The More You Learn About God, the Further Away from Him You Move

mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss likes a good question, but finds some answers easier than others

mewithoutYou, with Penny the god (dog spelled backwards)
mewithoutYou, with Penny the god (dog spelled backwards)

Aaron Weiss is a man of God. Not because the mewithoutYou frontman sings about Judeo-Christian matters throughout the Philadelphia quartet’s four-LP oeuvre, and especially its latest for Tooth & Nail Records, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright. No, he’s an indie rock apostle because as the opening track on the new disc proclaims, “Every Thought a Thought of You.”

And that’s the universal You, yo – high, low, and all manner in-between.

We spoke for an hour last week in anticipation of MWY’s headlining take down at Emo’s tomorrow night, Tuesday, June 16. The 30-year-old singer and crew were in Florida, headed for a gig in St. Petersburg, where mewithoutYou doubtlessly raged with punk rock passion and an ecumenical faith in the power of song.

Austin Chronicle: What’s your religious background?

Aaron Weiss: My parents raised me and my brother Mike to believe in God, but were never very specific as far as a particular religion. My dad was raised Jewish and my mother was raised Episcopalian and she converted to Islam. So we had a little of everything. My uncle was more into Buddhism and Native American religion, so it was all over the place as far as what we heard was true. I've had a lot to consider ever since.

My parents were never forceful about it and never tried to teach me much in the ways of doctrine or particular intellectual beliefs about God. Theirs was more just an overall sense of believing in God and living a good life and submitting to God and praying and loving others and forgiving – all very basic things.

AC: Do you consider yourself a scholar, amateur or otherwise, of religion?

AW: No. No, not at all. Far from it. It’s more and more a case of becoming like a child, sort of like a fool in many ways, in regards to God. There’s lots of things I am interested in learning about in the world. It’s neat to know how to maintain a bus, and how to fix plumbing; learn about history and English literature – all these I studied in school. The subject of religion, while it can be studied in that same way – approached in an anthropological way, or seen through the lens of sociology – that’s not the way I was raised. Again, my parents didn’t teach me much in the way of doctrines or religious dogma, so for me it’s incredibly simple. My father told me the more you learn about God, the further away from him you move, so I’m content to know nuthin’. So please forgive me if I don’t have any good answers for you about those things.

AC: In a business where the phrase “Christian band” is stigma, is there too much emphasis put on some of the topics mewithoutYou is dealing with in song?

AW: Thank you for asking. That’s a very respectful and considerate question, and you’re probably the first person doing an interview who actually considered that, because a lot of times that is the focus. It’s like, “What’s this about a Christian band?” It’s either that or the bus that runs on vegtable oil [laughs]. Those are the two big attractions.

AC: Is that frustrating? Does that limit the band somehow?

AW: No, it’s not frustrating for me. It’s fine by me. If we’re being limited it’s only because we need to be limited [chuckles]. If it’s hindered our success in any way, it’s probably been a protection.

AC: You mentioned school before. What’s your educational background? Did you study religion?

AW: I studied English education as an undergraduate at Temple in Philadelphia, and I took a few religion courses, but it wasn’t long before I realized it was an approach that was very different than how my parents had raised me to understand that path. I realized the intellectual study of it, or anywhere you’d go and pay money and take classes to learn about it, that was something very different. I wouldn’t say I learned about God there, but I definitely learned about religious history and theology and that sort of thing.

AC: Did you do graduate school?

AW: I have been. In the past year I’ve taken a few classes. Not to get a degree, but just trying to keep active in that section.

AC: Do you still live in Philadelphia?

AW: Yeah, most of the time. When we’re not touring, I usually stay with my parents in Upper Darby, which is just west of the city.

AC: How did growing up in Philly inform the musical vision of the band?

AW: That’s a good question, but I’m afraid I don’t know. I never felt a part of a music scene in Philadelphia. We sort of got our start in Indiana and Illinois just doing short tours through the Midwest, and down south we gained more momentum and developed more of a following than we ever had in Philadelphia. So I’d probably lean towards “no.” I don’t feel it affected the sound of our music or the direction of our band – too drastically anyway, but it’s hard to say.

AC: Musically, given your band’s aggression live, what are your touchston-

AW: Oh, I take it back now that you mention that! There was a band called Ink & Dagger out of Philadelphia. When I was in high school they were a popular band at punk shows and their singer had a unique style vocally – have you heard of them? For the time, coming out of the hardcore scene, it seemed like they had a little more creativity than a lot of the chugga-chug breakdown bands that we were usually seeing, or the pop-punk cicle pit stuff. So that’s the exception. Otherwise, we’re relatively close to D.C., and a lot of those bands like Fugazi and Black Flag had a heavy influence on us, especially earlier. Recently we’ve kinda moved in a more melodic and gentler direction. But yeah, early on there was definitely a lot of aggression, which was mostly based out of pain.

AC: A young man’s pain?

AW: Yeah, you know, the usual stuff: adolescent heartache and romance gone sour. Nothing that most of us aren’t familiar with.

AC: Did you get to see some of those bands from the D.C. scene?

AW: Um, no... I don’t think so. I saw Fugazi a couple times, but mostly I was just following my brother to shows. He’s in the band with me. He’s about a year and a half older. I would just sort of tagalong with him. I was more into video games than collecting seven inches. I’ve never been a big music fan, but my brother liked a lot of those bands, so he might be a better person to talk to about that.

AC: Your lyrics remind me of 16th century religions paintings in that you enjoy their aesthetic beauty, of course, but you wonder about some of the symbolism you might be missing.

AW: Sure, well, with writing songs you have a pretty small amount of space to work with. There’s not that many words to put in there, so you have to try and capture a whole lot in a little area. If it ends up being dense...

To be honest, I’m not really too in touch with myself or my own process. In some ways I felt like I watched this last record unfold more than I actually took part of it. Somehow, from a distance, just seeing these ideas come and fall into place allowed me to go, “Oh, of course. That’s the line that needs to be there” without a sense that I wrote it or I even understand what it means. I knew that was the right lyric so just let it be. But when people say, “Oh, what did you mean by this line? or “I really like what you said here,” I sort of feel the same as if they’d said, “Oh, I really like Pine trees. They’re really beautiful. I like how those Pine leaves don’t fall off in the winter, but they stay green all year.” I’m like, “That’s nice that you like it, but that wasn’t me.”

It’s hard to explain, but I don’t really feel like I wrote any of those lyrics. I just kind of have this sense that everything in creation is unfolding as it is and we’re just all observers that for some reason are claiming things that come through our particular bodies as our own. On a certain level it’s all a part of the same thing. In other words, you wrote the lyrics, not me!

AC: Is writing lyrics easy or hard for you?

AW: It’s both, and it goes back and forth. When I feel the burden that I have to write something and I have to come up with something clever or I want to sound wise and teach people about God, anything like that, it becomes a real burden. It’s very stressful, and I get full of anxiety: “What if I lead people astray?” “What if people don’t think I’m smart and intelligent?” All that craziness is in me, but in clearer moments I just sort of hand that away and give all the responsibility to God, and say, “You have to do this, because this life belongs to you. And if you’d like to take part in a beautiful record then may it be so. If you’d like for the record to be a total flop for whatever purpose, then may that be so.” It’s sort of a really light burden, because you don’t worry about how our record turns out, or how my lyrics turn out anymore than you’d worry about the lyrics of a band somewhere in Japan. Of course the ego’s always there filling us with anxiety and pride, and comparing, which hasn’t brought me any peace, so I’m trying to back away from that.

AC: Songwriters seem to divide into two camps. There’s the Keith Richards camp, where they’re the antenna channeling songs out of the ether, and then there’s the Paul Simon way, where they’re craftsmen working eight hours a day in their offices. Where do you fall on that continuum?

AW: That’s a very good question. When you said the Keith Richards one, I thought, “Oh yeah, yeah – that one. That one!” I almost thought I don’t even need to hear the next one, but then when you said the Paul Simon one, I thought, “No, no, it’s that one.” So to answer you question, yes!

AC: So, in the antenna paradigm, is music a conduit to the divine?

AW: As we’ve been doing it, it’s a business – going onstage, selling tickets and CDs and everything; promoting and advertising and lights and smoke. All these smoke and mirrors. Our music is not that, no.

You’re asking really good questions, all of them. I don’t mean to be a bad conversationalist.

As far as the connection between God and music I don’t understand about God, so I do have the sense that it’s dependent upon the intention of each of us, what we bring to it. If someone puts on a CD intending to find God there, then God can be found, because God is everywhere. But if we’re trying to become famous or become respected and get good reviews and have people....

AC: Is the very act of singing a supplication to the divine, whether it’s Pavarotti, Fugazi, or the church? Are we all simply lonely beings crying to our god through song?

AW: You’re asking really, really great questions. Do you think it is?

AC: I tend to think so, yes.

AW: Right. Amen [laughs].

AC: On this album there’s a whole zoo’s worth of animals. Why have you chosen to populate your songs with agents of the animal kingdom?

AW: Ever since I was little I liked animals, a lot. We have a dog on the bus with us, named Penny, and she makes everybody happy when she’s around. It’s really sweet and cute. When I was growing up I had a lot of pets. I had bunnies and guinea pigs and hamsters and cats, fish. It makes me happy to sing about those animals. Especially on the latest CD, it’s less of a burden compared to singing about my life, at least directly. They all flow from my life, through my life, but they don’t have to be about me. It’s just like fables for children. It’s just a colorful way of telling a story. So far the highest compliment I’ve heard about our record is from friends who live out in Cincinnati and have two young boys. The boys like the record, a 4-year-old and I think a 2-year-old. That’s nice to me. It suggests we’re moving in the right direction.

AC: “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookies” reminds me of one of Aesop’s Fables.

AW: Right, exactly. I think it is an Aesop’s Fable, if not exactly then very similarly. I haven’t heard from Aesop, but I’ve heard from Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. That’s listed in the CD’s lyrical references.

AC: You basically dedicate the album to Bawa Muhaiyaddeen.

AW: Right, yes.

AC: Can you tell me about him?

AW: I wish I could. I’m trying to figure that out myself. I’m really trying to answer the question of who am I. We have some special insight into that investigation but when you try to figure out another person you see a certain side of them, or you hear what they said on a certain day, or you see how they behave and you interpret it in a certain way. But who knows how much gets lost in that translation. Maybe they meant a certain thing, but you misinterpreted it. Or maybe they ate something funny for lunch and they’re not feeling so well so they come across as a mean person.

AC: Is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen contemporary?

AW: Well he left the world in 1986. My parents both knew him. They met while listening to his teachings and he came to Philadelphia in 1971, 1972, from Sri Lanka, or Ceylan as I think was called then. I was going to answer that when you asked, “How has Philadelphia shaped your band.” I was going to say, “Well Bawa Muhaiyaddeen came to Philadelphia,” but that’s more shaped my life, not so the style of our music. So, yeah, he’s contemporary to our lives, but no longer physically here.

AC: Did you say he’d given you feedback on “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie”?

AW: Feedback? Oh, I’m sorry. He told stories and sang songs, and people would listen, and record them, or take down what he said, or video tape his discourses and transcribe them into books. There’s a book called My Love You My Children and the story “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie” is in that book.

AC: If you're a big fan of animals are you then a big fan of pastries as well? They play as big a role in that song as animals. Are you a scone fiend, for example?

AW: Not scones particularly. I’ll take ‘em if there’s nothing else around, but I’ll definitely take a brownie or a cookie, ice cream....

AC: And “Ginger spice cake” and “Boysenberry pie” and all those things?

AW: I don’t think I’ve actually even had Boysenberry pie. My favorite pie is banana cream pie and pecan pie. It’s probably a tie for first place between those two, but sometimes a word just sounds nicer. So “Boysenberry” fit the song better than “pecan pie.” It’s not always exactly an accurate representation of my specific taste, but it does reflect my passion for pastries, yes – much to my detriment. There’s a history of diabetes in my family so I’m trying to keep it under control, but it’s hard because there’s so many good, sweet-tasting foods, especially being on tour where there’s catering and people are cooking and baking things for us all the time.

AC: “Goodbye, I!” has the tortoise and the hummingbird, “A Stick, a Carrot & String” has a horse, donkey, sheep, cardinals. Do you visit zoos on tour?

AW: No. I’ve only been to a handful in my life, maybe three or four zoos. The San Diego Zoo had a good reputation when I was much younger, and I’ve been to the Philadelphia Zoo a few times. I think everyone’s probably a little ambivalent about zoos. I know they rescue a lot of animals that are hurt and do a lot of good things like help kids in the city go see some wildlife, but it also seems a little out of ordinary to put them in cages and keep them in there for people to look at. Every time I go to the zoo I’m so happy to see the animals, but I always feel a little conflicted about it.

AC: On “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie” there’s also a rich musical palette - tuba, toy piano. Later, in “Cattail Down,” there’s some nice brass. Was there a conscious effort to detail the music in that way.

AW: It wasn’t a conscious effort like, “We have to do this in order to make a difference from the last record,” or just to throw in everything we possibly can for variety’s sake, but once the song was finished it seemed like most if not all of them had a little room here or there to add little embellishments that would make the whole a bit more colorful. So we brought in a composer and a friend of one of the producers and he wrote some arrangements for a few of the songs, including the one you’ve mentioned, “The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie.” He had people come in and he had sheet music all written out. It was very professional. Other songs, like “Cattail Down,” that was just a friend of us that passed through. He’s from a band called Urban Sophisticates, a guy named Jeremy. He came played trumpet and flugelhorn on a few songs, so a few times it was like that. We had a buddy come and improvise something. Or, with that song, we had some of it written already. My brother wrote that horn line and Jeremy played it, but on another song he totally improvised. So, in other words, we didn’t have a single approach. It was all over the place.

AC: One of my favorite songs here is one of the last, “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate.” It’s an epic tale, one of those stories about the pride of man in the face of a higher power. Is that a fair interpretation?

AW: Sure. Yeah, that’s the [Beetle] Professor there, in the story. The Professor has that pride. Then the Lieutenant has that greed, and the King just goes straight for it. So it just shows different approaches that we have, each of us. We seem to have all of those within us. It’s not like, “I’m this character and he’s this character.” It’s just a whole range of possibilities, how we approach that question.

AC: The last song, given its chorus, I assume that the symbols stand for “Allah.”

AW: Yes, exactly.

AC: And the title of the new album comes from that song. Are you of the mind that our experience is Shakespearean, that it’s all just a dream?

AW: Yes. That line was taken also from Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, and if you read some of his teachings or look into his life at all, you’ll see that his life reflected that - that teaching, and the peace he lived with, and the love for other lives that he showed. You realize here’s someone who wasn’t caught up in the drama of success and failure, and praise and blame, and mine and yours, and you and me. He really fixed his eyes on that one. He was beyond all that. If you’re interested in that title and what it means, or the “King Beetle,” which also came from Bawa, I can point you in that direction.

I think all of that should be in the lyrical credits. I tried to give credit. In the past, I’ve stolen a lot of lyrics and a lot of ideas and not given reference. So please forgive me for that. But I’ve tried to be clear on this one: “Yeah, these aren’t my ideas.” Like you said with Keith Richards, I sort of have an antennae up, and when something comes along....

Like my dad told me the story of the “King Beetle” and was immediately like, “There’s my life. That’s who I am. So far I’ve been the Professor and the Lieutenant, just dancing around the truth and not willing to give up my life, give up everything, for that pursuit.”

AC: In light of a song like “King Beetle,” I found “Fig With a Bellyache” very straightforward, a song about carnal desires.

AW: Right, yeah, yeah.

AC: And yet it’s got this great twist: “The dog below our waist’s aroused, as arms embrace the pretty Gals, but came much more as a surprise, it happening while I hugged the Guys!”

AW: Sure. It was a twist when it happened to me too.

AC: Why do you suppose most religions are so intolerant of homosexuality?

AW: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I’ve wondered that a lot myself. The best I could ever come up with is that it seems we’re always looking for some way to feel good about our own life. Or to say, “I’m a good person because I do these things and not those things.” Or “I avoid this kind of behavior.” Of course in order to be a good person you need to have bad people. So if we find someone who lives in a way we don’t, it makes us feel better about ourselves to say that person is bad. Since most people are heterosexual, it seems like a pretty easy target to say, “Those are bad guys. Those are ones who are sexually immoral. It’s the homosexuals!” It’s an easy way of putting ourselves in the right. Of course it’s crazy, but it’s common enough that I relate to the question. I’ve wondered that many times.

AC: It goes along the line of so many wars having been fought in the name of religion. It’s that bumper sticker: “My God can kill you God.”

AW: Right. I do have a little experience myself, on some level - just being in a band and being on a stage. I had that desire for a long time. Then it happened that at some point I started to think about God, and figured, “That question is probably more significant, and deeper, and more important than the question of how many CDs I’m able to sell. So I should start to consider that.” But rather than giving up what I wanted I tried to incorporate God into it. So I said, “Well, it’ll just be a religious band. I’ll go around doing what I want and pursuing what I want by using God to justify it and give it a moral ground.

AC: Seems like that would also put you in a difficult position because then people are coming to you for answers that you don’t necessarily have. Has that been the case?

AW: If I could answer “Yes” in all capital letters, with bold and underlined.... If I were typing, that’s how it would appear on your screen in an email: 48-point font, or 128-point font, something really big. So the answer is yes, yes, and yes.

AC: You've played Austin a lot over the years. Any impressions? We have great pecan pie.

AW: Is that right? In that case, I like it. I was going to say it was a disappointment because we went to a certain bridge when there was supposed to be all these bats flying around, and they never came out that night. So it was a bust. That’s my main memory of Austin - waiting for these bats that never showed up. But I’m willing to give it another shot and maybe try a slice of pecan pie.

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mewithoutYou's Aaron Weiss, mewithoutYou, Aaron Weiss, Tooth & Nail Records

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