Aaron Freeman, half of Ween, sobers up, grows up, and strikes out on his own.
By Jessica Willis
He was forced to make a choice. Either stay put as one half of a successful and beloved alternative rock duo and continue to blast himself with cocaine, benzos, and vodka just so he could be numb and function. Or he could sober the fuck up and leave Ween, a band he had been in since puberty. Years of active addiction and isolation had turned Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween, into another boy who would never grow old; he was going to die first.
Freeman chose to leave. “End it man...your money or your life,” he sings on FREEMAN, his first solo album of all original material, released on Partisan Records this week.
The decision to leave Ween, as Freeman said in a recent interview, was spurred by a progression that mirrored “the typical rock thing.” Meaning you start with the silly drugs, and then … well, you know. In the early days of the band “there was always drugs and alcohol but it graduated from my early 20s to a lot of weed and some psychedelics,” he said. “I think all those were fine but then it really started into the alcohol. As Ween was getting bigger and bigger there were less responsibilities for anything and you’re sort of a Peter Pan. You’re not accountable for anything except getting on stage.”
It fell apart in 2011 at a notorious show in Vancouver when a barely coherent Freeman was blacked out onstage in front of a huge crowd. At the end of the show his disgusted bandmates left him onstage alone.
“That was my career bottom,” he said. “I had been on a really dark bender and Vancouver was a huge show. The last thing I remember was I was onstage and the band had walked off [during a version of "Reggaejunkiejew"] and I was on my back screaming ‘Jew’ or something like that.”
The meltdown was part of a sad end of a creative, prolific, and wickedly irreverent band that had captivated everyone from Beavis & Butthead to, more recently, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon’s house band. Music fans who appreciate silliness and prodigious chops flock to Ween’s albums and shows like ants on a caramel.
Despite the love, by 2011 Ween hadn’t written any new material in years and the shows had become stale for Freeman. “We did 11 records that were amazing,” Freeman said. “But the only part of Ween that was left was these touring shows. We were playing the same songs night after night. It had turned into a showcase thing. For me, Ween had been over since the last record we did [La Cucaracha, in 2007]. It wasn’t okay for me. I started having a real crisis. Like, I know Ween is over, and all I’m doing now are these shows so I can make money … it was spiraling and spiraling and I was fucked up all the time.”
Dropping the Gene Ween moniker, Freeman recorded an album of Rod McKuen covers under his own name. He was doing whatever he could to escape the “Ween fold” and the music was good, but he was wrecked.
“It was really mellow music, it was sweet and pretty, but it’s the most drugged out record I’ve ever put out. That was a benzo record,” he laughed. “I love benzos. All benzos. I was in this beautiful studio recording in front of a five thousand dollar mic doing all this music and then I’d go back to my hotel room and eat jerk chicken and drink a bottle of vodka and throw up all over myself.”
He likens it to Martin Sheen’s warrior overdoing it at the beginning of Apocalypse Now. “That’s a heavy scene.” Freeman was out of control and he knew it. Sort of. Was he Aaron or was he Gene, the stoner rock icon? “I was having an identity crisis and I didn’t know who I was,” he said. “Everybody called me ‘Gene Ween’ and ‘dude’ and I was this Ween guy and I was always fucked up, and I could always find whatever I wanted.”
After a few more West Coast shows and a continued rampage back home he went into rehab for the third time - but not before playing two more high-paying Ween shows in Denver. “Every cent I made went into the rehab I was going to,” he said. “Insurance didn’t cover my third rehab.”
Freeman got on a plane and headed straight to Cottonwood in Arizona, where the withdrawal process began.
“I felt like Gollum for a while,” he said. “I couldn’t even look into the light. I was on a lot of benzos, which was really difficult to come off of.”
He surrendered to the disease at Cottonwood. “There was a pinnacle moment there,” he said. “When you get there they give you a three page booklet and it just wants you to describe what the fuck happened. What are you here for? What do you want? I remember for the first time in my life I was so desperate I just answered every question as honestly as I could. For someone like me that was a tough thing. I was like, ‘I’ll give you everything, I don’t care anymore, I’m not gonna try to hide anything.’”
From Cottonwood, Freeman went to Clean Adventures, a men’s halfway house that combined outdoor activities with counseling and work therapy.
“You stay in these houses with a bunch of other guys and you’re expected to go find a job during the day and be back at a certain time,” said the singer. “If you didn’t obey every single rule you got thrown out.”
He officially left Ween in May 2012. “There was no way I was going back into that world,” he said. In another major change, he moved away from his hometown of New Hope, Pennsylvania. “[New Hope] was one of those persons, places, and things,” he said. “I had to get out of there. No matter how many times I would get sober or recover I had too much history there. Everybody in that town had seen me at one point or another just blasted.”
Freeman moved to Woodstock, New York, where he lives with his wife Leah, their son, and his daughter from a previous marriage. For Freeman, Woodstock is a peaceful place to raise a family and stay out of trouble. “It’s not really a party town, which is important,” he said.
Great, but what was he going to do with himself? Was he going to wear a blue smock and punch a time clock? “After I left Ween I was a fucking mess,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was resigned to the fact that I could work at Wal-Mart if I had to in order to stay sober. But [Freeman’s manager and collaborator Dave Godowsky] said from the beginning, ‘you’re gonna make a record.’”
Freeman said he couldn’t. Or wouldn’t, and he was petulant about it. But songs started to come together. “FREEMAN is where I was at last July, which was on my back porch, sober for a year and a half, sitting there with my acoustic guitar and suddenly writing songs again while I looked at chipmunks.” He maintains that he was unable to write as his disease progressed and the block remained through his earliest recovery.
The first few months were a nightmare and Freeman came face to face with one of the reasons why he used: a profound depression. “I was literally seeing black sludge coming off of things,” he recalled. “I wasn’t hallucinating but my brain was so fucked I would just go in my room and sit there and suffer and feel the dark knot in my stomach. That was always the point where I would go out and get completely trashed to alleviate it.” Eventually, Freeman learned to sit with the misery and let it pass, noting that the teachings of the Tibetan Bhuddist nun Pema Chodron helped him. He had to reach in, not out. “[Chodron’s] whole thing is to experience it, feel it, let it make you go insane, and then let it go.”
As for the 12 step school of recovery, Freeman says he believes in the power of group conscience, one of the program’s traditions, and always feels better after a meeting. However, he also “believes in the school of treating addiction with medication, absolutely. If abstaining means that you don’t sleep for a year what kind of chance will you have to keep going?”
Sleep or no sleep, joy or misery, eventually the creativity came back, and he attributes it more to biology than to spirituality. “I really believe my synapses got fried,” he said. “My pathways got fried. But I could tell in a year and a half something grew back. Some sort of stem connected to itself again. Boom, I was there.” The result was a new collection of tuneful, twisted pop songs that describe Freeman’s liberation. It could’ve stayed on the porch but Godowsky took a trip to North Carolina and brought recordings of the songs with him. “I trusted him to get musicians for the record,” Freeman said.
Godowsky returned with a drummer, bassist, and a second guitar player, and they recorded the album in nine days.
“They nailed it in a ridiculously short amount of time,” Freeman said, adding that the album had to be banged out quickly because money was tight.
“When I left Ween my income went down to like five percent of what I was making before,” he said. “We scrimped and scraped. We didn’t have any time to add any overdubs, that’s why the album sounds very bare bones, which I love.”
Songs like the celebratory “El Shaddai” narrate Freeman’s interest in Kabbalah, and although he says he’s not a Kabbalist, he read the Old Testament and the Torah when he was in rehab.The song was based on James A. Michener’s The Source, he said. “Covert Discretion,” which leads off the album, starts as a sweetly chilling acoustic ballad about the disease; at one point in the narrative he’s gratefully sharing drugs with fans in a bathroom when things suddenly turn ugly. “Get the fuck out my face,” he croons.
“Black Bush,” meanwhile, is a pastoral tune in the spirit of Donovan. That is, if Donovan inhaled Scotchgard. Very Ween-like.
Freeman said he will perform Ween songs on the upcoming tour, both the ones he’s always had the most fun doing live as well as songs that have never been performed live before.
With ex-bandmate Mickey Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween, he says he currently has “no relationship, outside mutual business approvals.” This seems bittersweet, considering the duo had been working together since 8th grade.
Freeman, who will have three years clean in December, chooses to focus on what he gets in return for his departure. “One of the benefits of recovery is you get your kids back,” he said. “The best part of the last couple of years is every night we give each other a hug and a kiss and say goodnight. When I was at my worst all I wanted was to say goodnight to my kids. That’s the shit. I have a group of friends [in Woodstock] who just know me as Aaron and they’ve never seen me fucked up.” He laughs. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Jessica Willis is the former music editor of Time Out New York. She last interviewed Legs McNeil.