Q&A: Ben Kweller Talks Production, His New Album, Parenthood and Finding Out That an Old 97's Song Was In His Wedding Video
The story of Ben Kweller has been documented pretty relentlessly around these parts--from forming the band Radish at the age of 12 to signing with Mercury Records at 16 after being hailed by critics as "the next Nirvana" to then following his girlfriend to New York where he'd end up recording his first three solo albums, and, finally, to moving back to his home state in 2008 and tempting with fate by recording a country album.
Subsequent to this homecoming of sorts, we in the in the Metroplex have had the privilege of more frequent performances from Kweller than ever. So it's not exactly earth-shattering news to find out that Ben will be performing at the Granada Theater this week as part of the fourth annual CF Concert Series benefit show.
But the fact that Ben will be doing a solo acoustic performance this time around is one aspect that makes this week's show not just the typical Ben Kweller show. Even more special than that is the fact that Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller will be turning in a similar effort. And, after speaking with Kweller in advance of the show this week, it looks like a very real possibility that the two will at some point in the night will likely get together for a few duets.
Over the course of our talk, Kweller also talked about recording his upcoming album, what he digs so much about production work, his favorite Old 97's songs, and why he may never play a Radish song again. Read the Q&A in full after the jump.
I've heard you're busy working on a new album, Go Fly a Kite, and that
it's supposed to be a lot more electric than [last year's] Changing
Horses. What else can you tell us about it?
Yeah, it's definitely very poppy and melodic and upbeat--a lot of up-tempo songs, but it's got this growl to it. The lyrics have a bunch of darker material, I would say. Kind of sad lyrics about lost friendships and things like that, and songs about being taken advantage of by other people and being screwed over in various situations. So, it's kind of like a "Fuck you" album, in a way. But it also has a lot of hope to it, and, like I said, it sounds fun on the surface like this really fun upbeat record. But I think a lot of people will relate to it.
So the title of the record is more of a tell-off than a reference to the Mary Poppins song.
Yeah exactly, it's definitely less Mary Poppins and more Spotless Mind, I would say.
Either way it sounds like you're not doing the whole country thing this time around. I think the thing I am most impressed with when looking over your entire career is the way you can completely change styles from album to album, or even from song to song within an album without it ever sounding too forced.
Thank you! I think that is because of growing up in East Texas with parents from the Northeast who grew up in the '60s. I grew up with this interesting mix of popular country music from the '90s as well as old-time country western, folk, and blues, but also with rock 'n' roll music from my parent's generation, the British invasion, and then, of course, mainstream rock radio from growing up listening to 94.5 The Edge and hearing stuff like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time. It's an interesting mixture, so I've always been able to go back and forth between all different American roots music and rock 'n' roll. Obviously, I would say that because I learned piano before I learned guitar, I've always written on both instruments and they can each compliment certain [styles of] music. So you can sit down at the piano and write a really sweet love song and then pick up your electric guitar and write this rock song about how you hate school or how you don't want to go to work. It's just different outlets.
You seem just as passionate about producing records for other people--Triple Cobra for instance--as you do about working on your own material. What is it about the studio that you find so appealing?
I've loved the art of recording ever since I was a little kid. When I was about 8, my dentist had a four-track recorder and so I borrowed it from him and my dad recorded me doing some songs. That was the first time I ever recorded. When I formed bands in high school we found a studio in Dallas and went in and recorded and I just got bit by the bug. As a songwriter, I sit on the bed and write songs, and I hear all the parts in my head, and a lot of times they're things you can't really pull off live. In the studio, that's the place where you can kind of make what you hear in your head come alive. I remember I used to be really concerned when I first started recording, especially in Radish when we started going into real studios and making albums that were going to be released, it was a big concern of mine to make sure that what I recorded would be something I'd be able to play live, so I never wanted to do any [overdubs]. If a producer wanted to add extra parts or extra harmonies, things he knew I could do, I was really reluctant to do it a lot early on. And then there was a producer who told me, "When you're in a studio you're making a record, and the record is going to live on forever and it doesn't matter if you can't do it live." That's the thing about a record; it's always going to be around. A concert is just going to be there for one night. Over the years, I've really thought about that and discovered that he was right. I look back at Queen footage of [them recording] "Bohemian Rhapsody" and they have, like, a cassette player doing all the harmonies with them and they would make it into this kind of kitschy thing. But I'm so happy they recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody" the way they did because now we're all left with this beautiful masterpiece. I definitely separate the two things, the live show from the studio, and I love them equally just like I love piano and guitar equally, but they're very different. As far as producing other people, I love helping out other bands and songwriters, lending a hand and helping develop something that's different from what I do. It's very fun. It's one of those things that is very consuming so I don't really do it that often. The Triple Cobra album took us about two months, so for those two months I didn't write one song or think about anything of my own. The Ben Kweller thing kind of shut down for two months and I wore a producer's hat and I was just in Triple Cobra world. That's really what you have to do when you produce a band because they're really relying on you and your vision to really help them, so if you're not 100 percent immersed in the thing then you're not doing them a service.
I've heard you talk about your kids a lot, how has fatherhood effected your tour schedule, or how might as your oldest starts approaching school age?
It's funny. When we had Dorian--he's now four years old--everyone was like, "Are you going to go off the road or stop touring as much?" and, really, me and my wife decided that we needed to tour more and really support the family. There is going to be a point when he starts kindergarten where we're going to have to work around that, or figure it out, or I'll just have to go out by myself, but I've gotten really used to having them with me everywhere I go. Luckily, in the states, we have a tour bus that we travel in with a bedroom in the back so it's really nice. We're an "RV family." I just went to Australia and Japan on my own just because you fly everywhere so it would have been too much for the kids. But it's how I make my living really; there's bills to be paid and things like that so I really have to go out and work. Luckily it is a huge passion of mine to get up on stage and do my thing. There is a big desire in me to keep doing it so I have to do it. It's an interesting thing, but it keeps evolving. It's very much like a family business, so we'll figure it out as we go.
Have you noticed that your children have influenced your songs or songwriting in any way--even if it's just due to something ancillary, like being forced to listen to things they like over and over?
Yeah! [Laughs.] I would say, as a writer, I've always been sentimental. Even before I had kids, I was writing songs about kids and being a father and how important that is. I think more than anything, they've just confirmed my beliefs, so I haven't really had a major change in my outlook on the world or anything like that. But it's definitely funny listening to things [that they like]. Dorian went through this huge Tom Petty phase and all he'd let us listen to was "Free Fallin'," and so I must have heard "Free Fallin'" a million times over the course of two months in the car. You start to focus on different guitars and different parts, and harmonies and analyze everything. It's really kind of fun. I wouldn't really say I take inspiration from other music because I really just like pick inspiration from the world around me, and people and situations and stories. As a kid, when you're starting any kind of art form, you usually look to the ones that you really admire and you kind of try to emulate. But I would say that I'm definitely many years passed that phase and have come into my own thing.
What do you like best about doing solo acoustic shows?
What I like best about them is that you can just do anything you want without worrying about being rehearsed or whether you're going to throw off a drummer or bass player or confuse a band and you can really go into any musical bit. Like if you wanted to go into a Metallica song in the middle of something you could. It's kind of fun. And, also, I can take requests and play songs I haven't played in years--or at least attempt to play them--and stuff like that is really fun. There's a lot of flexibility with it.
I remember reading an interview about 5 years ago where you talked about how you'd never play a Radish song again live again because you felt like you'd outgrown them in a way. Is that something that still seems beyond the realm of possibility?
There are songs now even from my solo work that I don't relate to as much. I don't play "Wasted and Ready" much. That's just going to happen. As an artist, I think we are always most into what we are doing at the moment, and our latest creations, and as you get away from the stuff you did in the past you don't really feel the need to go back to it. Of course there are nostalgic songs. I was just showing the guys in the band the other night some old Radish videos and it's really fun to watch those now because it just seems like a lifetime ago. I'm really proud of everything we did. To be so young and so talented--we were just so good at everything we did--it's kind of impressive. I feel like I might have even been a better guitar player when I was 15 than I am now at almost 30. I was a little shredder. But, one day, I wouldn't rule out doing the Radish songs. I don't see myself doing it anytime soon; I just have so much other music that I want to play in its place.
What's your favorite Old 97's song?
It's called, let me think, [he starts to play the piano and sings] "Someday somebody's gonna ask you / a question that you should say yes to / once in your life / Maybe tonight I've got a question for you." It's called "Question."
So is there a possibility we might see a Ben Kweller/Rhett Miller duet at some point in the night?
Dude, yeah! I would love to do that! We've been talking about it, so I'm sure we'll work on some songs--hopefully ["Question"], too. I would love to play piano on it. I'll tell you a funny story about that song, too. When me and Liz got married, we had these people make a wedding video and I gave them a bunch of music to put on it. When we got the final cut of the wedding video, there was this really beautiful scene--a kind of montage where there was just music--and they put that song in there and I had never heard it before. For years, I was just like "I love that song, it's so good." Then I did a show with the Old 97's at Stubbs [in Austin], and that was maybe two months ago, and I was on the side of the stage watching them and they go into that song and I was like, "No fucking way." After the show, I asked Rhett about it and he was like, "Yeah, that's our song."
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