Fifteen years ago, Aaron Weiss would've imagined he'd be teaching high school by now. Instead, as the mewithoutYou frontman finished his undergraduate degree in English education at Temple University, his band signed to Tooth & Nail Records, sending him on a different trajectory. Weiss expected his career plans to be sidetracked for only a few years following the 2002 release of the band's full-length debut, [A –>B Life], and subsequent tour. But, he says, the records and attendant opportunities just kept coming.
Weiss now finds himself leading mewithoutYou on its fifteenth-anniversary tour. These days, the band's sets include as many songs from [A–>B Life] as last year's Pale Horses, its sixth LP. That alone is significant for the outfit; Weiss struggled for years with playing songs from the debut, which largely dealt with the fallout of a relationship that ended.
"It felt strange to keep singing about the same girl after we'd broken up," Weiss says. "She'd gotten married, but here I am still shouting about our old relationship. It kind of felt inappropriate in a way."
Enough time has passed that the singer—now with a wife and daughter—feels comfortable reviving that material.
"When I'm performing, I feel passion and intensity, but it's not over the exact emotions the lyrics originally represented. They're just kind of open-ended now," he says.
"It took a while to come around to feeling pretty well detached from the specific person, but it's no longer a specific expression of my feelings for this particular person."
Beyond relationship dynamics, Weiss has explored philosophical and psychological conceptions with openness and honesty, including personal battles with suicidal thoughts, in his music.
"Part of what I hope our songs accomplish is to make the listener feel some sense of companionship in whatever they're going through," he says. "When you talk about it openly, a lot of times you realize that other people struggle with these same things, and we can kind of smile about it and move past it rather than keeping it in a secret place and letting it fester."
MewithoutYou's catalog is rife with songs that seek spiritual answers, incorporating elements of Judaic and Sufi traditions alongside the Christian beliefs with which the band is often misaligned.
"Not everyone in the band is religious, but as someone who has been trying to pursue religious truth for my entire adult life, it's easy to understand how we appeal to a Christian crowd because I use the words Jesus or God and make use of biblical stories," Weiss says.
"People looking for someone to affirm their Christian beliefs can find some of that in our lyrics, but people questioning their faith can find that too, in the sense of trying to undermine dogmatism or unreflective, uncritical acceptance of religious doctrines," he continues. "People who are looking to expand and experience other religious traditions can find references to those traditions in our songs and might find in us—or me in particular as a lyricist—someone who's interested in looking at a broader picture of spirituality than just one particular religion."
It's worth noting that the packaging of 2009's It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright garnered a Dove Award nomination from the Gospel Music Association, despite the album's title and songs like closing track "Allah, Allah, Allah," which refers to the teachings of Sufi sheik M.R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. Rife with symbolism, the album's poetic lyrics—some in Arabic—also draw upon the Tao Te Ching, the poetry of Rumi, and the biblical tales of David and the birth of Jesus.
According to Weiss, this inclusivity is a double-edged sword. The band plays primarily secular clubs to fans from a variety of religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Early on, the members opted to "stay out of that echo chamber of Christian culture," Weiss says. For some, the band wasn't "Christian enough," while others disliked it for addressing spirituality at all. Weiss recognizes that the band's stylistic shifts have turned off some devotees, notably the band's acoustic turn on It's All Crazy!, which featured more melodic vocal and instrumental work and was a vast departure from its raw, punk-influenced beginnings.
"We no longer resembled the band that they had come to like," he theorizes about that folky fourth record, though he notes that the band has mostly returned to its preferred earlier forms.
Weiss calls the different musical and lyrical paths the band has traveled crucial to mewithoutYou's evolution as a band, even if those explorations don't necessarily line up with where he stands now. He can still find meaning in songs that date back to the band's 2001 EP, I Never Said That I Was Brave.
"I can look back at certain lines, and what those lyrics meant to me at the time may be completely different [than now], but a lot of times they're open-ended enough to allow those phrases or concepts to be appropriated for different purposes," Weiss says.
"They now suit where I'm at in a different period of my life."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Old Songs, New Tricks."