A Conversation with Ben Kweller

At age 25, Ben Kweller is already a long-time veteran of the music industry. He recently spoke with RELEVANT to talk about his new and self-titled album and aspects of his evolution as a musician. You can check out our feature on Ben Kweller in the latest issue of RELEVANT.

You’ve got your new album coming out in September. We got an advance copy; I’ve been listening to it, and I really, really like it. What’s your favorite song off the new album?

My favorite song off the new album is “Thirteen,” which is a piano song. It’s my favorite because it means the most to me lyrically. I wrote that song while I was in the studio, and I just got hit by all this inspiration, I was going through a lot of personal things at the time: making the album, I had a baby on the way, I just had a big falling out with my best friend after eight years. My wife, Liz, has been by my side through many, many years, and I was just thinking about all the relationships and all the things we had been through and friends that we had that had come and gone and all different things. I did a lot of reflecting, and that’s where I got that song “Thirteen.” It just came out of nowhere, and I ended up working on it for five days in the studio, and I recorded it every day, and we finally got the take that we wanted. It was actually the 13th take that I did, and the reason that the song is called “13” is because we got married on Sep. 13, and Liz’s birthday is Oct. 13, and there’s just a lot of 13s in my life. And the fact that it was on take 13 was really creepy; that’s very supernatural. I found it has a lot of meaning to me.

So 13 has actually been a pretty lucky number for you.

It has, a very lucky number.

You’ve kind of grown up in the music industry, what with doing radish at such an early age and Sha Sha came out when you were what 20, 21?

Yeah, I was 21 exactly.

What’s been the biggest challenge in being around that scene for so long?

The biggest challenge is to try to have a normal life while being someone who has to travel around the world. Just trying to remain calm and centered. That’s the biggest challenge.

How is that trying to juggle touring, especially with the new baby and all that?

We’re about to enter this whole new chapter of our lives. I go on the road; the first show is Houston, Texas, on Sept. 12 I think.

We have a tour bus with a room in the back and a bassinet. We haven’t done this yet; we haven’t traveled as a family. We went down to Texas to visit my family for the 4th of July, but it’s just gonna be a whole new thing traveling around the world. But I’m really excited about it.

How has fatherhood been so far?

It’s been incredible. It’s been truly amazing; it blows me away every day. He’s growing up; every day he gets bigger, and he does something new every day. Now he holds his head up all by himself, and we do the airplane where I hold him up over my head, and he smiles all the time. He’s a happy little boy.

Do you feel like its been a big influence on you musically as well?

I’ve always been very nostalgic in my songwriting; I’ve always admired my father very much and my grandfather. So I’ve talked about being a father even before I knew I was gonna have a baby. I’ve always sort of wanted it, and this is more like a dream come true. So it hasn’t really changed my life much. Ever since he’s been born, I’ve probably written like 30 little children’s songs for him. They’re all called “Dorian,” and they’re all different. For his birthday I’m going to make a CD of songs for him.

One thing that I’ve noticed about your albums is that they’ve become a lot more introspective and mature. Sha Sha had had that playful hedonism to it, and the last two albums come from a much more mature standpoint. Is that just part of growing up, or are there other factors of influence there?

I’m guessing that getting older and wiser and experiencing more definitely goes into the things you create. I guess it’s life; when you’re a teenager, you know how to make some really good nachos, but then as an adult you might know how to grill a filet mignon perfectly. That’s the only thing I could think of. I’m definitely growing up and so is my songwriting; it’s just sort of the same thing.

What made you decide to play every instrument on this album?

What happened is kind of funny, I was writing songs, and some of them were unfinished, and I called up my friend Roger who has a studio in his apartment. I said, “Hey man let me come over and record some of my songs, try out some parts.” So I went over there, and I ended up recording like 17 songs, and I played all the instruments. Then, when it was time to talk to producers for the album, the label just sent all the producers those recordings of my demos. Gil Norton, who is a huge producer I’ve always looked up to, called me up and was like, “Man, I got these songs that you recorded, and I just heard that you played all the instruments. I really want to record your new album, but you have to play all the instruments on it.” I was like, “Man, I have these great musicians we can use, and some are really close friends and stuff.” He was like, “Man, you would really be missing a good opportunity by just using a band again. There’s just something really cool that happens when one person plays everything.” He said not a lot of people do it.

One thing I remember him saying that was so cool was, “You know, the thing is the same hand that played the high-hat is strumming the acoustic guitar, so the groove is perfect with each other.” And it’s really true. I guess everything sort of locks in a certain way. So I was nervous about it, but really excited too, and I loved the challenge of it. I’m really happy that my dad taught me how to play drums.

Does the album feel more personal to you?

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It does. It feels so personal, it’s scary; it’s kind of hard to listen to really. Even on “13,” it’s hard for me to listen, because the lyrics are so personal, and I mention things, and everything is so real in that song and people. Just like the whole line at the end, “the sun rises in your eyes, I see the damage.” That’s talking about all this gossip and bull—- that was happening between me and a friend. I was just mentioning real people and real situations. When I hear other songs like “Run” or “Penny on the Train Track” and just knowing that I played everything, it’s kind of scary to listen to it and bizarre. But at the same time “Penny” sounds to me like a band playing live; it’s got this live feel, which is cool.

What was it like working with Gill Norton? The guy is a legend.

It was cool. I actually was nervous to work with him because I had this impression that he was going to be a real hard—, be really strict in the studio about doing it his way. He was the opposite. He was a real gentleman and so sweet and always reminding me that this was my album, and he was just there to give his opinions, it was my creation. When someone says that kind of stuff, it makes you want to listen. He’s so smart. He’s worked with a ton of really brilliant songwriters, and he’s just been there. Having somebody like that on my side just gave me a lot of confidence.

He’s worked with bands like the Pixies and whatnot who I know you’ve said had an influence on you . How do you feel your musical influences have changed over the years or have they?

My influences have always changed, and I just love good music with good lyrics and good melody, and I love when an artist has something to say; I love a message; I love something you can attach to and something that can lift you up and give you some kind of hope. I like music that is created for the people you know. I love folk music; that’s my favorite stuff. Soul and country, just the real deal.

A lot of the influences that you talk about are very into social commentary and stuff, and your music, at least at the outset, seems to come from a much more personal place than it does from an angle of social commentary. Do you ever try to weave social commentary into your music?

I have inserted social commentary, but I don’t do it blatantly, man. I do it in more of a subtle way. I talk about my beliefs and I talk about the things that are important to me; I don’t like cramming it down peoples throats. It’s usually subtle, and you have to dig deep to find those lyrics. I don’t like to preach in my music, but I certainly have on certain things. I just like to tell my stories and talk about people and things. I’m not against political songs at all. The problem with politics is unless you really devote a lot of time studying it, it’s really hard to find all of the sides to it. You have to go out on a limb if you want to start preaching about politics in music. You really have to know the facts. I feel like it’s especially hard in our country today to get the facts. Most of the things on the Internet are negative. If you ever go on the Internet to research something you always find the negative complaints because people are always more motivated to write complaints. The stuff that our news covers on television broadcasts, it’s always biased one way or the other. I don’t know, it’s difficult. I just try to write the stuff that I know about.

It’s so interesting that you say that; I was talking to another band, and they said the same thing. If you are gonna do political commentary, then you have to be really queued up on your politics, and you can’t get stuff wrong.

That’s the thing. I talk about my basic humanitarian beliefs—like treat others the way you’d want to be treated. You know, talking about karma … if you do good things, then good will come to you. If you do bad, then bad will come to you. Things like that. That’s just your bare-bones basic belief system. I don’t need to get in and start preaching about oil companies and how our environment is going to get destroyed by the time our grandchildren are adults. That stuff pisses me off when I hear about it, but there’s plenty of good people already on those issues. At least right now, I don’t need to talk about it in my songs.

You are such an optimistic and upbeat guy throughout your music. You talked a little about stuff like that pissing you off. What does get you angry?

Injustice gets me angry. I get angry about corruption and people with power that use it for negative uses or just are selfish. There’s plenty of stuff that makes me angry. I guess the number one thing that makes me angry right now is the state of our government. It’s a real shame. It’s just sad because America is built on freedom of speech and mind; it was built on being progressive and thinking ahead and being innovative and creative and science and so much, and I feel like there are a lot of people that are just trying to bring us back a few hundred years. I’m a very spiritual person, and I believe in God, but I’m also very much into science and I believe that the two totally coexist. I believe that God created the beauty of a flower blooming from a seed. You know what I mean. I believe that all things, that science is of God. That everything is of God. There are so many people that say that science is of the devil. I’m like, “Man you’ve got to be kidding me.” They can’t see the beauty in science, and that’s what’s so sad and has been going on for years and years. A good example is Albert Einstein, one of the best scientists of all time, who was also a very pious man. And I just think that’s so cool, because he totally believed in a supreme power that made everything. He still tried to figure things out by using science and methods and formulas to try to explain that stuff but it’s all because of God. People just forget; they try to separate the two. That sort of stuff bothers me. When people are closed-minded, I get bummed out.

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