As regular readers may already know, your favorite LA Music Examiner was born in Hawaii and now resides in California BUT grew up just an hour north of Philadelphia, PA. So far, you folks have been really nice and quite willing to learn about artists about whom you may not know much. The band in question: mewithoutYou.
MewithoutYou (spelled mewithoutYou) is an American rock group from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The band’s current line-up includes: Aaron Weiss (guitar, accordion, trumpet, keyboards and percussion), Michael Weiss (guitar, keyboards and vocals) Greg Jehanian (bass and vocals) and Rickie Mazzotta (drums). Their signature sound generally centers on spoken-word vocals and free-ranging music.
First conceived as nothing more than a side project, the band was first formed when the Weiss brothers and former guitarist Christopher Kleinberg were playing together in the band named The Operation with current bassist Greg Jehanian. Aaron Weiss wanted to start another group in order to experiment with new sounds. With the aid of Mazzotta, guitarist Ray Taddeo and his brother Mike, Aaron started the band now known as MewithoutYou.
At the start, the group was a foursome. Aaron Weiss on played bass and sang lead. A few months later, however, Chris Klienberg joined to play third guitar. As the new millennium opened, the band was releasing their premiere platter, a self-produced six-song EP titled Blood Enough for Us All.
The following year (2001) they would put out a professional EP I Never Said That I Was Brave on the Kickstart Audio label. This recording contained five tunes that are perhaps the hardest the band has ever sounded. Rather than use his signature sing-speak vocals, Weiss actually screams out the lyrics.
(A couple of the cuts, “I Never Said That I Was Brave” and “We Know Who Our Enemies Are” were later re-done for the band’s 2002 full-length debut disc, [A to B] Life; and the follow-up to the tune “Four Word Letter” later was included on Catch for Us the Foxes.) Shortly after that the band was signed to Tooth & Nail Records later that same year. Taddeo had already left the band and been replaced by bassist/keyboardist Daniel Pishock.
It wasn’t too long after that The Operation broke up giving the boys plenty of time to refine their mewithoutYou music. The full-length 12-tune, premiere platter, [A→B] Life, was released in 2002. “The Cure for Pain” contains an acoustic version of “I Never Said That I Was Brave” as a hidden track. The vocals here are by Michael Weiss.
Being of Jewish descent, the brothers Weiss often employ Jewish, Muslim and Christian imagery in their songs and experiment with spiritual themes in their lyrics. The use of Christian images sometimes earns them a “Christian band” label but, as is sometimes the case, this band is not so easily pigeonholed. They feel their tunes demonstrate a “personal relationship with God” but are far from evangelistic. Additionally, further exploration of their work reveals that the subject matter of their songs also includes issues such as self-doubt and suffering.
Raised in a converted Sufi household also influenced the album. Many of their song lyrics are taken from the Sufi poet Rumimost notably in the cut “The Cure for Pain” from “A to B: Life”. The song “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” reveals other influences.
Aaron Weiss’ lyrics are based on a John Donne poem titled “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”. The lines “thy firmness makes my circle just, and makes me end where I begun” are directly from Donne’s poem (Stanza 9, ll. 35-36). The actual title of the tune is a Kurt Vonnegut quote. This was also the same year they put the vinyl record Norma Jean / MewithoutYouon Solid State Records/Tooth & Nail Records. This 7” recording contains four tracks including the lead-in “I Used to Hate Cell Phones But Now I Hate Car Accidents”.
It would be another couple of years before they would put out another album. Their second release, Catch for Us the Foxes, hit the stores in 2004. It was produced by Brad (Smashing Pumpkins, Sunny Day Real Estate) Wood. Again their upbringing is revealed in their music.
Specifically, a line in the song “Seven Sisters” is taken from the Sufi poet Rumi. The title of the album Catch for Us the Foxesis taken directly from Song of Songs2:15: “Catch for us the foxes/ the little foxes/ that ruin the vineyards/ our vineyards that are in bloom”. This line is also used in the song “The Soviet”: “Good God, please! Catch for us the foxes in the vineyard—the little foxes”.
Although this project would get the band a bit more attention that the previous platter, Pishock left the band to pursue a teaching career and explore other musical ventures. Ex-Operation frontman, Jehanian, was recruited to replace Pishock. 2005 would see the band scoring mtvU’s “Left Field” award for most original artist thanks to the track “January 1979.”
The following year, 2006, the band released their third LP, Brother, Sister, was also produced by Wood. The recording features a lot of symbolism. An abundant amount of it concerns animals. In fact, at least one can be found in the lyrics of each of the 13 cuts.
Even the title is spiritually-inspired in that it is from St. Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun”: “We praise You, Lord . . . especially for Brother Sun . . . We praise You, Lord, for Sister Moon and the stars”. The album (which featured guest harpist Timbre) peaked at number 116 on the Billboard 200. In 2007 the put out the vinyl record Nice and Blue (Pt. Two). By year’s end, Kleinberg quit the group to pursue a degree in medicine.
Guitarist Pete Syoum filled in for the the remainder of the year. (He briefly returned to play with the band on their 2008 Summer tour since school was not in session.) Other musicians who play with them on a regular basis include harpist Timbre Cierpke, pianist Lauryn Peacock, trumpeter Matt Chapin and trombonist Derek Paquette.
By late 2008 the band had completed recording the music for their 2009 album, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright. This 11-track project explores numerous teachings of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. One online critic believes that “the sufi teacher’s story of ‘The Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie’ from ‘My Love You My Children: 101 Stories for Children’ is told as well as his story about the ‘King Beetle’ from ‘The Divine Luminous Wisdom that Dispels Darkness’.”
In the song “Allah, Allah, Allah,” the band explores the concept of seeing God in every blade of grass and in “Fig with a Bellyache” they explore sexual temptation from “The Divine Luminous Wisdom . . .” and “The Golden Words of a Sufi Sheikh.” Mike Weiss told the press that the themes of this LP reflect a period in singer Aaron Weiss’ life where he is “sort of revisiting [religion] and holding himself up to those teachings that there’s no one religion that’s going to be the only way to God.” He added “If you really want to just try to follow a path to God, I don’t believe you need anything beyond [Jesus Christ], but it’s just the idea that you’re fixed on the only way and that everybody else is just completely misguided. That is a sort of obtuse attitude that can hurt your own spirit.”
Even the title of the album is taken from parable 518 in the book ‘The Golden Words of a Sufi Sheikh” by Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Muhaiyaddeen wrote: “It’s all false, It’s all a dream, It’s all crazy, It’s all over, It’s all right, Let’s see what’s next”. This platter also reflects a departure from what some consider Weiss’ trademark shouting as well as the band’s signature sound in general.
The band swaps mile-a-minute angst-filled rants for simpler melodies with tunes about anthropomorphic food and animals. There’s more of a focus on their folk influences such as Bob Dylan and Neutral Milk Hotel even going so far as to write their songs around the acoustic guitar. They veer away from their edgy, post-hardcore sound and employ a variety of instruments such as piano, harp, bells, accordion and violins as opposed to indie rock riffs and powerful electric guitars.
Their writing is a bit more poetic as they sing of confessions and parables, existential questions and pastoral reflections. The arrangements on some of the tracks were even done by a classical composer. It certainly is a change of pace for the band.
They also contributed to the compilation album Songs From The Penalty Box, Tooth & Nail Volume 6 this same year with their tune “Every Thought a Thought of You”. Kleinberg also returned to play some gigs on their It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright tour that summer. They rode a 42 foot 1976 MC8 Charter bus that runs on vegetable oil. As this goes to press, mewithoutYou is playing to “sold out” crowds at various clubs in Philadelphia and polishing up new material for their next album. It looks like to a lot of folks can’t get along without mewithoutYou.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.