Originally published in The Music Network – March, 2012
“There was a point when I realised that music is all that I’ve got. I never had a fallback plan, I was never good at anything else, so music is it. A few years ago, I started thinking, ‘Well, hell, if I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life, I’d better set myself up so I can do this forever.’”
It’s no surprise Kweller was in a recent state of flux. Signed to a major label at the tender age of 15 – during that brief window when American execs were scrambling to find the next Silverchair – the Texan singer/ songwriter has made a living from his music ever since. With a wife and two children to support, and the dwindling fortunes of the music industry exhaustively documented, Kweller began looking forward and looking back.
“It’s hard enough to make money as a musician, but as you get older you have bills and a mortgage, I have a family, and you start thinking about that stuff,” he explains. “You start thinking about your parents; I started thinking about my dad and how important it was for him to support his family. He had a normal job, and in the midst of my crazy world that I live in, which is very atypical, I try to find some balance and normalcy and to make it feel like I have a regular job. Sometimes I try to trick myself, ya know?”
Part of this step towards “a regular job” is the establishment of his own record label, The Noise Company. Following the end of his contract with ATO (the label started by Dave Matthews; Kweller was their first signing in 2001), Kweller briefly considered signing to labels Sub Pop or Merge, before deciding to go it alone. While in Australia recently, in support of his fifth album, Go Fly A Kite, Kweller’s excitement was of someone promoting the first release on his indie label, rather than that of an artist launching a record. “The goal was to start a real label, a company, like a Sub Pop or a Merge – something that is going to be around for a long time. It’s definitely different from an artist self-releasing his music just to get it up on iTunes,” he adds.
With that in mind, Kweller is wary of just rushing in and signing a host of acts to The Noise Company. “That’s the thing,” Kweller considers. “Being an artist I know how it feels to be on a label and feel like you’re not getting enough attention, so the last thing I wanna do is just sign a bunch of bands that have to fight for attention, so we’re just going to go really slowly with what we sign; it might be a series of one-off 7 inches, rather than signing bands. I want the deals to be very transparent, financially, and I want bands to actually make money off selling their music.”
Although Kweller cites sensible reasons for launching The Noise Company, there is the definite feeling that a lot of it is fulfilling childhood ambitions. “Ever since I really got into music as a kid, I used to pretend I had a record company called Practice Amp Records,” Kweller recalls, laughing. “I used to record my friend’s band and all I had was a practice amp, one of those little bitty miniature guitar amps, so that’s where the name came from. I would record on my four- track cassette recorder and make up artwork and photocopy them and distribute cassettes to friends. A lot of that comes from growing up with indie rock and underground music and trading tapes and bootlegs and things like that. I always had an interest in it. So through the years with ATO, I started to think seriously about starting my own label. So that’s where the idea of The Noise Company began. More than anything, though, I’m happy about having total control of my music and how it gets out there. Nobody can tell me what to do, which is a good feeling as an artist.”
This DIY spirit has been a big part of Kweller’s career, from his earliest support slots with Evan Dando, where he drove from town to town with Dando in his passenger seat and a pair of acoustic guitars in the back, through to his self-recorded and released 2000 debut Freak Out It’s Ben Kweller, and his third eponymous record, where he recorded all the instruments himself, delivering the most sonically sparkling effort in his catalogue.
Aside from The Noise Company, Kweller has also relaunched his website as a one-stop shop, selling his entire back catalogue there, including digital versions of his earlier rare work. “At some point, I’ll be getting all the masters back from my solo catalogue. I definitely have plans to do anniversary editions of [major label debut] Sha Sha and [2004 follow up] On My Way with outtakes from the studio sessions, as well as archival photos.
“I’ve had so many ideas over the years and felt a little held back by the [major label] system itself, and just recently I was like, “Oh man, it’d be really fun to make a split 7 inch with a friend’s band and I’m like, ‘Oh wait, we can do that now, we can record some songs and put out a 7 inch.’ So I am excited about that, because for me, as a fan growing up, I remember collecting every Nirvana 7 inch or single or bootleg, anything I could find. Or Pavement; that band had so many quirky little releases and I love that shit.”
A label boss, a father of two and a provider: Kweller may very well be transitioning into the normal life he claims to crave. However, just as was the case when he was 15, even the American school system cannot quell his ambition.
“We’re entering a new chapter for us, because Dorian [Kweller’s eldest son] is in Kindergarten this year, so being a part of the public school system is a whole new thing for us. We’re used to travelling together as a family and going wherever we want, whenever, but now, you can’t miss school, ya know?”
At the moment, Kweller’s way around this is a surprisingly practical two-weeks-on/two-week- off schedule: “Someone sent me a Yo La Tengo tour route that was really cool, nothing longer than two weeks, yet they managed to do the whole world, so that was inspiring… I took some notes from that,” he laughs.