Tuesday, February 19, 2008

ISSUE 21 - Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou

photo: Josh Bender

By Josh Spilker

I was walking down Wilmington’s Front Street in early March, going to meet Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou. They were playing that night with Sparta and Aloha for an emo/modern rock and roll show. A larger than average bus was idle outside of the Soapbox with the words “Altus, OK Bulldogs” in intimidating typeface. Oklahoma. Which of the bands were from Oklahoma? The license plate, however, was the indicator. Pennsylvania. The home of mewithoutYou, and its front man Aaron Weiss.

Aaron isn’t sure how or why they ended up with this bus, but they have remade it into their own image. He invites me up into it for a second, and I enter into their homemade motor home. There is a long counter for cooking, a dinette table for eating, and a couple of couches on the side with a clear center aisle leading to their back bunks. The bus is also retrofitted to use biodiesel fuel, i.e. vegetable oil.

“When we got it it was diesel,” says Aaron. “It’s run to rig on straight vegetable oil. There’s no need to convert an engine to run on biodiesel.”

For a touring band, this is a large undertaking. Vegetable oil is not exactly available at every gas station, unless you hit the ones with the McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

“At Philly we have a couple of places that we collect it from, we just have a handshake agreement, and they’ll set it aside for us and maybe once a week we’ll pick it up,” continues Aaron. “When we travel, we’ll just stop at restaurants and knock on the back door and say can we pump it out your dumpster.”

We approach the intersection of Front Street and Chestnut, and I almost ask Aaron if he wants to go to the library. I figure it’s not a bad place for a former English major and a guy who studied to be a teacher. But as we approach the intersection, Weiss makes a beeline for a trashcan. He pulls off the lid with a loud whoosh. The lid clangs against the side of the can.

“I look into these for napkins or condiments, anything that people throw away,” explains Aaron. He rifles through the first one, but only finds a few napkins from Kilwin’s Ice Cream which he places inside his ratty, brown corduroy hoodie with patches on the elbows. His version of a professor’s tweed coat. “You can use this for any number of things, you don’t have to buy paper towels all the time if you find enough of these.”

Most fans of mewithoutYou are taken because of Aaron Weiss. Later that night when the band starts into its Fugazi-inspired melodic rock, Aaron nods, waves, spins, twirls and wildly bounces. These are the elements that define a mewithoutYou experience. Aaron’s cryptic lyrics are punctuated with his trademark spoken word poetry slam shouting. He flings the tambourines against his head. He vibrates with a pair of maracas like a buzzing cell phone. Weiss is not a loose cannon, he knows exactly what he’s doing. He is mesmerizing all of us. It’s not the aloof elitism of a lead singer rock star, it is the action of a man who wants to entertain, even if it’s himself.

photo: Lesle Ann Bond

Talking with Aaron outside of his stage self, music seems more like a job than a hobby, which of course it is. He is at a job, a job at which he excels and never expected to be in. And sometimes he likes his job and sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he likes the young suburban core of the band’s fans, and sometimes he wishes there was a more diverse cross-section of people and ages. Like any job, Aaron is finding a way to balance his views with the greater good. Though their level of success isn’t gargantuan, it’s enough to let them tour with acts like Thursday, Brand New, and now with Sparta. All bands that fly just under the radar of modern rock radio. But Aaron’s unique philosophies and interests add to his lore. One of things we talk about is communal living, and his experience with a Christian-based commune in Philadelphia called The Simple Way.

“They decide to live in a rugged neighborhood on purpose, and try to reach out to help their neighbors by passing out food or passing out blankets in the winter or like having people over, and treating people with respect and things like that,” explains Aaron about The Simple Way. “I think those things are for everybody, taking care of people, and trying to become lower rather than trying to climb a social ladder and become richer than other people and have nicer things, and being willing to humble yourself.”

Stop here. At the risk of crossing whatever journalistic lines that were once real and now possibly only imaginary, I need to say that Aaron Weiss was one of the most humble people I have ever met. Weiss is not humble for a “rockstar” or for a person who performs in front of 500 people every night that pay to see what he does, his humility and kindness is striking for anyone. His persona is one of caring and meekness, where his personal needs and attributes are in deference to those around him. When I first met him at the Soapbox, he asked me if he was late. For the uninitiated to the world of rock journalism that I by no means really can claim to be a part of, this NEVER happens. The rock stars are ALWAYS late. ALWAYS. Even the ones who aren’t really rock stars, perhaps such as Aaron. Continue on.

But the essence of communal living, especially in the Christian sense, which The Simple Way is a part of, focuses on helping others and sharing common goods. This is different than any free love hippie associations, but that doesn’t mean that all Christian communes look the same.

“Some of the communities I’ve visited, they have different ways and looks,” continues Aaron. “Sometimes they share all their money, sometimes there is a common fund and everyone has a personal allowance that they could do what they want with you know, sometimes there is one person in charge of finances…it can look a lot of different ways. Sometimes everybody lives in one house, or sometimes it’s in a neighborhood and people are scattered. I don’t think that there’s a prescription for how people should live or how it should look, but I think the important thing outside of anything—“

At this point, we stop walking. We are along the water, just to the right of the Coast Guard docking area. Aaron approaches a trashcan, and its lid makes the customary gonging sound as it falls. Aaron shifts the bag around.

“What is that?” Aaron asks peering down into the folds of the bag. “I’m always stoked when it weighs a lot. OUUUGGGGGGGGGHHH,” Aaron exclaims “What is it?”

From the tips of his thumb and forefinger, Aaron unveils a pack of slimy translucent globes. “It’s like squid or something.”
“Should you leave that?” I ask.
“No, this is dinner,” Aaron responds.
“Do you ever worry about germs?”
“Um, no, maybe I should, but I don’t.”

Aaron also reels in a pack of mullets, with a label that reads: “Not Fit For Human Consumption.” Aaron dumps the mullet into the river, noting that someone or something should be able to eat it. This time he finds a grocery bag also in the trash, and carries the squid with him to take back to the bus. By the end of our journey, Aaron also finds one Twix bar left in the original wrapping (“Why would they leave the second one, they know what Twix tastes like.” Aaron says).

All of the talk of communes, finding and sharing leads us to the next contention of conversation: God. This is not necessarily a standard topic for bands, but to mewithoutYou and to Aaron it’s essential. Not only is their label usually affiliated with Christian bands (Tooth and Nail Records), but also because Aaron’s lyrics glean from many Biblical allusions. I begin by asking him about what he thinks are the most common misconceptions about God.

“It’s hard to speak on behalf of God,” Aaron begins. “I mean, I know I have a lot of misconceptions about God. I don’t know, who God is, I can’t tell you with any real authority. I’m in a rock band, and I’m 28 years old, and I haven’t figured out hardly anything. I guess, the most misconception---The point on which I disagree with most Christians seems to be the idea that, at least most Christians I come across is the idea that Christians go to heaven, and non-Christians go to hell. The sense of how this is how you get saved. You become a Christian by saying this prayer and going to church and reading the Bible. Whereas to me, saying that particular prayer that people believe will get you to heaven, or going to a church, or memorizing the Bible, or doing any of the things people say that Christians do, has nothing to do with rather or not you’re actually following Jesus.”

Aaron wants me to understand that he doesn’t necessarily speak for the band on all issues, and that each of their relationships with God is different and that each of them may believe a different thing about God and Christianity. They may also disagree with his views on commerce, lifestyle or eating habits. What is clear is that Aaron is very concerned about the life people are actually living compared to the one they are claiming to live. It’s a life of accountability.

“To me it’s much less relevant what a person says and what building they go to than what they do,” says Aaron. I don’t just mean that if you sell all your possessions and give to the poor, then you’re a Christian. It’s like I said, it’s the state of your heart. You could do those things to try and show off or try to one up somebody else or even be seen in your own eyes as really holy and wonderful. The common thread that I’m inspired by in the Scriptures is that of lowliness, and brokenness and humility. I just want to keep an eye on my motivations---“

We make it back over to the bus, the Altus Bulldogs mascot emblem still growling away. No one in the bus is interested in the squid, they’re all a little freaked out by it. Aaron offers the squid to Penny, the dog, but it’s soon agreed that Penny does not need the squid in case her diarrhea comes back and I don’t ask any questions about Penny’s medical history. Aaron also passes on the squid. He leaves the squid on top of a trashcan outside of The Soapbox, in case anybody wants it.

For more info on Mewithoutyou, visit their album website, www.brother-sister.net or www.myspace.com/mewithoutyou.
For more info on The Simple Way in Philadelphia, visit www.thesimpleway.org

1 comment:

Jotham said...

Wow that's really cool, thanks for the info and the great insight.