things. I attempted Liberal-style gender parity of the recordings early on, only to be politely denied songs by almost every woman I asked, thereby underestimating how many women in Guelph that I know would want to cover Ween for free. I attempted to stay out of the way of the song selection process almost entirely, underestimating that certain representative albums would be missed. The comp features 4 songs from The Pod, 4 from Pure Guava, 2 from Chocolate and Cheese, 1 from The Mollusk (one of the best named & designed psychedelic albums in my mind), 2 from White Pepper, 2 from Quebec, 1 from Shinola Vol 1., and 2 from La Cucaracha. This unfortunately leaves both GodWeenSatan: The Oneness (from which this comp steals its name) and 12 Golden Country Greats (their Nashville country album) totally untouched (as well as some early recordings, collabs, EPs, and demos). Ween simply have too many songs that would be fun challenges to cover. Lastly, I attempted to console myself along the mishap-laden way by thinking that this was just Volume 1 and a future Volume 2 could rebalance the musical scales with an almost all-women compilation of what was here missed. I underestimated how much work it was getting this done in the first place, and how much I’d be listening to only charting early nineties funk rock by the time GUELPH WEEN SATAN was finished.
Having grieved so, I got to meet some new nice people, I got to chat with some old pals, some new collaborations were born, and some cool sounds were created for a good time in a home-made fashion.
How would you describe Ween to some jerk who'd never heard them?
Immediately lapsing into clichéd music hybridizing, I’d say that Ween sound like a better-voiced, worse mannered "Weird" Al teamed up with your somewhat jocky high-school buddy who can play anything on guitar, both Al & Buddy boozed up and high and backed in a fit of surreal reference by all the (usually classic rock) bands they are parodying, who are slightly misplaying, often rewriting, and consistently adding piss-taking, exaggeratory flourishes to their own songs. Ween are all these things while being willing and able to burst into sudden noise or break into genuinely beautiful love songs. Maybe they are also a slacker Zappa clone split into two mysteriously compelling, temporarily co-balancing figures – with much catchier songs than their imaginary sci-fi forebearer. Alternatively, you could say they are the weirder cousins of Prince & Beck and have spent some odd times trying to inject the alien tone of the Residents into rich melodies. They are also, at times, troublingly politically incorrect (a fact worth further study and criticism).
A lot of Ween is deceptively simple. What challenges does a musician come up against when attempting to make a Ween track their own?
I can’t speak for everyone else on this comp, but my challenges were many. From a technical side, some folks here play some pretty complicated guitar (see "Ocean Man") and do some layering, multi-instrumental playing and singing (see "Falling Out" by Matt Monoogian, as well as too many others to list) that is far beyond my limited musical know-how. I found it tricky to get the Weeness into the song without being weird for weirdness sake. Ween’s recordings, especially a lot of the early recordings from GodWeenSatan, The Pod, and Pure Guava have very strange tones, odd pre-programmed rhythms, and manipulated vocals (whether acoustically or via pedals, tape manipulation, mic effects etc). So even if the chords and melodies are simple, the textures, tones, timbres are distinctly askew. It would be hard to mistake these recordings for another band. So the run on question becomes how to capture this unsettling quality while understanding the element of parody in their genre recreations (that you find on songs like the Thin Lizzy sounding "Gabrielle" awesomely covered here by Gregory Pepper and his Problems) and reworkings (like "Fiesta"’s cheesy electro mariachi, covered in fully midi glory by AM Brooks) and touching on the unseemly characters or personas that seem to come out in some of vocalizations and lyrics - all while trying not to overthink it.
For the songs I sang, I tried to select songs (with the help of my collaborators) in a style that I could see myself attempting to vocally replicate (I could never belt out "Captain Fantasy"), but that also had room for some of the dissonance I favour as a distorting accomplice to melodic sweetness. I also found it helpful to interpret the song like a text and to try to pick up latent themes to sonically and lyrically reframe. "Lullaby", for example, which is a stripped down piano and orchestra ballad in the original recording, seemed lyrically and melodically ripe for a psychedelic, cultish remake. The New Agey lyrics about ‘floating’ and ‘life flowing’ combined with the religious images of infants and the Rapture to me called for a bit more chaos and disorientation which I naturally tried to communicate via phasing, disembodied vocals, and a swallowing noise loop followed by a sample of a Jim Jones’ recording from the final moments of Jonestown. Jessy Bell Smith, who collaborated on the song with me (and contributed an awesome version of "Sarah"), added churchy yet distorted organ and layered spectral choir-like harmony vocals, which I felt further developed my cultish interpretation. The original song also has hard to make out (maybe intentionally ambiguous lyrics) which I maybe sacrilegiously sang as ‘friends’ and ‘utopia’ to bolster my fictional cult view. I also liked that "Lullaby" was a lesser known coda-ish song that wouldn’t have too many ideas about it from the get-go. I also liked the idea of recording lo-fi with a Mac and some snacks in my robe. I also liked the idea not fixing the vocals parts I did not sing quite right. These things all felt Ween to me. Considering everything, I’m sure I fucked it up.
"Hey There Fancy Pants" I did with Tyson (smoothly playing most of the instruments –banjo, bass, drums, percussion – as well as recording) was mostly just fun to old timey sing. It was also fun to try to replicate an impossible Les Paul-style guitar solo on a kazoo and to rip some noise guitar for no good reason other than further shadowing "Fancy Pants"’ hoping for ‘sunny days’ (to riff off the silly lyrics and peppy tone of the tune some). It was also fun to try a song that sounded much less serious than my previous selection - to get to explore a fuller sense of the kaleidoscopic chimera that is Ween.
I look forward to discussing how all the contributors approached the finer details of their songs over drinks. I’m seriously interested in exploring how members of a community interpret sound in very different ways over drinks.
Anecdotally, "Freedom of '76" by Encyclopedia included on GUELPH WEEN SATAN references Ween’s love of reference and randomly samples a small a part of every song on the compilation (if anyone wants to play spot the sample). It also destroys a perfectly good straight ahead reading of the song by Tyson. For comparison sake, we’ve at this very moment added Tyson’s original version to Bandcamp for free (along with a scrapped demo recording by "Demon Sweat") as an audio bonus to your curious readers.