The Anniversary

White Pepper Turns 20

“Let’s begin with the past in front,” Aaron Freeman, aka Gene Ween, sings to open up White Pepper, Ween’s seventh “studio” album — as if he and Mickey Melchiondo, aka Dean Ween, ever had a choice to begin any other way.

From the first line of “Exactly Where I’m At,” the high production quality and accessibility of White Pepper is jarring. The arena-worthy vocals contrasted with the pitch-shifting effects found in the band’s earlier work. The (mostly) earnest tone clashed with prior genre-collages (Pure Guava, Chocolate And Cheese) and tongue-in-cheek concept albums (12 Golden Country Greats, The Mollusk). This wasn’t just any old band who hit the studio to make a commercial-ready record for the first time — this was a band whose entire ethos seemed to be based on a DIY, anti-establishment mentality. And yet here they were, with…backup singers? Strings? Fucking bongos? Might as well put the past in front and face the baggage head-on: Ween sold out, man.

That’s what some people were thinking, anyway, particularly within the Ween fan community, which is among the most diehard — and opinionated — of any fan group in existence. And in the year 2000, when White Pepper came out (20 years ago this week), fans of groups like Ween were still obsessed with this concept of selling out — a concern that wasn’t entirely unfounded at that point, either. Anyone paying close attention to the alternative rock major-label feeding frenzy that began in the ’80s knew there were casualties to be accounted for.

Just look at one cautionary tale straight from Ween’s own initial label Twin/Tone: The Replacements took a deal to move from Twin/Tone to Sire in 1985 and proceeded to put out increasingly polished records that were great at first, but somehow shined less bright each time they arrived. By the release of All Shook Down in 1990, the lifeforce of the band was largely gone. Whether that had all that much (or anything) to do with the major-label influence is hard to say, but it’s understandable that some alt-rock fans might be watching the development of a band like Ween and groan.

Thankfully, though, Elektra Records wasn’t a typical major label, at least back then. Responsible for some of the best and most forward-thinking rock records of the late ‘60s, like Forever Changes and The Stooges, Elektra had a substantial legacy of open-mindedness to uphold. And in 1992, being open-minded translated into accepting a little bit of Gen-X eccentricity into their roster. In a move that will forever go down as one of the most outrageous decisions of any major label in modern music history, Elektra heard Ween’s Pure Guava, an album containing tracks with names like “Touch My Tooter,” “Flies On My Dick,” and “Poop Ship Destroyer,” and decided to release it. Not only that, they also decided to release four more just like it.

“We were able to make this crazy record deal, still the best record deal I’ve ever been involved in,” said Dave Ayers, Ween’s early-years manager, in Hank Shteamer’s 2011 book on Chocolate And Cheese for the 33 1/3 series.

Ayers wasn’t kidding: The deal, which garnered the band hundreds of thousands of dollars per album, allowed Gene and Dean to wield near-complete creative control, embracing and nurturing their far-out tendencies rather than reeling them in. Simply sending over the tapes once the albums were done, the band proceeded to make albums equally ridiculous and brilliant in Chocolate And Cheese, 12 Golden Country Greats, and The Mollusk, each one a slight step up in fidelity and ambition. (12 Golden Country Greats in particular was essential proof that the band could enter a studio without losing their essence — that they could, in fact, heighten it — but they shrouded that truth in a silly veil of a country and western concept album.)

“It wasn’t like Elektra asked for a more hi-fi record,” Ayers went on, regarding the making of Chocolate And Cheese, which marked the beginning of the band’s ascent in production value. “I think honestly they could’ve kept delivering Pure Guava and everybody would’ve been thrilled.”

The truth about Ween’s maturation is that ditching the DIY approach and acting like a big-time rock band is what they wanted to do from the very beginning. Being a part of a major label wasn’t their artistic downfall — it was their come-up.

“We’ve always been talking about selling out like that,” Melchiondo joked in 2000 to CMJ, promoting White Pepper. He was talking about the backup singers and the strings and the bongos; the Buffett-y excess of “Bananas and Blow”; the XTC-ish glow of “Even If You Don’t.” (That last one, White Pepper’s lead single, boasted a video by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Ween’s fellow sophomoric crossover stars.) Ween grew up worshiping the ground of classic rock acts like Pink Floyd and Steely Dan, and now they were able to step onto that ground on their own terms, paying tribute to their heroes while also making sure to keep it pure, or brown, as their fans would say. Even the title of White Pepper is said to be a mix of “The White Album” and Sgt. Pepper. If this is what “selling out” sounds like, it sure does go down just fine.

For their part, anyway, the press didn’t really take issue with Ween’s new approach. In fact, many critics really enjoyed it. (“[Ween] has quietly beaten the odds and turned into highly skilled and imaginative pop auteurs, with no musical limitations yet to be seen,” The New York Times raved in their writeup.) Instead, it was mainly just that vocal sect of the loyal Weenbase for whom the record didn’t sit that well. “A lot of hardcore Ween fans don’t like it as much because it isn’t brown enough,” one disciple in the Ween subreddit recently explained. “This one just lacks the brownness,” another fan complained in an online review of the album. “This is more of a sand color.”

The rift between critics and fans — between those who preferred a refined album and those who wanted it brown as could be — was a rift that was now in danger of splitting wide open. Gener and Deaner had a decision to make. And that decision was likely made easier by the fact that one group of listeners took them seriously in all forms — were willing to ride the Poop Ship Destroyer into battle, you might say. The other group thought they were just some ongoing gag.

“Let’s face it,” the original Pitchfork review of White Pepper read. “The lack of profanity, including the complete absence of the word ‘fuck,’ renders it incapable of being as funny as early Ween.” Indeed, to Rolling Stone, this idea of Ween making an album without the word “fuck” was “the equivalent of Barry White making a concept album about celibacy.” That is a hilarious line, and, crucially, is part of an otherwise positive review, but putting it in such a way does underscore just how little the press really thought of Ween at the time. Once a joke band, always a joke band, it seems — even when you make an album featuring a straight-faced love song like “Stay Forever,” or one that ends with a symphonic ballad like “She’s Your Baby.”

“We’re not a joke band,” an agitated Freeman told the Mountain Xpress paper in North Carolina in 2000. “There’s nothing funny about ‘Stay Forever.’ We have a sense of humor on our records, but I wouldn’t consider [the songs] jokes. We just write about where we’re at in our lives, and with that comes humor.” Whoops, said too much. “Obviously, ‘Bananas And Blow’ is pretty fucked up,” he backtracked.

There’s a frustrating unwillingness by many to accept that those with a sense of humor can be “serious” artists at the same time. The tide may be turning ever so slowly on this (after all, we recently reached the point where Weird Al is being lovingly profiled by The New York Times), but it’s still an ongoing issue across all mediums. Every time a comic actor like Jason Bateman decides to take a dramatic role, there are a dozen articles pondering whether we’re allowed to start taking him seriously now, as if the option wasn’t there before.

When Ween put out White Pepper, this dynamic was even more hopeless than it is today. What were Gene and Dean to do? Roll out a pristine pop-rock album every two years just to have critics remind readers that they’re still those two bozos from the “Push th’ Little Daisies” video? With their Elektra contract now finished, Ween instead opted to look back inward for their next record Quebec, which was substantially darker and stranger (and released on an indie label, Sanctuary), marking a return to the brown side. It was the highest charting album of their career (reaching #81 on the Billboard 200, 40 spots higher than White Pepper’s peak), and the Weenbase absolutely loved it: Quebec regularly places at the top of online album rankings to this day. (White Pepper tends to be listed in the middle somewhere.)

It’s much easier to appreciate White Pepper now that we know it did not lead to a final form in which Ween were just edge-less and overglossed. The band never gave in to the powers that be. They never stopped being artists who deferred to the playful will of their mighty Demon God Boognish while also writing frequently — if not perpetually — fantastic music. They never stopped being the type of band who would cause Madonna to come cavaliering across Central Park to tell them to shut the hell up.

These days, of course, the idea of selling out isn’t really a concern anymore. The major label bubble has long since burst, and the alternative rock wonderland has turned into a wasteland. (It’s not for nothing that the same woman who declared to an industry crowd in 1997 that “this world is bullshit” is now advising artists to take corporate money where they can find it — and donate it, when possible.) If Ween wanted to put together a shiny, straight-faced record like White Pepper again, they could absolutely do it without it being viewed as a cash-grab, at the very least.

One can only hope they try, anyway, because besides it having been far too long since the last Ween album, another release would also be a welcome second chance for a band of merry pranksters like Dean and Gene to finally complete telling their biggest joke of all: finding a way to fit into the mainstream. Once more we can begin with the past in front — but maybe this time that will be a good thing.