MewithoutYou doesn’t invade the Top 100 Billboard charts, its YouTube video view counts don’t exceed 500,000 and the members’ scandalous photos aren’t splashed across “Us Weekly,” depicting the stereotypical rock-and-roll lifestyle. Much like the low-key status of this Philadelphia-based band, vocalist and co-founder Aaron Weiss lives quite the same.
A Ph.D. candidate and adjunct professor in the urban education department, Weiss is finishing up his second year of graduate school at Temple after receiving his bachelor’s degree here and his master’s at the University of Pennsylvania. The Upper Darby native, spiritual in his appearance and timid in his demeanor, walks through Main Campus as any other student would – often silently, with his knitted beanie enveloping his tousled brown hair as he Blines to his next location, avoiding interaction.
Twelve years ago, Weiss, his brother and two friends formed mewithoutYou, an experimental folk rock band from what was originally a side project of another band.
“Our first time going out to play at a festival out of state, [Tooth & Nail Records] saw us and offered us a contract,” Weiss said. “It was kind of a serendipitous crossing of paths because we really didn’t plan on it being a full-time project.”
The early years
The group released its first full-length album, “[A‡B] Life,” in 2002, but didn’t gain notoriety until 2004 with its second record, “Catch for Us the Foxes.” The transition from the first to second album was not just in recognition, though.
Reflecting on the first album from nearly a decade ago, Weiss said that the style of “[A‡B] Life” is something he and the band members don’t wish to continue.
“I don’t think any of us wanted to make music that was that heavy or simple, just in terms of power chords and screaming almost constantly,” he said.
“I don’t feel the same emotions exactly,” he added. “[The songs] were all about a relationship that’s been over for many, many years now…I can only feel it so much when we’ve both moved on. All the other [albums] have aspects that are more enduring for me.”
“Catch for Us the Foxes” and “Brother, Sister” (2006) were part of a transitional period for mewithoutYou, when it began moving away from the cacophonous – and often vindictive – musical stylings it was signed under, and toward a more folk and experimental sound.
By the fourth studio album, “It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright” (2009), Weiss acknowledged that the band had wholly moved away from its former hardcore sound to a more folk direction with acoustic elements.
Yet, despite the transition mewithoutYou has undergone in the past 12 years, the overarching theme in the lyrics has been Weiss’ metaphysical and religious curiosities, rife with bucolic settings and ethereal subtexts.
Too often, the group is categorized as Christian rock for its biblical allegories and allusions, but quite the opposite is true. Weiss speaks to several religions, including Judaism and Islam.
“You dance inside my chest where no one sees you, but sometimes I see you,” Weiss incants on “Seven Sisters” from “Catch for Us the Foxes.”
The lyric, taken verbatim from Sufi poet Rumi, reflects a non-evangelistic personal relationship with God.
One of Weiss’ favorite songs, “The Angel of Death Came to David’s Room,” is about the Angel of Death coming to King David in the Books of Kings from the Old Testament.
“I guess [it] has a religious theme, of course, but it’s also really straightforwardly worldly, too,” Weiss said. “Whether you call it an Angel of Death or just say death, that’s a pretty obvious reality, and one that is coming, you know? I try to remember that for the sake of not worrying about things that are so temporary.”
“We can get caught up being afraid,” he added. “Or being anxious about how a certain detail of how our life may turn out. Remembering that I may die relatively soon comforts me in the face of that worry.”
The culmination of this four-album evolution is “Ten Stories,” the band’s fifth album set to release on May 15 under its own Pine Street record label.
“[‘Ten Stories’ is] more of an amalgamation,” Weiss said. “I think we kept some of the folk elements and orchestration from the “It’s All Crazy!” record, and a lot of the melody as well, but we definitely tried to balance it out with some of the older dynamics we had established with our second and third albums.”
“This new record is the first time there’s been a coherent theme throughout the record, sort of a story that moves from one story to the next,” Weiss added. “The first song [‘February 1878’] really serves as an introduction to that setting.”
Perhaps mewithoutYou’s most well-known song, “January 1979,” off “Catch for Us the Foxes” helped the band win mtvU’s “Left Field” award in 2005 for most original artist.
Weiss said “February 1878” was a nod to that time in the band’s existence.
“I thought it was a non-funny joke,” he laughed. “Yeah, there’s a correlation I guess, because if you listen to the song you’ll hear the sound of the guitars and the vocals and the drums, it’s much more reminiscent of the record from which ‘January 1979’ came. In a sense that we revisited some of our old patterns and our old approaches to songwriting with this new record.”
“It’s just something I do a lot with songs, do sequels, and this time a prequel, and play on the names and nod to our own catalogue of songs,” Weiss added.
However, Weiss was quick to point out that he’s moving away from the metaphysical and abstract notions toward more tangible themes in “Ten Stories.”
“Maybe being on university campuses for the past four years has kind of had its effect on me,” he said. “I’m more reluctant, I guess, to try to make any claims about the way things are, or try to state my position on something in any kind of definitive way.”
“I’m really not that smart, and not that knowledgeable about those things to certainly talk about those big questions that religion tends to address,” Weiss added. “In some ways, the newest batch of songs is more modest in its scope…the big questions, so to speak, still interest me greatly, but also I thought it would be better to write about something I can understand rather than speculate about something that’s way beyond me.”
Teacher, student, musician
Though Weiss said he doesn’t have answers to the “big questions,” his education has still brought him far. Currently, he’s teaching his second year of socio-cultural foundations of education in the United States, an upper-level education course, in addition to his Ph.D. studies.
And with his low-key star status, Weiss said most people on Main Campus won’t approach him, or don’t even recognize him.
“[I’m approached] on campus every now and again,” he said. “Most don’t say anything, I assume most don’t know my band or listen to that kind of music or anything, but usually…a couple of students each semester will come up to me after class, and say, ‘Now wait, your name’s Aaron Weiss, are you from this band?’ and I say, ‘Yeah sometimes I do that, but not today.’”
Weiss said often teaching feels like a more “sane and stable” lifestyle than constantly being on the road and playing shows every night, but noted that he still likes playing music with his friends, and enjoys having the option of putting either on the backburner.
“Traveling and jet-setting around the world is kind of cool, but it feels like watching TV or something,” Weiss said. “It’s a way of shutting your brain off, and it feels nice, but you kind of forget. If anything it feels consumptive. You’re driving around consuming fuel and maybe in subtler ways, other things.”
“It seems like I’m running from something,” he added, his voice trailing off before regaining focus. “The point is it’s a mixed bag. It feels nice to play music but it also feels crazy. There’s other times I’ve felt just like standing still, being in the same place trying to find some clarity about my own thoughts and my own intentions and my own motivations and all that, I’ve had a lot more peace, and not doing anything externally.”
With all that in mind, Weiss said the future of mewithoutYou is uncertain. His brother’s family is currently expecting its second child, and other band mates are growing tired of the constant traveling, but with a tour approaching this summer, the group is not planning to slow down just yet.
Though the “Ten Stories” tour doesn’t include Philadelphia dates, Weiss said he and the group will be playing in the city by the end of August.
Alexis Sachdev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.