Singer-songwriter Ben Kweller is far from the typical rock star. For starters, after many shows he can be found greeting his fans and posing for pictures. Touring is a family event and he’s been with wife, Liz Smith, since they met at 19. “It was totally true love at first sight,” he says when asked if he immediately knew she was the one. He’s also known as a really kind and genuine guy by those who have worked with him. His talent, however, is all rock star.
Kweller is not only a singer-songwriter, he is also an exceptionally talented musician who played every instrument on his 2006 album, Ben Kweller, and who is constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft. 2009’s Changing Horses found him releasing an album of country tunes replete with pedal steel and twang. And for a guy who can go from the pop rock of Ben Kweller to the southern stylings of Changing Horses, it would be a losing bet to try and pin him down to one sound or mood. When he writes, he writes from an immediate perspective and not with the intention of releasing some sort of “final statement.” And listeners familiar with his previous work might be surprised to find there’s a bit more edge on his upcoming album, Go Fly a Kite, scheduled for a 2011 release.
It is not an album of mostly love letters like Sha Sha or On My Way, which even at its darkest — on songs like the title track — still finds time to affectingly invoke true love. Kweller was not feeling as sanguine as usual when he wrote it and explains, “There are songs called ‘Jealous Girl’ and ‘Gossip’ — a lot of subliminal messages about people.” That doesn’t mean this is a new Ben Kweller, it just means this is how he felt when he wrote this album. For a guy who formed his first band, Radish, at 12, it’s clear that this is only the latest incarnation of Kweller’s music. He is multifaceted and, as always, there’s more to come.
Gibson caught up with Kweller to talk about his new album, his favorite guitars, and why his son Judah could have been named Mixolydian.
Do you agree that you should call your new album simply, The Kwell?
“The Kwell.” Yeah, I kinda like that. There’s something very modern, hip-hop about it, but something very old school about it, too. The problem is that it’s already got a name.
It’s Go Fly a Kite, which is basically “(expletive) you.” There’s a lot of interesting material on the new record. It’s really upbeat and rock and roll, but there’s some dark lyric undertone happening. I lived in New York for eight years and I loved being there, but then a lot of the friends that I was hanging out with (pauses), things got really gossipy and bad (expletive) was being said about people behind their backs.
About you or about your friends?
Mostly about friends: some stuff about me, but a lot of indirect stuff. There was this scene of girls who were being super catty and then one of my best friends and I kinda split up over this girl he had started dating who didn’t want him to have anything to do with his old friends. It was just one thing after another. And me and my wife had our baby boy, Dorian, who had just turned one, and we thought he’s ready to run around; so we decided to move down to Texas, where I grew up, but go to Austin, which is pretty much the only place in Texas that really fit us well. So, anyway, the new record has a lot of stuff about that time in New York, so it’s called Go Fly a Kite.
That sounds a little more pessimistic and dark than you usually are.
It’s definitely dark. I mean it’s got that, dare I say, “Kweller optimism,” but it’s definitely (expletive) than I’ve gotten on some records.
Do you think that’s because, as you get older and you’ve seen more of the world, you become a little more jaded?
Well, I’m not totally jaded, but I’m definitely more realistic. The longer you’ve been around, the more (expletive) you see. So now, I’ve seen a lot of (expletive) that has affected me directly. But also, I always write songs in these batches, so my next record could be totally different; it doesn’t really mean that this is my new thing: being pissed off. There are certainly some happy moments on the record and a lot of people might think it’s a really upbeat record. If you’re a person who just listens to the music and don’t really listen to the lyrics, you might think it’s a happy pop record.
I think that guys do that more than girls do.
They don’t listen to the words?
You’re probably right, actually, that girls tend to listen to the words a little more. I know when I was younger I only listened to the music and the melody. I didn’t know what people were saying.
Although, I do have a guy friend who will send me text messages like, “All anyone could ever want is a co-pilot.”
Aw. That’s true. I like that line. You know, a lot of people come up to me and tell me that they use it in their wedding and that’s such a cool thing. The second I wrote “Run,” I was really proud of it. It’s really simple, but it’s such a good team song.
It’s a very positive song.
My thing is positivity among all the (expletive). Because “Run” is like, even though they say we’ll never make it and the world can be rough, at least we got each other. And that’s my thing: you have to make your own reality in this world, because there’s a lot of negativity. So my music accepts that, but it tries to let people know that there are other options and you can usually find a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, is the new album realism with a sense of humor?
Yeah, totally. There’s definitely some humor in there and a lot of realism. There are a lot of songs that don’t really resolve in my usual way of, like, “It’s all (expletive) up, but it’ll be okay.” I think people will like it and it will bring together all the people that liked Ben Kweller and my older stuff and the people that liked my last record, Changing Horses, which is more rootsy and Americanaish.
How was the reception for Changing Horses? How did your fan base react?
Well, what it did was open up my music to a whole new audience. There were a lot of fans that were surprised by it that actually started to like it. Because they knew songs like “Family Tree” or “Lizzy” or “On My Way,” kinda folky songs, I think that it wasn’t completely unexpected, but there were definitely fans that didn’t like it and that’s okay. The thing is, I think a lot of people always expect a band’s new record to be their final statement – like, this is who we are and this is the end of the line. But for me, making records is part of what I do. I like these songs and I’m not trying to make any crazy statements about myself or to achieve the perfect formula of a record.
I think people that really wanted it to be like Sha Sha probably lost it. It helps if people can open up to where I’m going, because I really can’t tell where I’m going. I just write songs and most of my fans are along for the ride with me, which is really cool, and they know that I like to change it up. This new one, I think, will be a nice surprise again. There’s something for everybody, hopefully. But all of that stuff aside, I think it’s my best record yet and I’m really excited to finish it.
When is it coming out?
Probably 2011. I’m figuring out the release of it, which is kinda complicated in this day and age.
How so? Label issues?
Well, yeah. I’m still on ATO, but currently stuff’s going down over there so we’re figuring all that out right now.
Did you produce this one yourself as you did with Changing Horses?
I did, yeah, and my engineer Steve Mazur recorded it. He’s recorded all my records. We recorded it — we’re recording it, I should say — at my studio here in Austin. It’s called The Hideout. We have a Studer tape machine, 24 track analog machine, Pro Tools, tons of old tube microphones, and a bunch of Gibson guitars.
Cool. What type of Gibsons?
My main two acoustic guitars are Gibsons. One is this 1960s Epiphone Texan, which is the same guitar that Paul McCartney used to use, that’s what I’ve been told. It’s really amazing. And then, my other acoustic that I use all the time is a J-45 from the ’60s. I got that guitar right when I signed with ATO Records. I guess it was 2001. I was on tour, opening for Evan Dando from The Lemonheads, and we were driving around the country in my grey Volvo. I went to this place called Real Guitars in San Francisco and they had this awesome cherry sunburst J-45 and it was beautiful, but it was $1700 dollars and that was more than my rent on Smith Street in Brooklyn. But I fell in love with this guitar and I called up Evan at the hotel and brought him back (to the store) and he was like (very excited), “Dude, you gotta buy it. You just signed a record deal with ATO, you deserve a guitar.” And he told me this thing that I’ll never forget: he said, “There are songs in that guitar — every guitar has different songs in ’em and so you have to buy different guitars to get the songs out of ’em.” So I treated myself to that guitar and I wrote my first two records on it.
When it comes to electrics, I’m kinda known for playing these SG specials, which is an SG guitar that came out in the ’60s that has these P-90 pickups and that’s sort of been one of my main sounds over the past years. The thing about Gibson guitars is, for me, it’s all about the ones that were made in the mid-’60s, because they have skinny necks and I have littlish hands, so the skinny necks just feel really good, easier for me to play. But I use heavy strings, so it’s harder to bend my strings for most people. I’m left-handed, but I play a right-handed guitar, so it is easier for me to bend strings than most right-handed people.
Did you play all the instruments on this album, as on Ben Kweller?
No, my bass player (Chris Morrissey) and drummer (Mark Stepro) played on it.
What usually comes to you first when you’re writing a song, the lyrics or the tune?
The tune, because I sit down at the piano or hold the guitar and I’ll just start playing chords and start humming music, notes, and everything – make up words that don’t make sense. Then I’ll write something that sounds cool and just kind of go from there. Usually my subconscious can bring up what I really want to talk about. I don’t have to do much work. I don’t sit and say, “What am I gonna write about today?”
You just had a second baby. How is that?
Yeah, Judah, he is three months old now. He kicks major ass. He’s super sweet, super mellow. A very easy baby.
Is he easier than Dorian?
Yeah, I think so, for sure. But then everyone’s like, “You’re just used to being a parent now, so you’re easier.”
That’s probably true.
It’s true, but man, there’s a difference, because I haven’t had to pace the floor all night because of a crying baby.
How did you get the name Dorian? Was it after the Dorian Mode?
We named him Dorian because my wife’s mother’s name was Dorila and she’s not with us, so we wanted to name our son after her and we found Dorian, and thought it was a really cool name. Then all my musician friends texted me, “That’s so cool – the Dorian mode,” and I hadn’t even thought of that. But, then, we thought if we had a girl, it would be kinda cool to name her Mixolydian and then we can call her Mixi, but we never had a girl — so we’ll see. I think we might be done at two; I don’t know if I can do any more kids. I think two is good.
Anything in the current music scene you are listening to and loving?
I’m kind of out of touch with modern music other than what my friends are up to. I’ve been loving Conor Oberst’s solo records. Mason Jennings. I really like The Low Anthem a lot, and my friend, Josh Latanzzi, has a new band called The Candles who are pretty cool.
What’s your favorite song to play live?
It kind of varies. Right now, I still love playing “Penny on the Train Track.” It’s just so fun to play; so simple, three chords — D, A, and G — and really fun to sing and dance around to. I also like to play “Thirteen” on piano.
What’s usually the fan favorite?
“Penny,” “Run,” “Lizzy.” And “Walk on Me” always gets people pumped up. It’s just so funny, because everyone has different favorites.
You do a lot of collaborations. Anything you’re working on now?
I really enjoy producing, so I just produced an album for this band called Triple Cobra, which should be coming out in a couple of months. Their material didn’t need much help as far as song writing, but there were some arrangement things that could have lifted up the material more, so I helped them with that and guided them through the whole recording process. I really like lending my skills and talent to other young artists. It’s really fun.
You have opened for some interesting people (Evan Dando, Conor Oberst, Jeff Tweedy), most of whom you make sense on a bill with — but, how, for example, did you end up on a bill with Matisyahu?
The weirdest people come and request me to open for them and so, that Matisyahu gig was just one of those things. I guess I’m Jewish, so maybe there was a connection there. I don’t know.
Maybe he thought it was “enough” that you use the word “dayenu” (Hebrew for "it would have been enough") in your song “Lizzy”?
Yeah, exactly. He thought it is enough and was like, “You’re on.”