By Jacob Sprecher
If you live in Northern California, I wouldn’t blame you in assuming that this Dean Ween interview was lined up in anticipation of Ween’s headlining set at High Sierra Music Festival. But you’d be wrong. In fact, Deaner, aka Mickey Melchiondo, in addition to being guitar virtuoso for the most revered, diverse and successful cult rock band of the last 25 years, is a lifelong fisherman, to the tune of being an actual licensed Charter Boat Captain (he runs Mickey’s Guide Service out of New Hope, PA and Belmar, NJ). So when Deaner’s publicist sent out a press blast stating that ol’ Cap’n Ween was looking to shoot the sea breeze, you kinda just say, “Why the hell not?” But I’m no fisherman. For me, it seemed a bit tricky as to taking the initial plunge. So how do you break the ice with Mickey Melchiondo when you’re not supposed to be focusing on Ween? Find a common ground: baseball.
You’re a diehard Phillies fan, right?
Massive Phillies fan, yes.
I’m a diehard Giants fan.
One of my best friends is a Giants fan. You know, I hate losing to anybody, but the Giants don’t rub me the wrong way. Matter of fact, if they hadn’t knocked us out last year, I’d probably wear a Lincecum jersey around. He’s a stoner dude; love that guy.
Do you have a hard time rooting for Cliff Lee?
Me? Hell no!
It’s funny, I can’t stand Cliff Lee. I would have a problem if he showed up on the Giants.
What scared me was [when] the Mets waived [Luis] Castillo, and when Utley got hurt they picked him up off of waivers, the Phillies, and it was like “Oh my God, I cannot root for this dude.” The only thing I hate more in the world than the Mets are the Cowboys. I can’t be nice to someone I meet with a Mets hat on; I can’t even talk to ‘em.
I was at a Phillies-Mets game in 2009 in Philly, and the Phillies blew the game. I was sitting in the bleachers and I’ve never seen that kind of animosity from a crowd.
You’ll die walking to the parking lot. I see it all the time, I have Flyers season tickets. People show up in their Rangers shit and their Devils stuff, and it’s like, “You don’t understand. You’ll die here.” A Cowboys jersey at an Eagles game is gonna get you punched in the face. Guaranteed. That doesn’t matter if you’re with your wife, or your little kids, you know?
So your obsession with fishing: Where did it begin?
It started with my father. My father was a fisherman, we had boats, we had a house down the shore; I’ve always lived on the Delaware River, and the Atlantic Ocean is right here. I picked up the ball. Even at a young age I’d go fishin’ by myself when I was younger than my son, like eight years old.
You kinda felt a kinship, so to speak, with the Delaware River when you were a kid?
Absolutely. Water in general. I will always live on or near the water.
When you were getting a little bit older, were you the kind of guy that was reading fishing magazines and Melville and stuff like that?
Yeah, I do all that geeky shit. I watch fishing programming on TV, I have 20 subscriptions to magazines, hang out in tackle shops; you know, I’m that guy.
Obviously a lot of The Mollusk is water-related; were you the driving force behind that theme?
It’s my favorite Ween record ever; I think it’s the best we’ve ever done. But it was a concept we’d had for over 10 years at that point—Aaron [Gene Ween] loves the ocean as much as I do. But a beach town in the off-season is one of the coolest, most magical things in the world. Everyone is gone. And the island where we [recorded The Mollusk] is my home turf. That’s where my parents had the house—Long Beach Island in New Jersey. And we were at the very, very south end of it, which is all preserved; it’s a nesting area for plovers. So we had always talked about like, “Man, the ultimate magical place to write and record would be down here in the wintertime.” It’s like being the last man on Earth. It’s like an outpost.
Then we did it and the environment affected us in a way that I could have never imagined. The music was just coming out of us, and I think it was an exact representation of where we were. It was a great soundtrack to being down there; big northeast winter storms at the end of an island. And it was probably the most productive writing I’ve ever been a part of in all the years in Ween. We were just churning out tunes everyday that were dark and oceanic. Not like a Beach Boys record.
There are some really cool pop moments, but you’re right, it’s pretty dark in a lot of places.
I think with Ween being musically all over the map, that was the most record of a record we ever made. It was the most cohesive thing we ever did. And the bulk of it happened in the first week or two. We wrote and recorded “Ocean Man,” “The Mollusk,” “Mutilated Lips,” “Buckingham Green,” “The Golden Eel,” all that stuff. And Aaron felt the same way, like “We’re really onto something.” We would live down there Monday through Friday, come home to our families on the weekends and go back down, and we would listen to the tapes on the way home and it was like, “Wow.” I couldn’t wait for it to come out. And I’m not very praising of our work [laughs], you know? Ultimately you were never confident about a record—but that one I really felt. Still to this day.
But it’s that same thing, to answer your original question. It’s that same magic that I like. If you have it your blood—that saltwater—and you like just being on the water everyday…I’m not exactly a model of healthy living, but it’s just so good for you spiritually, physically as well. It keeps me out of the bar at night; I get up at three in the morning when I do my charters. I’m at my boat at 5, and I’m out there and I watch the sun come up everyday, and how can that not be good for you? I’m a really good honest exhausted at the end of the day—not like drinkin’ and drugging and smoking cigarettes, you know. Being out there getting pounded on the boat all day, your whole body’s sore. I sleep hard, deep good sleep. I love it. I’m very happy right now.
I’ve watched some of the Brownie Troop, and it looks like your friend Nick [Honachefsky] really seems to know his shit.
Nick is the Managing Editor for SaltWater Sportsman. The Sports Illustrated of fishing. Nick is the man. He’s my best friend.
So you guys go way back?
No, when my fishing thing started taking off he got in touch with me. He was a Ween fan in college. He was like, “How have we not hung out?” I knew who he was. It was like a brotherhood. From the day I met him we became best friends. We probably fish together over 100 days a year… You can always tell someone that’s into it. They don’t poo-poo any kind of fishing. If there’s sunnies in the creek behind my house, he’ll go back there and throw bread with my son and love it. It doesn’t have to be a 300-pound tuna, you know? A puddle of water and you bring a rod; he’s one of those.
You’ve got Mickey’s Guide Service. Is that like a small dream come true?
You know, it’s my third year of guiding full-time, [and] as time has gone on with Ween, it’s become more important to have other things in my life. There’s a blurry line between hobby and work—that’s a precious thing. You wanna keep that, do what you love. But for years my wife would get up at 6, she was a high school teacher, and I would get up a few hours later and I would make my coffee and write and record all day. This was well into Ween, six albums into our career. If you enjoy it that much, that’s a blessing. And I found that as the band got more popular that it started to become a drag; touring started to feel like a drag; feeling like you have to write another record. It was around that time, whether it’s a coincidence or not, that I started fishing a lot more, getting serious about it. And I always wanted to get my captain’s license as a personal challenge to see if I could do it—it’s great shit to know, celestial navigation and all this stuff. It all fell into place. I realized I had an opportunity and I stepped it up.
It kind of creates a balance between profit and pleasure.
Exactly. It’s the same thing. I’m fortunate enough to do two things all the time that I absolutely love. I get paid to fish, and I get paid to play guitar, and that’s great. I’ve been approached by like five different producers to do a TV show, and I’m not sure if I wanna do it. And I tell them, I’m like, “Listen if it’s gonna be on the Travel Channel I’ll do it,” but I have no interest being on Versus or whatever. I don’t need another labor of love in my life. I’m so happy with the way things are right now that I don’t wanna fuck it up. I have over 125 charters this year, and I did about that much last year; it never was a drag, driving to my boat in the morning. When it starts to become a drag, I’ll pull back from it and find the balance.
But it’s a process. When I first started guiding I only did the river. I did small-mouthed bass, striped bass, shad, walleye, and that became a drag and it was like, “No, the ocean.” It’s way more compelling. You never know what’s going to come up on your line. So I don’t do river guiding very much, I just do it for a few weeks in April and then move to salt till the end of the season in December. And what I’ll probably do is move away from inshore fishing next year and do less trips but I’ll do tuna and marlin and mako shark and things like that.
Do you find that most of your clientele is diehard Ween fans, or do people just find you in the phonebook?
I have my own fishing forum, it’s really hard to find, and Ween fans mostly find their way to it. But they’re the most hardcore fishermen of the Ween fans, and they’re all over the world. So I get people like that. I get fanboys that have never done anything; like Brooklyn assholes on the boat that get seasick five minutes into the trip. Most people have some fishing experience. I get some newbies, but that’s my job, I’m a guide. My job is to take them and do something they couldn’t do on their own and impart knowledge on them, you know. But it’s all over the place: I’ve had marine biologists on my boat, I’ve had a fish supplier that supplies all the top restaurants in New York City, I’ve had junkies on my boats [laughs]… I do a lot of bachelor parties, a lot of birthday parties. I get a lot of women buying their Ween fan husbands charters. Which is great. It’s a great gift.
So you’re down to buddy-up with the fans?
Mmhmm. My home phone number’s on the website. There’s no secretary, there’s no go-between; I meet you at the dock or your hotel and I pick you up and that’s it.
Of the four trips you offer—you’ve got the Delaware River, you’ve got striped bass in the Atlantic, you’ve got summer bottom fishing and the fall trip—which is your favorite and why?
Right now, spring striper fishing in the river and then in the ocean. All the bait is around, and the fish are fat and they’re aggressive, and it’s your best chance of the year of catching a trophy. And it’s after just a long, excruciating winter; it’s just such a relief to be back on the water. There’s something to be said for fall fishing, too. Thousands of birds in the sky bombin’ the water, tuna fish come inshore and you’ll see them blowin’ up. But I really like it all, I really do.
But your favorite place to fish, period, is South Florida?
South Florida, specifically Key West. I have the gene. That’s where I wanna go. I’m a Hemingway junkie first of all, but you can’t beat year-round nice weather, world-class game fish right in sight of the fuckin’ land, you know.
Is there one place you have not fished, within the United States, that you’d like to give a shot?
Yeah, surprisingly I’ve never fished The Great Lakes. I come from small-mouthed bass, but our fish top out around four and half pounds. So I’d like to go up and try my hand at a six- or an eight-pounder.
Have you ever encountered anything that scared the shit out of you, where you thought, “This is it”?
Yeah, well, a lot of really bad seas. But that’s just part of it. But last spring we were striper fishing on a huge bunker school, for bait, and my rod just started screamin’, the drag on the reel started screamin’. And I saw this huge scythe, like scepter tail come out of the water [and] it was a thresher shark. Which are of the nastier… This fish was workin’ the bunker school and he took my bait. He was like as big as my boat, and we were on him for an hour and 40 minutes and sun went down—it was pitch black out there. The fish literally towed us like Old Man and the Sea-style; we finally got him to the side and cut him loose. I’ve had whale come up and spout and the boat looks like a fuckin’ matchbook all of a sudden. But it’s not scary, it just gets you in touch with your mortality [laughs].
If somebody told you could never play the guitar again, could you be content with the life of a fisherman.
Absolutely. I can feed myself. That’s one of the cool things; I always forget that. I don’t even really like to eat fish.