Growing up with MewithoutYou, the emo band bigger than the sum of its genre
The Daily Dot is observing Emo Week with a nostalgic trip down the oft-derided genre’s most influential, infamous alleys. Cue up your favorite CD-R and hug it out with us.
Ask stalwart emo fans to describe MewithoutYou’s sound and you’ll hear less about the way the band fits into the genre and more about the connection it’s forged with audiophiles the world over. And unlike mainstream acts waxing poetic about their lovelorn endeavors, here the broken hearts and evocations are far less universally packaged.
When bands like Jimmy Eat World were longing to leave their hometown and the New Amsterdams were marking their return journey, vowing to never run away, MewithoutYou was straddling dichotomies in one outfit. The instrumentals were disarming, swaddling frontman Aaron Weiss’s lyrics in a delicate armor forged between each warble of his voice and upturned thought.
If anything, emo wasn’t enough.
“It doesn’t mean a lot more to me other than the basic implications of the emotional content,” Weiss tells the Daily Dot while he tinkers with the band’s new bus. Gone is the 1976 bus running on vegetable oil, a symbol of MewithoutYou stringently sticking to its morals. In its place sits a replacement from 1990—the year that many emo golden age listeners were born.
“I’ve never particularly felt drawn to it or any aversion [to emo],” he explains. “It just kind of strikes me as an arbitrary way to classify music.”
MewithoutYou formed in the early 2000s, just as Sunny Day Real Estate was entering its second hiatus and emo was undergoing a seismic shift. Weiss cites Sunny Day as “godfathers of the genre” and perhaps the purest representation of its non-lyrical components. It’s certainly lent influence to MewithoutYou, who have been rumored to play secret shows in Philly under the moniker “Thief, Steal me a Peach.”
“Sometimes I think emo is a caricature—of an emo [person] being overly personal and sensitive and sad and sappy and kind of focusing on some romantic catastrophe and personal foibles,” Weiss says.
To me that has its place and yes, I have delved into that mindset and have expressed myself in that way before but it’s never been so interesting to me. I’m more interested in broadly true concepts and broadly applicable rather than just one individual experience.
Weiss cites MewithoutYou’s rapid-fire first three albums as somewhat emblematic of the extremes he seeks to mitigate, inadvertently trying to tame those impulses with the Buddhist reconciliation of extremes, rolling from hyper-personal to macro before setting firm footing onto a middle path. To Weiss, MewithoutYou’s debut 2002 LP, [A ? B] Life, was “weighted heavily in the personal.”
Catch for Us the Foxes turned Weiss’s stream-of-consciousness missives from journal scribblings to an outward, auditory examination of self. The album followed two years after the band’s debut, vaulting MewithoutYou to critical acclaim and calling the band’s definition into question.
How do you classify an album that was named after a bible verse and put out on a Christian label yet is lacking the overtly religious preaching pleas of MewithoutYou’s contemporaries? The confusion was enough to box the band into the ill-fitting genre marker of Christian rock.
Those willing to dig deeper remain obsessed with MewithoutYou’s idiosyncratic lyrics, tapped from the mind of a devout Christian who questions everything. There’s a dedicated subreddit, a discography heavily annotated on Genius, and the word-of-mouth proselytizing from fans seeking the connection and understanding of others like a worshipper flocking to a new congregation.
Weiss may have had a zealous period when he first joined the church, but singing the blind praises of whatever deity strikes one’s fancy appears to go against his faith entirely.
“I’m not sure if there was ever a time that I advised blindly accepting a list of doctrines or joining an organized social group or subscribing to their explanations of reality and that might,” Weiss says.
“There may have been a little stretch when I first joined the church, more of that kind of zeal as a new convert experiencing the enthusiasm of something new and being around those who claim to have these answers that are ready-made and—at least on the surface—have an appearance of stability… If not from our very first album, at least from our second on, there has been an element of doubt.”
As fans were coming of age and forging their own paths, MewithoutYou was releasing its third LP, the critically acclaimed Brother, Sister. Its rich symbolism and continued faith-questioning were unlike anything the band’s contemporaries were releasing in 2006.
The dulcet tones of a keyboard swirl with flowing water lead the listener to a false sense of zen comfort on opening track “Mess of Men.” It’s the type of intro that sticks with you some 10 years later, viscerally transporting you back to that candlelit bedroom, that shaky personal space when you first popped the CD into your Discman and hit play.
“I do not exist,” Weiss proclaims through the downpour.
That lyric would inform the 37-year-old in untold ways as the band drastically shifted sounds. A vocal freegan, who sang the praise of his celibacy in Brother, Sister‘s “C-Minor,” Weiss felt he had gone too deep within himself—a decidedly un-emo notion from a band shedding its labels and breaking through like the molting horseshoe crab Weiss cites in “Mess of Men.”
“By the time we got to the fourth album, it was almost impossible for me to use ‘I’ in a serious way because I had such suspicion of that ego identity and validity and stability that I almost thought it wasn’t even worth acknowledging at all,” Weiss says.
Something had to change.
Brother, Sister turns 10 years old in September. Weiss is at a point in his life he never would’ve predicted when he sang, “I’m still technically a virgin/After 27 years/Which never bothered me before/What’s maybe 50 more?” on “C-Minor.”
Its follow-up track made its way to listeners last year when MewithoutYou released Pale Horses. “D-Minor” marks a return of that earnest sharing, exploring the intimate moment when Weiss and his wife consummated their marriage.
Weiss is now one year into his marriage and also a new parent. “It’s been such a powerful, life-changing experience,” Weiss says of raising his daughter. He connects the impact he makes on her with how he’s affected his fans over the years. With both relationships, Weiss wants to be a source of positivity—an admittedly difficult task as his mindset shifts with age and experience.
“I have to admit that I have noticed myself getting less patient or more judgmental; in some ways more easily annoyed or more easily tired than when I was younger,” Weiss admits. “I can’t say that I’ve always been an uplifting presence. I can say I still want to be, even as I find myself getting more tired or grouchy or intolerant. I can struggle against that, try to look for practices and habits that help me to maintain whatever patience or love I have. There are ebbs and flows, seasons where I feel more of a positive force and where other times I just carry a dark cloud with me.”
Weiss is as human as his fans and as multifaceted as ever. When we discuss the prospect of new music or where MewithoutYou is heading as a band, he acknowledges the impact his daughter will have on subsequent lyrics and how founding member Greg Jehanian’s departure affects him going forward.
“We haven’t been working on new material as a band,” Weiss says, though he states a few members are writing parts and compositions on the side. “Our bass player completed what he expects to be his final tour with us and then just had a baby and he’s married and his life is changing, so we’re now in a transitional period.”
Certainly Jehanian leaving in pursuit of more time with his family must weigh heavily on Weiss’s mind, right? Rather than immediately tackling the question, Weiss zooms out to what music means to him before honing back in. He lays out labels like poker cards turned upward, the designation of “musician” turned slightly askew and surprisingly distant from the rest of his hand.
“I don’t even know if I am a musician because I never got to be very good at anything but I at least learned a couple chords and really enjoy singing,” Weiss continues:
“When I think about my involvement in music, it’s not confined to MewithoutYou or the touring lifestyle or being any kind of recording artist. For example, my wife and I regularly sing hymns from the sacred harp a capella hymnal written in the shape note style. [If I] were to get so busy as a parent that I want to stop touring, well, I would still sing sacred harp and I would still sing MewithoutYou songs with an acoustic guitar or on a piano.”
Being a musician is the furthest thing from Weiss’s mind as he considers what to do with the new 1990 bus being stripped of its interior components. We talk books. He’s rolling through Jonathan Safran Foer’s canon and sang the praises of Eating Animals‘s concept while also marveling at the author’s age when penning his debut hit Everything is Illuminated.
We briefly talk music and, though he shies away from his regular pursuit of playing pinball, he cites Theatre of Magic as his favorite machine. Soon it becomes clear that Weiss’s restlessness directly falls in line with his need to improve.
DIY projects give him fulfillment. Weiss and his wife recently built a solar-powered oven out of scrap material. He also fixed her car and repainted it. The bus project is something he eyes with a similar excitement.
“I get to kind of keep my mouth shut, turn my language brain off, and get something done,” Weiss says. “I can step back and look at it and think, ‘Here’s something nice I created or improved; here’s something that’s different now.'”
For bands forging a similar path in genres frequently misunderstood like emo and Christian contemporary music, MewithoutYou has similarly improved the road less traveled. The middle path is paved less rockily, fanned out and unfurling with positivity lighting the way in even the darkest of deviations.
A former Weekend Editor at the Daily Dot, April Siese's reporting covers everything from technology and politics to web culture and humor. Her work has been published by Bustle, Uproxx, Death and Taxes, Rolling Stone, the Daily Beast, Thrillist, Atlas Obscura, and others. Siese joined Quartz in December 2016.