mewithoutYou are the Philly post-hardcore emo band that refuses to drop their religious ties. After forming in 2000 and going on to release five studio albums, frontman Aaron Weiss and the rest of the five-piece realized it may be time to shy away from the church, but not for the reason you would expect. Turns out Weiss is in school studying education philosophy. One of his major’s main focuses? The process of learning and how choice influences subject matter.
Weiss has spent the last few years at an urban education program in Philadelphia concentrating in philosophy education. According to him, it’s a research degree which explores possible diagnoses for city school problems which, hopefully, produce solutions. “Because I’m focused on the philosophy of education, it’s not so much a practical degree or practice, but more concerned with the ideas we have about education and knowledge,” he explains. “So much of what I’ve thought about in studying education over the past few years emphasizes the creative process of learning, or valuing students’ ability to make their own meanings out of what they’re learning and take an active role in their education. In other words, they’re more than empty vessels into which knowledge is being poured; they’re active participants in the process of construction. I saw in that model more potential for creativity and freedom than maybe the way I had once seen it as the acquisition of facts.” His studies have influenced his lyric writing process to now leave things open-ended. “I can put a certain collection of contents and questions on the table for the listener to arrange them however they see fit,” he says. “Then they can add or subtract to them in a way that they see fit.”
He is, of course, referencing mewithoutYou’s sixth studio album, Pale Horses. It returns to their old musical style with forceful drumming and articulate shouting similar to 2006’s Brother, Sister, a change which came as a result of their Catch For Us The Foxes 10th anniversary tour in 2014. “We played these songs for years and years and remembered how much we enjoyed it,” Weiss explains. Like that, a return to a faster, heavier sound was clearly worth tapping into again.
He’s still writing lines about The Book of Revelation, a general fear of death, and the inevitable end for all things. The difference is that this time they tie into Armageddon. “In a way, it brings me a certain peace that I’m aligned with some aspect of reality,” he says. “Also, the death of certain loved ones in my life made me realize that even if the end of the world doesn’t happen the way its described in a religious text, the end of my world is inevitable.”
With religious lyrics comes major ‘tude from some listeners. “It’s inevitable,” Weiss says, sighing, as if exhausted by the thought. “We used to draw different conclusions about reality and our beliefs since we’ve five individuals, especially about how we label ourselves and don’t label ourselves. Lumping us into one entity means there’s room for error. That goes for a single individual, too. ‘This guy is a christian’ or ‘This girl is an atheist’ allows a margin of error where, at least in my case, there’s a person who is internally divided with different beliefs and convictions that change over a week.”
When we do that–“This is a punk band,” “This is a country singer,” “This is a modernist painter”–to think we understand something, we’re cheating ourselves of absorbing time where we aren’t totally sure. Labels are about certainty and knowledge. We use them to save that time spent thinking for other things that we decide deserve our focus instead.
Despite Weiss shifting the weight off heavy-handed Christian metaphors, Pale Horses still treads in religious water. “I tried to resist the temptation to try to make someone take something away from the songs,” he admits. “There’s a juggling act where I’m trying to be precise in what I have to discuss, but very open-ended in what I expect anyone to take away from that discussion. I’m a person born to a certain family at a certain time and place. I only have so many things that captivate my interest. There’s a redundancy in the kind of issues I address, and I assume that would minimize our audience. Some people have no interest in religion whatsoever–I wouldn’t blame them for writing off the lyrics and maybe enjoying a melody–but the new album is so overtly religious whether it’s in favor of or critical of different religious ideas that for somebody who has no interest in that, I can see them finding our lyrics boring. That’s okay.”
When we discuss his life as a student some more, Weiss comes to realize his studies have affected his role as the band’s iconic lyricist. “Now that you mention it, it’s probably informed my songwriting, but not in a preemptive way where I set out to research a topic and then wrote about it,” he says. “It’s more an iterative process; it’s a topic I’m interested in, want to write about it, but realize how little I know about it, so I have to look into things to write more detail.” The clearest case of this on Pale Horses is none other than his views on nuclear power. Most of us know about its potential benefits and dangers, whether that be some kind of meltdown accident at a power plant or nuclear weapons. Weiss wanted to explore how the combination of knowledge, progress, and scientific discovery bring about such benefits and dangers simultaneously. “I went online and searched around to see what is the process by which we convert uranium into electricity or make an explosive out of it,” he says. “There’s technical details like pebble bed reactor core. I didn’t know what that was, but I looked it up. In that way, I was able to incorporate amateur research into the record about the 3-mile island disaster, Arco, and Chernobyl — places where high profile events took place.”
Yet for all of the album’s intricacies and convoluted depth, Weiss cites one of the most straightforward lines in “Dorothy” as his favorite: “Can you take the form of my dead father?/ Because I think he would’ve liked to meet my wife/ and I know for a fact he would have liked my wife.”
“It’s based on a dream I had where some boys were able to change their shape to turn into other people,” he explains. “I asked one to turn into my father so that he could meet my wife. Now, my dad died about five years ago.” It seems odd for a man so caught up in the building, painting, breaking, and minimization of content to cite the most clear-cut line as his favorite. The more he goes on to explain, however, the more he makes it clear how vital warmth, in the most basic sense of the word, is raised up in his ideals, lifestyle, and heart. “I think in a sense, it’s the most personal and uncomplicated lyric on the album,” he says. “Sometimes I run the risk of being too theological and abstract with massive, lofty concepts shrunken into a catch phrase, and a lot of times, in doing so, I oversimplify them. In this case, there’s no one else who has that same relationship with my father that I did. The last song on the album revisits that and closes out the album on a very straightforwardly personal note. I don’t expect anyone else on earth–my wife, my mom, the band–to be able to understand it. I recognize that and let it remain something that’s inaccessible to anyone else… from the simplest place I could find in my heart.”
MEWITHOUTYOU W/ FOXING, FIELD MOUSE. THE SINCLAIR, 52 CHURCH ST., CAMBRIDGE. SAT 7.18 7:30PM/18+/$20. SINCLAIRCAMBRIDGE.COM.