Interview

Q&A: Gene Ween On His Billy Joel Tribute Band And Lifelong Love Of The Piano Man

Late last month Billy Joel played New York City’s Madison Square Garden for the 63rd time. Meanwhile, across the river, Aaron Freeman played many of the same tunes to a smaller crowd at Brooklyn’s most upscale bowling alley. It was the Ween co-founder’s fourth time belting out a set of these cover songs — “Pressure,” “My Life,” “Captain Jack,” “Sometimes A Fantasy,” and over a dozen more of the Piano Man’s radio mainstays — and he was clearly having a blast. Freeman also wore a Billy Joel costume of sorts: sport coat and jeans, untucked dress shirt and loosened tie, a white goatee just like the one Joel adopted after he went bald.

Ween were a funny band, but this event wasn’t played for laughs. Freeman has loved the music of Billy Joel ever since discovering Glass Houses as a pre-teen back in New Hope, PA. Onstage for the first of two nights at Brooklyn Bowl he imbued even a treacly ballad like “Just The Way You Are” with genuine passion. And while it’s not Freeman’s first left-field covers project since quitting psych-pop heroes Ween to focus on sobriety three years ago — his 2012 debut solo album, Marvelous Clouds, contained all Rod McKuen covers, and last year he covered Bob Dylan’s worst song with Slash — it is perhaps the most unexpected. As I explained to Freeman in our conversation, I’m a Billy Joel fan, but we rarely write about him on Stereogum. While the MSG residency keeps selling out and Joel continues to rack up accolades (the Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize last year, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2013), Joel has written only two pop songs in the last 22 years.

When Freeman came up with the idea for these shows he turned to School Of Rock founder Paul Green to put together an eight-piece band. Freeman’s been teaching music to kids at Green’s Rock Academy in Woodstock, and he credits his work there with breaking the writer’s block that preceded last year’s stripped-down FREEMAN album. We chatted about that and geeked out over The Nylon Curtain before I hopped a flight to Bonnaroo, where Joel headlined Sunday night. Watch Freeman cover “Big Shot” and “The Ballad Of Billy The Kid,” and check out or Q&A, below.

STEREOGUM: Why did you decide to do a Billy Joel tribute?

FREEMAN: I’m just a huge fan. “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant” came on the radio and there was really no story; I just called Paul Green, the bass player — you know Rock Academy, School Of Rock — and I asked him to do a Billy Joel cover band. And he said yeah. We’re kinda like half partners in this. He’s the band leader. He got the musicians together. And I’m Billy Joel, obviously. So it’s a collaborative effort. We got these guys together and we rehearsed probably every week for four months leading up to that show. So we’ve been working our butts off.

STEREOGUM: It was certainly a loving recreation: note-for-note. I think people would appreciate that this wasn’t an ironic tribute. It’s totally authentic.

FREEMAN: I’m not into the ironic thing. I don’t wanna look like a dumbass. I don’t like to make fun of anybody. Billy Joel is really … I’m a serious fan. I grew up with him. So I consider him a part of my life and my influence. And he’s difficult, music-wise. We were all really challenged trying to do his music. All of the musicians and me, too. He’s quite a singer. Just from a singer’s standpoint, the way he breathes, his cadence, his projection — it’s really intense. So for a singer, for me, it was a great challenge to try to learn how to do it. And it’s exhausting. Don’t ever underestimate Billy Joel. He makes it seem simple, but it is not simple.

STEREOGUM: The set you did, it was basically the beginning of Billy Joel’s career to ’82, The Nylon Curtain era. Is that the period that resonated most with you? Were you not into his doo-wop phase?

FREEMAN: I kind of left off at the doo-wop phase. I’d grown out of it. For me it was Glass Houses and The Nylon Curtain. Both of those records I had discovered right when I had really got involved listening to music on my own. I had a handful of records and Glass Houses really got me. I guess I was around 11 or 12, and it was like my record. It wasn’t my parents’ record. It wasn’t my other friends’ record. So it was very intimate. And the old Billy Joel stuff everyone knows and grew up on. But who knows. We’ll do others. If you wanna go into the “Uptown Girl” stuff…

STEREOGUM: That’s my least favorite, An Innocent Man. Nylon Curtain is one of the best.

FREEMAN: The Nylon Curtain and Glass Houses are very closely tied together for me, I guess because they came out consecutively. But yeah, those are the ones. I had to actually watch that we didn’t do too many songs from those records. But we’re gonna have to try “The Longest Time” at some point.

STEREOGUM: Did you ever read Chuck Klosterman’s essay about Glass Houses [in Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs]? He proposed that Billy Joel was the antithesis of cool, but that it didn’t stop him from being great. But Billy Joel never chased cool in my opinion.

FREEMAN: I think if you’re gonna try to be cool you’re not really gonna succeed at being cool. In Ween and in my career, the more uncool I can get is actually cooler. I just wanna devolve into just like … I don’t know what. But if I wanna try to get cool, that’s a relative concept. I have a different concept of cool and it’s not like, I’m a rocker and I’m hip with the kids and I’m staying forever young. I could relate. I wanna go the opposite way and make old people music in a home on a fucking 10-harp ensemble. Back to Glass Houses … he could do no wrong. He wrote all these songs and they’re all amazing. I think just then he wanted to something different. He wanted to make a bar rock record instead of just luxuriously produced things that he’d been doing in the past. He said “let’s make a bar record” and that was the concept. Every single one of these songs we can play in a bar with a fucking bar band. And that’s what you get. So he got a group of musicians together. He took some of these songs that could’ve been Billy Joel classics, just like on The Stranger, and really dumbed them down and rocked them out. And you can hear that. And it’s very interesting. They’re just stripped down rock ‘n’ roll songs. So if you wanna play ‘em live it’s really cool. Because they do; they rock. So maybe that was just a phase he went through. But he’s too good and he’s too much of a master-class musician to try to be something [he’s not].

STEREOGUM: Why don’t you think he gets more respect?

FREEMAN: I really don’t know. In my world, I grew up in the Northeast, so he always did get respect. My family fucking respects him. The radio stations that I grew up in Philadelphia listening to always played Billy Joel. Philly is totally pro-Billy Joel. People will say that, “Why didn’t he get the credit he deserved?” But where I grew up he was a fucking god. So naturally I’m like the spawn of that. I don’t know if people in North Dakota know Billy Joel so much or if that is like an East Coast thing.

STEREOGUM: There’s a Billy Joel resurgence happening. He played that concert for Hurricane Sandy relief a few years ago and it was almost as if everyone rediscovered him. Have you seen any of the MSG shows?

FREEMAN: I haven’t been to a Garden show, but I’m gonna go.


Photo by Scott Harris.

STEREOGUM: The setlist you chose was great. Was there anything you tried that didn’t work?

FREEMAN: We wrote a set down pretty quick. There really wasn’t. We wrote a foolproof set. There were a couple of songs that we thought weren’t gonna make it, like “Piano Man” is really tough. Musically for a band. It’s like these 3/4 shuffles, that was a hard one. And “Don’t Ask Me Why” was tough because it’s a real vibe song, but when it came together it was perfect. But we really stuck to a set and made sure that we did every song on that set perfectly.

STEREOGUM: “Don’t Ask Me Why” is this clever Afro-Cuban thing, but in the context of Glass Houses it’s so random. Listening to you play it, I was thinking, “This maybe could be a Ween song.”

FREEMAN: I know! That’s why I insisted that we do it. That’s one of my favorite Billy Joel songs. That song is fucking amazing, and it’s such a great vibe. And I remember when I was playing it, there were like five or six people in front of me just freaking out, singing every single word to that song. And it was so cool ’cause that was me, too. I would’ve been doing that in the audience as well.

STEREOGUM: You also did “Only The Good Die Young.” Have you heard the original reggae version of that song?

FREEMAN: No…? Is that a joke?

STEREOGUM: You gotta Google it.

FREEMAN: That’s awesome.

STEREOGUM: You’ve done four of these shows so far. Are there gonna be more?

FREEMAN: Yeah, we’re checking it out. We want these to be real special obviously. And I’m doing Gene Ween shows. So we’re gonna kinda work it so I can do both. But I don’t wanna exploit the Billy Joel thing so maybe a big New Year’s Eve show or a couple of big city shows now and then. But it’s something I’ll always have in my back pocket.

STEREOGUM: You’ve credited working at the Rock Academy with helping you overcome writer’s block after leaving Ween.

FREEMAN: Absolutely. I did Marvelous Clouds and Ween hadn’t written a record in seven years, five years, I don’t know, so yeah I personally had major writer’s block. And Marvelous Clouds was a covers record, of Rod McKuen, and it was great for me to kind of use my voice and get on the microphone no matter what. And then I moved up to Woodstock and Paul Green, who’s one of my best friends, said, “Hey listen, work at my Rock School.” He invented the School Of Rock, that’s what he does here. And suddenly I’m sitting there with kids and they have no idea who I am, they have no idea I left Ween, or this or that. And I’m teaching them how to sing Robert Plant. It was wonderful. It got me out of my writer’s block. It’s all based inside of your own brain and you have to get out of it. Two months later I wrote a record here on my porch in Woodstock.

STEREOGUM: How old are the kids you teach?

FREEMAN: They’re probably nine to sixteen. The real basic template is the kids join, you teach separate lessons — they get assigned like, guitar or bass or keyboards — and they take one or two lessons during the week and once a week there’s a rehearsal. And what you’re doing is building up towards a show. They’re going to play onstage. Right now the kids have started doing a Beatles show they’re working on. They’ve started a KISS show they’re working on. So these shows will come a few months down the line and in the meantime we’ll get them lessons on how to play that KISS song that they’re on, or the Beatles song that they’re on. So that’s what I do. I sit there in a room with my students, I have like four or five or them, and we’ll just learn how to sing and I give them little pointers. How to stand on the microphone, how to breathe, how to use your hands, your posture. All this stuff that when kids come in they just stand in front of a microphone blankly and hardly move their lips, so my job is to make them like me when I’m onstage, or any lead singer or professional singer would. It’s really fun to see them when they’re finally doing their show that you helped them along so much and now they’re up there singing these songs. Very rewarding.

STEREOGUM: Your fans must be happy you’re using the Gene Ween name again. That’s something that will continue alongside Freeman as a unit?

FREEMAN: Absolutely. I’m gonna make all my records [as] Freeman still, but there are no rules. That’s what I realized. And Gene Ween is obviously my name right now. That’s what I’ve used since I was sixteen. At the end of the day, people know about Gene Ween. If you’re walking down the street and you see Gene Ween you’re gonna notice it. And all I wanna do is make music. And it’s a good way to honor people with Boognish tattoos! That’s the only thing I felt bad about. All these people had Boognish tattoos and it’s like, “No guys, don’t feel bad.”

STEREOGUM: I’ve been doing this website for 13 years and it’s funny Billy Joel almost never comes up. No one covers him or samples him [Editor’s note: with rare exception].

FREEMAN: 2015. The world is ready.

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FREEMAN is out now via Partisan Records.