Aaron Freeman is somewhere in Arizona, hundreds of miles from home, at a location he declines to disclose. We’re on the phone to discuss his first solo record and first entrée into the recording world as Aaron Freeman and not Gene Ween. It’s a big step, as Freeman and partner in crime Dean Ween (Mickey Melchiondo) have been unleashing their warped attack on pop music as Ween since the early ‘80s, when the two met in their eighth-grade typing class in New Hope, Pa. Oddly, Freeman’s album Marvelous Clouds is a completely straight-faced take on 13 Rod McKuen songs. McKuen, the reclusive poet and songwriter, had his heyday in the late ‘60s as a best-selling poet and prolific songwriter, who was covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Madonna. Critically vilified, McKuen retired from live performance in 1981 and disappeared into clinical depression and away from the public eye for the last couple decades. While it may seem ridiculous on paper, McKuen and Freeman have a lot in common, and as Freeman admits from a treatment center in Arizona, both men have their demons to battle, but are finally ready to reintroduce themselves to the world.
“I absolutely feel a kindred spirit to McKuen,” says Freeman. “We both struggle with demons, and I totally relate to his vocals. I wouldn’t have done the project had I not felt kindred to him. He’s a very sensitive, prolific artist. He’s sold millions of books, but a lot of people don’t know him. I can say the same thing about Ween. There are a lot of similarities.”
The unlikely project sprang to life as the brainchild of musician/producer and Ween collaborator Ben Vaughn: “It was pretty cool how it worked. Ben would email me one McKuen song at a time. The first one he sent me was ‘As I Love My Own.’ He said, ‘OK, record this and send it back to me.’ And I was like ‘OK,’” Freeman laughs. “I went into my room, set up my Pro Tools and got started. The version that came from me was different because I don’t know how to play an augmented, B7 flat to a G-minor 8th, and all of McKuen’s stuff is very jazzy. So, I’d kind of mutate it into my own arrangement, sing it, and send it back. We did that with all the songs until everything was done.”
One can almost hear strains of McKuen on Ween tracks “Sarah” or “She’s Your Baby,” but to make any connections is false. “I had no friggin’ idea who Rod McKuen was, and I know a lot of music,” Freeman says with a laugh. “Ben Vaughn is always really good about turning me on to good music. The guy is just an encyclopedia of Americana. But, once I heard it, it immediately clicked.”
While it may be disappointing to Ween fans hoping for a solo record of original material containing the biting satire and jaundiced take on the love song that typifies Freeman’s writing, one could be fooled into believing Marvelous Clouds is not a cover record. As I told Freeman, “Lonesome Cities” sounds so much like a Gene Ween-penned song that it’s scary.
“I know!” says Freeman. “It really does! If you go back and listen to the McKuen original, it’s very similar but very different. When I originally got the songs, it was me trying to duplicate what I heard, but inevitably it turned into more Aaron Freeman-type stuff.”
After checking into rehab after a three-night NYE stint in Denver at the beginning of 2012, Freeman has been in Arizona for over three months, getting healthy after years of abuse and finally coming to terms with being Aaron Freeman. “It’s nerve-wracking releasing a solo record when I’ve been in Ween for 20 years.” he says. “For me, now I’ve gotten over that hump. I’ve done something away from Ween and it feels great, and it’ll be good for everybody.” I ask if it’s almost like starting to date again after years of marriage. “It’s creepy how similar it is actually. It’s exactly like that,” says Freeman. “After that first date, it keeps getting a little easier and a little easier.”
As for rehab, Freeman is steadfastly optimistic. Like with any addiction, the user has to want to stop, and from the tone of his voice, I believe this time Freeman is ready. “Addiction is progressive,” says Freeman. “I’m naturally inclined to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the longer you do it, the harder it is. God, there’s millions of people just like me. I’ve been trying for years now, but this time I’m really putting in the time. In the past, I’ve been to a couple rehabs and left after a couple days thinking I was cured, and it never really worked. This time, I’ve done way more than 30 days, and it feels great. I’m immersing myself in recovery, and where I’m at in Arizona is great for that. I’m learning a lot, and it’s just a matter of recognizing that I’m an addict and learning to maintain that. I’ll be maintaining that for the rest of my life. A lot of people go awry thinking they’re doomed, but they’re not. I’m becoming happier and more self-confident every day.”
At the end of the day, Freeman and Melchiondo remain tighter than brothers, and the future of Ween remains an open door. “It’s gotta be fun,” says Freeman. “When it stops being fun, we’ve both always maintained that we’ll give each other the room to do whatever we need to do, and come back to it when it’s fun. That’s always been the Ween motto. Whenever it becomes a drag, that’s when it’s time to take a break. I hope to be playing shows with Ween in 2012, so we’ll see what happens.”
When asked if he’s written his masterpiece at this point in his career or if he’s never satisfied, Freeman giggles, an impish, playful giggle that seems to channel Ween’s demi-God, the almighty Boognish. “I’ve written a bunch of masterpieces, and there are more masterpieces to come. I think the version of ‘Friends,’ not the one on La Cucaracha, but the one on the Friends EP, produced by the German guy, is one of my masterpieces. But, I like to think that there are lots of masterpieces. I haven’t really gone back and done the listening of my catalog yet. I’m not at that phase yet. That’s more for when I’m 60, smoking a pipe and sitting in my castle in Scotland, listening to Chocolate and Cheese. It’s a work in progress.”