On a Pale Horse
Philadelphia post-hardcore five-piece mewithoutYou will celebrate its 15th year together this year, continuing to log thousands of miles touring across the United States. Vocalist Aaron Weiss, alongside brother and guitarist, Michael Weiss, started the band in 2001, signing with Tooth and Nail Records later that same year. The band—which also includes drummer Rickie Mazotta, bassist Greg Jehanian and guitarist Brandon Beaver—continues to craft dramatic, sometimes experimental, soundscapes that echo the singer’s trance-like vocal angst. Over the past 15 years, mewithoutYou has toured alongside bands such as Coheed and Cambria, The Blood Brothers and dozens more. The band has also worked with producers like Brad Wood (Sunny Day Real Estate, Smashing Pumpkins) and Dan Smith (Sufjan Stevens) on albums including 2004’s Catch for Us the Foxes and Brother, Sister, released in 2006. The band’s recently released sixth album, Pale Horses, not only challenges mewithoutYou to revisit the band’s natural tendency toward the more theatrical, aggressive musical performance, but also revives the emotional honesty found in past albums. Submerge recently caught up with mewithoutYou vocalist and founding member Aaron Weiss to discuss how he developed his eccentric, spoken-word vocal style, what inspires the band’s performances night after night and mewithoutYou’s religious-based labels.
Where do you find lyrical inspiration?
I can point to certain authors where I take a line either word-for-word from Rumi or, more recently with this new album, James Joyce more than anyone else. But, there’s also whatever I’m experiencing, whatever I’m fed by my surroundings and by media, or billboards, or my cats, or my relationships. In this case, my wife and being married, and having a whole new family; those things, of course, shape what I’m writing even though I don’t necessarily consciously incorporate those things.
Screaming and shouting night after night must take a toll; do you have any vocal remedies you turn to in a pinch while on tour?
No. I have not had any success with any remedies. Only time. Only rest. That’s the only thing that’s worked for me: keeping quiet. If I get real bad, I’ll make a little sign, or if anybody comes up to me I just point to my mouth, or point to my throat and give a thumbs down, and hopefully they’ll get the point. For me, of course, even better than that, is the preventative maintenance. For one thing, staying hydrated and another is proper vocal technique. I’ve learned a few techniques and ways to direct my voice and use my body that can prevent that kind of fatigue. If I just go shouting without remembering the correct way to do it, I could lose my voice in a single song.
How did you develop your spoken-word vocal style?
If I remember right, it mostly came from what a bad singer I was. I was in a musical in high school. I got a good role, but I really couldn’t sing the song. So, they literally made me speak the song in rhythm with the music and when I listen back to that, I have a recording of it, I think, “That’s pretty similar to what I do now.” It’s probably where I got the idea to do that. And, just hearing other artists, or vocalists, who have done likewise like Sean McCabe from Ink and Dagger, or Ian MacKaye from Fugazi, or Henry Rollins.
During mewithoutYou’s live performances, you often wrap flowers around mic stands, what’s up with that?
I used to do it more often, but the reason was just to make something pretty and to make it smell nice, and make it look nice, or to have something new to interact with. We play shows night after night, and we try to mix up the set list or do something different each time. But, in some respects, it’s very homogenous. So, anything that we can do to make every night something special and unique, and the flowers are just one more version of that. It’s just one more element of the show that could be memorable or enjoyable for people.
MewithoutYou’s lyrical content contains Jewish, Muslim and Christian imagery. Do you use music and poetry to explore spirituality?
Sure, that’s such a big part of who I am. There’s no way I could do anything where I could do anything where I could seriously try to explore or express meaning and significance, and identity and trust and reality, without drawing on all those sources. They’re just kind of part of my DNA. At the same, I don’t feel a compulsion to force that in or make anyone else believe anything about religion. There’s no way for me to write with any real intensity while bracketing all that, so it’s going to be there and if that turns people off who aren’t religious, or who are anti-religious, well that’s OK. But, at the same time, religion and spiritual context can be used in such harmful ways that I’m reluctant to endorse any of them.
When bands are labeled under a religious light, do you feel they trudge through stigmas with
It’s hard to even pin down what Christianity means; multiply that by five. When you have five members of a band that someone’s trying to shoehorn into this one label, it just doesn’t make any sense. To me, it’s an incoherent concept. If someone were to say, “Oh, those guys are a Christian band, or they’re a Muslim band, or they’re a religious band,” none of those labels stick because not everyone in the band can be put in any one of those labels.
After all these years, is there a favorite album, or song to perform that still ignites deep emotions?
When I think about performing and what brings out different emotions, that really changes from one night to another, and it surprises me. There’s a song that might not mean a thing to me one night, and then the next night we play it and it really hits me in a new way. When we play, I try to really dial into the content. What am I saying to people right now? What message am I conveying and where is my attention right now? Am I locked with this moment and this particular dynamic of who’s in the room with me, or am I just rehashing what I did yesterday? To me, it’s always a constant struggle when I’m on stage performing to try to let these songs still be new and still be meaningful.
See mewithoutYou live at The Boardwalk in Orangevale on June 24, 2015, with Foxing and Lithuania. This all-ages show starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased through Theboardwalkpresents.com.