This article first appeared in OPUS (#7) Sept 2004
Ben Kweller’s reputation as a nice guy is immediately obvious even before he enters the Bondi Cafe we had arranged to meet in. A phone call from his publicist, on behalf of Ben, is apologetic and friendly as she informs us that Ben is running ten minutes late. He is just as apologetic in person, when ten minutes later he enters the cafe and strolls over. His schedule is busy and the images all seem to blur. “I went to a radio station this morning, but I can’t remember what it was called…Fuck.”
Kweller is simply a pleasant, good-humoured kid from Texas, who at the age of seven decided that he would start writing songs on piano, and by the age of 15 had released a major lable record, with rock band Radish. Having been in the music industry for so long, Kweller is used to the process. He sits down at the cafe, and immediately sends his publicist away, so he can do the interview alone. However at the slightest suggestion that she seemed miffed, he is visibly upset. “I get nervous, when there’s a lot of people”, he explains. “it’s just, she’ll hear me talk about the same shit all day, you know what I mean?”
Ben Kweller is an interesting man. His music is a kaleidoscope of images and sounds, ranging from country and bluegrass to quirky pop, and flat our rock. He is dressed in a suit with a striped tie, and a badge with his wife’s name ‘Lizzy’ written on it. He has old-fashioned views on marriage (his grandfather married his grandmother when they were 23, and he followed suit), yet liberal views on dating. “If my fourteen year old kid was cool, then I would trust that they would make a good decision”. He namechecks Neil Young, Pavement, The Velvet Underground and Nirvana as having made his favourite records. He likes Rubber Soul also, and doesn’t see what the fuss over The White Album was about. The one song he wishes he had written is ‘Happy Birthday to You’.
The last time he was in Australia was as the ‘other’ Ben, on the Three Bens tour. His humour and musicianship won over Australian audiences, however this is the first time he has toured our fair land off his own bat. Needless to say he hasn’t struggled to find a willing audience. “Our last show was in Brisbane and the fans were so awesome, they were singing along to every song. The audience here are a little more rowdy than the American audiences, which is a lot of fun. They get a lot more drunk. It seems like you guys really know how to drink”.
Continuing on the theme of rowdy audiences he adds, “The Japanese audiences are psychotic, but they are really polite. ‘Oh yeah Ben-san’, very sweet, but they are fanatical, they’ll stalk you. They find out where all the bands are staying, and wait in the lobby all day for you to come back. It’s very flattering though, makes you feel like The Beatles or something”.
Doesn’t it freak you out?
“It is weird, sometimes you feel like you’re not worthy, but it’s a lot of fun. They bring you lots of presents. I got some cool Japanese style sandals, you know. They were made out of bamboo shoots”.
When asked about any possibility of a ‘Bens’ reunion tour, or an album, Kweller is non-committal, not through caginess, but with an ‘if it happens it happens’ type attitude. “We don’t have anything planned. I just got an email from Ben Lee yesterday, we haven’t really hung out for a while. The thing is, when we wrote those four songs (from the Bens E.P) we just had a week off, and so we didn’t even know we’d write the songs we’d write. We didn’t even tell our record companies in case they’d get all excited, and we didn’t write the songs.
“If we said, we’re going into write songs it would have been all official, and we would have had people from the record companies coming down to check out the progress, and so we just keep it under the table a little bit. It was very spontaneous, so we are gonna wait until the time is right to record again”.
Shades of this laissez faire approach to his career run through the whole interview, and you get the feeling that Kweller’s whole career has been based on chance, and organic partnerships, than navigated with any road map. When this idea is put to him, he agrees wholeheartedly.
“It’s got to be done like that, that’s the thing. Living in New York we are always bouncing ideas off each other. I had a big list of song titles and me and Julian (Casablanca) from The Strokes were talking on the phone, and I said ‘Dude, let me read you all my different song titles’ and we talked about all our different favourites, and On My Way was one of his favourites, and at that point I was going to call it that, but it’s just getting feedback from all your friends. I think The Strokes are going to do a live record, and they played me some of the songs. We are always doing shit like this-us, and the Kings Of Leon too, just playing new songs for each other”.
The difference between Kweller’s bipolar debut album Sha Sha, and it’s more assured follow up is clearly notable. While the first album features the sounds of growing up, and rattling cages, the sophomore album shows a more introspective, thoughtful Kweller, content with his newly found marital bliss. While Sha Sha is, as Kweller explains, “an album about change”, On My Way is also influenced by two major turning points in his life, the death of his grandfather, and his marriage.
“Sha Sha is crazy adolescence, moving from the small town to the big city, and not knowing what the fuck you’re going to do, but really excited like ‘Sha Sha’ (insert arm movements) I’m going crazy! It’s like a big acid trip or something”.
Upon making On My Way, Kweller enlisted the services of Kings Of Leon producer Ethan Johns, who helped the record to sound grittier, “you can feel the dirt of the sidewalk, or the subway going underground” says Kweller with a grin. “he really knows how to take a Polaroid picture of a band”. Subject wise, the record is more introspective and thoughtful, with less of the playful air that permeates Sha Sha. Kweller credits his marriage for making him a better person.
“It was the first time that I thought I had more of a reason to live. I was never scared of dying, and never scared of flying on aeroplanes, and then after we got engaged, I was on an aeroplane with her, and I was like ‘we’re going to crash’. You have someone else to live for. When you find that right person, it’s the coolest thing ever”.
Marriage also presents Kweller with the opportunity to be an informed member of society. “It’s cool to be talking to the telephone company, and saying, ‘well, I need to talk to my wife first, call back tomorrow’, you know. I’m all official now”.
The death of his grandfather last year also forced him to stand back and take a look at the circle of life. “It was the first time I was faced with death close to me, and it was the first time I saw my father cry. I was really thinking, ‘shit, one day I’m going to crying because he’s dead, and my kid’s going to see me crying, then one day he’ll be crying, or she’ll be crying”.
The plans for the new album are already in place. Despite the numerous past and planned collaborations with artists such as the Bens, Evan Dando and the Kings Of Leon, and the fact that his second record was only just released, Kweller is already thinking ahead.
“I think I want to do another rock record, one more rock record next, but the new record’s also going to have a lot of ballads on it, I have been writing a lot of ballads. I kinda want to make a real beautiful record”. He reveals that he has already written his entire third album, “but I’m gonna keep writing, because I’m not going to record until next July, so I’m taking some time off, I’ve been touring for four years”.
Having lived in New York for the past few years, Kweller has adjusted to the sea change from his native Texas, but still shows signs of being a fish out of water. “People are really cool in New York, when they see celebrities they play it cool cause you are always seeing celebrities in New York”. Despite having hung out with Slash, “he’s mellowed out, he’s lost his appetite for destruction,” he was still starstruck when meeting Chelsea Clinton.
“Music people, you see all the time, but when you meet someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger you go ‘Holy Shit, that’s The Terminator”.
-Interview by Nathan Jolly and Rhiannon Back
-Story by Nathan Jolly