Oscar Nom Jesse Eisenberg on His Fave Band: Ween!
The Social Network star explains why he loves the one-of-a-kind Pennsylvania prank-rockers.
If you call Jesse Eisenberg a Weenie, he’ll have no choice but to agree with you.
The 27-year-old actor, who recently nabbed an Oscar nod for his rapid-fire portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, told SPIN in 2009: “My favorite band is Ween. I know every lyric.”
So while doing research for an upcoming book on Ween’s 1994 album Chocolate and Cheese for Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, author Hank Shteamer caught up with Eisenberg and asked the talented New York City native to elaborate on his enthusiasm for all things Ween. Here’s what Shteamer learned:
How did you get into Ween?
Jesse Eisenberg: It was really strange and related to [Chocolate and Cheese], actually. Like, ten years ago I was acting on a television show [short-lived FOX series Get Real], and every week, something very, very dramatic had to happen, because it was an hour-long drama. So for one week, my character got spinal meningitis, which did not carry over from the previous week or to the subsequent week. So the guy who was my stand-in, who’s still one of my best friends, gave me this album, Chocolate and Cheese, because the second track is “Spinal Meningitis.” We were listening to it as a way to just bring some levity to the episode, which was a little overdramatic. I also thought the song was really great, and I started playing it at my mom’s house and she got pissed-off every time that song came on ’cause she thought it was disgusting.
But the album was incredible; I’d never heard music like this before. I never really liked comedy songs, and Ween has a great way of never making specific jokes — you can’t really tell where the joke is lying. But beyond that, musically they were just fantastic. And since then, I have gotten every album that they’ve made. It’s the only band whose albums I buy. I’m not into music — the only music I like is musical theater, but I have every Ween album.
Do you have a sense of what it is you’re responding to in Ween that you’re not finding elsewhere?
They don’t appease the audience. Also, when you write a musical, all the songs have to have something a little different, because you have to hear them in one night, in one experience, so you try to change it up. You have a song that’s like a rag song; you have a song that’s a little more jazzy; you try to do some different time signatures in songs. But most albums don’t do that. Well, I don’t really know — I don’t know enough about music, but it seems to me like Ween basically does that to the extreme. They have songs that come from so many different genres and they’re only held together by their personality, because the songs don’t reflect each other musically; they don’t reflect each other in theme or lyric, and it doesn’t even sound like the same instruments or vocalists, even though they are. And yet, they’re held together by something else, by some kind of broader spirit or something: a feeling.
Would you mind going through Chocolate and Cheese song-by-song?
Sure — I looked it up and I’ve got it right here.
“Buenas Tardes Amigo”
My girlfriend’s boyfriend prior to me, he made a short film in college using “Buenas Tardes Amigo,” and he shot it in black-and-white, and she showed it to me three years after we were dating and I remember I was very threatened; I thought it was so cool. And she was in it — it was just, like, her walking somewhere, in Indiana.
“Roses Are Free”
Someone once told me that Phish covered “Roses Are Free” and that Ween stopped playing it on tour as a protest.
It was kind of the other way around. Ween was not previously playing it, and when Phish started covering it, Ween started playing it almost to reclaim the song.
[Laughs] Wow, that’s pretty funny.
“A Tear for Eddie”
Because it’s an instrumental, I recorded my own version to learn how to use GarageBand a long time ago. I tried to do every track: the guitar and the drums and the bass, so I had a really bad version of “A Tear for Eddie” on my computer.
Do you still have that around?
No, it was on my old computer and everything crashed — this was probably, like, six years ago.
That’s too bad.
Yeah. [Laughs] Well, not really — it was terrible.
“What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” / “Freedom of ’76” / “Baby Bitch”
“What Deaner Was Talkin’ About” was the only song I was allowed to play for my little sister, and she loved it. She was, like, seven years old, and she would sing “What Deaner Was Talking About,” ’cause it was pretty much the nicest song with the least profanity on the album, in addition to “Freedom of ’76,” which is maybe the best song on the album. I don’t know — what do you think?
For me, “Baby Bitch” was always the one. It just seemed like such a devastating song — like it was coming from such a raw place.
Right, yeah, there’s anger there, but it’s also a really beautiful song, and then they lace in lyrics that are very explicit, and that’s them — they’ll do that. I think my favorite song is “Chocolate Town” [from Quebec]. It’s so sweet and melodic and then they start cursing in the middle of it, and it’s a little jarring, but you don’t notice it until a few listens in. It’s like with “Baby Bitch” — you would never notice what they’re saying.
That’s the only song I never really got into. There’s usually, like, one song on each Ween album that I kind of skip, like on their last album, they have “The Fruit Man.” Yeah, I don’t know — I can’t get into it, but I appreciate that it’s there. It’s kind of like an intermission, if you want to look at it as a musical.
“Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?”
“Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?” is a perfect example of how you can’t really place the joke, and I like that in comedy as well: You can’t really place the joke, but you just think the spirit of it is funny. And “Mister, Would You Please Help My Pony?” is the perfect example, ’cause it’s really not funny; in fact, it’s the opposite — it’s pretty depressing. And yet the idea that that’s something to sing about is really wonderful because… why not? Why not sing about that? Why sing about losing your girlfriend on the subway? And why isn’t this as sad? I mean, it sounds even sadder. And the music is fantastic: Not only don’t they emphasize jokes with their music, they’re not trying to achieve seemingly one outcome or one reaction. Even the songs that are funny aren’t funny in a way that’s easily categorized.
“The HIV Song”
That song is almost the definition of irony, but you can’t really call it irony, because — I mean, okay, they’re trying to pair circus-like music with, you know, the most frightening thing in our society, at least at that time. It almost reaches the definition of irony, and the description of it would probably sound ironic: this kind of happy, circus-like music. But that’s not what they’re going for, and that kind of sums up Ween: They’re not going for the obvious irony. It’s impossible to tell if they’re going for any kind of irony, because the music is so odd. It’s not just that they decided to pair up circus music with interjections of “AIDS.” They’re doing something else, and I can’t figure out what it is.
Do you have any thoughts about the album cover?
No, except that the first building I lived in, in New York City, I was in an elevator, and I was wearing a Ween sweatshirt, and the guy in the elevator said, “You know –I own that belt [from the Chocolate and Cheese cover].” I said, “Really? How?” I think he said he was friends with somebody, friends with the guy who made the belt. But he didn’t listen to the album. I was so interested in this, and I remember he didn’t really care about the album that much; he just thought the belt was funny and he thought the woman who was naked was funny. Aesthetically on one hand, you think [the cover] is a parody of something, but you can’t really place exactly what it’s parody-ing, and yet you get the sense that they’re joking around, that they’re kind of self-aggrandizing, in a knowing way. What do you think?
I guess I viewed it as: “Because we can.” Like, “We’re on a major label, and if we want a nude woman on our album cover…” — it’s almost like a teenage fantasy. It’s so extremely clichéd…And yet at the same time, it’s kind of hard to point to exactly what they’re mocking, or if they’re mocking.
The message really comes through when it’s combined with the music. It would be one thing if the music had a machismo to it, but there’s nothing on the album that’s even remotely –
Misogynistic. Yeah, I was going to say, if you listen to the music, you would think these guys would be feminists, like politically these guys would be so opposed and disgusted by putting that on the album. That’s the other thing: You can’t ever place their politics. As you attempt to categorize things and put them in their place so they’re more digestible, Ween never lets you do that.
You can’t parse out a message. Dean Ween told me that an HIV-positive activist who was talking to kids about AIDS told him that she loved “The HIV Song.” [See here for an excerpt from the book dealing with this incident.]
It’s like they leave this blank slate where people can put what they want.
Right, exactly. But it’s not a blank slate ’cause there’s nothing there. It’s a blank slate ’cause it’s just theirs.
Do you remember the placid fishing portraits inside and how they contrastwith the cover?
They’re in, like, small boats, aren’t they? I remember those, yeah. They’re so incongruous: this ridiculous, misogynistic cover and inside they’re like these peaceful guys, and then the music is alternately peaceful and aggressive. Again, by constantly changing their aesthetic, I guess that turns a lot of people off; they’re not easily digestible. But it’s a constantly changing aesthetic. If you know them and really like them, you can kind of see that the aesthetic is consistent.
One more thing: They dedicated the album to John Candy.
Oh, right, how strange. I don’t know. I mean, on one hand, I would think they must be mocking celebrity, but on the other hand, maybe they really liked him? I don’t know. They’re not from the same area. What did you think?
It’s not too much of a stretch to see them enjoying his movies. But I think it’s to Ween’s credit that you could take something like that about ten different ways.
Yeah, exactly, and the guy is a comedian, so it’s not like they’re just mocking an empty celebrity. It’s really strange. I don’t know. His name’s “Candy”? Maybe they were doing something about candy. I can’t imagine that’s what it is. But again, they have an aesthetic you can never predict. It’s like the senator talking about porn: I know what it is when I see it. Kind of like Ween: I know what it is when I see it, but I couldn’t predict what they’re gonna do.
WATCH: Ween, “Freedom of ’76” on the Jane Pratt show, 1993.