Ben Kweller is an interesting musical product of the 21st century indie scene. His diverse catalog of songs is influenced by nearly every genre to spin off from the whirlwind that was the 20th century rock and roll movement, and he’s just as comfortable playing piano on a sweet and simple folk ballad as he is tearing apart a guitar solo with reckless abandon. Not only is he a versatile musician, but his songwriting skills stand out, with stark honesty, against the busy backdrop of other indie folk out there today. Below, Kweller explains how he got hooked on creating music at a young age and the journey he’s taken to build a sustained and successful solo artist in the cluttered and oft unforgiving music industry. Tickets are still available for this show on Monday, May 5th at www.ramsheadonstage.com. Doors at 7:00 p.m., with opener Slothrust at 8:00 p.m.
You got started playing music very young and you helped form the band Radish in the early 90s when you were only 12-13 years old – what influenced you to learn to play and pursue a career so early?
I think I was 13 or 14 when we settled on the name Radish, but I met John Kent, the drummer, when I was 12. We both had different bands before, but when we got together as Radish, we actually called it ‘sugar metal,’ and made up our own genre name. We were heavy and grungy. A lot of people considered us a grunge band. It was definitely hard hitting, angsty guitar rock, but a lot of melodic sensibility and harmonies too; that’s sort of the sugar part.
I was 7 years old when my dad got his drums out of the attic, and he would play guitar and sing when he got home. We would play Beatles tunes, and tons of British Invasion stuff that he grew up on. That was when I got the bug, listening to his records on Magical Mystery Tour, ‘All You Need Is Love,’ man. I must’ve been about 8 at that time. I saw it was a pattern that repeated over and over and I changed the progression and started making my own songs, started with drums and pianos, and then Nirvana came out…
Who were some of your other favorite artists or bands growing up and how has that evolved over time?
It started out with 60s rock and roll, then Nirvana. They were like the music of my generation – they also taught me about punk rock, they were just a great education, in terms of my philosophical development and promoting other cool bands, they would wear t-shirts of bands you never heard of, and I had to special order records at the records store because they didn’t have the stuff they were promoting. I loved Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Velvet Underground, Violent Femmes, especially the Femmes when I went solo and all I could do was acoustic stuff. They were an inspiration because they had their own brand of acoustic punk.
The Country influence with the Changing Horses album, that’s a whole other side of me as a kid. Growing up in Greenville, TX, you couldn’t go very far without hearing Garth Brooks or Travis Tritt. When I was writing music I didn’t really have much of a filter and over the years I’d collect theses country songs that I wrote, and that album was the culmination of that.
A lot of your earlier songs deal with falling in love and finding yourself. The last two albums (Changing Horses and Go Fly a Kite) sound more mature both musically and lyrically…how do you feel about the progress or change you’ve made both as an artist and in life in general now that you’re 20 years into a music career, and married with kids?
I get asked that a lot, and my music’s always just been about life and personal experiences. I always wish I could have kept a journal, but I’m less candid, I guess because I never really learned how to write properly. It’s kind of taxing to write, and my handwriting is horrible. I kept a dream diary but that lasted about a week, so my songs have always been my documentation of what I’m doing with myself on this world – what I’m really going through in life: falling in love, having your heart broken, meeting your soul mate, having kids, traveling, breaking up with best friends, people dying, friends dealing with addiction, dealing with addiction on your own, whatever it is, I put it in my songs. I don’t feel like anything’s really changed. My process hasn’t really changed much. I just start out free-styling, sitting at the instrument and mumbling a bunch of stuff until you catch something, but the content is all just the same. Even before I was a father I was always sentimental and nostalgic. I wrote a song called ‘For My Children’ before I even had children. It’s never been released, but I always wanted to be a dad, to be married. My life has been so abnormal. I’ve never been a 9-5 guy, but I’ve always dreamt of it. I’ll never be a GQ model, but there’s something romantic about all that; putting a suit and tie on every day. But, that’ll never be me…
And are you working on any new albums right now? If so, what can you reveal about it?
I’m always writing, but right now I’m in an interesting spot creatively. I have all these songs that are completely different. I have these beautiful, somber and depressing songs, and then I have these crazy slit your wrists, smash a bottle over the head rockers, and then another batch of folky stuff. I’m happy with my discography right now. I’ve always looked at my music as a big picture thing – the overall aesthetic of it all. I don’t know if I’m really in the mood to make an album. We’re kinda developing the website and developing this concept of getting my music to my fans as I write it throughout the year, but I’m still figuring out the best way to do it. Maybe cut 7 inches, or EPs, maybe release a few songs at a time? I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo of the music business, you know, waiting 6 months to market the album and waiting for release and going on tour for two years. During that time I’m writing all my next stuff, and it’s like nothing’s ever really current. I think with today’s technology, and the internet obviously, there’s got to be a way to release my music in real time, a way we can stream my art as I make it. I’ll figure it out.
You’ve collaborated with great names throughout your career – Guster, the Bens (with Ben Folds and Ben Lee), you toured with Death Cab for Cutie…any future collaborations we should know about? The possibility of a Ben’s reunion has been mentioned before…
No Ben’s plan as of now, but I wish there was. That was such a fun thing for all three of us. We all want to do it again. I actually saw Folds about three months ago in Nashville. We recorded a song, and we were like ‘Where’s Ben Lee! We need him here!’ I think that we will hopefully get to it again, just a matter of when, and coordinating three crazy schedules.
You acted in a new movie called Rudderless, which debuted at the Sundance Festival earlier this year in January – do you play one of the musicians in that movie and can you tell me a little more about how you got involved, and what the experience was like being on your first movie set? Do you plan on doing more acting?
It was so fun. It came to me really organic way. This guy from Oklahoma said he wrote this script and based this character around me and asked me, ‘Would you read it and would you mind acting in it?’ It was a little indie film and I loved the script, so I was like yeah! Then they started talking to more people, and more quote unquote real actors and real movie script writers, and then it became this big multi-million dollar film. It was still indie to them. It was huge to me, but in that world it’s just pennies. Then I started getting nervous because the main character was written for me. The character Quentin. And it became apparent that I was not going to be able to do this main role, but then William H. Macy was like, ‘Well I still want you in the film,” and so I played Willie, the bass player who is like the main character’s (now played by Anton Yelchin) best friend in the film. I was like, ‘It’s perfect!”
Is it gonna get picked up?
Yeah! I went out to Sundance for the premiere and that was so fun. We just got word that Paramount Pictures picked it up. They’re good with films like this. They did Little Miss Sunshine. This is more of a Garden State, Juno kind of film. Hopefully it’ll be out sometime in 2015. I’m not getting too much info now, but when it comes out I’ll tweet it out and let everyone know.
Have you gotten any other acting offers because of this movie?
Yeah actually, I’m actually going to be in another film, just because I’m buddies with Jason Schwartzman. We were out to lunch with him and a director, and we were talking about our kids and I was showing the director a video of Dorian, my 8 year old, playing drums. He was like this kid is awesome! And he was like I’m going to write a part for you and your son. He called and actually wrote the part and we shot it on the last day they were in town, now we’re both in it
We shot it as customers at a Jiffy Lube. This film is called Seven Chinese Brothers. I’m already two movies deep in my acting career, sitting by the pool with margaritas! Just kidding.
Can you describe one moment or event in your career that really exceeded your expectations and blew you away? What else do you want to accomplish in your career?
Every step of the way has met every expectation and also exceeded it a lot of times. There are big moments. Opening up for the Violent Femmes and singing with them on stage, or playing Fuji Rock in Japan. I go to Australia a lot. Traveling to all these places, in South America where tons of people are singing your lyrics back to you. It all boils down to being ambitious. It’s the only thing I can do. There was no backup plan, and having no backup plan just weeds out the other options. So, you just make the most of what you got, and lucky for me I started so young, and had a vision of what I wanted to be when I grew up. I feel very fortunate for that. Getting the first record deal with Radish, and even bigger, getting my first deal as a solo artist. Getting a call from lead singer of the Lemonheads and he said he got a copy of my demo and called me. Jeff Tweedy calling when I was 19 and poor and trying to pay rent in Brooklyn, and he took me under his wing early on. When people you look up to recognize you and dig what you do that’s a great feeling, and it’s the same when people you don’t even know, you know, the fans are into it.
Here’s the official video for Ben Kweller’s song, “Penny on the Track,” starring his grandmother, Bubbie.
– Matt Ellis