Interview: Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou

Aaron Weiss

Vocalist Aaron Weiss explains the unique concept behind Ten Stories, the influence of faith on his lyrics, letting go of the desire to control, and mewithoutYou’s past/future.

Can you briefly explain the concept behind Ten Stories and how you landed upon it? What made you want to tackle something of that magnitude?

The idea for the opening track was based on a story William James told about an actual menagerie train that crashed, where a tiger chose to stay in its cage, despite having the opportunity to easily escape. It made me think that parts of me prefer a certain captivity over a certain freedom (whatever those words mean), and that a fictional train crash would be a nice jumping off point to explore those preferences.

How did you get the idea for what animals to write about and then come up with their individual behaviors?

Sometimes the animals corresponded directly to some literary source (e.g., the tiger, from William James’ story, which fit nicely with the Tyger from William Blake’s poem). Other animals were chosen because of their qualities, real or imagined, like the elephant due to its size (had to be big enough to derail a train), or the peacock due to its vanity, or the walrus’ majestic oafishness.

What was it like writing from such a character-heavy perspective? How does it compare with what you’ve written about in the past?

Well, it was easier in a way, because I didn’t have to worry about being consistent in any ideological sense. There was no danger of contradicting myself, because I didn’t identify ‘myself’ with any particular character all that directly. Though each obviously represents a part of me, there was less concern with sounding coherent, or wise, or good or anything. The fox, for example, engages in some pretty fruitless (I think) speculations, which I could explore or express, but without advocating that type of behavior.

What was the most challenging aspect of making the record? The most rewarding?

The most challenging aspect was probably trying to phrase whatever I’m saying in ways that sound beautiful, or at least nice, and relatively novel… and it’s embarrassing, coming to realize how much of my own sense of self-worth is tied up in people liking our music, or lyrics, or thinking of me in a certain way. Every time we’ve recorded, all kinds of insecurities are stirred up in me: the desire for approval, admiration, etc. It all feels very shallow and artificial, and happens every time, like clockwork.

The most rewarding was watching all the other pieces of the record come together, all the hard work everyone else did: from writing the music, to recording and mixing, to painting the images, to designing the layout, to figuring out how to press and distribute and promote and start our own label.

What was the most difficult song to nail down? Conversely, what came the easiest?

The song “Four Fires” was the hardest, no doubt. By the end, we already knew it wouldn’t be on the record, but I still wanted to make it the best b-side it could be. “Aubergine” was probably the easiest to write, kind of an effortless feeling song overall, and “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume” was the easiest for me to record.

You’re known for intricate, layered and deeply personal lyrics. Can you describe your general lyrical process and has that changed at all over the years?

Well, I’ve always stolen a lot of lyrics – more so in the past than nowadays, but I still do. Usually I write a whole lot of words or phrases or little rhymes, nothing too in-depth, just scattered lines mostly. Meanwhile we’re typically writing music as a band, arranging songs as instrumentals. Once those are more or less finished, I start listening to them and trying to match them up with little phrases that match, either rhythmically or in terms of the general feeling.

Or, on the new record, there is a song called “Bear’s Vision of St. Agnes,” which is super melancholy throughout and has a big, dramatic ending. Well, this music fit perfectly with an idea I’ve wanted to write a song about for years, about an animal throwing itself from a cliff to feed its starving friend (taken from a story my buddy told me, which he said had Buddhist origins – though I don’t know). So in that case, there was a concept waiting around for a while, and when the music came along that fit the concept’s mood, it unfolded pretty easily.

This album seems, at least on first listen without a lyric sheet, decidedly more secular than the rest. Since it’s been a huge presence in the lyrics in the past, what effect, if any, did Faith play in writing this record?

That’s a great question. I guess I started to feel my hypocrisy to an unbearable extent, singing about these super lofty concepts (love and forgiveness, renouncing the world, annihilation of ego), all while on a big kind of ego trip on a stage. Something about selling tickets or CDs to hear someone sing about “God” seems pretty off-point to me now. This has always been a muddled region to me, and I’ve always been conflicted about it.

It’s only been recently that I’ve been able to stop trying to reconcile the two, and say plainly that I enjoy playing music for my own sake, for selfish reasons, and that as far as I know it has nothing at all to do with God. I’m not proud of the state I’m in, not proud of my ego-motivations or desire for approval. But it is a relief to not feel the need to pretend to be something I’m not, to parade myself as any kind of teacher or as righteous or holy in any way. I do want to be those things, but the more I examine my own thoughts, the further I feel from the ideals I’ve long been preaching about.

On past records you have mixed elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Bahá’í, to name a few. Where do you currently find yourself spiritually? What readings would you recommend that have influenced your worldview the most?

My buddy Dan K. died recently, and at his memorial service the pastor was saying how Dan had identified himself spiritually as a “searcher.” This was really beautiful to me. To keep on searching, to remain a student, to stay small, humble, foolish in a sense. I’ve found a lot of peace in letting go of old certainties, attachments, formulas and intellectual doctrines, trying to stay open to whatever comes, and always looking for some point of wisdom or beauty or grace in every encounter. This is something Greg (our bass player) told me about, and it helps me when I can remember it. In terms of readings, the poet Rumi has probably influenced me the most.

In “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume,” you write, “Mistook sign for signified.” Is this a nod to structuralist or post-structuralist theory? If so, what role do the concepts of Foucault and Derrida play in defining the spiritual aspect of this record?

Yeah, that’s exactly what I had in mind with the “signs/signified” line. Although I have to admit, I’ve read more about Derrida than from him directly. Even that idea – though I attribute it to him – I didn’t actually read it from him. But the notion of making a clean break, separating our symbols or perceptions from the realities they represent or perceive, I think that goes back long before structuralism. With language, this is especially pronounced, as we can obviously grow attached to certain vocabularies, which can have pretty serious consequences in our lives.

As for Foucault, I’ve read a lot of him this past semester, but this was all after the album was finished – had only read a bit prior to our recording. Still, his sense of the person/subject as a historical construction – that “man is an invention of recent date,” is definitely in line with a lot of our lyrics from the past three albums. The ‘personhood-is-an-arbitrary-illusion’ idea that keeps appearing in our songs is probably informed by this same sentiment, whatever its source. Whether we call it poststructuralist or postmodern or mysticism or something else – and whatever authors we might refer to – you’re right, these are not new ideas I’m presenting.

Stylistically, this record harkens back to your older records more so than the last one, It’s All Crazy! Is there a particular reason for this?

Well, none of the other guys felt as connected to that previous record. It was less of a group effort, more like them playing instruments over ‘my’ songs – at least for a good portion of it. I was specifically trying to move us in that folk-like direction, but no one else was totally on board, so the end product felt less unified. This time around, I really tried to let go of the desire to control or direct things, or to make the record sound any way at all. So the result was more in keeping with the way we’ve written in the past.

Speaking of It’s All Crazy!, that is probably your most divisive work to date. What are you thoughts looking back on it three years later?

I’m really proud of it and definitely glad we made it. Although some of the content seems pretty audacious to me now, every one of those songs means a lot to me, and just about any of them we can play on a street corner if we want, with just an acoustic guitar and a voice, maybe a tambourine… You get the idea. That’s a nice departure from a lot of our other music, which really require a bigger production and electricity to perform live.

It’s very rare that an [A–>B] Life song gets played live anymore. Do you feel a large disconnect from the album as a whole at this point?

Not a total disconnect, no. A lot has changed since then, but I still see some of the same patterns of mind, the same desires and the same basic concerns. I suppose there was a time a few years ago I would have said “yes,” as if I’d overcome a lot of the craziness I felt back in those early days, but now I’m not so sure.

What was it like having Hayley Williams of Paramore guest on the record and how did that come about?

It was awesome – we’re all still super excited about her contributions. We had been in touch with her a bit over the years, crossing paths for one reason or another. As we were writing, we had a couple of songs we thought her voice would really work well on, and I think we were right.

How do you think Chris Kleinberg’s departure has changed the band’s direction, if at all?

Aw, man, it’s been hard. Kleinberg is a tremendous specimen, like he descended from Mount Olympus to play guitar with us for a few years. Super creative musician, first-rate work ethic, very clear-headed, rational, dedicated, light-hearted, and as handsome as they come. Our stock dropped when he left the band, no doubt. The record after he left (It’s All Crazy!) was made with me on acoustic guitar, and no second electric. Not a lot of folks recognize that as a reason for the change in our sound, but it’s definitely a big part of it.

He’s just about finishing up med school, and he and his wife Nikki have a baby named Jubilee, so we all know he made the right decision by leaving; and he’ll still play local shows when time allows, and his father-in-law Jack still comes on tour with us sometimes, so it’s alright. Plus, we’ve got a fellow named Beaver playing second electric guitar now, who’s arguably got better chops than Chris, and can sing like a bird.

How did not having a label affect the recording process of Ten Stories? Creatively? Monetarily? In addition, what drove you guys to not resign with Tooth & Nail?

Creatively not much – Tooth & Nail was always super supportive of us, and trusted us artistically with all our own decisions. They were really about the best record label I could imagine, but the consensus in the band was that we should try something different, see if we could do it ourselves. I wanted to stay with Tooth & Nail, but I basically stayed out of the decision, because I thought things would work out OK regardless. Our friend Dave let us borrow a whole lot of money, so in a sense he acted as our ‘record label’ in terms of providing the finances.

What music did you grow up listening to and what influenced your vocal style? What music are you listening to these days?
Grew up on my dad’s records: Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Jim Croce, the Grateful Dead, Moody Blues. In high school, I liked British pop, especially Morrissey and the Smiths, but also the Cure, London Suede, Echobelly, Pulp, Elastica. As for my vocal style, definitely influenced by Sean McCabe from Crud/Ink & Dagger, David Byrne, and Lou Reed I guess; then a little later on by Jeff Mangum, Stephin Merritt, and I like the guy from Belle & Sebastian. As for recent listening: Sacred Harp recordings, obsessively – almost exclusively.

What have you been up to in the down time between these last two records? Did that have any impact on this new record?

School, which seems to have had an impact, yes. Being immersed for the past four years in a secular, academic environment, it hasn’t been so easy for me to fall back on my old patterns of religious talk. That sorta thing wouldn’t fly, so I had to learn to bracket certain language, and to rely more on evidence and/or rational argument to prove a point, rather than scripture or charisma or emotional appeal. Learning to examine whatever ‘truth claims’ I might so casually make, scrutinize them for unfounded assumptions, parochialism, biases, you know what I mean.

It felt like there was a good chance It’s All Crazy! could have ended up mewithoutYou’s final release. How close was the band to calling it a day?

I don’t know. I’ve always talked a big game about quitting, but it turns out I find more of my self-worth in this band than I would have ever cared to admit – rely on the attention it provides me, to not feel like such a big loser.

What does the future hold for mewithoutYou? Would you ever consider putting out a solo album?

We’ve got some touring planned this summer, but beyond that, I’m not sure. Putting out a solo album doesn’t sound appealing to me at all. It would be horrible, without the guys.