I've never had the pleasure of talking to Aaron Weiss, the lead singer of Philadelphia post-hardcore heroes mewithoutYou, in person, but from witnessing his conversations with other fans at shows I gather that he is a very passionate and real person. When he talks to people, he looks them right in the eye and acts as if there's no one else around. You get the feeling that he is genuinely interested in everything the other person is saying which isn't always the case when talking to musicians with the kind of avid following that mewithoutYou has. The same goes with everyone else in the band. They all seem to be very down-to-earth and nice people. Although this interview was done entirely via email, Aaron (who I hear is currently busy taking graduate classes in education at Temple in Philly) responded to my questions with polite and honest answers about the band's fifth studio album, Ten Stories (out now on the band's own label Pine Street), and everything that's going on with mewithoutYou these days.
Your new album is called Ten Stories, that title suggests that there is a focused concept, kind of like there was on your last album, It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright. Is this a concept album?
I don't know. At first it was definitely shaping up that way - very clear storyline, spoon-fed dialogues, started feeling sort of like a kindergarten rock opera. The guys gave me feedback throughout - and one of the main ideas they proposed was for me to leave a bit more to the imagination. I totally agreed, and dialed back the explicitness of the narrative. But yeah, I guess there is a pretty clear concept behind the whole thing, even if I tried to obscure it.
"Some of our old songs had different characters/voices, but there was generally a pretty clear moral to the story, which I suppose suggests I thought of myself as a kind of teacher in a way. I've really tried to let go of that and to present questions rather than answers."
Do you think changing things up last time around opened mewithoutYou to a wider audience, and do you think Ten Stories will do that?
I don't have the impression that our last record was very warmly-received, or that it was much of a commercial success - so while it may have appealed to some, the general sense I have is that it made our audience smaller. As for what our new record will do, I don't know, but I hope it will be more well-liked.
Judging by the first song off the new album, "February 1878", you guys are returning to your roots a little bit after going for a more folk sound on It's All Crazy!, but you bring something new to the table with each album so what's new on Ten Stories?
For my part, it was new to have stories with multiple characters & perspectives, but without a clear pro/antagonist. Some of our old songs had different characters/voices, but there was generally a pretty clear moral to the story, which I suppose suggests I thought of myself as a kind of teacher in a way. I've really tried to let go of that and to present questions rather than answers. In terms of vocal style, I tried to mix the old shouting approach with my more recent attempts at melody, not have an either/or type of dichotomy, but trying to blend them together in a more seamless way. We also incorporated a lot more vocal harmonies, particularly with female singers. As for what Rickie, Greg & Mike would say was different about their approaches, I'm not sure.
How did you originally connect with artist Vasily Kafanov who did the artwork for Ten Stories and past mewithoutYou albums?
He did the paintings for the Smashing Pumpkins Machina record, probably my favorite layout I've ever seen. We wrote him before our first record was released, and sure enough he responded. Since then, I haven't really even considered looking elsewhere for album art. But in the past, we've always selected a painting he'd already done...this was the first time he provided original paintings for us - 15 of them - one for each song (including B-sides), and two versions of the cover image. This was extremely special for me. (Click here to order the deluxe box set of Ten Stories with the 15 original paintings)
You are releasing this new album on your own label, Pine Street, for the first time, how has the self-releasing process been different from working with Tooth & Nail?
Our managers, Almquist and Bender have really taken over the reigns with this. I actually wanted to stay with Tooth & Nail, partly because they handled all the business-side of making our records in such a great way. So self-releasing this was kinda scary, stepping into unknown territory - there are so many steps to the process, from booking studio time to mixing & mastering to manufacturing the cd's & vinyl to advertising to web design to album layout to publicity, distribution, royalties, paying everyone...so many things T&N used to take care of or oversee that we had to take on. But again, Almquist and Bender really rose to the occasion.
You guys tour a lot, I've seen you play many shows in several different locations and every time you are tight and put on a great show, how do you stay consistent with your live performances, and do you ever get burnt out on touring?
It's strange you say that, because I don't think of us as a tight band, musically - at least not my contributions. Guys like Rickie and Greg are basically always solid with their playing - and Mike's playing is excellent too, though he often has equipment troubles. But my playing is pretty shoddy, and my pitch is abysmal, especially for a lead singer. But we play with a lot of bravado I think, so that can sort of distract from the technical shortcomings. As for being burnt out on touring, I'm probably the least likely to feel that way. Everyone else in the band has more they're invested in here in Philadelphia, but me, I usually enjoy traveling.
You incorporated some different instrumentation for your shows in support of It's All Crazy! are you planning to change things up in any way for your upcoming tour?
Instrumentation-wise I don't know. We've got a 2nd guitarist named Beaver, and his main band the Buried Beds are touring with us. They've got some amazing musicians in their band, so I'm hoping they'll join us for a song now and again. But we're not bringing out any horn players or auxiliary instrumentalists or anything like that, not that I know of.
Things have changed a lot in the indie music scene since you guys released your first EP in 2000 with the growth of music blogs and sites and their influence on the music industry, what are your thoughts on this and has it affected how you think about your music?
You know, I have to admit, I really don't have my finger on that pulse, so I don't have a lot to say about that. I do tend to think of this general shift as being part of why we felt inclined to release our own record; we sensed that music can make its way around pretty easily without the help of an established record label, so we thought we'd give it a try...but I'm not sure it affected how I think about our music itself.
Are there any new artists that have influenced you or just that you are enjoying right now?
I like Joanna Newsom, Will Oldham, Arcade Fire...and shucks, we've toured with some great musicians, like Make Believe, the Snake-the Cross-the Crown, David Bazan...but about all I listen to these days is real old classical music, usually to drown out the neighborhood noise when I'm trying to do homework.
And finally, how are you guys doing outside of mewithoutYou and what have you been up to?
I've been actually a little down recently, if you don't mind my saying so. The other guys seem okay, but I haven't seen much of them lately, with the end-of-the-semester busyness and everything, so I'll probably have a better sense once tour starts. As for what we're doing, Rickie's in school and has a girlfriend named Nicole. Greg also has a long-term girlfriend and his own musical side-project. Mike's got a family and is trying to learn carpentry. Me, other than school work, I started learning shape-notes and singing from the Sacred Harp.
Stream Ten Stories in its entirety via Spotify: