Things got a bit deep when we interviewed mewithoutYou
Vocalist Aaron Weiss on the story behind the band's new album, 'Pale Horses'
“I should warn you about one thing before we begin,” says mewithoutYou vocalist Aaron Weiss at the start of this interview. “I can be kind of talkative.”
That, transpires, is something of an a understatement – there are so many ideas in his mind that Weiss’ responses are almost like thought processes, evolving and forming as he tries to explains them. For anybody familiar with the band – completed by Weiss’ brother Michael (guitar/keyboards), Greg Jehanian (bass), Brandon Beaver (guitar) and Rickie Mazzotta (drums) – and their eclectic discography, that should come as no surprise. Because since their inception in 2000, the Philadelphia-based outfit have been wrestling with spiritual, philosophical and emotional concepts through intense and lyrically dense bursts of cathartic release. Initially, that was through music with aggressive, post-hardcore leanings, Weiss shouting the majority of his words from a first person perspective, but with 2009’s fourth album, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright, and 2012’s follow-up, Ten Stories, the narrative and musical focus both shifted – both more folky, mellow and acoustic than their previous work, the former was based on the teachings and fables of Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, while the latter took on the points of views of different animals in the aftermath of a 19th century circus train crash, and explored various ideas of faith through the animals. None of that is surprising, either – the Weiss brothers were born to Sufi Muslim parents, but their mother was originally Christian and their father Jewish, and Aaron Weiss later joined a Christian-based commune in Philadelphia intent on putting the teachings of the Gospel into practice and setting up a kind of Heaven on earth. Pale Horses is a return to a slightly heavier sound and a more personal, first-person expressionism, but it’s clear that Weiss is still searching for the answers to and meaning of existence – and life, and spirituality, and everything else – as much as ever. In doing so, he’s helped create one of the most intriguing and thought–provoking albums of the band’s career to date.
What does Pale Horses mean to you?
Aaron: “That’s a hard one. That question could take up the whole interview. I wouldn’t know where to begin, but it probably doesn’t differ too much from our other albums in that it’s just an expression of where I’m at and what I’ve been experiencing in the past few years, what my convictions are and what my hopes are. It’s pretty personal. Probably more so than some of our more recent albums, which were a little bit more distant and third person and fabulous – you know, fable-based and character-based. For this one I’ve come back more to the first person to try to share what’s in my heart and what’s on my mind, and hopefully be somewhat uplifting in the process. But covers a wide range of things, so it’d be too hard to pinpoint any one of those.”
**What do you think brought mewithoutYou back to you, as opposed to those third-person fables? Why did you decide to do that?
**“For a couple of reasons, I guess, but the easiest one to give you is that the guys in my band asked me to, and I was happy to oblige. A little bit more of a personal reason has to do with wanting to keep things fresh. When we put out It’s All Crazy! and Ten Stories, that was me trying to move away from the first person and get the ego out of the way, trying to write in a way that others could relate to just as well, or address content that might have some universal – or quasi-universal – significance, and trying to avoid letting my subjectivity muddy the waters. But more recently, I’ve started to doubt whether I can ever do that, and it felt like maybe those attempts were too ambitious and I was maybe biting off more than I could chew. So I thought if there’s one thing I can write about with some insight, it’s myself. That’s not to say I even have any expertise on myself or what I am, but I do have some insight to that and a special vantage point from which to view who I am and what I am. I suppose when someone writers about their own experiences they have a bit more authority than writing about things they heard about second-hand.”
mewithoutYou (Aaron, centre) and the artwork for their 2015 album, 'Pale Horses'
With that in mind, how honest, compared to those early albums, would you say Pale Horses is? It seems to be almost looking back at your life since mewithoutYou began, rather than confessional catharsis of old, but I could be wrong!
“I think it’s fair to say that. There are certainly some respects in which I’m looking back or trying to incorporate old styles or vocal delivery. But at the same time, it’s fresh to me because I’m using those style and that delivery to express more recent experiences I’ve had. A good amount of the album expresses my relationship with my girlfriend – and now wife – and our marriage and honeymoon and things I could never have written about before all that. There’s new things that have happened in my life, like my father’s death, and I’m trying to write about things that have happened in recent years and own up to them as personal events and not to mask them in different characters or animals. But at the same time, I don’t know what I am except for the amalgamation of all the things that I have been in the past and then whatever this moment brings to me, so even if I am doing something that I think is totally original and a true expression of who I am, that still encompasses who I was 15 years ago and who I was five years ago. And I should say, even then, that no, I don’t believe our album is any kind of true expression of who I am. It’s a hodgepodge of different things that I am and the things that I’ve thought and just happen to sound cool – so I say them, but they don’t necessarily mean anything to me as a human being.”
**Okay. Because one of the great things, to me, about mewithoutYou, is your ability to capture that essence of the human condition, whether it’s through the metaphor of animals or you just talking about yourself. So how do reconcile those two approaches?
**“Well, I picked an animal and I married it to a certain worldview and I tried to express that worldview through that animal because it was a part of what I believed and I could sing it without feeling that I was accountable for defending it, or standing by it wholeheartedly. So in the case of Ten Stories, I could have an elephant who is a total determinist, who believes in fate and denies the existence of free will, and yet that’s just a part of what I believe, but I don’t totally believe that. Because as much as I don’t believe in free will, I do believe in free will. It’s both at the same time to me, in different ways. So the thing with the tiger on that album – the tiger is some kind of megalomaniac in some respect, who has these delusions of being God incarnate and being at one with the Divine, and I think there’s a part of reality there. I think that’s also a heresy, a crazy and arrogant thing to say, so what it lets me do is say things I kind of believe and kind of don’t, but to express them as meaningfully as I could with conviction, but also to express other ideas that contradict them and let all that sit together on the same table and try to understand how to reconcile these apparently different visions of the world.”
**So with that in mind, how would you say your vision of the world and your beliefs – and your belief in God – has changed over the years? There’s definitely a progression of beliefs and ideas and ideologies in your music, so what’s different?
**“That’s a great question, but that might take even longer! The main thing I could point you to that has most clearly changed for me is my relationship with language, or my trust – or the degree of trust – that I have in language and its ability to capture or represent reality, much less anything about God or internal reality or any kind of absolute truth. Those concepts just seem to me so elusive or wafty that any of the words we have to talk about them, or that I have at least, seem so slippery and so untrustworthy and unstable that I don’t believe they’re capable of trying to capture that and to express that. I think they’re fine as a means of trying to approximate a direction in which we can walk, and they’re obviously helpful to accomplish things, but I’ve been much more reluctant in recent years to make any sort of statement about God or truth or religion that I would stand by as true – that these words actually contain or directly point to or correspond to what’s actually going on up in Heaven or something. That idea to me seems like it doesn’t makes any sense to me anymore because of what we can realistically expect out of language. It’s a fundamental a way of how we relate to each other – even right now, you asked me the question using words and I’m answering you using words, and that’s a very limited, one-dimensional way of experiencing reality and communicating about truth – but it’s not necessarily the most trustworthy way, so I try to minimise my faith in it.”
**Does that not add an element of futility to the music of mewithoutYou in a way? Because so much of what you’re trying to do is capture – or explain or decipher – that truth, yet the inherent paradox is that you can’t.
**“Sure! It definitely adds a futility, in so far as that’s what we’re trying to do. At the same time, there are other levels to what we’re trying to do that are not hindered by that paradox – namely to entertain or to provoke thought or to, hopefully, kind of unwind some of these questions. I think language can do that if we’re clear enough – which I certainly don’t claim to be personally – but I do think that if someone were, hypothetically, clear enough in their thoughts and their ability to use language, they could use language to undermine our faith in it. So I think there’s a lot of potential there if it’s used in that negative way. I don’t mean negative in the sense of bad, I just mean in the sense of it being an undoing – deconstructing rather than creating or constructing. Does that make sense?”
**I think so. You’ve said, in the past, that mewithoutYou is not something you want to do forever, that it’s just a stop-gap and you don’t necessarily want to keep the band going. Has that changed?
**“It comes in waves. There are time when it’s like, ‘What the heck am I doing?! This is a silly career!’ and there’s other times when I’m like ‘This must be the coolest job that I could have.’ So I think anywhere in between is my average day, where I’m like, ‘This is pretty cool – we’ll see how long it lasts!’ I definitely want to remain grateful for how wonderful some aspects of it can be, and to appreciate that and learn from whatever lessons there are for me in this period of my life. At the same time, like anything, I don’t want to be so attached to it that, when it does come to an end, it’s going to be destructive for my life, or it’s going to be a great point of sorrow. I’m sure I’ll be nostalgic and look back and be like, ‘Oh, that was fun’, but even then I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking ‘Those were the good old days.’ I want to remain prepared for whatever’s next, and that entails holding lightly to whatever is currently in my care. And that includes relationships and my job and my possessions. That’s not to say it’s wrong to have any of those things, but I know they’re all going to come to an end and I need to be prepared to let them go when the time feels right and not cling to them and try to milk them and force them to continue and breathe life into a dead body, you know?”
**For sure. But do you not, then, always have in the back of your mind that it’s all going to end someday, that your possessions are impermanent and that everything, well, dies? I know in Buddhist terms, that’s meant to lift the load, but for me, being the nostalgic and sentimental person that I am, it adds extra weight to my shoulders to know that everything is temporary?
**“Right. I understand. I can entirely relate and I feel that way very often, too. There’s a struggle in my mind for trying to cope with that and even use that productively. So that if I feel sorrow, or a heaviness or sadness at the existence of death or loss, then that’s the end – that’s the period at the end of the statement, that sadness. And maybe that’s part of where my faith comes in, or my determination to search for some level of reality that doesn’t end, or some relationship or some dimension of who I am, or who those close to me are. I mentioned my father dying – his body died, but is there anything about him that is still alive? Is there anything about me that will live after my body dies? Is there anything eternal? I don’t know, and to me it’s an exciting question and it’s an exciting search, and it’s partly one that just happens within, that’s crying out in my heart – ‘Oh God, oh God – who are You? Are You there? Is there anyone who won’t die? Is there anyone who won’t leave me? Is there anyone who is true and trustworthy?’ And I ask that I feel some kind of peace and a presence of some level of reality that is stable and is trustworthy – even if it means I have to let go of everything in this world that is dear to me. But the funny thing is, I don’t even lose those things. For example, I let go of my relationship with my wife and I say ‘Sweetheart, I don’t own you. You’re not mine and you’re going to die or you could leave me one day. You could walk out on me. It could happen, and if so, I’m going to stay committed to the love that you have in your heart, the love that we share. That’s never going to die and I’m going to hold onto that and I’m going to let that be my true wife, not the form that I see in front of me that could leave at any minute.’”
**Does that line of thought in any way tie in with the lyric in D-Minor that says ‘This is not the first time God had died’?
**“It sure does. And I can think of a way in which that relates, but in what way do you think that relates?”
**Well, to me, it’s the never-ending cycle of life, of thought, of relationships, of not necessarily spirituality, but the essence of who we are. Whether you believe in God or not, there’s still some kind of presence, whatever that is, that looms over everybody and has an impact – positively, negatively, profoundly, slightly – on what we do and who we are. And it seems to me that you’re saying with this that maybe your faith has wavered at times, but that you’ve come back to him and He’s come back to you.
**“I think that varies somewhat with my intention, but I think it also fits with my intention. Part of the hope with the new batch of songs – certainly more than ever before – was to try to leave many of the lyrics open to different interpretations. In this case, I had a few ways I thought that line was going to be interpreted, and what you just described wasn’t exactly one of them, but I think that’s a very valid way to understand it. And that’s what’s rewarding to me about what I do – I might write something thinking that it’s going to come across in a certain respect and then I’ve talked to somebody about it and they’ve taken it in a totally new direction that I’ve never even considered. Then, by hearing their understanding of it, the song takes on a new meaning for me.”
**So it’s a continuing, evolving living organism in a way.
**“Sure. At least in so far as we are living organisms and we come and relate to the same thing, even if the thing itself is a dead, stable audio file that you have on a record. As we change, and as we interact socially with others who are different, we come back to that same dead thing and we breathe new life into it each time.”
**How did your marriage affect your approach to the album and to the songs and what you wanted to get out of them?
**“That’s another conversation! On some level, when writing, I try to start different voices – like we’ve been talking about all these different ideas about God and truth and language and meaning – and then there’s other times when I’m just trying to talk about being a body and having sexual desires and having friends and having judgmental thoughts about people and getting annoyed with people, kind of more down-to-earth and banal, everyday experiences. And with marriage, like almost anything else I can think of, there’s the potential for both. There’s so much richness and meaning and intensity and spiritual potential for growth and being challenged and experiencing new things, but there’s also just the daily grind, in some ways – getting fed up with each other or being disillusioned with each other. It’s not so much that we’ve experienced a lot of that. We’re only about one year into our marriage, but when I’ve seen so many other marriages struggle and people splitting up and people unhappy with each other or disappointed by each, you wonder what one can reasonably expect from marriage, or what I can expect from my marriage. So it’s still too early to say what my life will look like as a married guy – it’s been less than one year that I’ve been married out of about 36 years of my life, so it’s still pretty new and exciting. But there’s also, because of the inevitable end of certain aspects of it, I don’t want to cling to this other person and expect her to complete me or make me happy or have this romantic, happily ever after kind of life, but to see our relationship, primarily, as a way of going deeper into the most meaningful part of my life that, again, nothing could take from me that’s very deeply personal and internal. So in a way it provides new ways of looking at the same old questions, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed me in any essential way that I’m aware of. It’s more like a new classroom in which to study the same subjects.”
**It seems to be your songs have always been searching for something – whether that’s spirituality or love or something in between. So a) do you think you’ve found something with this love, and b) is it what you were searching for? Or is there still a lot more to discover and find out about the world and love and everything else?
**“I’ve got to say…no. That’s not what I was looking for. But I’m happy to say I never thought it was. We didn’t start our relationship expecting to complete each other or to find that love exclusively in each other. I do have an exclusive commitment to her as far as sexuality, but I don’t see my love for my wife as being any kind of new addition to my life. I feel a love in my heart that, at its strongest and its most solid, doesn’t have any specific object to which it’s attached. I can express my love for my wife, but I can also express a very similar love, if not the same love, for you, who I have barely met, and say I feel a connection to you and feel a love for you, in some way, which is great, because right now my wife is 500 miles away from here. She’s visiting her family in Idaho and I’m in Philadelphia, and it’d be a real bummer if all my love were wrapped up in her, all my sense of being completed with a relationship was tied to being physically with her. But when I have this sense of what Rumi calls a love with no object, then it just sits peacefully inside my heart, and then whatever I come in contact with – whether that’s another human being, if it’s a squirrel, if it’s my wife, my God, if it’s the leaves on the tree that I’m touching right now – it just feels peaceful and stable and kind of indestructible.”
Pale Horses is out now via Big Scary Monsters. For more information on the band, visit their official website.