Years ago, area legend Ben Kweller was dubbed a wunderkind by nearly every music publication in the country. Today, the child has grown into a husband and father--and says he's eager to reconnect his family and career to the place he still calls home: Texas.
His fourth major solo album, Changing Horses, set for release next Tuesday, finds Kweller searching for vintage authenticity: He recorded the LP in analog format in only 11 days at Austin's Public Hi-Fi studio, founded by Spoon drummer Jim Eno. And with the bright pedal steel guitar tickling the dusty chords of Kweller's acoustic, the disc finds the familiar voice of Sha-Sha telling stories of prostitutes, junkies and deceased love ones as if they were gospel.
The down-home country quality of Changing Horses is quite the departure from his typical piano-laden garage-rock set, though. So will it sound a tad off?
Not really: When listening to Kweller recount his adolescence spent in this neck of the woods, as he did when we spoke over the phone last week, it's easy to see how this sound was in him all along.
Word on the street is you moved out of New York and down to Austin last year. Welcome back to Texas!
Thanks, man! I love Austin. My roots are here in Texas.
What made you decide to return to TX?
It was a few things really. I was in New York for eight or nine years, and loved it. I really started off my solo career up there and that's where things started to happen for me... so I owe a lot to New York. But after you get close to that 10-year mark in New York City--that is, unless you have family there or real ties to the city--you just know you can't spend the rest of your life there. The biggest thing is my wife Lizzy and I had our baby boy, Dorian. That was two and a half years ago in New York. And there's so much bullshit you have to put up with when you live there, like everyone is just staring straight ahead, in this auto-pilot mode. When you have a kid in the city, it just opens your eyes to all the hardships of living there. Me and my wife, we both grew up in small towns, and we wanted that for our son--y'know, trees to climb, and rivers to walk around. So we couldn't think of any better place than Austin, Texas. We've toured a lot of the big cities, but Austin is just our favorite.
How has your son Dorian changed your work routine? Does he affect your tour schedule?
So, far it's been fine. He goes everywhere I go. We travel together like a gypsy family... we just caravan together around the world. But there's gonna be a point when he's five, and he's gonna start kindergarten. Either I'll just tour on my own and come back home, or only tour in the summertime. But I want him to have his summers off from school, not on the road with Dad. But we'll just work our ass off right now while he's so young, while he can go anywhere and do anything with us. He's a great hang, and he loves the road. He loves being on the bus, and during sound-check he'll hop up on the drums. And he keeps a beat better than most adults--and he's
2.5 two-and-a-half years old!
Growing up, your dad had a huge musical influence on you. How will you do the same with Dorian?
He's completely surrounded by music, as you can imagine. He's surrounded by instruments, and he's got his own baby drum set. He's big on Guns N' Roses now. He'll just say, "Welcome to the Jungle, Da-Da! Welcome to the Jungle, Da-Da!" So I put the song on, and he'll run around the house naked, singing into a flashlight, "Welcome to the Jungle, we got fun and gaaaaaames!" The week before that was Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation", and there's some occasional Teletubbies and Mickey Mouse Club.
Let's talk about the new album. Unlike your past records, you produced this one yourself. How'd that go?
This was probably the easiest album I ever made. We finished it in 11 days, and it was very natural. I feel like it's a really easy listen, and the reason we feel that way is because it was like that in the studio--it just came right out of us. Some of the songs were finished with lyrics on the spot, like "Sawdust Man" or "Gypsy Rose"--now that song was really the dark horse of the album. It was unfinished, but we knew it kind of had a cool vibe to it. Finished it in the studio and when we finished cutting it, we thought, "Man, maybe that should open the album!" So it went from last place to the front-running opener of the album. Just some fun surprises with the album.
"Gypsy Rose" is definitely a great opener... Kitt Kitterman really tears up the dobro on it.
Fuck yeah, dude! Can you believe that shit?! He's a monster. I met him four years ago. He's from Indiana, went to Wabash College. I had a concert there with Ben Folds, and he was the concert rep. I showed up the airport, went down to baggage claim, and there's this kid picking me up. We became friends, and he had a C.B. radio mounted to the dashboard of his Ford Taurus, talking to all the truckers. We really bonded over that, because my great-grandfather was really into C.B. Eventually, he started kind of tour-managing me, because he's so smart and business-savvy. One day, he says, "Hey I brought my dobro!" I didn't know he played dobro, but we went into a new song, I think it was "Things I Like To Do." The second that dude laid his steel bar down on the strings, my mind was blown, I was like "Holy fuck... I had no idea you were a musician, let alone a genius."
Judging from the album, country really seems to suit you. What were some of your honky-tonk favorites when you were growing up listening to Texas radio?
Growing up, y'know, it was pop country in the late '80s and early '90s. Garth Brooks' Ropin' The Wind--that was one of my favorite albums. "Rodeo?" Man, that song killed! And you remember Sawyer Brown? [Sings:] "Well I ain't first class, but I ain't white trash, I'm wild and a little crazy, too. Some girls don't like boys like me, Aww but some girls do!" It was just the Texas soundtrack. Remember [now defunct KYNG-FM 105.3] Young Country? Now that was the radio station. I mean there was The Eagle playing rock, The Edge was more alternative, and then there was Young Country. And those are the only three stations I listened to. It's just nostalgic, remembering being at the skating rink, trying to make out with girls in the shadows, and some Randy Travis song playing. And that's just the way the world was. And this was all before Nirvana changed everything for me.
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That's a pretty good way to describe your music; just equal parts of Eagle, Edge and Young Country.
Yeah! I never thought about it that way, but that's Ben Kweller. Only Dallas would get that. Those are the three stations that shaped my music, so there ya go.
There's definitely been a shift in the country music scene post-Garth. How do you feel about "new country", and where do you fit?
Oh man, it's weird. The only thing I like about new country is that CMT actually plays music videos. But when it comes to the music, I feel like Nashville country is basically Avril Lavigne with a cowboy hat. It isn't even country! It's like some artists go to Nashville and make pop records, but put 'em on the country charts because it's so competitive on pop radio. I don't even get it. That's why I don't work behind a desk, because I don't feel like trying to figure that stuff out. I will say this: I think it's really encouraging that someone like Taylor Swift gets to write her own songs. For years, Nashville has been against allowing artists to do their own material. That's why I love Alan Jackson. If I had to pick one Nashville pop guy, it'd be Alan for sure. He's the real deal. If you could be punk in the Nashville scene, Alan Jackson is that. As far as me and where I fit, thank God I'm a Texas boy, you know? I can do Texas country that relates more to the outlaw, rebellious side of things.
Not to look too far ahead, but is this a music style you want to stick with? Or do you like to reinvent yourself every couple of years?
Well, like I said I've always been the mix of Eagle, Edge and Young Country. But this album, I just wanted to go all Young Country. I think you'll always see those three styles come out of me. One thing I think my fans like about my music is that you never know what's gonna happen next. Half the time, I'm just as surprised as them to see what comes around the corner. I've already been writing a bunch of songs for the next album, but I don't want to tell you anything about it. I just want to keep them to myself for a little bit, because I'm really into the Changing Horses thing right now. I love this album for what it is, and I'm sure I'll make a record like this again. But I just hope I get to continue to make music for many, many years. This'll just be another record in a long catalog.