Aaron Weiss was dancing with his wife at a Whole Foods salad bar when I reached his manager by phone on Monday.
“Of course he is,” I said.
Weiss, 37, was on the line moments later saying that he felt good because he’d just eaten a carrot and some kale. He sounded chipper, as if he expected me to inquire of his favorite brand of kombucha next.
The problem is, after 14 years listening to mewithoutYou, a band that’s been unafraid to provocatively explore faith and doubt and sex and politics, I was prepared to get James Lipton-deep with Weiss. Now I felt like I’d be harshing his mellow.
Still, I had a job to do, and instinct suggested that Weiss, who recently graduated with a doctorate in Urban Education from Temple University, in North Philadelphia, would be game for peeling at the layers.
He proved me right.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Literature and poetry are inextricably tied to your work. And yet, in recent years, you’ve become suspicious of language to adequately convey truth, or your ability to be an authority using words. What’s behind this suspicion?
Well, language is obviously important for several reasons throughout the day. Some are practical: I communicate what kind of food I want to order, or ask where something is in the supermarket. Other times it’s helpful with deep, heartfelt issues, like communicating abstract emotions, needs or sorrows, or trying to find some resolution to problems. It’s so ubiquitous it comes in handy. I don’t ever mean to denigrate it as being unimportant.
Still, I fear language isn’t up to the task of capturing the fullness of reality, to convey the depths of meaning of our existence. I question where language can be adequate for certain tasks.
‘At some point I realized I had to put down those words and just get to work. I needed to pick up a wrench and start fixing my life in more tangible ways.’
For example, if you need to fix the plumbing in your bathroom, it wouldn’t suffice just to talk about it. At some point you need to pick up a wrench and get to work. There’s some comparison here to my journey: I’ve done so much talking and reading, I’ve been so indulged in language, trying to figure out why I’m here, who I am, our bigger purpose, who God is, if there’s a God, those kinds of questions. At some point I realized I had to put down those words and just get to work. I needed to pick up a wrench and start fixing my life in more tangible ways.
I’ve been on Genius reading annotations of your lyrics this morning, and I was surprised how deep the level of interpretation goes. Does the suspicion also stem from a fear that your fans take your lyrics too literally?
I don’t suppose I’m very in tune with that, but I haven’t had much fear or concern recently. Maybe earlier I was concerned about being misunderstood, or afraid that people would take what I was saying and use it to validate all kinds of weird beliefs, and sometimes I still sense that. People have approached me after shows and talked about their faith in such a way that suggests something I’ve said or done has affirmed that faith, even though their worldview bears very little resemblance to mine. When that happens I have to ask myself, “How did that happen? What have I said that’s allowed my ideas to be co-opted in such a way that’s validating someone’s beliefs that seem extremely foreign to me? Or even harmful in some cases?”
That’s one reason language needs to be held at a safe distance, kept in its proper place in terms of what we expect of it. This is especially true as we address more abstract, deeply meaningful topics. There’s just a lot of room for slippage and miscommunication. So if I’m putting something out there that’s intangible but deeply important to me, there’s a good chance that’s going to be taken by someone else and used to either affirm or challenge in a way that might not have been my intention.
That’s true of many things in life, though: You often don’t know the outcome of your action, whether that’s speech or getting married or starting a business or whatever, but at some point you have to take the plunge, and you run the risk of things going wrong. But also some things are going to go right as a result of language. Sometimes people interpret something I’ve said in a way that’s more interesting than what I thought in the first place.
The Pale Horses line that makes me perk up is “I was the ISIS flag design.” Your parents were Sufi Muslims, and your lyrics have been inspired by the Quran before. You’ve also sung in Arabic, so the presence or suggestion of Islam isn’t foreign to mewithoutYou’s work. In 2016, though, we’re bombarded by images and news of ISIS-wreaked carnage. Do you consider what might be triggered in a listener when you sing a lyric like that?
Yes, absolutely, I’m thinking of the context in which we’re being bombarded by ISIS imagery. I’m also thinking of the fear-mongering mass media, which can be used to justify bigotry and the sentiments of the Republican presidential candidate, who issues sweeping condemnations of all Muslim people. It can also be used to justify war: killing others and having Americans be killed.
ISIS is the current popular boogeyman. I reference them in a self-identifying way only in a context in which I’m expecting nobody in our audience is sympathetic with ISIS. If we were a band in Iraq or Syria, and a good portion of our listeners were faced with this question of whether to join ranks with ISIS and commit atrocities, there’s no way I’d be endorsing them. Identifying with the ISIS flag design isn’t in any way an endorsement of ISIS, but it is a way of identifying myself with a terrorist organization, which is frankly something I thought would raise more questions than it has.
I appreciate you asking. Most people haven’t brought that up, and I’ve wondered, like, “Aren’t you curious about that?” I wondered if I’d end up on an FBI watch list for saying something like that.
There’s a distinction between the ISIS line and the places where I sing in Arabic or reference the Quran. ISIS claims Islam and uses the Quran to justify much of what they do, but, when I sing in Arabic, I’m singing heart-felt prayers or simple acts of praise to Allah. Those lines are not in any way an endorsement of Islam at large, let alone any fringe, violent, extremist sect like ISIS. With the ISIS line, I wanted to dismantle or challenge some of the fear-mongering that I’ve sensed. The line is also simply an expression of my fondness for their flag design. It’s powerful and strangely childish, yet menacing and iconic.
Speaking of Trump, mewithoutYou is notoriously anti-consumerist. And there’s a line in the new song “Cleo’s Ferry Cemetery” that goes, “There’s a cemetery deep below the sea, where I’ll hide from news of the GOP.” How are you feeling with the prospect of a trust fund billionaire running America? Pale Horses is somewhat preoccupied with end times imagery. Did you already feel like it was too late for the U.S. before Trump rose to this position?
I can’t say I saw this coming. Even some of the use of the apocalyptic imagery on the new album is…I won’t say it’s tongue in cheek, but it’s done with some kind of qualification, like when I’m describing the end of the world in the Revelation/four horsemen scene. I’m speaking to things I’ve been told are going to happen, but it’s never me saying this is what’s definitely going to happen.
It’s also a way of accompanying a pretty massive, dark, heavy soundscape of instrumentation. But it’s not me making a definitive statement about the world or U.S. society today. It’s not a direct commentary or a prediction that the end is coming soon. It’s me using, to come back to language, the symbols and metaphors and images that I’ve soaked in over the years, especially in my adult life. As for Trump, are you asking if I’m concerned about him?
Sure. I’m curious where you are on the fear spectrum based on the GOP lyric, or if you’d already become resigned to the current state of affairs. Maybe you’re thinking it’s best to keep your head down and do your own thing and not worry about it too much?
There’s a whole spectrum here, knowing that it makes a difference who’s elected, but also feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of the task at hand, whether that’s trying to bring about justice in the world or a government that’s going to facilitate peace on earth.
In the past I’ve been more politically active, thinking there would be some kind of top-down utopia if we elect the right officials or have the right economic system or the right political arrangements. I don’t have that kind of hope anymore, so I have shifted more in the direction of what you describe as keeping your head down and trying to live my life and usher in a little utopia in my heart or in my little sphere of influence.
But I don’t want to suggest that it doesn’t matter. Of all the candidates that have been in the forefront of the media, my heart is with Bernie Sanders by far. My brother, who’s also in the band, has been even more vocal about him. He’s been out canvassing for the Sanders campaign. I appreciate that work, and I’d probably do it too if I wasn’t feeling busy with other things.
I’m tempted to vote against Trump, whatever that looks like. But that might be hard to do with a clear conscience if that means voting for Hillary. At some point you’re faced with the lesser of two evils, or which my friend refers to as “the evil of two lessers.” I’ve almost always voted third party, for someone I thought had integrity and would do a good job leading the country, even if I knew there was no way that person was going to be elected. At least I’d have made my voice heard in a tiny way and I’d participated in democracy. I’m grateful for the ability to vote.
When I talk about “hiding from news of the GOP,” I’m speaking to my need to stop checking the news so often. I’ve unplugged a little bit recently. The fact that Trump has continued to pick up steam has been mind blowing to me, and upsetting, but not because of him. I try to have love for him. My wife and I try to pray for him and hold him in a good place. It’s not so much him as what it indicates about the country that he’s become so popular.
Speaking of your wife, you got married between Ten Stories and Pale Horses. This was interesting because you’ve been vocal in the past about your interest in celibacy, and had said that you’d resign yourself to the comfort of God if it came to that. I’ve also read that you would’ve only married your wife if she understood your need for “mutual aloneness.” Will you unpack that concept? And where does romantic love fit into having a relationship with God? Is it, in your experience, a distraction or does it ultimately enhance a relationship with divinity?
Those are great questions. There was certainly a time that romantic relationships occupied so much of my attention that there wasn’t much room for a whole lot else. So I swung to the opposite extreme and thought I needed to stay away from romantic relationships to make room for what I have called God, or my religious path. In meeting my wife, and meeting the young lady who became my wife, there was a conflict because I already felt, as you said, resigned to finding, or intending on and hoping to make my way through the world without that kind of relationship. I wanted my needs for comfort and affirmation, acceptance and love to meet in divine love alone.
The image that came to mind as you were asking the question was of someone who goes out for a long walk one day and is determined to stay dry. That’s the plan. He stays dry for a few hours, but clouds move overhead fast and start pouring rain. He tries to get away, but he gets drenched anyway.
‘I’ve found so much joy and so much hope and so much vitality and meaning in my spiritual life and what I would call God that I could never expect another person to compare.’
I don’t mean to avoid all responsibility, but I went out into a circumstance where I was meeting people and ran the risk of falling in love, so to speak. I didn’t go out looking for a wife, but when I met her, things just started to happen, and it felt like I was just being carried along and there were forces beyond my ideology that were steering the ship, or at least prompting me so much so that I didn’t have the strength or the determination to oppose them. I never totally let go of that idea of aloneness, so when I think about being married and that mutual aloneness, I’d have to go there…it’s a deep question and it’s one that I haven’t been entirely successful in exploring or embodying.
To some degree it has to do with the expectations we have of other people, whether we’re looking to them to complete us or to fulfill a void in our hearts. To take away our loneliness, to take away our problems, to make us happy, anything like that. I’ve seen too many relationships fail, whether they’re marriages or otherwise, relationships that end up in bitterness and separation and division and disillusionment, and I can very clearly see that a lot of it has to do with what people expect of each other. If you’re looking to someone else to fulfill your every need, of course you’re going to be disappointed when they’re not able to do so. That’s not an “if,” that’s a “when.”
At the same time, if you only have negative expectations, that this is going to be terrible and marriage sucks, that can also be a self-fulling prophecy. So for me “mutual aloneness” in a relationship is a different option: Realizing that no one is ever going to fully understand you, that there might not be a person out there who completes you, and there might not be such a thing as a union of souls, or that we’re able to fully be on the same wavelength with another human being. I’ve tried to let go of all that and try to look inward.
‘It used to be easier for me to swim upstream with more vigor. Recently I’ve felt like a dead fish floating downriver.’
Obviously we’re embedded socially and I don’t think anyone is a self-enclosed island. But we do have this sphere over which we have domain over an inner life: our thoughts and our heart and what we focus on and what we give our inner attention to. I’ve found so much joy and so much hope and so much vitality and meaning in my spiritual life and what I would call God that I could never expect another person to compare.
There have been times when I’ve been more devoted to closing down my senses and focusing within. I’ve been able to tune into what I would call a more peaceful plane of consciousness, where I’m not dependent on anything outside of me. I’m able to find some stability totally by myself, being completely alone with God. I can say that when I’m around other people, whether it’s my band, my family, even my wife for long enough, I need to withdraw. I need to go within and recharge.
And so I’ve worked to have my need for fulfillment and love met before coming to my wife. I can be alone with God and feel that kind of love, feel that acceptance and friendship totally by myself. Then when I come to my wife I have something to offer her. I’m not looking to get something from her. I have something to give.
That’s the idea, and I think it really does work out that way in my life. I can’t say if other people would have a similar experience. And to be perfectly honest I’m not articulating it very well because I’m not very clear on it at this particular moment. I haven’t really thought of it in those terms in a while, so I appreciate you bringing up the question. I’m in a dull place right now, if you don’t mind my admitting as much.
Is that a result of being on tour? Or is it more significant, if you don’t mind me asking?
I appreciate you asking. I should be paying you an hourly rate, like a therapist. I think it goes back to my childhood…
It’s a combination of things. I’ve been eating poorly. I’ve been cooped up on a bus. I’m not exercising much. I haven’t felt productive. I just graduated after eight years of schooling, and between my last class in December and actually graduating five months later I haven’t had any real responsibilities. I’ve been feeling lazy and indulgent and hanging out a lot, watching movies, making stupid jokes and focusing my attention on things that aren’t meaningful or stimulating or challenging.
Knowing my personality, when I get into a period of what I would call indulgence and laziness and apathy, I don’t feel healthy. I don’t enjoy that kind of vacation lifestyle. Before I was a full-time student, I played in the band and I taught two classes. Now some of that’s dropped away and I wound up with a lot of free time.
I’m a father now. My wife and I had a baby girl, so it’s not that I don’t have things to do. But there’s a sense of just not being very disciplined at this point in my life. I think I’ve really come to enjoy certain luxuries that I have at my disposal, and I haven’t been very diligent in unplugging from those and taking the harder route, the more painful and difficult but ultimately more rewarding path of self-denial and introspection and challenging myself and being challenged by others to go deeper, to live a more sacrificial life, not just doing whatever feels good on a given day.
You’re almost quoting an earlier lyric: “indulging in the pleasures of the wealthy.” I could see how it’d be hard to make space for what you call God or meditation or even sanity when you’ve got all this stuff filling up your life.
The disappointing thing is when there are not things filling my time. Because I can use that idea of the busyness: I don’t have time to pray. I don’t have time to meditate. I don’t have time to do works of mercy. I’ve got school. I’ve gotta teach. I’ve got this record to write. It’s a little easier to make sense of the lack of inner discipline when there are all these things that you’re actually busy with. But when you have all this free time, and still you find yourself wasting it, then you think: There’s no justification for this. I’m not going to get this day back ever. Why am I spending it in front of a video game machine or in front of a pinball table?
By most standards, I doubt that I’m overdoing it with those things, but at some point I have to consider there’s so much more I could be learning and experiencing with what’s at my disposal. It just feels like choosing the easy route or the path of least resistance. Like, oh there’s people around me doing Meaningless Activity X, I might as well join in.
It used to be easier for me to swim upstream with more vigor. Recently I’ve felt like a dead fish floating downriver. I’m not dead, but I feel like I’m weak and lazy, and I’m trying to get my strength back. Even as you ask these questions it’s a good reminder. It’s not everyday that I’m even talking in these terms, so I appreciate you listening.
Sure. What’s kept you hooked to what you call God, if that’s even true? Have you considered not being a believer since MWY started 16 years ago?
Sure! Absolutely. I try to be a non-believer in some ways. Or maybe more accurately I try to open my heart widely enough to include disbelief and doubt, even antagonism toward religion—anything that I see in other human beings who are sincerely seeking the truth. Increasingly I’m excited to try to include that into my worldview, even if that means views that are contradictory in the literal linguistic sense.
The most obvious example, if you don’t mind me referencing my own lyrics, is “denying the existence of God and affirming the existence of God in the same sentence.” It’s from a character in one of the songs on Ten Stories saying, “Well, it’s pretty obvious there’s no God. And there’s definitely a God.”
I’m just trying to open up broadly enough to understand and include and affirm worldviews of different people who I love or who are part of my life, and to try to unpack what we even mean by that term “God.” By some definitions this literally could be a patriarchal judge who’s going to send a bunch of us to hell when we die, while some of us go to heaven. And I can say that’s most likely factually inaccurate. That’s probably not what’s going to happen when we die. There’s probably not such a man up in the sky somewhere. But, when someone else says God, they might use the term synonymously with love: undifferentiated and unconditional love. Or they might use the term as a metaphor for reality, in which case I don’t have any doubt about the existence of God.
‘I’ve tried to enjoy the worm and the nourishment that is possible in that concept of God without letting the hook get into my lip and drag me off somewhere according to someone else’s agenda.’
I’ve tried to detach myself from that word and my insistence when I was younger of identifying with it, that the whole of my self is hinging on whether my conception of this word is accurate or actually real. I’ve tried to question those things and broaden my vision. It comes back to what I expect of language. So, if I see God as this word that corresponds exactly to this entity that exists somewhere who’s infinite and omnipresent, I have to think that’s going to conjure up a lot of problems, theological or philosophical conundrums, and some of them might be insurmountable.
On the other hand, if I use the word God as a tool to accomplish certain things, or as a symbol to represent various commitments or the highest ideals I’ve encountered and that I pursue, then I think it can be an extremely good concept or tool. Still it has to be in its proper place, or else it can do more harm than good.
What’s kept me hooked? That’s a good way of putting it, in that, in its worst sense, it can be the kind of thing you grab onto and at some point, like a fish hook with a worm, you think it’s going to nourish you. Then the worm is gone and the hook has got you. And now it’s going to lead you onto the boat where you’re going to suffocate with no water. It’s a valid image, and can encompass some of the dangers of linguistic idolatry.
I’ve tried to enjoy the worm and the nourishment that is possible in that concept of God without letting the hook get into my lip and drag me off somewhere according to someone else’s agenda.
I’ll let you go with this one. Pale Horses ends on this gentle note: a memory of you and your father joking. How has his loss affected your work?
It’d be impossible for my mind to understand the impact of the physical loss. I’ve felt such sorrow and heaviness and a darkness that I’ve had to battle. Because of its unbearable darkness, I’ve felt the need to go deeper or go searching, as I was saying earlier, for that kind of inner peace, or an explanation of reality and the way we relate to other people.
This comes back to the question of being alone in a marriage and it points to a sporadic inner project of mine of trying to disentangle the concept of individual persons as separate entities as distinct from my own life, to see them as myself, as interconnected to them. That way they’re still a part of my heart even when I’m not around them or when they physically die.
This is related to the basic command to love your neighbor as yourself. What does that look like, to see your neighbor as literally your-space-self? To see your father as your self. To see your wife as your self. It’s not these separate people out there who you go to for things or who are meant to meet your needs. They’re part of your life and they allow you to learn about your own heart. They’re part of your identity, so even when they die and you put their body in the ground, you still carry them with you.
It so happens my dad was, or is, a deeply sincere and heartfelt and relatively simple human being, as far as I can tell. I never saw any artificiality in him. I never saw the propensity to read from the script or play the game socially-speaking. He just didn’t do those things. He marched to the beat of his own drum, so to speak. He spoke from his heart all the time. There was something so painful about that because his heart was full of pain. So those of us who were around him enough felt that pain whenever he opened his mouth. But there was also something so refreshing about that.
‘Losing my dad has made the songs a little darker. It’s made them a little heavier and a little more sad, and taken away some of my youthful naivete about what the answers I thought I could offer people for how they could find peace and contentment.’
I’ve found it’s been tremendously and incomparably easier to relate to other human beings the little bit I’ve been able to embody that myself. I feel more connected with them when I try to speak from my heart rather than letting my mind show off what it knows or have some agenda of what I want to get out of that person.
To be more direct: Losing my dad has made the songs a little darker. It’s made them a little heavier and a little more sad, and taken away some of my youthful naivete about what the answers I thought I could offer people for how they could find peace and contentment. I think I was only able to offer those answers because I’d never had something as monumentally difficult to overcome as the loss of such an awesome man as my dad.
So I’ve had to dig deeper. It’s been harder for me to come away with any kind of universal remedies for the problems of the world, so to speak, because I’ve come to recognize I don’t know the problems of the world. I don’t know what other people have lost. I don’t know what hardships they’ve overcome or are still struggling through, so I’ve tried to allow the songwriting to become a little more personalized and less quasi-universal. I’m not trying to make these big broad sweeping claims about these universal things, but just try to speak to things I actually know. Which is why, as you noted, the album ends on a personal note.
Originally, to give you an unsolicited fact, “Rainbow Signs” ended with that big heavy part. It ended with the crashing out of the symbols and the distorted guitars and that was it. So the last idea you heard lyrically was the apocalypse. Something about that didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t think it was appropriate. I knew we couldn’t end there—I don’t know anything about the apocalypse. But the idea came and it was so obvious: Let’s take it down a notch again, bring it back to a personal place where I can speak with some authority because this is my own experience.
I have this personal joke with my dad. Nobody on earth knows what I’m talking about, not even my bandmates, not even my wife know what that joke is. There’s something about that that’s infinitely more appropriate to my current state than trying to sum up what’s going to happen at the end times, the cosmic battle of good and evil, or the judgment of the earth or anything on that level. I just have to admit I don’t know anything about that.