The Evolving Education of Mewithoutyou

Aaron Weiss helped forge a genre, a man once so sure of his future and his path. Now, on the eve of his band’s most recent release, Pale Horses, he admits a lot of that confidence is changing

Photo by Amie Santavicca

Uncertainty is difficult to accept and far more challenging to admit.

There are some beliefs you adapt as a child and are fearful to ever question. You don’t want to doubt what you’ve been taught, regardless of what the rest of the world is saying. But it isn’t easy. The yoke once easy and light becomes uncertain and exhausting to carry.

MewithoutYou’s vocalist and lyricist, Aaron Weiss, is all too familiar with uncertainty. The same man who, ten years ago, eagerly preached to crowds and led Bible studies at shows, now finds himself introverted and humble in his beliefs. This isn’t always easy – it feels empowering to have answers and weak to have questions. But, instead of fearing difficult questions and religious contradictions, he has adopted the freeing habit of challenging beliefs he once thought unchallengeable.

“I am less afraid these days to question any of my beliefs,” Weiss explains in his consistently calm voice, “because the ones that feel most true are not harmed by my questioning.”

The songwriter shows this clearly throughout the band’s new album, Pale Horses. As with the lyrics on previous albums, Pale Horses provides an honest reflection of Weiss’ emotions and struggles. Whatever was in him came out in the songwriting – praises, doubts and songs with animal names included.

You guys have had some interesting opening slots on tours. Last year you were on a cruise with Tegan and Sara and Paramore. What have been some of the strangest opening slots you’ve had at a show or festival?
Well… strangest? That have opened for us?

That you opened for.
Aw, what can I say? I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, you know?

That’s fair. How about biggest genre disconnect?
Well when we’ve played at festivals in the past, they’re pretty eclectic. There will be all kinds of performers that play. Sometimes there are some strange mismatches — we’ve had hip-hop bands go on after us or bands that felt explicitly Christian (or) praise and worship music. I’m sure they’re great for a lot of people’s taste but didn’t fit real well with what we were doing. So sometimes the festivals are more unorthodox parings. But usually when we’re touring, everybody has agreed to it specifically. We already screened out the bands that wouldn’t work really well.

We tour with a wide range of bands, from pop-punk to really heavy hardcore to pop music. All across the spectrum. We can tailor our set to accommodate the different styles of music we’re playing with. We can play more melodic songs for some bands and aggressive songs when opening for a heavier band. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does. You guys are one of the handful of bands that changes your set frequently. Are there any songs you have retired altogether?
Not formally. There are songs we haven’t played in a long time and don’t have in the rotation to bring back. Those are songs mostly from our first album and, even more so, our previous EP we wrote when we were so much younger and so different in terms of our tastes and where we were at in our lives. They don’t make as much sense now.

That makes sense.
But that’s just the first record. The second record we played in its entirety last year on tour. Every record since then is more indicative of what our tastes are like and the direction we’ve headed more recently. All those songs are fair game to be incorporated into what we’re doing now on tour.

On this previous tour, what did you guys find yourselves listening to in the van?
Well, I got to admit: We don’t have a stereo system in our vehicle. If we listen to music, it’s done individually. I don’t have any kind of music listening device, so I don’t have any music with me on tour. As for the other guys, I don’t know.

Interesting. Do you find yourself listening to music at home?
No. No, not really. If the neighbors are fighting or playing their music really loud, sometimes I’ll turn on some music to drown out the noise they’re making.

Then what would you listen to?
Usually something very relaxing. Classical music, I guess. I like Chopin, Bach, Beethoven.

I’ve heard of them.
No one surprising. Just some of the most famous guys. You can put it on and go about your day. It’s not demanding a lot of attention of you and, like I said, it’s good for covering up the sound of the neighbors.

And I like the absence of lyrics; I think it’s easier to go about doing something else with my full attention and not being distracted.

Lyrics are such an interesting thing. Prepping for this interview, I tried listening to your new album a few times while typing out questions. Because MewithoutYou is filled with lyrics, I couldn’t do both. I wonder if the fact that you don’t listen to much music explains why MewithoutYou doesn’t sound like anyone else. You have a very specific sound. If you don’t listen to music on the road, what do you find yourself doing between shows?
I listen to the other guys in the band. They’re all pretty entertaining and interesting. I like the way they interact and joke with each other. (I like) the things that they talk about. I try to pay attention to them. And, of course, looking at the scenery through the window, watching the trees and the sky.

I don’t know if there is any one thing I do regularly. I don’t have a routine; I just take it one day at a time. Sometimes I try to get some schoolwork done, sometimes I’m doing little bus projects – trying to maintain or improve the bus. I enjoy doing that on the road.

And sometimes someone will put on a movie. Usually it’s our friend Mike who tours with us. He puts them on and I watch them sometimes.

You mentioned that sometimes you do schoolwork. Are you in grad school right now?
Yes. Grad school.

What are you studying?
My program is called Urban Education. I’m at Temple University in north Philadelphia.

Do you still teach there?
Not this year. I have for the past four years, up until this past fall semester when I stopped to focus on the band again. For a while, it felt like the band was slowing down. I was prioritizing schoolwork. I was a full-time student and teaching at Temple, trying to do the band in the empty space between those other responsibilities.

Now I’m finished with my course work at Temple and I’ve stopped teaching, so we can prioritize the band once again.

That’s awesome. It seemed like the band was winding down around the time of the It’s All Crazy, It’s All False. (Members) seemed disconnected. It looked like the band was about done.
It’s hard to say. I think around the time we put out It’s All Crazy…, there were a lot of personal factors in our individual lives that were taking all of our energy and causing problems. That album came together in sort of a hodgepodge way. Nobody felt too connected to each other or to the… I shouldn’t say nobody, but that was more the sentiment with that album than any other album I can think of.

When we decided to put out the next album, a few of us had worked through our personal problems and were doing better as individuals.

I wouldn’t say that’s true of myself. I actually felt happiest at any point in my life when we were recording It’s All Crazy…, but I think I was the exception. Some of the other guys were going through some really hard things that affected the band. And maybe it’s because of the nature of my happiness. I was very intensely focused on my spiritual journey and religious beliefs and practices maybe more so than any other time in my life. So I felt very intensely connected with that, (but) the other guys, maybe not so much. It kind of alienated me from everyone else as I recall.

Do you find yourself in a happier place, personally?
No, I don’t think so. About five years ago, my father died and that was a turning point for me as far as my overall sense of happiness. I felt very devastated for about a year after that and found it hard to care about much of anything. Then I began to get used to his absence and come up with new ways of feeling connected with him, but I don’t think I ever fully recovered a sense of, I don’t know, maybe the lightheartedness or happiness that I felt before then.

I don’t think that’s the only factor. Through studying at grad school, I have also been repeatedly confronted with many different views and perpetually challenged or questioned all my beliefs and learned to let go of things I have held onto. That’s difficult, too, to continuously uproot the things you find comfort in and continuously question them and continuously try to go deeper and understand more fully basic things about the world.

The album, Pale Horses, coming out — especially more than the last albums — the imagery in the lyrics partly comes from your Abrahmamic views, but on this album, it comes more from a questioning (point of view). Can you talk about that a little bit more?
I tried to be as honest as I could, and I think in the past I’ve tried. I would say with our first handful of albums, I tried to put forth an image. I’m always doing that, probably always trying to put forth an image, even right now that’s happening. Certainly, our newest album is no exception. I can’t say it’s just this pure unadulterated expression of who I am or any kind of honest outpouring. No, it’s all carefully constructed and edited and reedited and captured via countless takes and trying to get just the right sound.

There’s all this artificiality that is inherent to putting out studio albums — at least in my experience, the way I’ve always done it. It’s definitely not entirely honest. But, more so with this album, I’ve tried to incite whatever was in me to come out. Not so much to just try to present a single coherent view of the world or a vision of myself or what I believe, which is more or less what I did for the first three or four albums.

In the album before Pale Horses, Ten Stories, I think I tried to incorporate all different views, but I also did it with some different characters. One was a tiger, one was an elephant and one was a peacock. In that way, it felt like a story with different characters that represented some part of my brain, but they had different names and different little colorful images to hide behind.

In this case, with our newest album, I think, more than ever, I tried to let all the characters in my brain come out and be seen and be available, without putting them in the different characters’ voices. This is part of what I believe, and this is part of what I think and part of who I am. It might contradict something that’s in the next song, but that’s who I am in some ways, so conflicted and contradicted.

I have that certainty, that sense of religion in my Abrahamic roots, as you noticed. It is still very much there. I still want very much want for the album to be one of praise, that’s characterized by praise and gratitude and faith and worship and love and uplifting things.

At the same time, there’s this whole dark side I’ve struggled with, and how much to let out and how much to show people. Do we have other doubts or questions or even animosities toward certain aspects of religion? That’s all part of the package for me. It’s not a matter of me losing my faith in any way, it’s just part of expressing an ever-changing faith and trying to do so holistically.

I think that’s what people need to hear, too. The idea that you can truly seek God but still doubt and have questions about God’s character. I appreciate that a lot about the album.
It’s much lighter for me that way. I don’t have to carry around this set of ideas that then everything else that contradicts that becomes an enemy or becomes a threat in some way. It’s a lot lighter of a journey when I don’t carry those things and I stay open and eager for whatever comes today to replace whatever I accepted yesterday. Maybe yesterday’s beliefs or practices were appropriate for yesterday, but maybe today there’s a deeper place that we can go to.

I think there’s a danger there, too. If you’re just constantly accepting every new idea that comes your way, you could very easily fall for a lot of harmful ideas, trying out many destructive practices that could get you hurt or killed or addicted to things and all that. I certainly don’t want to espouse people to just go and try different things every day and not worry about the consequences. I think there’s still a place for caution and reserve and wisdom and intelligence, but I also think it’s important for me to stay flexible and to stay open and to stay humble and to recognize the limits of what I know.

How do you find the balance between being flexible in belief and keeping some beliefs that you want to keep?
I think the balance for me tips very far in the direction of flexibility. For me, if anything, I err more — or try to err more to that side, insofar as I think any questioning of beliefs that I’ve done… I haven’t seemed to do any harm in terms of the beliefs that I question again and again and found that they remain to be solid.

Let me rephrase that, because that was kind of jumbled. I’m less afraid these days to question any of my beliefs, because the ones that I have questioned and I find to be most true are not harmed by my questioning.

To give you an example, I may question the virtue of forgiveness and mercy, which is, of course, very important in Christianity. I might say, “Well, no, maybe it’s better to keep tabs on the wrongs that people do. Maybe you could be taken advantage of if you forgive people. Maybe mercy is for the weak.” I can consider those other views, ones that would consider mercy and compassion and forgiveness to be forms of weakness or to be foolish, yet, no matter how many times I consider that, I still find that mercy and compassion are the more beautiful qualities. So, it doesn’t do me any harm. In fact, it strengthens my trust in those qualities, that I’m not afraid to question them.

If you question those ideals — or any number of things we’re told about what’s true from various religions or trends or political organizations — if you question them and they remain solid, then I think that’s a stronger foundation than having ideas we cling to dogmatically because we’ve been told them or because we once believed them and that has worked for us in the past.

Was there a point in your life where you were scared to question these things?
I think I still am, in some ways. I couldn’t tell you things I’m specifically afraid to question, because I try to go right down the list and question any old thing that I feel like I cling to. I also feel like there’s bound to be things I’m blind to that I believe so wholeheartedly or so fundamentally I wouldn’t even know how to begin questioning them. Things about what we perceive to be true, and the trustworthiness of our perceptions, and the trustworthiness of our reason and our emotions, and things we’ve experienced and are validated in our beliefs. Those things I wouldn’t really know how to even begin questioning. They’re just so essential to how I experience the world.

Even then, I try. I try to call into question everything I take in with my senses and what I take to be reality and “the world.” Certainly any ideas I have about God or truth or love or eternal things I have to call into question, because I assume, almost as a point of faith, that whatever I have come to believe about those things is bound to be false to some extent, and limited, and so not entirely to be trusted. I try to let go of those things and live more like a child, where I try to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity than a list of things I can explain and tell people about.

That’s been a big shift for me. There used to be a time I would really enjoy spending hours talking to people, telling them all kinds of things about God. After the shows or at Bible studies I would lead. Or at festivals, I’d give these talks or question-and-answer sessions. People would bring questions to me and I would have answers for them about God and about things. Looking at them now, I can’t imagine where I’d be claiming to know what I was talking about.

I think oftentimes people assume they know God, they truly have the answers and they can give them. It’s a lot more humbling to admit, really, when you’re talking about God, there’s no way on Earth to know a fraction of what we think we do.
I guess there’s a certain power that comes in claiming to know things, and it feels good to have answers for people or be able to tell them what’s right and what’s wrong, and who’s going to go to heaven and who’s not. Those are really important issues, that if you claim to know the answers to these questions or claim to know the truth about them, it can be very empowering.

You can hold people’s attention by telling them things that are very important to them. “I know how you can get your soul into heaven when you die, or go to hell.” These really big ideas. People who think there’s such a thing as heaven or hell are going to be interested in, “Okay, how do I get into one and not the other?” I think it can be a dangerous thing to start throwing around our ideas about those places and those concepts, just based on things that we’ve read or that we’ve been told.

Do you think you did this earlier in your music career?
I definitely felt more certain about a lot of beliefs earlier in our career and felt like I had a lot more to offer people. I was not only willing but I was eager to answer people’s questions and talk with them about God. In some ways, I respect the way I was because I felt I was more courageous or more passionate. Today it feels more that I’m cautious, and I’m a little bit more shy and reserved and introverted. That can be difficult, because sometimes people will come to me expecting that maybe we talked before, maybe they saw me at a show and I was carrying on afterwards about all my ideas. Now I don’t feel as inclined to do that. I’m a little less outgoing and a little less confident.

I don’t know if that’s a good thing, if it’s a good direction that I’ve gone in, but that’s where I find myself. Maybe one day I’ll go back the other way and I’ll be out preaching again, but I don’t think it’s going to be today.

Maybe that’s not too true, because I feel like, even as I’m talking to you, there are still things now I believe are true and are good ways to be. In some ways, I feel like I’m preaching in subtler ways by just talking to you, because I have the understanding that we are doing an interview for a magazine. I think, “People are going to read it, what are they going to think? How will they think of me?” How will it affect their lives if I say A versus B? If I had more humility, I probably wouldn’t agree to do an interview. I’d probably be more asking you the questions, but that’s just not the way we set this up.

What are some of the things you do strongly believe now?
(Pause) I don’t quite know how to answer that. My sense of belief has changed so much that I could tell you things I do and I value and I care about and I intend on and I’m committed to. For example, I am married now and I’m very serious about being faithful to my wife as a husband. I feel very strongly about not running around and cheating on my wife, and not flirting with other women or anything like that. I would want to try to be faithful to her. That’s important to me.

Does that mean that I believe that’s the only way to be in a relationship? I don’t know if it’s a matter of belief, it’s just a commitment of mine I’ve always felt as long as I can remember. Whenever I thought about being in a relationship, I always cared about that, and about being honest, which is a form of truthfulness.

As far as things I believe very strongly, they are also basic. They’re all very basic about the goodness of love and about the beauty of love and about the reality of love and about the importance of compassion. Those are good things, and that goodness is real. Love is real. My life goes better when I remember that, and when I pray and when I give thanks to God. Even if I don’t have a strong idea about who God is, I still benefit from getting on my knees and giving thanks and asking for forgiveness.

There’s not much solid belief in there, it’s just, like I said, things I do and I experience, even without understanding. To some extent, with beliefs, it feels like I have to formulate them into words and express them to you. I don’t trust in words as a way of necessarily communicating truth, or at least I don’t have the way of doing that. In a sense, there’s nothing I can say verbally that I believe, but you can tell the things I’m committed to by what I do with my days. Of course, you’d have to come spend a little more time with me to get a feeling of that.

Exactly. And not through an interview. It would be through how you treat people on a daily basis and everything else.

Kind of contradicting that to a degree, what are some things you do want to try to communicate through (the lyrics to) Pale Horses?
I tried to see my voice as just an instrument, just like the guitars and drums. I just make sounds, and typically singers do that by using words and through the language that they speak. There are exceptions to that, but I find myself in the position where I have to put words together to play my instrument.

I would be okay if somebody didn’t take anything away from Pale Horses in terms of ideas on it. I would be very happy if somebody didn’t take anything away from it.

Whenever there was a word or phrase that left an idea open to considerably different ways of interpreting it, I tend to go with that phrasing as compared to another way that might even sound nicer but was less ambiguous. I appreciate it, enjoy the ambiguity. I like the idea that people will come and bring their own ideas to a song, and take away from that same song totally different things. I think that is an interesting thing that happens.

I think that’s a wonderful thing. I think through that you can talk about magic lanterns and android whales and everything else and see what people take from it.
Sure. The line about android whales is a reference to my nephew, Harvey. He had a dream about robots and whales, something about robots and whales. I put that in there as a nod to him and to my wife. Again, just liking the imagery and finding a way after the fact to fit it into the song, “Oh, this is how it makes sense in the context of the song. It’s some kind dystopian future where all the real live whales have died and now we have to build whales.” There’s a lot of almost science fiction, world gone wrong, technology and progress, nuclear meltdowns and all that.
If I want to come clean, I’d say yeah, that image itself wasn’t even from my imagination, it was just totally ripping off my nephew, who I think was two years old at the time. You know, people might think that’s a nice image or is a really meaningful lyric, but in a sense it’s just silly.

Throughout your entire career, (you have always) talked about animals. There’s frequently a color and an animal, so yellow spider, pale horse, blue hens, which gets me to wonder: What is your personal favorite animal and color at the moment?
At the moment I might say a groundhog, because I just saw one yesterday. It was so funny and fat and chubby and oafish how it moved around, really boldly. I got about ten feet away from it before it scurried away.

My lifelong favorite animal is a rabbit, there’s no doubt about that. As far as a pet, I’m a cat lover. My wife and I have a couple of cats. I like having them around. All things considered, I think they’re my favorite animal to have around. Bunnies are the cutest, but they’re also very skittish. The ones I’ve had, at least, were hard to even pick up and hold, because they’re so afraid, whereas cats are more relaxed and relaxing.

With the songs, it’s just a little catchier to just give it a color and an animal. At some point, we did it enough it started to become like, “Okay, this is a thing. I’m going to keep it going because it’s kind of our thing.”

I think it’s fun. Any chance of a song about purple platypus?
Not in the immediate future, no. I will take the question into consideration once we part ways. They’re just such conspicuous words, they might attract too much attention to themselves. I’m more inclined toward subtlety these days.

Mewithoutyou was posted on June 24, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by .