A Conversation with Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou
Welcome to Reasonable Things!
(Warning: This is going to be a long one.)
Earlier this week I spoke to Aaron Weiss, the singer of the band mewithoutYou, for this story in Christianity Today. For reasons that may be obvious if you know the band (a punk/screamo juggernaut with a multi-religious, existential vibe) and the magazine (America’s biggest evangelical publication, founded by Billy Graham), I had some trepidation about this piece. Probably I needn’t have worried; Weiss is such a warm and engaging (if verbose) person, and thus our conversation was simply so delightful, that I decided it would be worth it to share the whole thing rather than a few choice quotes for an article about the band.
Weiss and I both have doctorates in education and even have slightly overlapping interests (his dissertation was on Islamic religious education; I mostly do language education stuff but I’ve done a few pieces about Christian and Muslim religious identy in education with a colleague), so it was cool to talk about that a bit, but mostly, it’s just interesting to hear his take on what mewithoutYou is, what the history of the band has been like, and what, exactly, a person is.
My parts are in bold, Weiss’s are in, uh, “normal” (?) font. I’ve edited a few things from both of us, including irrelevant or personal asides and a host of “you knows” from each party. But there’s still hella hedging, because when you get two people trained in social science methodology together that’s pretty much how they talk. I’ve also added some hyperlinks to some albums, books, etc. that were mentioned. (Or in my case, misidentified. Sorry, Walt Whitman.)
What has it been like preparing to play music again, to play these shows?
I haven’t been doing a lot of preparing for the shows, so I guess I don’t know quite how to answer that. Because I guess, to me, I sort of don’t tend to think too much about our shows before they happen. I guess it might look a little different than practicing an instrument or warming up my voice; in a way I’m trying to get my life in order, trying to get my mind sorted out and trying to get my baggage and my junk in the trash can, you know, get my ducks in a row, so that when the time comes to step out on the stage I have a peaceful feeling and I’m clear and I’m not bringing a bad energy or some kind of garbage to whoever comes to the show. So I guess to really answer that, how am I preparing? It’s a long story, and it’s pretty seamless with how I how I prepare to be a good husband or be a good dad, to me it’s all kind of woven together and just trying to go forward on the path that’s most meaningful to me, and that really has a good effect on everything I do.
Does it feel a bit odd – your band made this announcement that you were going to stop, you know, a year or more ago I guess it was, you mentioned it. Does it feel strange to have that process become more drawn out? Like did you did you feel you’re closing a chapter, or has it felt just like ‘this is what we’re doing now’?
It’s not strange to me. It seems like maybe it feels strange to some of the guys – some of the other guys in the band might have had more specific ideas in mind about how it should go down. For my part, I was never inclined towards making an announcement that we’re breaking up, or the farewell tour, or era, or anything like that. It’s just not really the way I’m thinking about what’s going on in our band right now. That’s very different perspective than where I’m coming from. So if anything ,I pushed back against that but felt I was in the minority in my perspective, so I kind of let it go how it went. But my two cents was that we could add a little asterix. (Sorry, asterisk. I always mispronounce that word, ever since I’ve been hearing or saying that word. It has always been K-S, and I didn’t really until this year finally put the cart behind the horse on that.)
So I pushed to add an asterisk. And the asterisk would say the way it looks to me, is, again, very different: we aren’t breaking up. We never were really a band, that’s not a real thing, and we never existed to begin with, and yet we will continue to exist in another respect after our last show has been played. So this, like, you know, “2001 to 2020, 21, 22” – it’s all totally arbitrary. To me it feels very artificial, and I don’t begrudge anyone if they would like to have a kind of a tombstone to give it a lifespan, but it’s a very arbitrary way of looking at whatever it is that we are.
Somehow what little I know about how you look at the world makes me not surprised to hear you describe the band that way. Yet, you know, there are material realities, right? Like there was a time when a group of people came together and gave it a name and, and it becomes something other than just you and your friends playing music together when, you know, there’s labels and media and all the kind of artifice that’s built up around it, which is, I guess inevitable if you decide to pursue a certain path or whatever it is.
There’s this great Flaming Lips lyric, I can’t remember what record it’s from, it has this lyric: “bands, those funny little plans that never work quite right.” I’ve always really liked that. [UPDATE: It’s actually from Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, but the guy from Mercury Rev used to be in the Flaming Lips so I’ll forgive myself for this.] It’s just this little throwaway, but I feel like it says so much.
I spoke to Greg Jehanian [mewithoutYou’s bassist] earlier today and he talks about a period in your band feeling like this very familial closeness at one time, just because of where everybody was in their lives, you know, at a certain stage. I think he said it was around the time you guys made the Brother, Sister record. And then just everybody being at different places in their lives now, and you know, families and whatnot. So rather than ask your thoughts about the band, since you appear to not believe that it exists, is there a time that you can remember in the music you’ve made or the things you’ve done with this group, where it felt like “hey, things are really – this felt like a special time.” Like as you look back on that arbitrary 20 years, “this was a special time things were firing on all cylinders at this time, this is something I look back on with fondness.” Is there a period?
Gosh, it’s a great question. And for me it’s very zoomed in. If I were to try to identify those moments, it would be like looking at a TV from the 1980s from an inch away. You know, where you see all these little dashes of yellow and red and green or whatever. And when you step back, there’s the moving picture, you know, but in real time, it was very small, microscopic kind of moments.
I certainly would never say, “Oh, it was the Brand New tour, when we were out with a big famous band that brought a lot of people to the shows,” or it was whatever album of ours sold the most records. There’s not an era that I look at –
No, but what I want to know is… yeah, I do want to know about those moments. Was there a time when there was one moment where you looked at somebody on stage and felt something, or one moment where you were walking to or from a show – I mean, that’s what I want to hear about, that kind of stuff.
They’re so mixed in with the whole 20 years, you know? Any given day, there’s those moments of connection, and those moments of distance. And without a doubt there were seasons that I look back on and when we tell the story in retrospect, we could say “Oh, there were a few good years where we were more of one mind, and we did prayers together before practice, and we had a liturgy service that we did on some tours, and we had a potluck practice where people would come to the show is bringing food, and then people from the crowd would come play an instrument on stage.” You know, there’s these things I can look at and say, “Oh, those were the days, back when we were more community- minded or more connected.”
But at the same time, I think there’s trade-offs. Any given day that we had a potluck and we really hit it off with someone who came to the show, there was probably some divisive thought toward each other on that same day, or even the same hour, or minute. And in a very comparable way, with the tour that is often referred to in the darkest terms – it was actually two tours we did back to back, and I don’t need to be specific about which two tours, you know, but it was a long stretch where we were out on the road for a long time, and we had a bus breakdown – a lot of the way that is talked about is “Gosh, wasn’t that a terrible time? And didn’t we just suffer so much, and I almost had a nervous breakdown and we fought so much.”
My memory of it is very different. I think, gosh, one of my favorite conversations we ever had was on that tour when it seemed like the shit was hitting the fan, so to speak, and we were having a very difficult conversation, and the concept came out in the open of power within the band. Just the word being uttered, that there was something called power, and we were struggling with each other over it. It had never been named like that.
And that was the moment that comes to mind. That’s a moment that comes to mind when you say, when is one of these times, one of the good times and I just am maybe inclined toward it differently, that I see these hard conversations, and you might even say an argument or a fight, but something comes to light in the midst of that conflict that you wouldn’t have seen if you’re all just joking, laughing, watching a YouTube video, and all getting along and staying on a surface level. You know, when you can no longer operate on that level because something grinds to a halt, you know, it isn’t working anymore, now we have to look deeper.
And one of those acts of looking deeper was to say “We want different things, don’t we?” We want different things out of this band, and we are struggling to establish our thing as the thing, aren’t we, is that what’s happening? At least that’s one ingredient in the recipe of what’s been happening for a long time. We have different versions of this and now it makes sense why this has never become what I dreamt it could become, because that isn’t what you’re dreaming that it’s going to become, and now it makes sense.
You know, those moments are precious to me, although they are difficult times. I sense we make the most progress there.
Yeah, there’s something about an unveiling of a truth you may not have…I don’t know. I’ve been talking to some of my friends who are having – not to get too heavy, but who’ve been having marriage troubles lately and talked about how, in some ways a marriage is a story you tell yourself and each other, and the people around you. And I think other serious intimate relationships are like that too, and if you didn’t realize someone else telling it has a different narrative –you thought you were living in parallel, right?
There’s this great story – I don’t know if you know Miranda July, but she has this wonderful story in the New Yorker where she describes marriage as two people tunneling toward each other in the dark, not being certain if they’re going to reach each other. The hope is that eventually they may connect and say “hallelujah!” – that’s what she says – but it’s also possible that one of them stopped tunneling and the other didn’t realize it, you know, which I think is a really scary and beautiful image.
I mean, the mystery of trying to coexist with other people and pursue a common goal, it’s no easy thing, and I guess you’ve encountered that.
Well, listen, I have another question, and I feel a bit sheepish about asking it. I spoke to Greg about this, too. One of my interests in what I’ve done over the years that I’ve written about music has been…how can I say this? I sort of imprinted on the Christian rock scene when I was a teenager in the in the mid-90’s. It was really important to me when I was a kid. And as I, you know, became a man and put away childish things or whatever, it’s still fascinated me maybe more culturally or ideologically. Forgive, me, I do feel a bit embarrassed asking this, but just the simple fact of having released records on Tooth and Nail does cause some people to look at a band in a certain way. So whether that’s expectations from people who are coming to your shows at that time, especially, maybe toward the end of your time at Tooth and Nail when you release a record that may have caused some young evangelicals to raise their eyebrows at seeing the word Allah, for example, on the back of your record.
I’m just curious about what it’s been like for you to intersect with that world. I asked some people what they remember about that time and somebody sent me a couple of videos of things that you did at the Cornerstone festival or things like that that. I know that’s a long time ago, but I’m just curious about what it’s been like to have intersected with that world for a time, whether there were any troubles or tensions associated with it – and frankly, what it was like for us somebody [like you] who, I believe, was not really familiar with the cultural world that many of those people were part of. What was that like for you? I’m sorry, that was a mouthful. But I’m very curious about it.
No, I appreciate the question, and you don’t need to feel sheepish at all with asking about anything like that. I like that question and my experiences with what I think you’re asking about are generally good ones.
I have memories that are fond memories, and my heart is filled with a sense of love for those who I met during that time, whether it’s, you know, the pastor who gave us a show in the church building or if it’s someone who came to the Cornerstone festival or Purple Door festival. We’ve had these interactions with the kind of cultural scene I think you’re describing, and, of course, everyone within the band has had different experiences and would tell a very different story. If you asked some of the other guys, they may have kind of negative answers about that. I don’t know. I won’t speak for anybody else, but my answers are all positive about those days, and about Tooth and Nail, and about Cornerstone and Purple Door.
My own experiences with those things have been overwhelmingly good and grace-filled. I guess the word grace comes to mind as far as a way that I make sense out of my past, and see that all the things that we’ve experienced as a band or me as an individual to say, my gosh, how rich they’ve been, you know – my God, even. You know, my God, how rich our journey has been, how wonderful it’s been, really, how beautiful it’s been, how many lessons there have been, how many rich and subtle mysteries… Gosh, just driving around the world and meeting another human being! Who knows what that other human being is, you know?
And then multiply that by 100,000, you know, how many people we’ve met on tour – not 100,000, but how many people came to see us play – I don’t keep track, but how many people we’ve met, and venues we’ve played and festivals we’ve played, festivals that can be identified as a Christian festival or a secular festival or – they’re just ways that people talk about it. And again, we come back to narratives we come up with:
(sarcastic voice) “Oh, that Cornerstone festival – that was, you know, we’re not proud of that because it was this evangelical thing and we don’t like evangelicals any more, right, because they voted for Trump,” or something, right? You know, there’s ways that these things get interpreted and spun that can be divisive, and then you could say (sarcastic voice) “well, I’m not an evangelical, those people are evangelicals, and I see I through all that because that’s obviously bogus.”
And I don’t see it that way. At least not in my deepest heart of hearts. It’s more like, my goodness, I don’t know what’s going on in this world. I don’t know what the word evangelical means, I don’t know what Cornerstone festival was, I don’t know who JPUSA is, I don’t know what a bar is, or a nightclub is, or a secular thing, or a Christian thing – I don’t know about any of that stuff. They’re ways of talking about mysteries, you know, they’re ways of trying to simplify the world, or categorize the indeterminately complex realities that we face, you know try to put it them boxes: “This is a Christian thing, that’s not.”
And then moreover, I think, in an even more destructive way, to elevate ourselves above the people we put in those boxes: “Oh, those are the evangelicals, and I am not one of those people,” or like “Oh, those are the Democrats, those are the Republicans, those are the Muslims, those are the atheists.” And the distancing of oneself from that which we can’t accept or we can’t love. We can’t love it. We can’t accept it with love.
And I want to suggest at least in my experience, there is a way to accept everybody with love, and everything. To accept it with love and to make room in our heart for everybody, in a loving way that doesn’t need to insult anybody, to degrade anybody, you know?
And maybe I’m kind of projecting a lot of what I’ve heard others say about this thing, or maybe what I’ve felt myself, having come through that, to say that never felt satisfying to my deepest place to say, “Oh, fuck that,” you know, that attitude of disdain. I don’t want to say I’ve gotten rid of it, like there’s not a trace of it anymore, but I don’t experience it anymore. I just experience sweetness when I look back at that. And if I meet somebody who is an evangelical, who identifies as evangelical, I want to see that person as the evangelical part of me, you know? No matter what – insert any adjective in there – fill in the blank of “evangelical” with anything, and to say, Gosh, is it possible that there wouldn’t be an adjective that would cause you to push somebody away from your heart?
I’m not a classicist by any means but there’s that Roman playwright Terrence who famously has a line, “I am human; nothing human is alien to me,” or foreign to me. I’ve always seen that as a very high aspiration. I think it’s lovely. On perhaps that note, it’s interesting to me, or perhaps not surprising to me, that your doctoral dissertation would have taken the form of an ethnography, because of the way you’re describing wanting to see other people. If I think about the lyrics you’ve written over the years, I think of them as being more maybe wrestling more directly with, you know, philosophical or theological or spiritual concepts in a more personal way.
But it’s interesting to me that you chose to, to, rather than to kind of do something more self-reflexive – although of course ethnography is self-reflexive to some extent – you chose to do something that sort of is intended to shine a light on others’ practices. I’m just curious as to how has your kind of research and your academic trajectory played out as you’ve kind of done this more maybe direct personal writing in this band. Does that make sense? Like, you did these two things together for a long time. Did you find them intersecting? Did they feel like separate tracks? Was one a way to scratch another itch? I’m just kind of curious about that.
I don’t know, I guess there’s a few questions in there…
Sorry, there’s like, 20.
You know, it’s a great issue to raise or to wrestle with. I don’t know exactly how to answer that. There’s some very basic details I can share that might shed some light on it. At the very least, it’s obvious to me, looking back, that I personally wanted to be in a band and write lyrics and be on a stage and get applause and all that. I wanted that and pursued that. And, to an extent I never imagined, I achieved it, and felt what it was like for me to achieve that, at whatever level we did.
My going to grad school was not a personal decision in the same way. It was the direct result of instruction by a shiekh or a mentor, kind of a guru.
Right, I think I read a bit about this in your dissertation.
OK. Right, so that’s a different starting point. And to step into something with that feeling of surrender or obedience, that I’m doing my duty, in a sense, I’m sort of on a mission. If you put in a military terms, I’m a private following the command of a superior officer. You know, if the mission fails, if I survive, there probably wouldn’t be the same sense of personal failure: “Hey, this was your idea, you put me up to this.” There was a feeling of a lightness that I was able to carry going through my academic career in that someone told me to do this, and I’m kind of trusting in his process, and it’s not going to break my heart if it crashes and burns because it’s not really my thing.
Of course, as I got into it, you could probably imagine, or perhaps relate, that the ego can get ahold of it and say “oh, I’m an academic now, I’m this and I’m that,” but I never really took that as seriously as I took my role as a songwriter. I wanted to be a poet, I wanted to be a prophet, I wanted to be a Messiah. I wanted to be all these things as a frontman of a band singing about my ideas about God and souls and things like that. The stakes were a lot higher with the band.
So stepping out in the academic direction, like I said, was done very much out of surrender. I thought it was all bogus. I thought that’s BS, that whole world of academic knowledge is false knowledge, I don’t need that. My sheikh said “do it, get your masters.” Then I finished that: “Go on, get your PhD as well.” Well, OK, I guess…
These are all mixed up with each other, and the concerns of the one feed into another. Who can say where one ends and the other begins? there’s again kind of tangible details, like the story of a tiger from a circus staying in the cage after a train was derailed, because it was institutionalized and had formed the habit of being in a cage. I heard that story from reading William James in a Pragmatism class, and it became the starting point for our fifth album, and so, cool, I got an album out of it! That one story felt rich enough to kind of branch out and explore and have other animals telling different stories, messing with free will and determinism and stuff like that.
But who knows what our fifth album would it be if I hadn’t read William James? It might have been the same exact thing in different clothes, if you know what I mean.
So it’s hard for me to say how the two [academia and the band] work together, but it’s obvious that there’s a kind of a seamless quality to my experience of both, which is that I wake up in the same bed, whether you’d say, that guy’s the frontman of this band, or he’s a student in this school, and now he’s teaching that school, I wake up in the same bed, you know, and look in the same mirror and, you know, it’s all mixed together, so who can be surprised that I’m talking about the same kind of stuff?
The last thing I had in mind, and this doesn’t need to necessarily be a super deep answer, but, in a sense, you’re talking somewhat about your “self,” or who you are when you do this versus that – when you’re in a band versus when you’re an academic versus when you’re a husband and father… or maybe versus is the wrong term there.
There’s a lyric on your last record – I think it’s the last song, which I was just listening to. I think it’s “Break on Through to the Other Side (Pt. 2)” which, frankly, I think is hilarious. I hope that’s not insulting, but I think it’s very, very funny that the song is called that. [Aaron smiles and gives a thumbs-up.] But the lyric is “someday I’ll find me.” I listened to that record when it came out, but I didn’t really listen to the lyrics, and the other day when I was preparing to talk to you guys, I looked at it and I thought, that’s a weird lyric to me, because of some of the other stuff I remember you writing like “goodbye, I!” or, you know, “I do not exist,” right? Some of the lines that your band might be sort of known for. Again, we don’t have to make this a huge thing, but I am curious about that lyric and kind of ending that record with that sentiment.
Yeah, sure. I think it would probably be a mistake for me to try to talk about that as if I knew what “I” was, you know, as if I was if I had the front row seat or I were an authority on my own motivations even, or what that means or even meant to me, or whatever “me” is, you know.
It’s clear enough that that the question of what a person is is a mysterious one, it’s not easily kind of wrapped up in a neat box and is worth – well, I should say, for me, has felt fruitful or exciting or rich to explore, unpack, deconstruct, reconstruct, reconfigure, and play around with. And it would be an imposition on the situation to take something that was sung by a guy named X in the year 2018 and hold it up to something that was sung by a guy named X in 2006 and say, “Wait a minute! In 2006, you said ‘I don’t exist!”
(laughing) “Now you said there’s ‘me!’”
“Now you’re saying I’ll find me?”
“Subject or object? Which is it?”
“You really blew it, man!” Obviously I’m not finding fault with you, because, you know, the same process happened up here (points to his head), like “OK, what does that mean?”
Who’s that poet? Is it Elliot or Wordsworth or… [UPDATE: it’s Walt Whitman], “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself!”
Very well! Perfect. Yeah, exactly. So, you get this.
Okay. Okay, fine.
To me it’s an important point, because there’s a faculty within us that would want to take a human being and put them into a math equation and say “nuh uh uh, twelve years prior, you said this, and I’m gonna hold that up to today, and now you don’t make sense, or you’re incoherent, or you’re not something.”
And to me that’s something we can do, to me it’s a valid question, but…do human beings work that way? Is that what we should be doing? Or to put it another way, is that the most fruitful or rewarding or useful way of analyzing reality?
Right – pursuing a kind of static constancy, rather than – yeah, I understand what you’re saying. I guess it would be like if I said, “why aren’t you still sad that you broke up with your girlfriend from that first record? You should still be really angry and upset about that.”
Exactly… in some of the kind of religious stories I’ve heard of like the same kind of enlightened being saying kind of opposite things. So like one person came to Mohamed saying, “should I go to the market? I’ve got a bad feeling about it.” And he says “it’s going to be a terrible day at the market, don’t go!” And the next person says “should I go to the market? I’ve got a real good feeling.” And he says “it’s going to be a good day at the market.”
I think there’s a story like this about the Buddha as well; he tells one person up, tells the other person down, and someone listening says “This guy doesn’t make sense. He’s telling one person up and the other person down. You’re supposed to have the same thing for everybody, you’re supposed to be cranking out answers that are consistently, logically the same,” and all this.
There’s a real shrinking down of reality when we expect things to go that way and to all fit together in that way. Obviously, you’re kind of minimizing the fact that, well, the Buddha is talking to two different people who might have different needs! Or Person X in 2006 is in very different circumstances; the word “I” uttered by that creature might mean something different than the word “I” uttered 12 years later, or even 12 minutes later, or whatever.
So, being comfortable with that kind of fluidity, or maybe a better word is just …unknowing. A kind of an openness to ambiguity, or contradiction and sort of things not all adding up to a certain mental faculty called the mind. It’s just something that’s obvious! It doesn’t have to! And that is an artificial imposition on the state of affairs – that it should fit neatly, you know, and when it doesn’t, something is wrong out there; it’s nothing wrong with my assumption that it’s supposed to fit up here (points to his head). Something is amiss out there.
And that kind of comes back to the Christianity Today, Cornerstone question, et cetera. It’s like, we see something wrong in the world: “It’s those damned evangelicals!” It’s putting the blame– There’s a problem, there’s a cognitive dissonance, there’s a mismatch. Where is the responsibility for that? What is the problem? Is it out there somewhere, or is it the way we’re looking at it, is it the way I’m perceiving it? It’s a good question for me, I like to come back to that. Because again, it tends to be a rich one.
OK, last question. Do you think you’ll still make music, after this band isn’t doing music?
I don’t know. I’m open. I feel open to it, you know. I don’t feel the need to, I don’t feel an aversion to it. I do feel that the longing for peace, I do feel a leading towards making my priorities more solid to where I’m searching for peace and trying to walk in the light of my life and in the practices that have brought me peace, consistently prioritizing those which – music is neither here nor there in that respect.
There’s ways of playing music peacefully, there’s ways of playing in the absence of peace. To me, the peace is the key ingredient there, so if I seek that and try to walk in that, then the music can come or go, it kind of doesn’t matter, if that makes sense.
August 13, 2021