It's classic. When you visit mewithoutyou - a band that got its start among Upper Darby friends and now has friends all over - it's all there, everything that comes to mind when you think the indie band life.
Of course the guitarist and his wife own a fixer-upper in West Philly. Michael Weiss' wife, Sarah, says, "Yes, we fixed it up. We'd already done a bus or a van or two, so we figured we could."
They own their own tour bus, and (of course) it breaks down a lot.
The manager, Josh Bender, lives in the scruffy, two-story house. The drummer, Rickie Mazzotta, rents a room there. The band practices in the half-finished basement. Their practice room is self-built, "smells like a locker room" (Bender said it, accurately), and has dim ambient lighting and a homemade light show, ideal for the loud, hard, half-hour jam.
And - of course - mewithoutyou was about to go on the road for two months (they're in Texas right now). The old phrase was "they're touring in support of their new album," and they have a fine new one out, with a title befitting the group: it's all crazy! it's all false! it's all a dream! it's alright. But these days, the album's in support of the tour. That's the life.
Not much money via sales these days; if you want anything like a paycheck, you go on tour. That tour started May 23 at the Trocadero - a show in which, according to Mazzotta, "we killed!" - loops through the South, comes up the West Coast, goes over the top through Boston, and comes back home Aug. 15 at Ski Roundtop in Lewisberry.
And don't forget the band dog, Penny, a greyhound/pitbull/Rhodesian ridgeback, who goes where mewithoutyou goes, on the bus, off the bus, from here to Idaho and back. That's the life.
"People don't realize the commitment and dedication it takes to do this," says Michael Weiss. "It's hard to have a life, a family, to keep friends and relationships, when you're gone so much."
Even with one another. "When we came back from our last tour, I hardly spoke to the other guys for like a year," says Mazzotta, 28. No matter how spiritual a band you are, and mewithoutyou is very spiritual, you're still human, and it's still hard work.
Which brings us to the ways mewithoutyou is unlike most bands. Any band, actually. They're on Tooth and Nail Records, a Christian indie label based in Seattle. But the Weiss brothers, 31-year-old guitarist Michael and 30-year-old singer Aaron, represent a singular blend of religious and cultural backgrounds. Their father is Jewish but embraced Sufism, an intensely mystical strain of Islam, and still identifies as Jewish; their mother converted to Sufism from Episcopalianism.
This means that mewithoutyou, though they sing of God, are not a Christian band; Aaron, especially, has said so repeatedly. It's broader, more ecumenical than that. Their new album begins with "Every Thought a Thought of You" and closes with "Allah, Allah, Allah." So we begin by finding the divine everywhere and end that way, too, twining many religious and cultural strands, in a manner that - if you can even say such a thing - transcends any one mysticism.
Bassist Greg Jehanian, 32, says, "A lot of the people who come to our shows are Christians, sure. But a lot are just people who are drawn to the music, to the ideas put forth in the lyrics. Even if many of the words are Christ-centered, they step outside Christian boundaries, and I hope, whoever comes to our shows, that they're people who aren't afraid of other ideas, who think, 'Whatever comes, let it come.' "
The band sure does. The Weisses and Mazzotta and Jehanian (joined on the tour by guitarist-pal Chris Kleinberg and Sarah Weiss, who plays keyboards) have blazed a musical trail from punk to anti-folk, from head-banging to minimalist strumming-with-animal-noises-and-tuba. The lyrical center of the band is Aaron, but everyone contributes to the concept - even if they don't know what that concept is.
From their debut, 2002's [A->B] Life, to it's all crazy! they've changed their sound, style and approach to songwriting. Look them up on Amazon.com and they're classed under Pop, Rock, Alternative Rock, Christian & Gospel, Folk, Hard Rock & Metal, and Miscellaneous. Exactly.
On the new album, Aaron sings, where on previous records he used to, well, scream. (He'll do plenty of both on the tour.) He has discovered a quizzical, expressive voice that likes to tell stories (often fables with animals in them, foxes, snakes, crows, cats), and that delivers bursts of poetry such as, "Why not be utterly changed into fire?"
"We've changed so much on this new album that people who liked us before probably won't like us anymore," jests Aaron. He is a story unto himself. A "freegan" said to live entirely on judiciously discovered Dumpster remnants, he owns neither house nor car. Outside his band activities, he volunteer-teaches, and lives largely by bartering goods (for instance, firewood, or castoff furniture) or services in exchange for a couch for the night.
All out of Upper Darby.
"We used to come to the studio with all the songs all set and structured," says Michael, "but for this one the band created them in a looser way." Jehanian says, "We worked with much more improvised material this time." Even when Aaron brought a self-composed tune to the band, they'd get busy, and changes would happen.
It's not going to be all touring, all the time. Band members do work during off-times, to "pay a few bills"; Michael, for example, substitute-teaches. "This has been our only job for the last five-six years," he says. "And we could make a living at it if we kept touring four months a year. But recently we decided to slow down a little, let people get established, have families."
Such is the indie band life, 2009. Bender looks around the house, as Penny barks, Sarah cuts salad, and the band booms downstairs, and he says, wisely: "A band is like a five-way marriage."