Ween's Aaron Freeman on 'Sober Ninjas' and the Song That Made Him Cry

His amazing Rod McKuen covers album 'Marvelous Clouds' is out now too

Aaron Freeman / C Flanigan/Getty
Aaron Freeman / C Flanigan/Getty
WRITTEN BY
Rob Harvilla

"As my music evolves, I want to get more and more adult contemporary." An odd pronouncement coming from Aaron Freeman — a.k.a., Gene Ween, one-half of indomitable shape-shifting pranksters Ween, the funniest (and possibly best) rock band of the past several decades — and yet it makes total sense. Ween, currently on indefinite hiatus (Freeman's cohort, Mickey Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween, is really into fishing these days), have done everything: magnificent arena metal ("Dr. Rock"), uncouth country ("Piss Up a Rope"), Beavis-befuddling experimental infamy ("Push th' Little Daisies"), David Sanborn-assisted smooth jazz ("Your Party"), you name it. And so Marvelous Clouds, Freeman's first official solo album, a light, sweet, jazzy collection of covers honoring mega-selling poet/singer Rod McKuen (he of "Seasons in the Sun," for starters) both makes perfect sense and no sense at all. It's great.

Calling in shortly before his first official full-band solo shows, Freeman seems to be in excellent spirits — which is especially heartening, given that he recently finished a lengthy rehab stint to battle serious substance-abuse problems. But now he's got great Rod McKuen songs and terrible Bob Dylan songs to soothe him, and if he backslides, he can always hire a sober ninja to rough him up.

So why Rod McKuen? What about him speaks to you? Is he a kindred spirit?
Yeah. With me there's definitely music I can relate to and artists I relate to. I hadn't heard of Rod McKuen. I'd heard his more well-known songs, like "Seasons in the Sun," "Jean," "Love's Been Good to Me." But when I started listening to his music, it just clicked with my artistic mind. I could relate to his lyrics, I could relate to the cadence of his voice, his phrasings, things like that. For me, yeah, it was a kindred thing. That's why it was very easy for me to do it, and why the record came out so well. 'Cause it wasn't much of a stretch.

Have you spoken to him yet? Is he on board?
I did. We were very fortunate. When we were making the record, one of the hopes was to have him like it. So we sent him the record, and he got back to us, and he loves the record, and he invited us to his house in Beverly Hills. Which was really cool. I got to spend the afternoon with Rod McKuen. And that's very kind of exclusive — he's pretty much fully retired now, so he doesn't do much. So we got to see his studio that he's had since 1970 that really hasn't been touched since 1970. His record collection. Art on the walls, just amazing — he had all these sketches by Phyllis Diller, who's one of his best friends.

What is Phyllis Diller's art like?
Phyllis Diller's art is nothin' out of the ordinary. Actually just black and white, ink on paper. But it was good! Most people who are entertainers or whatever are usually pretty good artists, too.

The record has a really sunny, sincere indie-pop sound — will that be the template for your next solo thing? Or do you reserve the right to be as schizophrenic as Ween often are?
Yeah! You know, it's funny. That's the kind of question I've been answering with Ween for a lot of years. And it all depends on the song, and that still holds true with whatever I do. Whatever lends itself to the song is what I'll do, and I won't be afraid to go there. I never really liked stuff that was hard to listen to. I definitely gravitate towards easy-listening anything. But it's gonna be what's best for the song.

It's funny, I just did a cover of a Bob Dylan song called "Wiggle Wiggle." It's for this compilation, it's all of Bob Dylan's worst music from the '80s and '90s. It's gonna be a great record. And "Wiggle Wiggle" was just, unbeknownst to me. I sit back and I'm like, "This really sounds like a Ween song," and it's like, "No duh, it sounds like a Ween song."

That sounds like the best compilation of all time.
It really is gonna be. I was pretty honored to be on it. There'll be more to come on that.

How are you feeling? How's your recovery going? It seemed with recent interviews that were actually doing press from rehab.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's going very well. It's going very well. Yeah. In recovery. Like a lot of people in the world. It's very good. I went away for a long time, and I’m very glad I did. I'm not one to talk about it, be an advocate for it, because I'm fresh in it. But I can say that going away and taking the time for yourself is well worth it.

I'm intrigued by a concept you've mentioned called the "sober ninja," a dude you hire entirely to keep you in line on tours. Do you have one? Is he effective so far?
I do. I do. It's like an escort service, only a lot more expensive. But I have one guy, and he basically shadows you. You sign a waiver — he can take you down if he needs to. But what it really does, when you're on the road, you have a lot of free time, a lot of time to sit and do nothing, really. And what this gentleman does is make sure that you're busy doing normal things, and not sitting there isolating yourself, which is pretty important — it's pretty easy to do that. Go out to a movie or something like that. And yeah, you just have them hang out with you, basically.

He kind of does this all year round. He worked with me in Denver, I guess, the last three Ween shows we did in Denver. Then he flew off to Dubai to do some businessman out there. There's a big demand for those guys.

This waiver — what is he authorized to do, actually? If he walks into a room and you're holding a beer, what, he tackles you?
If you want him to. Ultimately, if you're gonna do something like that, you can do it, but he's gonna dissuade you, and yeah, you can sign this thing that says he can physically get it out of your hands. But the psychological part of signing that usually insures that it doesn't happen. When you sign something to that effect, that's enough to make sure you understand you're not gonna do that. But, if you wanted to, yeah — it's like Peter Sellers, he could jump down from the ceiling.

I was gonna say: It's like Cato from the Pink Panther movies.
Totally. These guys are great. And you'd be surprised by how many people in the industry use them. A whole lot.

I saw you cover "Oh Yoko!" at a Yoko Ono tribute show in Brooklyn a few years ago — it was quite possibly the sweetest thing I've ever seen. What's the sappiest song you love?
Oh man. Oh my God. There are so many. I love sappy songs. There's this song "Wildfire," the '70s hit [by Michael Murphy]. [Sings] She ran callin', Wiiiiildfire. Yeah, I love that song. That song used to make me cry when I was like eight years old.

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