mewithoutYou: Let It Go
“There’s a love that never changes/ No matter what you’ve done” – “Allah, Allah, Allah”
They are good questions. Taking them on can seem like grappling with a few dozen sumos. A complicated situation since you don’t speak Japanese and your wrestling skills are rusty at best. Perhaps that’s why many who claim to follow God (or even doggedly embrace Atheism, or whatever color of “ism” you like, be it political, moral or spiritual) turn towards exclusionary finger pointing and judgment. It’s just easier to look outside yourself than look within, and it takes little effort to bolster a limited perspective when it comes to those big questions, to surround yourself with the likeminded and consume the media that supports your reality. While the world seems closer and smaller than ever, wrapped tight with the forces of technology and globalization, it’s still drastically divided. Rome is burning while pundits and opinion makers, TV preachers and message board haters fiddle us into sweaty torrents of righteous rage, jaws snapping and foam flying. Few seem to ask if being proven right in their “ism” is as important as looking towards solutions, towards common ground, towards what unifies. But the search for inner and outer peace is surely part of our collective human experience that transcends philosophical labels. It’s the lifetime’s journey and finding that light ain’t easy.
“In the past there’s been that [goal], that I’m going to inspire people or we’re going to help people, but it’s starting to seem like that’s not my responsibility to lead people to the truth or to teach anyone, given that I don’t know the answers myself. So, what can I do but continue to seek truth and continue to open and soften my heart and keep letting go of my conceptions, my attachments, my desires?” says Aaron. “If people see that in my life – ‘Well, look at that, something about him is going in a good direction’ – then maybe they would be inspired to go that direction, too. Whereas if they say, ‘Look at this guy, he’s just a religious fanatic. He’s just preaching to us and trying to convert everybody to what he believes,’ that might just hurt people. So I don’t know the effect of our songs. I’m beginning to consider that maybe it won’t have any effect on anybody. And you’d rather think, well God is responsible for opening everyone’s hearts and for drawing people to the truth and for revealing love to people, and I can’t do that. I can just ask God, ‘Please help me and please forgive me. You sing these songs, you play this guitar, you come and take my life, which is really your life.'”
“I personally suffered too many breakdowns hinging all of my life on the continuation of this band as an entity of touring and a career outlet or opportunity and was really hanging my hat on that. You know anyone that plays in a band, it’s such an exciting thing [if] you get to make money doing it. It’s something that a lot of guys I know, including myself, dream of their whole life and it’s hard to let go of it for some people. For me, I’m definitely one of those guys that saw, and does see, tremendous potential and talent in the band, and for awhile I was looking at it as I really need to motivate this thing and help it grow and succeed. But, a lot of times I let myself get too caught up in that and overlooked how tiring it is for some people. The band is made up of other individuals and everybody else has their own idea of what this thing means to them. And sometimes people get to a point where they’re not going in the same way they did back when they formed the group. People want to go back to school or want to start focusing on other things. It just took me awhile to get it – that you have to let things go where they’re going,” says Michael. “So, I’m just trying to become more and more at peace with the idea that whatever is going to go away is going to go away. And whatever comes next is going to be what I have to do. Just to have faith and trust that it’s going to be fine. But that was a real personal kind of struggle I had. It really had nothing to do with anybody else but myself. It feels good to stop squeezing and holding onto something so hard that you could choke, you could smother, you could end it even sooner than it needs to end.”
He quickly adds, “As for the band, do we have plans to break up? No. Not that I know of. A lot of people say we are and I hear that from time to time, but as far as I can tell we’re still planning on being a band. But it’s been hard to keep it that way because I’ve been a little foolish.”
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With orchestral arrangements, dig in your cranium melodies and folky charms, their fourth studio album It’s all crazy! It’s all false! It’s all a dream! It’s alright (released May 19 on Tooth & Nail) is a further departure from their dense, post-hardcore drive and Aaron’s rapid fire lyrical scrawls, which were often marked with a palatable vexation. Here, there’s more peace at play, with songs set in talking vegetable gardens and fables sketched vividly, striking imagery drawn out in melodic vocals rather than sing-shouting. The album simply sows its seeds, at times gently pawing the meditative soil, at times stirring the inquiring heart into a joyful swell, particularly on the last track, “Allah Allah Allah,” which begins with a rousing celebration of interconnection, “Allah, Allah, Allah/ In everywhere we look,” shifting to “In everyone we meet” and “In every blade of grass” in respective verses. Elements of their earlier fervor and darkness are still present on the record, but they are served up in a sonic shift where the branches stretch towards brighter skies. Digging to the roots, some songs do draw from personal stories and shared band experiences, but many draw from religious texts and figures, from Lao Tzu to the Bible, spiritual plurality as inspiration. The strongest presence on the album is Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a Sufi teacher and mystic. A well-respected figure that encouraged spiritual unity, his influence comes from Aaron and Michael’s parents, who both converted to Sufism from Episcopalian Christian and Jewish traditions. Michael describes what growing up in their household was like:
“On Christmas we would go to my grandparents’ house on my mom’s side, and we would celebrate Hanukkah and Passover with my father’s parents. Then there would be certain celebrations my mom would try to push on us, like I would witness her fasting for Ramadan. I’ve been exposed to the three major religions of the world pretty extensively. I think it always gave me a belief that there was a God, and that’s been pretty strong, but not necessarily a specific religion or way to worship. Just going out into the world as an adolescent and seeing different friends of mine, some were Catholic or Jewish or Protestant, and it was very hard for me for a while to really latch onto any of them. But I really had a sense that there was something more than just what we perceive on a daily basis. Growing up in my house there was a strong sense of there being an ultimate moral truth, it wasn’t just something we decided as individuals.”
“It’s warning against flattery and people trying to puff up your ego and pride,” says Aaron. “That’s something in playing music that’s an obvious danger, when you go up on stage and everyone claps or after the show someone wants to take a picture with you or wants to do an interview with you, you might start to get the idea that, ‘Oh look at this, I have something important to say,’ or, ‘I must be a wise person. I must be very talented.’ For my life, I’ve been hurt by that. When I started a band I went looking for that, I really wanted that affirmation, I really wanted that praise and those compliments. But you reach a point where you go, ‘Boy, that doesn’t bring me peace to hear that about myself.’ Instead, it brings me peace to give praise to God, to give all the glory to God, to look to God within and not to worry if people approve of me or not. But, it’s really powerful because that is still strong in me, that wanting people to like me and that kind of thing, but I think it has a limit.”
“King Beetle,” on the other hand, has a more ambiguous moral, one which lends itself to further inquiry.
“King Beetle’s” dramatic story is scored by a lush, stirring orchestral landscape. According to Michael, producer Daniel Smith had the idea of bringing in composer Joshua Stamper to create classical arrangements for some of the songs.
“[Joshua] just took the direction that we gave him and nailed it with songs like ‘Beetle King.’ It was kind of a tall order, we told him we wanted something that sounds sort of like a Disney cartoon, something really magical and out of this world, like Fantasia,” says Michael. “We wanted there to be a musical representation of certain characters and so the military beetle, you hear trombones come in, or the professor beetle, strings. The flute gave it a very magical, majestic sort of Moody Blues sound, and that’s exactly what we wanted – just a real out of this world [sound]. You know, Aaron’s not singing about his personal life on this song; that was a little bit of a departure for him. So with that we wanted to create a song where you’re just being transported to a different space.”
Another departure the band took on the album was in their approach to the songwriting. Previous albums took a collaborative approach to the music, with Aaron’s vocals added later to fit around the melodies. This time around, his vocals were present on the demos.
“In the past there [was] more of an instrumental approach, everybody putting their two cents in on everything, everybody’s song from start to finish, and then the vocals and the lyrics coming in [after]. Too many chefs in the kitchen sometimes make for a salty soup, as they say,” Michael remarks. “So, I really liked the way Aaron already had rigged tunes, and we just sort of made them better, or tried to, well, hopefully we did [laughs]. [We] just figured out where we need to provide support, rather than just construct this big monster and sort of see where the vocals could fit after.”
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The press on their environmental leanings initially piqued this writer’s interest in the band. Almost every article you read about mewithoutYou touches on, if not focuses on, the band’s biodiesel bus and Aaron Weiss’ lifestyle, which is often described as being “freegan.” But these sorts of focuses can be somewhat misleading. Yes, the band tours in a veggie bus (now their second bus in five years), and yes Aaron does not own a home, cell phone, car or computer, and yes, he will eat discarded food. But none of these facts, however admirable or interesting, amount to an ethos the band wishes to espouse.
“[But] people hear that there is someone that is relatively well to do, someone who could afford their own food but chooses to eat out of a trashcan instead [and] that’s a little weird,” he continues. “A lot of the interviews that we’ve been doing recently, that’s been one of the first questions, ‘What’s with you being freegan?’ and that’s a term I don’t think I’ve ever used to describe myself. I do buy things. I buy food, and I do sometimes buy all kinds of things. You need underwear and socks and toothpaste, dish soap and all kinds of stuff [laughs]. So, I don’t know what it’s like to be a freegan because I’m not one.”
“Ultimately we are trying to just get our music out there and make a living, and you can’t blame anybody for wanting to do that,” Michael says, putting their decision to have a biodiesel bus in a similar perspective. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and you do have so many people you are transporting around in that bus, so it’s not like that big heavy guilt of just driving around that Hummer as your personal vehicle. So, even if we were to run diesel all the time, the guilt of that would sort of be offset, in that we are ten people in that bus traveling. It’s not as horrible when you think about the per person effect. And there’s also the fact that we are saving a lot of money; we aren’t buying as much diesel.”
The bus is just a part of the mewithoutYou extended family, and if there’s a specific value at mewithoutYou’s core, on the most basic level, it would seem to be family – both literally, and in a philosophical sense. When it comes to the Brothers Weiss, “That relationship we’ve had has always been a big part of the band,” Michael explains. “He’s been my right-hand man and I’ve been his, basically since high school,” Michael says of he and Aaron’s relationship. “We’ve always had the same friends and we went to the same college together and then I joined his band. And every step of the way he’s been my best friend. We’ve been to the point of no return where like it seemed like we would never talk to each other again, all the way back to him being the only person that I could trust with my deepest feelings. He’s been everything to me in-between those two points, which is as much as this guy has experienced thus far, the whole spectrum.”
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Given to contemplative stream of consciousness answers, Aaron admitted that he had reservations about doing more interviews, out of a concern for not having, “the right answers. Without fail, when we do interviews I always say something that I regret, or it ends up when I read it back, if I read it, I think, did I really say that? Boy, why do I ever open my mouth?” Despite any hesitations, he was generous with his time. There’s a refreshingly open quality to him and the gracious way he shares his reflections. He also seemed genuinely curious about this disembodied voice on the other end of the line, and when it came to my prepared questions, I threw most of them out.
I wondered if Aaron ever gets frustrated at the superficiality of our culture, where it sometimes seems few are willing to go deeper.
“No, not anymore. I used to,” Aaron admits. “It would be really easy to find someone to point the finger at, ‘This guy, look at how superficial he is. Look how many hours of TV this person watches,’ or, ‘Look how much they spend on their wardrobe.’ But my parents told me, whenever you see a fault outside or you see somebody else, it’s really a way God is showing us something about ourselves. So, if we see superficiality on the outside, and say, ‘Oh the world is so superficial,’ well I must be superficial because something within me is resonating with that. So it becomes a real blessing whenever you see something like that on the outside, it means I have to go deeper in my own heart and find a place that is true and real within me. I’ve done so much judging in my life, finding fault with the culture or the church, or even my own friends or the guys in my band or people in my own family; I’m just kind of burned out on it. So, I’m just really happy with the world outside as it is, even with all the craziness that you see.”
The subject turned at one point to activism, specifically a war protest where he was arrested alongside his friend, a feisty, trouble-making nun named Sister Margaret. The incident is referenced in the song “Timothy Hay.”
“I went over to join her because I thought it might be a good story, a good way to impress my friends if I told them I got arrested with Sister Margaret. So, it was really just that sort of thing, I was trying to be an activist, but looking back you realized, man, I cared more about being an activist than I did about anyone in Iraq. They arrested five of us, including Sister Margaret. Imagine putting an elderly nun in handcuffs. It must have been a hard job for those police officers, but they were actually very nice and they treated us respectfully and it was a very sweet experience.”
Describing himself as caring more about being an activist than the activism itself, I was curious if he meant that activism could sometimes be used as a tool to feed our own egos.
I found Aaron’s initial answer about the “Timothy Hay” incident intriguing. Most of us have a strong opinion on politics, and there are, of course, many devoted activists out there fighting for their causes. But there are also those who use political standpoints to draw attention to themselves, or to create further divisions rather than dialogue. I am curious then, if Aaron thinks it then becomes about cultivating compassion on the most basic level, even with those you disagree with.
“I’ve felt a very clear and simple call to simply put my trust in God and submit my heart to God, who is love,” he says. “God who loves everybody. God who loves not only the people in Iraq but also the soldiers in America, and who even loves George W. Bush, who everybody loves to rail on. I have a very clear sense of my call being to have faith in God and to give my life to God and to open my heart to God and then whatever happens is fine at that point. If God wants to use me to go to a protest that’s fine, I’m happy to go to a protest, but I won’t be angry at anybody and I won’t feel superior to anybody because I would see everyone as my own life, I would literally love my neighbor as myself. Because that’s how God sees us; God doesn’t see us as separate. At least that’s what I was raised to believe and that’s what feels correct to me. So, if we could just do that one thing, just humble ourselves and submit our hearts, then everything else is taken care of, and then we have compassion because God is compassion. And then we love others because God is love. And then we’ll forgive everybody because God is the forgiving one. It’s just so perfect and it’s so sweet and it’s literally no effort. It doesn’t require anything on our part except for that humility and that trust. But just like children, that’s what we have to be.”
It’s simple, but it’s a difficult place to get to.
“Sure, we’ve all built quite a life for ourselves and all of our ideas and all of our accomplishments and all of our identities. All of our possessions, whether they be physical or material or inwardly, whether we possess some philosophy or we possess some religion or we possess our Atheism or Agnosticism, whatever it is we think we are. Once we decide upon that we’re separate from everyone else who isn’t that, and it’s hard when we’re so wrapped up in these things that we perceive. They define us, so we think, ‘If I let go of that, what will be left? I can’t let go of that, it’s who I am.’ It’s just that we don’t know that that’s not really who we are, that we’re not necessarily any of the things we say we are. And maybe that’s a good place to start, just to wonder, ‘Who am I, really?'”
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“Right, right, but little by little,” Aaron says. “It doesn’t have to be all at once, it might be too much, but we can start small. Just look at something, take a given thought that comes to our mind, someone who wronged us and we can say, ‘Okay, I can let go of that one. The thing this guy did to me a few years ago, I can accept it. I can thank God for that rather than holding it against him. I can pray for that person or I can be grateful that it happened exactly that way and have a certain faith that it was for a good reason if I don’t understand it.’ Just see if that makes it better, see if that feels lighter or feels more peaceful, and if so, move on to the next thing, until maybe someday we’ll be completely content with everyone as they are, even with our self, but also willing to move forward, you know? I know it’s not easy. I understand what you’re saying.”
Does this mean Aaron feels like he’s coming to his own sense of peace?
“No, but having read enough from and hearing what Bawa said and seeing tapes of him talk – he left the world a long time ago, I don’t really remember him, I was just a little baby the last time I saw Bawa in person – but he seemed to be in that place that I’m describing. And that’s the only reason I would even think it’s possible. You read about people like Jesus from thousands of years ago that were really on a different level as far as their insight into things. But, that’s so long ago you don’t really know if what you’re hearing is true or if it was all changed through history. But Bawa lived up until the 1980s. You can really watch him and listen to what he says and then you see how he was, even with just the look in his eyes you say, ‘Man, this guy saw something. He was at a place that I am not. And he experienced things that I haven’t. And he has a peace and a love and a compassion that I don’t have but he looks like just another human being like me so maybe I can attain that too.'”
I’m also curious about the theme of ego-loss (in the Buddhist sense of the word) in the album. It runs strong, particularly in the song “Good-bye I!”
When I got off the phone with Aaron, I thought of my visit to New York in the summer of 2005. It was during a particularly painful time in my life, and all I wanted to do on that trip was bar hop until I was sufficiently numb. But for some reason, I felt compelled to go to the Hayden Planetarium. After seeing the star show and other exhibits, I wound my way down the spiral ramp through the Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway – the 13 billion year history of the universe captured in 360 feet. Evolution, constant change, as each of our steps took us 75 million years further along, through the birth of the Milky Way and the age of the dinosaurs. At the end of that ramp, there’s a thread the width of a human hair. It represents the sum total of our species’ existence to date. I stared at it and, for a moment, my fear and hurt dissipated. Talk about gaining perspective and zooming out on the timeline.
Bill Hicks once said in the monologue that closed his last appearance on stage, “It’s only a choice. No effort. No worry. No job. No savings and money. Just a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy bigger guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one.” There it is again, the simplicity of that choice, to look to this often broken world with wonder and love instead of fear. No matter what fuels you on this ride, there are these common threads to follow, weaving through the songs of many seekers who have danced through this hair in the cosmos, tugging at all those questions we don’t know how to answer when we gaze up into that endless night sky.
mewithoutYou is on tour now, dates available here.
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