Busted: me without You

Busted Halo talks conversion, pride, and holistic faith with the leader of indie rock's would-be revolutionaries.

Hang around the Christian music festival circuit for very long, and you’ll invariably hear about mewithoutYou‘s Aaron Weiss. Everyone has a story. Some have seen him walking around the festival grounds, picking half-eaten sandwiches out of the garbage and finishing them. Others talk about how he and his friends live in a commune in Philadelphia, sharing their possessions and profits from the band to live a life similar to those in the early church. Most who’ve met him say you haven’t felt a real hug until you’ve experienced his bone-cracking embrace. Everyone swears there’s something different about him, something beyond guitar riffs and record sales.

But standing face-to-face with him on a snowy March day in Pittsburgh, Weiss looks surprisingly common. Wrapped in heavy winter coat and a scarf, he is small and reserved, eating a bowl of rice with his fingers as he peers innocently from under a low-pulled cap. He offers a polite greeting, but there is little about him that suggests that there’s a prophet or an eccentric lurking behind his three-day stubble or toothy grin. Talk to him for just a few minutes, though, and you sense something is different about him. Self-effacing and soberly focused, he speaks very deliberately, more interested in explaining his convictions than exploring his creative motives or his band’s rising profile. Listen closely and you’ll realize that there truly is something different about him. He actually seems to believe the things he writes and sings about in his songs.

Beyond the Christian Ghetto

In a few hours, Weiss will be transformed. He will twirl and howl, twitch and spasm, all the while retaining his signature sing-speak vocal style over the pile-driving guitar riffs and swirling maelstrom of sound that his band has perfected over the course of six years and three albums. The latest of those, 2006’s Brother, Sister draws inspiration from sources as diverse as St. Francis of Assisi to the Bhagavad-Gita and adds an increasingly complex sense of aural and structural dynamics. And though the majority of people in attendance might not identify as Christians — after all, post-rockers Sparta are the headliner — the fact that many in the crowd are singing along on every song indicates that Weiss’ restless search for meaning and authenticity resonates well beyond the Christian ghetto. He’s not going to turn his mic stand into a pulpit or the stage into an altar call, but he will (however carefully) ask them to pray for the band’s under-the-weather second guitarist and even poke fun at the city’s cherished Pittsburgh Steelers, and the crowd loves every minute of it. Before the band rolls out of town, a few more people have Aaron Weiss stories to tell.

Busted Halo: So, I was reading that your mother is Muslim and your dad is Jewish, right?

Aaron Weiss: Yeah, technically. But their beliefs are pretty similar. They both converted to the Sufi faith, which is Islamic mysticism. So my dad was raised Jewish and became Sufi, but he still identifies himself as a Jew. My mom was raised Episcopalian and she converted thoroughly to Sufi Islam.

BH: So were you raised under Sufi Islam then?

AW: Yeah, well, I was raised hearing the stories and seeing my mom pray, but they never made me go to the mosque or forced me to accept what they believe. They were pretty hands off. They did tell me about God and taught me how to pray, but it wasn’t regimented in any way.

“It’s not like I’m offended if someone says we’re a Christian band. I just don’t think it’s true. I don’t think we live up to that calling, so I’d be reluctant to go saying that, and God knows the truth.”

BH: So at what point did you come into contact with Christianity?

AW: I went to summer camp when I was younger, and I wasn’t interested in what they were talking about. It was Episcopalian, from my mom’s side of the family. They sent me there. I wasn’t hostile; I just didn’t care. Then, there was a sort of evangelical Christian organization in my high school called Young Light, and they’d take people out to movies and go to fast food restaurants. It was just more of a social club, and they tried to keep it wholesome. It wasn’t all about God. But then we went on a retreat and they started talking about God, like out in the woods, and I was like, “Wait a minute. What’s all this?” So around the end of high school is when I started attending a church and praying the language of Christianity. So, 11 years ago or so.

BH: What was your parents’ reaction to that?

AW: Oh… they didn’t seem too worried about it. They were glad that I believed in God. But it was kind of a fundamentalist church, so I had some warnings from my family, like, “Be careful of this spirit of self-righteousness.” They were sensing in me an arrogance that said, “Now I have the truth and you don’t. I’m going to tell you how it is.” Here I am 17-years-old and telling my parents, who are in their 40s, everything about God and the Creator, and the mysteries of the universe and stuff. It wasn’t long until I fell off of that high horse and realized that maybe I don’t know everything.

BH: Were there times when you butted heads with your parents?

AW: Oh, yeah, because I started trying to convert them, and they would try to convert me. So they’d be reading their books to me, and I’d be reading my books to them. It was like a religious war. We never yelled at each other, but we were constantly trying to change each other. It seemed like the wrong approach. So, a few years ago, I laid down my arms and realized that it was my duty to honor my parents not to argue with them.

BH: So at what point did you start to think that you wanted to do music as a career?

AW: That was before any religious experience, because that’s just what every kid wants to do. You’re either into sports or you’re into music. Or you want to be an astronaut. There are a couple cool professions, and music is one of them. So I played drums in this or that garage band and… always sucked. We had one band that got a little bit of momentum and had a label, and it was mostly the same guys that are in this band, but still none of us were that into it. Then, when we started this band as a side-project, we met up with our current label, Tooth and Nail, pretty naturally and pretty effortlessly. We all took it as a sign that it was a good move and that was six years ago that we all dropped what we were doing — school and work — and decided to do it fulltime.

BH: Do you find it at all a hindrance to be on a Christian label, as far as reaching a wider audience?

AW: I don’t know. I can’t imagine how it would be different with a secular label. I’m sure there’d be advantages, like some people wouldn’t write us off as quickly. But other people wouldn’t be drawn to us as much as they are. So, yeah, it has its limitations, but it also has its own community. I’m grateful for it.

BH: In general, are you comfortable with being categorized in that way, as a Christian band?

AW: I don’t mind when anybody says it for my sake. It’s not like I’m offended if someone says we’re a Christian band. I just don’t think it’s true. I don’t think we live up to that calling, so I’d be reluctant to go saying that, and God knows the truth. Our hearts are very far from Jesus. No, I’m not concerned. People could say we’re a Hindu band or say we’re an atheist band — it’s not going to bother me. They can say we’re a bad band. It’s alright. No one knows what our hearts are like. It’s just, if they like the music, is their life better hearing the lyrics? Does it make a difference at all? Or is it encouraging them to go have that same self-righteous spirit that I described during my first encounter with Christianity? I don’t want to encourage that in people. I don’t want to perpetuate that Christianity. But I also have a very clear sense of mission and purpose that I believe is from God, so I don’t shy away from that either.

BH: In general, what would you like your listener to take away from your music?

AW: One point. There’s just one reality that we’re created for. We’re created to learn to love each other and grow in our love for our Maker. [We’re created] to learn to worship and to praise and be grateful and be humble and be broken and not trust in ourselves but to learn to work together and learn to trust in God. Just loving God. It’s love — that’s the only thing that I want people to take away from it. But it’s hard to communicate that with a CD. It’s hard for that to translate. So, to be more honest with my answer, I guess there are some times that what I’d like people to take away from it is, “Oh, this guy is a good writer. He’s got a cool melody. He’s a cool dancer. I like him and what he has to say. He’s really interesting.” I want people to admire me and respect me and want to know me. Then, when I reflect on that, I realize it’s a selfish motivation. But it’s in there, too. But I know there’s a better motivation in there somewhere. It’s just hard to stay in tune with it.

BH: As the band has grown in popularity, is it more difficult to hold your ego in check?

AW: Probably. I don’t know. Ego is one of those things, like with pride, where there’s a trick to it: the more you’ve got, the less you know. So, I think if I was a humble person I wouldn’t realize it. I can’t really answer that. It feels like we have a good group and we can keep each other balanced and in check, but in whatever ways that spirit has been able to creep its way into my heart, it’s a blinding spirit. And I’m afraid of that.

BH: From what I’ve read about you, you’ve said that one of the turning points in your life is when you went to live in community with other people in Philadelphia.

AW: Yeah.

BH: How exactly does that work?

AW: Well, people who think that when Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself and love God — these are central teachings and central focuses of our life as Christians — not a belief in a doctrine of Christianity or an acceptance of a religious form but a life lived of love. And that’s going to play out as community. If you have a problem, and I love you, that’s my problem. If you have a joy, and I love you, that’s going to bring me joy. And we share it. We share everything. We share our struggles and our triumphs and our money and possessions. We share our faith and our hopes and our fears and struggle together and try to help other people around us who maybe don’t agree with us or have anything to offer us in return. Just living a life of service — that’s what I got out of the communal life that I tasted there. It’s just a simple life of love that I believe everyone is called to. It’s going to look different ways, but for me that was the realization that Jesus didn’t call me to a belief more abundant or a doctrine more precise. He called me to a life more abundant. He called me to a life where there’s fruit that you can taste and see and touch and smell and feel — tangible reality. “The kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.” That was something where I’d read the words before, but it had never penetrated my heart before that the Gospel has social implications and an immediate relevance. That was tremendously liberating from this obsession with the purely spiritualized version of Christianity. When it talks about setting free the captives, that’s spiritual. When it talks about “blessed are the hungry and the poor,” that’s spiritual. Spiritually hungry and spiritually poor — that’s in there. But so is the tangible stuff. People need food and they need shelter and they need freedom, both economically and politically.

BH: Was it difficult, having grown up in this culture, to start living that way?

AW: Ah… I wouldn’t say so, because it’s so bankrupt, the notion of just living for your own desires and pursuing your every whim and trying to ensure financial security. To store up money so that one day you can retire and have 15 years of relaxing until you die — has that worked for anybody? Has that given anybody eternal peace? Has that given anybody that sense of “I know why I’m here. I know the purpose of my life”? I look around and I see the failed American dream. People that are trying to claw their way to the top of the corporate ladder or some social group, and you realize that there’s no real contentment at the top. Whatever little ways that I’ve tried with the band — like, “Oh, we need to get on this label” — you end up wanting something else. Then you get on this radio station, and you want something else. You get in this magazine, and then you want something else. You get on this television station, and then what else? What else? What else? It’s never enough. Jesus calls us to less and less. He calls us to a simpler and humbler and more broken and emptied out lifestyle of service. To me, the moment that I realized that, it all made sense. It was perfectly clear. Everyone is called to that, and there’s room down there for everybody. But there’s only room at the top for one person. That would be a sad world, if our only purpose was to be the most successful or the world champion or the richest man alive.