Ween’s The Mollusk Turns 20: An Oral History By Mickey Melchiondo
“The Mollusk is a tongue-in-cheek gem. It is to art-rock what The Hudsucker Proxy is to Capra films.” –Les Claypool
A couple weeks ago, I received a text from my friend Mickey Melchiondo, asking if I’d be interested in putting together an oral history for the 20th anniversary of Ween’s album The Mollusk. Of course, I gladly accepted. Mickey is perhaps better known as Dean Ween, and in the band, he’s abetted by partner Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween. The Mollusk is Mickey’s favorite Ween album. Five minutes after receiving the text, I got on the phone with Mickey, who explained that this wouldn’t be a traditional interview. He didn’t want me to prep any questions. Flat-out, he wanted to explain everything to me, from beginning to end. Our phone call lasted over an hour, and what you’re about to read is the transcription of Mickey’s story, along with never-before-published archival photos and video.
Even 20 years later, Ween’s The Mollusk remains a record out of time. Upon its initial release on 6/24/1997, it was a tough sell, even by oddly established Ween standards. A woozy, nautical, pseudo-prog record composed of sea chanties involving the titular mollusk, pirates, pink eye, and whales with polka dot tails, it would have been a tough sell at any period in history. A critical and minor commercial failure in the post-Alternative Nation, when MTV was making stars of Third Eye Blind and Sugar Ray, bands like the Butthole Surfers, the Flaming Lips, and Ween — once embraced for their weirdness and raw eccentricities — were cast aside: a bad acid hangover from the early ’90s. Yet records like The Mollusk endure, and continue to confound, surprise, offend, and influence a generation of bands more concerned with artistry and pushing boundaries than moving units.
There’s casual fandom, and there’s bands and records that seep into your soul. When I have my viking funeral, please play “The Blarney Stone” at full volume, as you cast my earthly remains into the fiery sea. –Drew Fortune
With The Mollusk, you have to go back in time. You can’t really talk about it without talking about 12 Golden Country Greats and Chocolate And Cheese. When we decided to become a band and did Chocolate And Cheese, which was to become a four-piece instead of a duo with a tape deck, we brought Andrew Weiss into the band. He was our producer and mentor. He did our early tapes, God Ween Satan, and then mixed Pure Guava and The Pod. When it became time to tour behind Chocolate And Cheese, Weiss had quit the Rollins Band and it was a logical choice for him to become the bassist. Claude Coleman had been playing on-and-off with us a handful of times leading up to that point. I always knew that if we were going to be a four-piece, Claude would be the drummer. By moving Andrew into the role of bass player, producer, mentor, and big brother, it felt like there were too many eggs in one basket.
It wasn’t anything he did, but it felt like we were losing control of our band a little bit. We weren’t living together at the Pod, and we had to redesign the way we did things. When we did Chocolate And Cheese, we bought studio equipment. We wanted to go back to the way we did things when we were living together, except with nicer equipment. Andrew was the right bassist at the time, but it had to go back to just Aaron and I. It was a very tough decision, which we avoided by making 12 Golden Country Greats. It was a very, very hard separation. It caused a major rift in our friendship. The country record was a good way to avoid having to accept that. All the equipment was at Andrew’s house, so us taking it out was like adding insult to injury for him.
We knew we were gonna get a new bass player, and by taking the gear away from Andrew, it felt like an insult to him. It was very tough, but Aaron and I had always had a dream about making a record down on the Jersey Shore during the off-season. It was a very special place for us. In order for us to write like we did at the Pod, it meant going to the shore, and getting away from the wives and girlfriends. We moved the gear into this beach house, and in the meantime we did the country record, so we had two records going at once. Stepping away from that father figure in Andrew Weiss was a big thing for us. I remember taking a walk with Aaron down the shore and saying, “Listen. If we’re gonna do a record without Andrew, it’s going to take a lot of commitment from us. We’re gonna have to put extra work into this thing.” No problem, except Andrew hated our guts.
We got a Ryder truck and took the stuff down. There were all these nice places, and we found this junky one that we loved. It was a really shitty rental property, as far as beach houses go. But it was right on the end of the island, which is completely deserted in the winter. There are no shops down there or side streets — just the boulevard at the end of an island in Jersey. We got there and didn’t have any idea what we were going to do. We had a friend Greg Frey, who ended up being our manager, set up the equipment, since we didn’t even know how to do that. Then, he just left us there [laughs]. The plan was we would go down on Sunday nights and come home on Thursdays to record. All the equipment was set up, but we didn’t have any material.
Hey Little Boy…What You Got There?
Aaron had this songbook of 17th century folk songs. The first night we did “Cold Blows The Wind.” Neither of us had ever heard that song, so we didn’t know how it went. We looked at the words, and made up our own chords and tempos. If any one song defines that record, it’s that song, and we did it on the first night. It totally encapsulated that stormy first night at the beach. It was raining, dark, and cold. It sounded nautical, scary, folky, and evil. That song was something we had never done before. It set us on this musical path of what was to come.
In the first two weeks, we recorded there day and night, and drove home listening to the cassettes in the car. In the first two or three trips down to the shore, we pretty much wrote that whole record, or at least the best parts of it. We wrote “The Mollusk,” “Mutilated Lips,” “Ocean Man,” “The Golden Eel,” and “She Wanted To Leave.” Every song reinforced the vibe, but it was a vibe we weren’t looking for. We didn’t know that the environment was going to have such an effect. Each song, beginning with “Cold Blows The Wind,” inspired and reinforced that direction.
With the song “The Mollusk”…we’d never had a title track. Of all the songs Aaron and I have written together, that’s hands-down my favorite. It was enough to make the title track. If we weren’t actually working or recording, there wasn’t much for us to actually do or anywhere to go.
The only thing to do was walk on the beach and surf-cast. I laid down some chords and took this little module that I plugged into a keyboard that made those really trippy swirling sounds, which were the ones we used on “The Mollusk.” I came back from surf-casting and Aaron played the song with the vocals he had written. It was so fucking great. It was the best song we’d ever done. I couldn’t believe that he had taken what I had done with the music. I had no idea what the song was about! I was surf-casting, I came back in, heard the vocals, and was like, “Holy shit.” If we were on to something before, now it was anchored. We listened to it a thousand times. I was like, “This is the title track.” From then on, we had the keys to the record and how it should be done.
We had “Buckingham Green” kicking around for years, as we had left it off Chocolate And Cheese. We might have even left it off Pure Guava. Every good thing waits for a reason. All my favorite songs are on The Mollusk. It was that album’s time. The “Mollusk” song was like the missing fucking puzzle piece that was gonna pull the whole album together. I remember it was November, because we were originally gonna call the country record November Nights. The only time the two roads of 12 Golden Country Greats and The Mollusk intersected was “Waving My Dick In The Wind.” That song would have been perfect for the country record. Gener was just making up the verses, like “You’re a real good dancer,” and it was so fucking funny. We had to make a conscious decision of where that song was gonna go, so we put it on The Mollusk.
We went down to Nashville to cut the country record, which we didn’t even know was gonna be a record. It was just an experiment and didn’t cost a lot of money. We were burned out when we came back, because it was creatively two records back-to-back. I didn’t go to the beach house for a couple of weeks, but when I did, it was around December or January. I approached the house and there was water cascading down the front steps. The steps were five inches thick with ice, like fucking Niagra Falls in the winter. The whole house was covered in ice. After traversing the steps to get inside, the whole interior was underwater. I was like, “Oh my God…what do I do?” I flagged down a cop who helped me turn off the water mains. The pipes had frozen and burst under the sinks. Our gear and anything that was on the floor was soaked and ruined. The tapes, thankfully, were on top of the kitchen table. I honestly started crying.
All the owner was concerned about was a lawsuit. He saw the recording equipment and knew what we were doing, but he was a real scumbag. We rented this place for the winter, and didn’t even know this: There was no fucking heat! If you’re ever been in one of our studios, you can turn all the ACs on high, but it’s always red hot in the room, because the gear creates so much heat. While we were there working, the heat wasn’t a problem. When we were gone, we turned all the equipment off but had no idea, because it was still autumn.
The next day, I went home and we got a big Ryder truck with 20 friends and said, “Just throw all the shit in the truck. Don’t even break down the mic stands. Let’s just get out of here.” It was sad for obvious reasons, but we didn’t even know the state of the tapes. I found a rental house in New Hope, PA, and moved everything into there. I was thinking, “We have 85% of a record here. We have to finish.” In that house, we did “I’ll Be Your Johnny On The Spot,” and “Pink Eye (On My Leg”). Thankfully, the tapes weren’t ruined. We did “The Blarney Stone” on a four-track in Aaron’s apartment and brought it to the studio in New Hope. We had a party and did the backing vocals on it. We had two empty trash cans, and two hours into the party, we were smashing the bottles into the trash can. We did like 10 tracks of all of us singing along. That’s pretty much it. That’s the whole record.
Fast forward a bit, and I was drinking in a bar and met Glenn McClellend. I found a kindred spirit in him, even though we came from totally different musical backgrounds. I wanted to record him doing something, and one of the outtakes we had was “Boys Club.” That was Glenn’s first song. Then also that night, we started from scratch and did, “I’m Dancing In The Show Tonight.” It was a stupid fucking idea, but it was the perfect opening track. The country record and The Mollusk came out within six or seven months of each other in 1997.
The Elektra staff had changed completely. They had fired the guy who signed us, and basically everybody else, including the president. They brought in this whole new staff whose introduction to Ween was 12 Golden Country Greats. With them not knowing us, they didn’t know if it was a put-on. A lot of people have so many misconceptions about that record. I think they thought it was our way to get out of the deal, which wasn’t the case at all. It was something we were proud of and love, plus we had The Mollusk about to drop. They had no idea what to do with the country record, so then it came time for The Mollusk, we were thinking, “This is our greatest record.” We mastered it with Howie Weinberg, sent it in, and I didn’t hear from Elektra for two weeks. I finally called the A&R guy, because the suspense was killing me. I said, “What do you think of the new record?” And he said, “What new record?” I yelled, “The new record! The Mollusk!” I heard him fumbling around on his desk and he said, “Oh, here it is.” He hadn’t even listened to it for two weeks! At that point, I knew the fucking record was doomed. Jesus Christ! They just gave us two huge advances, and we delivered two albums. I don’t know if they thought we were trying to put them on a second time, or someone mentioned, “Those guys did a nautical record.” I was so pissed! This was the best thing we’ve ever done, and they didn’t even care!
Marketing Woes Continued
They finally got back to us and said, “Uh, we think ‘Mutilated Lips’ would be a good single.” I’m like, “What? Are you fucking nuts?” Don’t get me wrong…it’s one of the best songs we have, but it’s not a single! It’s fucking weird! It’s basically got a chant and no chorus. I knew we were fucked yet again. The only promo we did behind that song was Oddville on MTV. Despite their worst efforts, “Ocean Man” went on to be our most lucrative song because of Spongebob. But the writing was on the wall and it was very upsetting. I was 26 years old at the time, and I’d be more upset now than I was at the time. Then, the next record was Paintin’ The Town Brown off cassette, so our relationship with the label was out of whack. They had their chance with Chocolate And Cheese and The Mollusk, but this is all in hindsight. I’m not bitter about anything. White Pepper came out next, which is the most accessible Ween record, and I love it.
The Mollusk didn’t do very well critically. It was strange and got some really bad reviews. The one I remember that hurt the most was in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer Dan Deluca — I still remember the fucking guy’s name, and he’s long gone, thank God — gave the record one and a half stars. He said something like, “The problem with Ween is that even though they’re growing up, they haven’t grown at all musically.” What an off-base fucking analysis. If you don’t like something, fine. But that’s just fucking stupid. The Mollusk was a quantum leap forward for us in terms of songwriting and musicianship. After the country record, that was the consequence, in that we were trying to parody things. It’s the same accusation we’ve always gotten. He probably just read that it was some kind of nautical record, and didn’t even listen to it. He probably saw the song title, “Waving My Dick In The Wind” and didn’t even bother. I’ve never forgiven that motherfucker. I ran into him once years later and brought it up. He did a “10 Best Records Of The ’90s” list and we were like #3. He should write another piece about what he said about the record in 1997.
The Rise Of Boognish (And Weiss)
While The Mollusk wasn’t very well-received by the press, it was the turning point for me in terms of fan appreciation. That was when the taping and trading started, and the online thing was birthed with that record. It all started with The Mollusk. We’ve got this finished record that we feel is our masterpiece, so what do we do? We go back to Andrew Weiss, who hates us not an inch less than he did when we left. He hears the record and he knows it’s our best record, and we did it without him. We asked him to mix it, and if our relationship was bad before that, it took four years to come to peace. He was mixing it with hate, but he did such a great job. He added so many great effects on that record, and when we got it back, filled with hate, we all knew it was the best record we had ever done. In time, our relationship repaired itself. Andrew Weiss took it from great and transformed it into our masterpiece. There’s no second place for me. I like Chocolate And Cheese, but The Mollusk is by far and away my favorite. The people who are into it, are really into it. It’s a whole bunch of things: a prog, nautical, and even a children’s record. “She Wanted To Leave” is the ultimate closer for that record.
Get Us Storm Thorgerson!
We knew we had to have amazing artwork to go with this record. It’s gotta be fucking consistent with all the craziness on this thing. We thought of Storm Thorgerson from Hipgnosis, who did Dark Side Of The Moon, the Zeppelin records, and all the Floyd records. He went to art school with those guys. We went to the best, we asked for the best, and Elektra coughed up the money. When Storm heard the record, he personally called me and said, “I didn’t know such a band existed.” He had done a Cranberries and a Phish record recently in the ’90s, and he just delegated the shit to other people at that time. He said, “I’ve found the band with the spirit that I like.” He was so into it, and all the calls came directly from him. He amended his contract to say, “I want to do everything, and I won’t charge anymore. I want to do every poster, every ad, any promo CD, single, picture discs, whatever.” If you go back and find any print adds associated with The Mollusk, all the artwork is unique to him.
For the cover, he said, “I want to make an amalgamation of all these fucked-up sea animals.” Storm and his team went to an aquarium and took all these photos of bizarre sea creatures. He drew them by hand or painted them, so it’s neat. I have these big mockups of his process.
If I ever open a Ween Museum, those will be prominently displayed. We toured in England, and after a gig in London, I think he was with his son or Harry Waters. He got so drunk and must have kissed me 50 times. He said, “You guys are the band. You’re the rightful heirs to Floyd and Zeppelin.” It was the highest praise, and it was real! His assistant said, “You’ve got to understand. He hasn’t seen a show in fucking years. He thinks everything is shit,” which is basically how I feel with age. The record really vindicated us; to get that reaction from the old-school meant so much.
“I’m Dancing In The Show Tonight”: That was a ballet-practice record of my sister’s, and I still have it. It’s an old record that wasn’t intended to sound weird and creepy, but it does. The day after I met Glenn, his baby was born, so we had his 2-year-old son Charlie sing on the song. Everybody sang on it, and we had 12 vocal tracks at different speeds. That’s why it’s all over the place. It sounds really fucked up, but a lot of it is Charlie McClellend at age 2.
“The Mollusk”: We re-recorded that at Claude Coleman’s house. I can’t remember if we overdubbed it a bit to make it sound better.
“Polka Dot Tail”: That was done at Claude’s house as well, in the transition between the beach house. That song is a straight-up children’s tune!
“I’ll Be Your Jonny On The Spot”: We did that at the studio. My guitar tech built me this ring modulator kit, like a Radio Shack kit. I’ve always been really proud of the solo on that song. It broke, and it was only used on that one song. It’s got that crazy wah-wah sound on it, where you can’t even tell it’s a guitar.
“Mutilated Lips”: This is one of the coolest set of chords Aaron ever wrote. A big part of the record is the Moog synthesizer. Radio Shack licensed Moog in the ’70s, and people don’t take it seriously. But it was built by Bob Moog, so it’s a legitimate synthesizer. That’s a key part of the record. The Moog is all over the album. Claude played the sections with his hands, so it’s this really interesting sound. It’s impossible unless you know the tuning of that song. It’ll never sound right if you try. It’s not playable, unless you know the tuning [laughs]. I just love the song.
“The Blarney Stone”: We already talked about that one.
“It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”: Aaron was going through a breakup. Oh, here’s a great story! The night we did that song, we were down at the shore for our five-day trip, and he was going through this breakup back home. His heart just wasn’t in it. The song came about during that five-day stay. I could see he was hurting really bad, and I said, “I knew you’re hurting, so here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna drive to Atlantic City, which is about an hour from the end of the island. We’re each gonna put in $500 cash. We’re gonna walk in the Sands and put it all on black on roulette. If we win, we’re gonna go to the nicest fucking steakhouse, like Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s. If we lose, we’re gonna fucking go see Toy Story.” And we hit! We got the cash. We ordered Dom ’64, lobster, and like 10 orders…just like in The Blues Brothers. Everything we wanted to taste, even if it was $100 dollars, we ordered. That’s the great story of that song. Steak, pork chops, you name it.
“The Golden Eel”: This one is amazing. Aaron was living in an apartment in New Hope, and his roommate had a fish tank with a golden eel in it. Aaron wrote that song about the golden eel. We demo’d it there, and cut it at the shore. That’s what that one is about. Sitting alone in the dark and watching the eel. The fact that we were on shrooms or liquid kinda goes without saying throughout the entire record. I can’t really remember.
“Cold Blows The Wind”: We already talked about this one, too.
“Pink Eye (On My Leg)”: This is an instrumental, so I don’t really have any good stories about that one.
“Waving My Dick In The Wind”: This started as this trucker-type song, with lyrics like “If it all goes right/ I’ll be in your arms tonight.” It’s about a guy six days on the road, trying to make it home if all goes right. Then it goes, “There’s some red-blue lights that are shining right behind me/ That pig’s a really mean bastard.” Then you get to, “You should have seen old Jimmy Wilson dance.” With the sticks, it sounds like a guy tap-dancing. That’s the hardest I’ve ever laughed in a take. I was laughing for like 45 minutes. “Cuz you’re a real good dancer!” It was so fucking funny.
“Buckingham Green”: That was the song that tied the whole record together. We had these different versions of it, and it was a whole different song. We sacrificed the entire song just for the solo, which I think is the most composed solo section that we’ve ever done. In every other version, it was just those lyrics, “A child without an eye/ Made her mother cry.” It was just repetition. Then we did the solo section, tore the whole song down, and rebuilt it. There’s a reason for everything, and that was the time for that song to be born again.
“Ocean Man”: Aaron had a mandolin, he was always playing it, and we discounted it. There wasn’t much to it, but when we wrote the lyrics, it was just magic, man. Everything just fell into place.
“She Wanted To Leave (Reprise)”: I think it’s one of the coolest songs we’ve ever done. At the time, we didn’t have a song like that. Nobody ever brings it up, but it’s straight Richard Thompson. It was one of those things where Aaron said, “I’ve got this lame idea.” I was like, “No man!” It kinda seemed like this lame adult song. When we finished it, I knew it was the closing track of the record.
All photos courtesy of Mickey Melchiondo’s archives.