Letting Go Of The Wheel: An Interview with mewithoutYou

Letting Go Of The Wheel: An Interview with mewithoutYou

—by , May 11, 2016

05-11 Buzz - MewithoutYou (Photo by Danielle Parsons)MewithoutYou, stylized as mewithoutYou, is a five-piece rock band hailing from Philadelphia, PA. The first song of theirs I ever heard is called “Disaster Tourism,” which comes off of their second full-length album, Catch For Us The Foxes. Off the same album, the second song of theirs I ever heard is called “Paper-Hanger,” heard out of context of the rest of the album and placed on more than one mix CD, the lyrics read over and often on a desktop computer, as lyrics were often read back then.

mewithoutYou is currently touring with Say Anything and Teen Suicide, and has toured with Coheed And Cambria and Brand New. They have released music on Tooth And Nail Records, a Christian rock imprint that has played home to MxPx, Underoath, and The Juliana Theory. Their latest and sixth studio album, Pale Horses, is 11 songs long and has been called “a kind of career summary” and “a return to roots for the band,” featuring album art by Russian artist Vassily Kafanov, as do all of their albums.

mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss outfits the music with lyrics coming from an intersectional spiritual background, largely preoccupied with the end of the world, and the largeness of things. “A fish swims through the sea, while the sea is, in a certain sense, contained within the fish.” Here, we talk about roots, fitting in, and what language represents. At the end, Aaron calls our talk a bit “one-sided.” I appreciate that.

Hi, Aaron! How are you doing?

I’m pretty good. I woke up feeling really sad, and now I feel pretty happy. So I don’t know what changed exactly, but that’s how my days tend to go.

How many days into the tour are you?

We’re about to play…our fourth show tonight? But we’ve been on the road over a week because we started the tour far away from where we live, so there were a couple days of travel before we even played a single show.

Where do you live when you are not touring?

Most of the guys in the band still live…in fact, everyone else in the band lives pretty straightforwardly in Philadelphia, with the exception of me, who lives in a kind of scattered pattern of here and there: sometimes Philadelphia, and sometimes Idaho, where my wife lives, and sometimes just kind of traveling a lot and living sort of on the road. So I guess I kind have sort of more of a wanderlust more than anyone else in the band, so I kind of get around more even when we are not touring.

You’ve said that whatever you and the band are reading at the time has a direct influence in your song writing. Are you reading anything right now? Are your bandmates reading anything right now?

I don’t know about the other guys. But I’ve seen Greg, my bass player; he’s studying (he’s in seminary) so he’s been reading about something to do with prayer or spiritual discipline. I’m not sure, I’ve deduced from what I hear him say or looking at the names of his books. But they’re assigned by his academic program.

As for me, I just finished a book by a friend of mine named Robert Repino. It was called Mort(e) (M-O-R-T, and then the letter E in parentheses). That was about a war between humans and non-human animals, and ants. Giant, advanced intelligence ants. And this kind of multi-species world catastrophe. I just finished that the other day. It was really cool. It was great to read a book that was written by an old high school friend of mine that got published by a legitimate book publisher. Actually a really cool story. I just finished with that, and then some odds and ends I’m always in middle of.

This morning I read an essay by Dorothy Day, who is an author I like, a Catholic worker…but there’s nothing that I’m really sinking my teeth into at the moment, it’s kind of just bits and pieces of books that are laying around, you know?

How do you think language shapes reality, in life and in your music?

Well, I don’t know. That’s a hard question. It’s a really big question. I couldn’t begin to know the answer to that. I think it’s pretty clear that language does powerfully shape how we view reality, and the ways we use language and what we do with it does shape reality, and is in so far a part of reality. I’m not sure that the way we describe the world actually changes what we are describing. In other words, I don’t know that it’s directly effecting the world in that respect, but it at least is giving us a certain lens through which we can interpret that world or that reality.

It’s one of these foundational questions of my life that I’ve been kind of preoccupied by for years and the more I think about it, the bigger I realize the questions are and the less of handle I think I have on them. So the upshot of it is that the less I worry about the exact words that people use. I do value precision in language to some extent, but I also try not to put too much faith in exactly the words people use to describe their realities because I tend to think that there’s a lot of slippage involved where words don’t directly correspond to things or states of affairs and so on. So I try to take and hold it lightly, what people say or what I say about myself or other people. I realize that’s just a way of representing what they are and not the whole of it.

It can be said that person’s life is the sum of the decisions they have made for themselves, and the same might be said of a band, every album a representation of that sum. Would you say that this is true of Pale Horses?

I think that’s hard to say that any album represents the band collectively in any general sense, because each of our albums, to take as a case in point consists of kind of a complicated amalgamation of different band members contributing different aspects of an album.

You want to talk about what a song is about or what an album, in the case of your question, is about, I certainly can’t presume that the lyrics that I’m predominantly responsible for writing summarize where the band is collectively. But then you could think, “What about the drumming?” which was most written by the drummer, or the bass guitar, which is mostly written by our bass player…I doubt that either of those guys would say that what they are contributing to the songs are any kind of a summary of their life. But I can personally say that what I try to put into an album is drawing very directly on my life experiences and on my world views in so far as I’m putting my interior life into language and trying to represent it. And sometimes it’s this kind of third-person storytelling and not meant to represent my views exactly, but in a lot of cases, it does. And so there is a pretty direct correlation to what I am saying and my life experiences, but it’s not a perfectly direct correlation by any means.

So, I guess if I could try to more directly answer your question I would say it’s not as straightforward as just an album corresponding to a band’s beliefs or worldviews or life experiences. I think there is a way of compartmentalizing what we do when we get together to write songs that might not necessarily be trying to capture our beliefs or our world views or our experiences but just trying to create something that maybe transcends our experiences or maybe that inspires somebody to a feeling or maybe just sounds cool and ends up being a product that we sell for our business, you know? It’s all different ways to look at songwriting, at least for me, and it doesn’t always imply an expression of the totality of where we’re at as a group, I don’t think it ever does. I don’t think it comes close to doing that.

Speaking to you experience specifically, then, what was your experience with what went into Pale Horses?

Well, that’s a great question. The first thing that comes to mind is my father dying; that happened about four or five years before the album was written. So it wasn’t still fresh by any means, but it was still something, it is still something I am coming to terms with. The second thing that comes to mind is my marriage. I got married in between our fifth album and our sixth and most recent album. So that was the biggest life event that took place kind of in the immediate time before writing the album, like a few months before. I was writing lyrics, I was taking my wedding vows, so that was pretty fresh, and that informs a lot of what I wrote.

There’s also this sense of trying to come to terms with… I guess deep fears that I have about death and the world coming to an end or environmental catastrophe or nuclear war and meltdowns and the kind of deepest things that I’m afraid of and trying to face that and to turn that into a song that I could, in sense, confront with courage, and even joy to some extent. So I think that my songwriting process this time around was to take a bunch of different thing that I considered the album might be about as a whole, and break down, like, “What are their themes?” And some of them are what I just mentioned to you: the death of a loved one, getting married, and global catastrophe, just to name a few. And then to try to write an album, not that follows any one of those themes or individual songs coming up directly onto those themes, but that every song would kind of be a mixture of all the different that I’ve been preoccupied with recently. So there’s not a single current or coherent narrative the way there was say on the previous album, though the songs aren’t very clearly compartmentalized as they were on the album before that where they individually tell this kind of self-contained story.

It’s more, in some ways, to come back to your earlier question about language, I sometimes just use words as ways to fill syllables and space and sound, you know, using my vocal as an instrument rather than, like, my vocabulary as a means of saying substantial ideas, but that was there in the mix, too. So it was like a big hodgepodge. I think that more than anything I can probably characterize the songwriting process as one where we didn’t try to make it any one thing in particular, whereas a couple of the previous albums had this more distinct concept that informed it. This time it was really letting go of the wheel and letting the songs kind of emerge and trying to guide it in a good way but not trying to totally be in control of the process, if that makes any sense.

What is your opinion on music journalists saying that a band has “gone back to their roots”? I am asking that question because I have read commentary of this sort directed toward this latest album.

Oh, sure, yeah. Yeah, I think that’s fair. But at the same time, that’s kind of just a construct to think of somebody’s “musical roots.” It’s not like, I mean, I’m standing in front of a tree and I’m literally looking at its roots, which are these physical things reaching into the ground. And of course they grow and move over time, so the roots of the tree today are not the roots of the tree 10 years ago or the roots of the tree 10 years from now. But there’s obviously some kind of continuity there.

With our band, it’s debatable, our true roots. Somebody could say that it’s our first proper full-length album, somebody could say it was our demo, you know, somebody could say it was the music we were writing as friends before this band. It depends on where you want to pinpoint where our roots are, and even then it’s kind of suggestive of whether you think our new album is comparatively true to that. But I would say for sure if I could pinpoint a time that someone could fairly say that we really departed from our early sound, then I can look at a couple places.

Over the course of our first four albums, I can look at a kind of progressive movement away from what our earliest songwriting approaches, and that was a movement toward more melody and a movement away from a reliance on heavy distortion and just screaming. There’s more of a dynamic shift, there’s more instruments that are introduced in terms of folk or acoustic-based instruments. Our first four albums were a pretty steady drift away from this kind of thrashy, noisy punk that we started with our demo. Our fourth album is almost like a folk album, and that’s a weird transition to make. But it happening over the course of eight years, it made sense at the time. By the time that fourth record came about, a lot of people started to ask, “What happened? You guys used to be this, and now you’re something so different,” and we’ve had to ask ourselves that, too.

And it really did come about that the fourth album called It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! (bahp, bahp, bahp) came from a pretty deliberate attempt to steer away from what we had come to rely on and to try something new. For us it was new, at least.

On the Underoath DVD Tired Violence, drummer Ricky Mazzotta talked about coming on the Farewell Tour and the question of whether your fans would mesh with their fans. What has it been like over the course of your career to have the opportunity to spend time and make music with different bands with different sounds?

That’s a good question. I never thought about it in those terms. I have wondered sometimes if it’s been a strength or a weakness for our band that we can tour with anyone, from like a real heavy, hardcore metal band like Underoath, to like a poppy rock, punk band like The Menzingers, to folky singer-songwriters like Kevin Devine. To play these shows with a pretty wide spectrum of artist and never quite knowing where we fit in…I don’t know if that’s been a benefit. Sometime I feel like I wish we had a sound that was a little more conducive to a specific scene. At the same time, I kind of like that we can get to taste different genres and meet people from the different shows that are fans of this or that kind of music.

But to answer your question more directly, I have to admit that I haven’t really thought about it or kept track of it in those terms. For example, the kind of people that came to the Underoath shows compared to the kind of people that came to the Say Anything show last night, compared to the Coheed And Cambria, or the Brand New tour, or whatever. I don’t notice any kind of patterns in the kinds of people that come to the shows, or even the kind of people that play in the bands. Even the people playing this really loud, aggressive music are often very sweet and gentle and kind people.

But I think it’s cool that we’ve been able to dip our toe in so many different pools while still somehow kind of doing our own thing, I hope.

How would you describe the Philadelphia music scene, when you are growing up and as you understand it now?

Another good question, and I’ll have a hard time answering it. I don’t really know what it’s like now. I have a memory of feeling kind of intimidated by the Philadelphian scene because I didn’t feel like I had many connections there and it was hard for our band to get our start. We developed a fan base in Kokomo, Indiana long before anyone was caring about us in Philadelphia, so I felt like we got our start outside of our own area, somehow. And people in Philly didn’t really pay much attention.

To this day, I don’t know if I really feel a very strong part in any kind of Philly scene. There’s a few other bands in the Philly area that we have great relationships with and some of the promoters that we’re close with. I don’t know that I ever felt totally embraced as a part of this Philadelphia community except for these random connections that I feel. That’s probably largely because of my own introverted patterns; I don’t go out to shows, I don’t try to go out and meet other musicians, and I don’t hob-knob with promoters or industry people. I don’t have those kinds of relationships generally. I’m probably the wrong guy to talk to, but I can in a sort of simple way just share my feeling of, like, an outsider, or not like terribly successful in the Philadelphia scene.

In the first decade of the 2000s, your “freegan” lifestyle, “seemingly weird” behavior, and the bus running on vegetable oil were things that people paid a lot of attention to. Why do you think people need to qualify their own interest in music or art with information about the personal lives of their artists?

I can look at my own consumption of art and admit that I do care how the people were living that created the art. If I’m expecting the art to speak to me in some way about what’s most important in life or the good life or a beautiful way to live or good values or something positive, that’s part of my assumption or my value in art to consume is what is the message and what direction is it going to pull me in. And I think it does matter whether the artist…at least I should say that I personally care what the artist is trying to communicate, for one. And number two, if their lifestyle corresponds to what they are trying to communicate. In other words, do they practice what they preach?

In looking to our band for that, I really have no idea. I certainly wouldn’t put myself forward as an exemplar or a role model, but I can say that I have values that I care very strongly about and certain moral beliefs that I’m very passionate about that are going to come through in the words that I’m writing, even if it’s not as a means of trying to persuade anybody else to agree with me or to change their lifestyle. It just comes out of what occupies my thoughts.

But I can say that I try to feel good about my struggles and my beliefs and to look for other people. In other words, I’m not just trying to entertain people; I’m not just trying to make money. Those things are part of it, but there’s also a part of it where I genuinely do think that it matters what we say and how we live and how we effect one another. We all influence each other and we have a responsibility to one another to anybody who is listening to us to say something and to live in such a way that is beautiful and that is turning towards something true or something good and positive. Because we all effect each other, I think we all owe it to each other to try to be a good influence on each other.

So I dunno, I bet that turns a heck of a lot of people off. For every person that might think that is interesting and pays more attention to our band because of the strong morals and vocals about it, there are probably going to be 10 people that think I’m a self-righteous asshole or something. And that’s part of it, it’s kind of the risk I’m willing to run by taking a stand for something. So I’d rather that than just be totally bland and neutral and not ever take a stand or anything or say anything that might rock the boat. You know what I mean?

The bus question was more of an aside, being that your “freegan” lifestyle and “seemingly weird” behavior are things that people paid a lot of attention to. One journalist said, “I didn’t know any of that back in 2007, but if I did it only would have made me like them more.” Why do you think people need to qualify their own interest in music or art with information about the personal lives of their artists?

I can look at my own consumption of art and admit that I do care how the people were living that created the art. If I’m expecting the art to speak to me in some way about what’s most important in life or the good life or a beautiful way to live or good values or something positive, that’s part of my assumption or my value in art to consume is what is the message and what direction is it going to pull me in. And I think it does matter whether the artist…at least I should say that I personally care what the artist is trying to communicate, for one. And number two, if their lifestyle corresponds to what they are trying to communicate. In other words, do they practice what they preach?

In looking to our band for that, I really have no idea. I certainly wouldn’t put myself forward as an exemplar or a role model, but I can say that I have values that I care very strongly about and certain moral beliefs that I’m very passionate about that are going to come through in the words that I’m writing, even if its not as a means of trying to persuade anybody else to agree with me or to change their lifestyle. It just comes out of what occupies my thoughts.

And so I think that my general assumption is that a lot of us are looking for affirmation on the one hand, somebody to tell us that we’re right or that we’re good or that we’re sane or normal in some way, or on the other hand that we were looking to be challenged by somebody to tell us the ways in which we are not living in a sane or normal and moral way. I feel both of those kind of contrary impulses: that I want to be affirmed by my community and the art that I subject myself to, but I also want to be challenged by it in some way. And why people choose to look to this band versus that band versus this movie versus that television show versus that book, you know, I have no idea.

But I can say that I try to feel good about my struggles and my beliefs and to look for other people. In other words, I’m not just trying to entertain people; I’m not just trying to make money. Those things are part of it, but there’s also a part of it where I genuinely do think that it matters what we say and how we live and how we effect one another. We all influence each other and we have a responsibility to one another to anybody who is listening to us to say something and to live in such a way that is beautiful and that is turning towards something true or something good and positive. Because we all affect each other, I think we all owe it to each other to try to be a good influence on each other.

So I dunno, I bet that turns a heck of a lot of people off. For every person that might think that is interesting and pays more attention to our band because of the strong morals and vocals about it, there are probably going to be ten people that think I’m a self-righteous asshole or something. And that’s part of it, it’s kind of the risk I’m willing to run by taking a stand for something. So I’d rather that than just be totally bland and neutral and not ever take a stand or anything or say anything that might rock the boat. You know what I mean?

In a 2007 interview, you cited Soren Kierkegaard as a philosopher who has inspired your thinking. Is he still an influence?

I can tell you I just opened up a book of collected writings from Kierkegaard probably two weeks ago, so his books haven’t gotten all that dusty on my shelves. But I can also say that I probably look less to him in recent years than I did around the time of that last interview. Maybe because I felt like for so long that I was so steeped in Christianity and specifically authors who were. In the case of Kierkegaard, I don’t think he identified himself as a Christian, but he certainly used the language of the Bible and Jesus and the gospels and all that. So he came from that tradition and pointed back to that tradition in a pretty strong way.

So I kind of tried in recent years to broaden my inputs and so that meant not opening up so many books by Christian authors or about explicitly Christian topics, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still inspired by those Christian authors. As I mentioned Dorothy Day, she was in the Catholic worker movement, and I just read her today.

So it’s certainly not like a straightforward shift from this style of person to this style of author, but I can say like Kierkegaard was…I just felt like he was a totally kindred spirit for awhile. And then maybe it was when I got married, I don’t know, but when I first started dating the woman who became my wife, I suppose I lost a certain kinship with Soren Kierkegaard in that he always struck me as so desperately, passionately alone in his life. And I always suspected that I was going to end up that way, sort of a nervous wreck, maybe collapsing and dying in my early-forties, never having had sex…I dunno, Kierkegaard never had sex, and I was still a virgin, and I never thought I was going to get married or ever have sex with anybody. Like, I’m just going to be this tortured, political angst-ridden kind of a quasi-loner living in a state of perpetual faith and doubt and existential crisis.

That’s all the kind of stuff I kind of love about Kierkegaard, is passion and his courage and his eloquence in articulating those emotions which in my twenties (gosh!) I really related to well into my early thirties. The last couple years, having a girlfriend and then a wife, yeah I didn’t feel the same sort of lonely camaraderie with him. But I still admire him as a writer and as a thinker. I just don’t read him as much.

 

mewithoutYou performs May 12 at the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia, PA, May 13 at Webster Hall in New York City, and May 15 at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ. For more information, go to mewithoutyou.com.


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