Outside Off Broadway, an old garage turned rock club in Cherokee-Lemp, one of St. Louis’s historic districts, where mewithoutYou will play in just a few hours, I’m ushered into the band’s tour bus. Even with all the bus windows cracked, it’s well over 90 degrees.
“Hello,” mewithoutYou frontman Aaron Weiss says, distant but polite. He has a modest beard and eyebrows with plenty of vertical action. In person, he’s surprisingly diminutive. After some polite waffling about whether to talk in the bus or outside, we move outside; I worry briefly about the line of fans still congesting the doors of the venue. We head around the back of the building and there, impossibly, is a small garden with several fruit trees and a bench. It’s much cooler in the tiny orchard.
Weiss is a weird dude. He used to live at the Simple Way, a commune in Philadelphia. He’s been known to eat food out of trashcans. He doesn’t own a phone or use Facebook, though he admits to me that he has a borrowed phone around somewhere for use on tour. He spends an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about celibacy and the ego. He’s not interested in preserving, or even presenting, an image; he speaks of his occasional suicidal thoughts with the same equanimity as he discusses James Joyce’s rhetorical techniques in Ulysses. He’s virtuosic in his self-deprecation, quick to use words such as “hypocritical” about himself and his lifestyle. He’s also one of the finest lyricists in indie rock, penning dense and allusive songs, ecstatic as Beat poetry, but more substantive.
When I ask how the tour—which is taking the band from Philadelphia to California in support of their new album, Pale Horses—is going, Weiss says it’s “pretty great. Better than average.” He adds that communication between the band, which includes his brother, Mike, who plays guitar, is typical, which is to say, “not stellar.” When I suggest that the claustrophobia of the bus and the endless monotony of the road would get on anyone’s nerves, he refuses the easy out: “It’s not just the time on this tour. Of course, you have a whole history and you have a backlog of miscommunications and divisions and resentments that carry over into subsequent tours. It’s hard to start over again and again and again. Trying to find a way to start over and see everyone anew, with fresh eyes, and not come with negative judgments and expectations. But I like it. I think it’s a good exercise for learning how to communicate, to take criticism.”
That’s how he talks, at length and in a considered, slightly reedy voice—at once personal and deeply reflective, even metaphysical. The implication is that, soon, there might be a time when the band will be unwilling to start over again. By the end of the recording process for Pale Horses, an album saturated with apocalyptic imagery, he says he was “totally drained, like I had nothing more to say.” He continues: “I can’t imagine two years from now, or whenever this one runs its course, having any desire at all to write another song, let alone an album. Sometimes I’ve thought it might be a good album to end our career on, one about the end of the world. I have no intention of quitting. It’s just that I try to stay open and ready for change and for growth, and that, I know, is going to involve discontinuing my musical career at some point, and I’m okay with that.”
That career started in 2002 with [A->B] Life, a raw, angsty mess of an album, almost entirely without melody, on which Aaron screams lyrics about suffering, suicide, and loneliness over propulsive drums and a low wall of guitar noise. But he was already engaging in the eclectic quotation, including Kurt Vonnegut and the 17th-century English poet John Donne on the same track, that would become a byword for the band. (Aaron was even once approached after a show and accused of plagiarism because he failed to cite his influences in the liner notes.)
mewithoutYou’s subsequent three albums moved them further and further away from their hardcore debut. The nadir of this arch, 2009’s it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright, resonated closely with the freak-folk aesthetic of Neutral Milk Hotel and early Animal Collective. The complex, interlocking guitar riffs and scowling rhythms of previous albums disappeared almost entirely, along with Weiss’s screams and rapid declamatory style, replaced by tubas, hummed melodies, and rapturous orchestration. The shifts created, or revealed, fault lines: Half the band stayed home for portions of the next tour, and Aaron, Mike, and Mike’s wife traveled as the Weiss Family Show. That’s probably the closest they’ve come to calling it quits, Aaron says. The two albums since then, Ten Stories and Pale Horses, are more collective efforts, musically diverse, ranging over the full topography of their sound.
Weiss’s position as a frontman initially came with a specific mission: to love God and each other. If that seems like a fairly typical statement from a band signed, at that time, with Tooth & Nail, a Christian alt-rock label, it becomes more interesting given a bit of knowledge about the Weiss family. Aaron and Mike’s father, though raised Jewish, converted to Sufism, a mystic strain of Islam influenced by Hinduism, while still self-identifying as Jewish. Their mother, raised Episcopalian, also converted to Sufism. The Weiss brothers’ parents met at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship and Mosque outside of Philly, where both Muhaiyaddeen and Aaron and Mike’s father are now buried. Muhaiyaddeen’s stories and teachings were part of Aaron’s early intellectual food, many of which later ended up in mewithoutYou’s lyrics.
Sometime after a routine teen-aged conversion to Christianity at an Episcopalian summer camp, Aaron had a brush with fundamentalism, and then did a stint with a movement called the New Monasticism during the early years of the band. You can still find YouTube videos of Aaron preaching, usually while sitting down, to sold-out crowds at massive evangelical Rock festivals like Cornerstone.
Things have changed since then. Although he’s gracious toward me, I get the feeling he’s wary, not exactly eager to talk. This isn’t the spotlight fatigue of an international celebrity; it’s a more fundamental ambivalence, the weariness of a failed prophet who wants only for the vexation of his own imperfect instrument—his body, his voice—to be eased. These days, instead of conducting after-concert Bible studies, Aaron is much more likely to insist that his words shouldn’t be taken too seriously, that he has no message, that no one should listen to him except as an entertainer.
“Really,” he says of his earlier attitude, “I was forgetting the limitations of what I can know or what I can put in a song, and what value that might have to anybody.” With this new album, he admits, there’s “no guarantee that anyone else will get anything positive out of it, or even that I’m saying anything true. But at least there’s the sense that if I’m clear in what I’m communicating, that there’d be some value in that, even if it’s negative in some ways, if it’s spiteful or petty or humiliating, at least it would be honest and that would be at least a starting point.”
Still, when two dudes show up in the little orchard for a smoke and then freak out about how Aaron happens to be chilling there, he isn’t above lecturing them for ruining their young lungs. One of the guys hit him for a couple of passes into the sold-out show, and Aaron half-jokingly offers to get him and his friend in if they give up smoking.
The friend, hanging back and dragging at his cigarette, laughs. “You want me to just tell you I’m going to quit?”
“No,” says Aaron. “I want you to tell me the truth.”
Okay, they say, and Aaron heads out to track down his tour manager.
When he returns, I ask him if he thinks they’ll actually quit. “Maybe,” he says. “Or they could just be lying to me to get into the show.” The risk is worth it to him though. After all, what does he lose? A small profit, a material benefit, things of little consequence.
Of more consequence are the relatively recent life events of his marriage to Kaysha Weiss, née McKim, and his father’s death, both of which are referenced frequently, if obliquely, in the new album’s lyrics. The clearest mention, one the album’s most plangent moments, occurs when Aaron sings of his father: “I think he would’ve liked to meet my wife/and I know for a fact he would’ve liked my wife.”
I get his views on marriage, an institution he describes as a “compromise,” before I actually meet Kaysha. These are carefully considered and articulated and owe much to the idea of the anchorite, which translates as “one who has retired from this world.” His ethos, despite his emphasis on celibacy, belong as little to Bristol Palin’s abstinence-only views as they do to the world of American Pie. He says his cue for his longtime “celibacy and aloneness” was “this ideal—and I still have this ideal—of an undifferentiated or universal love, a love with no object, to quote Rumi, which isn’t dependent on the other person making you happy or anything. I still have faith in that ideal, and I’ve experienced it in small doses, enough so that I believe it to be a better state or ideal to strive for than falling in love with a person, even marrying them and staying faithful to them. To me, there’s a limitation in that, what felt like a compromise.”
I ask him how, if that was still his ideal, he came to be married.
“I never lost my desire for companionship or for sexual activity.” He says this with slight chagrin, defeated in the face of his own animality. “When we decided to get married, we had an understanding of a mutual aloneness, that we would marry as a means of, to use a quote from Rilke, protecting our solitude. I still feel more or less as alone as I did before we got married. And that was part of the agreement, that I would not let her take away my aloneness and I assured her I would not take away hers. So in a sense we agreed to be priest and nun together, except without the celibate part.” He laughs. “I guess I don’t know if you can have your celibate cake and eat it too.”
He starts fidgeting, peering through the branches. I ask him if he has to leave to prep for the show. He shakes his head. “I noticed my wife come by, and I will say, I haven’t had a meal today, just some snacks. She went out to eat with a friend and said she was going to bring back some food for me, and it made me wonder. But I don’t know where she is. She walked by and that got me distracted, wondering if she had some Thai noodles for me.” Sure enough, we see his wife walking through the trees toward us. He gives her a goofy wave: “Hey dude, how are you doing?”
After the bit about priests and nuns, I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Kaysha, a quick-humored, long-limbed blonde from Idaho, goes a significant way toward unraveling Weiss’s swami-like asceticism. She studies plant biology. She goes out with friends. She’s on Facebook. The Thai noodles turn out to be a large fresh spring roll.
The tensions between doubt and faith, mourning and joy are pronounced throughout Pale Horses. Take “Rainbow Signs,” the last song on the new album, which begins with an image of the end of the world, but closes with a private joke—one that Aaron shared with his now-deceased father, the punchline of which, he says, not even his wife knows. Ending the album on a joke is his way of maintaining perspective: “This whole band, my involvement in it, is just something very silly and small and personal. I have no idea what anyone else gets out of it, or how it relates to God or reality, but I know what it means to me and what it meant to my dad, playing in the band, so I let the joke stay there, unsolved.”
Before the show, I ask Aaron what he would do if he wasn’t a musician. Maybe a handyman, he says. Or a carpenter.
“I think that when I quote the scriptures or old hymns,” he told me earlier, “in a sense I’m just using language that I know, that is meaningful to me, or that evokes certain emotions in me, but I don’t presume that I’m presenting anyone with the word of God or that there’s anything I’m saying that they need to believe or accept.” He pauses. “Let me leave it at that.”
But despite his protestations of doubt, his attempted erasure of self, there’s too much of Aaron Weiss and his faith to disappear entirely.
Later that evening, on stage, he tucks himself into a small space, mumbling verses with his elbows pressed together in front of his torso, his hands holding the microphone as if in prayer. Then he detonates outward, a dervish dancing to the band’s crescendoing guitars. The crowd draws and recedes in front of him, shouting along: “Shadow am I, like a suspicion that is never confirmed, but is never denied!”
On my way out of the parking lot, I catch a glimpse of the two dudes from the orchard idling in their car. I try to see if they have lit up yet, or if they are at least waiting until the cool air of that night has passed, but the car behind me flashes its beams, and I drive away.