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by Jamie Lynn / pictures by Maike Zimmermann
Upon initial examination of the blank faced, teeth-brushing Ben Kweller gazing out from the cover of his new record, 'Sha, Sha', one wouldn't immediately assume they were looking into the eyes of a music industry veteran. But at twenty-one, Kweller has crammed more into his music career than his fresh-faced, boyish image might initially reveal.
Having started writing songs at the age of eight, Kweller was signed to a major label with his first band, Radish, at only fifteen. Following that project's subsequent disbanding, Kweller found himself moving from his native Texas to New York City, reinventing himself as a solo artist within NYC's AntiFolk scene, touring America with Evan Dando and releasing two very distinct solo records - extensive experience for someone who has only just reached legal drinking age in his native America.
While the teenage Radish highlighted Kweller's power-pop leanings, his solo work demonstrates the expanded breadth of his abilities. With a healthy smattering of sugar-sweet harmonies, folky alt.country, piano balladry and plenty of guitar-rock crunch, 'Sha, Sha' is music that is unashamedly heartfelt and captivating.
Despite lyrical claims that love can "make you cry, mega-ultra sad", or budget promo photos which show him fidgeting with outdated video games panels, Kweller's persona is refreshingly irony-free. He's not hiding behind any form of teenage self-mockery - this is the way Ben Kweller looks, communicates and quite simply lives, thank you very much. His enthusiasm is boundless and indisputably contagious.I've seen you play live a couple of times and the show has a great deal of playfulness and 'pseudo' rock-god moves about it. However, listening to 'Sha, Sha' I was surprised at the depth of songwriting on many tracks. Do you get that reaction from a lot of people, who may have just assumed you only write breezy pop songs?
Some people don't expect the songs to go too deep. I don't really have my finger on the pulse of what people are really thinking. I guess as far as the critics go, and through some of the interviews I've been doing, a lot haven't seen the live show yet, so they only have the album. Plus, 'Sha, Sha' has been out here for a few months [in America]. So I've been getting a lot of attention for just for the songs themselves, which is cool. But I'm psyched, because I've always been a big fan of artists and groups that have good songs, as well as great performances. So I try and have it go hand in hand. Not that there is anything wrong with great pop songs, in fact they're probably the hardest things to do well. I guess I just wasn't expecting songs like Falling, which I think is one of the prettiest songs I've heard so far this year.
Oh thanks man. I'm really proud of Falling, especially. That was one of the last songs I wrote for the album and really means a lot to me because that was the first time where, after I finished it, I just sat there and said, "Wow man, you really explained exactly what you wanted to lyrically". Also, the music goes with it perfectly. It was just a complete package where I didn't feel like I compromised my lyrics to try and rhyme certain words. I just said exactly what I wanted to. That was a big thing about this album in general. It was a real turning point for me as a songwriter, sort of finding my voice. And that's the cool thing, because I'm 21 years old and I'm a new artist in so many people's eyes, but I have had all these years of experience under my belt and I'm really grateful because that's the only way I could be doing this now. It's hard because when you first start writing songs you obviously try and be like your idols and emulate your favourite music, which is normal. But it's a nice feeling when you start to incorporate those things and also feel like you're creating your own thing. For this album it was the first time I felt like I was really doing that.Do you get tired of people still making such a big deal about your age?
You know what, at this point I'm still psyched that I'm as young as I am. I feel like I've been through so much, that it's not really an issue. I'm sort of flattered at this point that people are still mentioning my age as something that's seems to be important to my whole story. When I was fifteen I was bummed out because it clearly was not about the music, it was more about the novelty aspect of this freaky fifteen-year-old kid who got signed to a major label. That bummed me out because I knew I was feeling the music and I was doing all my writing from the heart - at least as much as a fifteen-year-old can. But then I just learned how to deal with it and today I feel good about myself because I know I've 'paid my dues' and I've been through a lot of shit. It really took moving out of Mom and Dad's house and going to New York City four years ago. You know, learning how to live on your own and becoming an adult. So I'm comfortable with myself, which is really important too if you're going to be a songwriter about situations. I feel like I've been through my fair share of them. But it's cool because most of my heroes were around my age when they got into [music]. So I'm not too worried about it.It's funny, because it seems like rock 'n' roll has got a lot older. People are intrigued that you're only twenty years old and are making good records, but that was the age that a lot of the bands from the '60s and '70s were when they were making records. People who have influenced you.
Exactly man, totally.Do you look at your age as any kind of issue? Do you ever feel like you have to try twice as hard to prove the legitimacy of the songs you write?
No, at this point in my life and my career I just do my own thing. I haven't felt like I have to prove myself. That's the cool thing, because when I moved to New York I had no band, no label, no manager - nothing except my acoustic guitar. So I made friends with the AntiFolk kids and the Moldy Peaches in New York and started playing shows as a one-man band. I also recorded an album on my computer called 'Freak Out.' So there wasn't any label support in the business that was with me, so I was forced to do everything on my own, the way I wanted to, and didn't think twice about it. Then Evan [Dando] got a copy of 'Freak Out' and took me on the road and that's what put me where I am now. It was never about forcing myself on other people, it all just happened naturally. At twenty-one I don't feel like I have to prove to someone I can write a good bridge to a song. I'm just over that. I just don't worry about impressing other people, just myself, you know?New York seems to be enjoying a real musical resurgence. How much do you feel a part of that scene?
I definitely feel a part of it, though I feel like I'm the solo artist of that whole scene. The 'rock' solo guy. But New York definitely played a big role in the making of ['Sha, Sha']. I've made a lot of good friends in New York and that was one of the things I was nervous about when I moved there. Just worrying about this big city and would I be able to find a musical community that I could hang with? I was sure it would just be a bunch of bands trying to get signed and trying to climb their way to the top, ahead of the next band. But, especially in Brooklyn, it's really not that case at all. It's very 'homey' and bands are doing a lot of stuff together. I'm psyched [New York is] getting lots of attention, as well. Especially on a national and international level. It's wonderful. What's your songwriting process like?
Ninety-five per cent of the time I just sit down at a piano or with a guitar and come up with a riff or chord progression I like. Then I'll start singing and whatever comes out, I don't even really think about. I just sing a melody and sing words and if is sing something good, I'll write it down and go from there and build on that. Sometimes if something comes quickly lyrically, I'll really start to develop the song. But the second you start to think about it, that can be the end of it. I find the best songs just happen the same way a good show happens. When I go through a show, sometimes I'll be on stage and at the end and think "Holy shit, I didn't even think about that show the whole time." I didn't worry about breaking a string, or dropping my pick - it all just flowed. Great songs happen like that. Lizzie was a song like that. It was just complete inspiration and I had music and lyrics in two or three hours. I started that song with a riff and then, when it came to the verse, my hands just moved to the chords naturally, which is strange. Sometimes I'll sing [ideas] into a tape recorder or call my voice mail. Just the other day when I was flying to Minneapolis, I didn't have my tape recorder and I came up with a melody with words, so I called up my home phone and left a message with the information. Then, last night when I was at sound check, I called it up, listened to it and [the band] learned it. Now it's this really cool jam that we have. So it can happen in all different ways, but the one rule is that when something comes you have to write it down and remember it because they come at such strange times. You seem to like writing love songs, but with some cleverness thrown into the lyrical mix, not to mention plenty of pop culture references. How conscious are you of the way you present your lyrics?
I'm definitely conscious of it, because normal love songs get boring for me. I like to present things in ways that it can be taken in more than one way. Sometimes I like to be really direct in my lyrics and other times I like to be really abstract. Even within songs it's important to have both elements so it doesn't get boring. It's fun when you sing a song every night on tour, sometimes depending on your mood, you'll get different meanings from it. You'll think, "Oh, that means this." A lot of songs were sad songs to begin with and towards the end I like to bring it up and make it happier. I like that element of optimism. You know, "Tomorrow's a new day, it's all gonna be ok." [laughs] Universal stuff.
Yeah. And that was the whole thing with moving to New York. You know, leaving your parents' house, leaving your best friend, falling in love, not knowing where you're gonna fit in the world. Knowing that if you keep your head up, you're going to be fine. Just go with the flow, you know? In most of your interviews you seem to present a lot of 'quirky' things - your love of fishing, video games, baseball cards and all things 'rad'. You certainly present a pretension-free image. But, in part, are you a little bit shy to admit that there is a poignant songsmith hiding inside you?
No, I think that's all really me, all that stuff. God, if you hung out with me in the van, you would know, because I'm buying baseball cards non-stop. I'm a really serious enthusiast of certain hobbies. It's pretty over the top. I mean, at the same time, I know a little bit about a lot of things, which someone told me is a real Gemini trait. I just try and be myself. I don't think I'm really hiding behind anything, because then I would be in a band. It was a big move for me to actually call it Ben Kweller, when a lot of people don't do that.You're closely involved with your artwork and imagery. From your album covers to your web site to the photocopied 'zine you hand out at shows, all your photos have a real disposable camera / high school yearbook feel to them. Was that the idea?
Totally the case. I'm not a fan of the glitzy image. I like to do a lot of that shit myself and I feel it's the best way to express who I am. So if a record company needs an image, I like to be the one to provide that. With the style of photos and everything I use, I think it presents the image in the best way. Because I am all about living life one day at a time and capturing different times and places. It's really important to me that the photos don't look like they've been done on a nice photo shoot.No airbrushing?
Yeah, exactly. Just laying it all out and keeping it really simple. You don't have to spend a lot of money to get good photos, just do them yourself. I just think people can relate with that better. I definitely don't try and separate myself from my fans. I'm not anywhere above them. I just like to sing them my songs and I feel they can sort of relate with them, which makes me happy. When a kid comes to my show and afterwards he says, "I just lost my girlfriend and I listen to your record all the time and when I'm down it really brings me up and gets me through rough times," that's the kind of shit that means the most to me and it's one of the main reasons why I do this. That's how the Beatles made me feel and that's how Nirvana made me feel growing up. So to be able to pass that on to someone else is really amazing. So I try not to separate myself from the image, because I constantly want to remind people that I'm just like them. I'm a normal guy who sings songs about life. A lot of people have used some easy comparisons when describing your music. Like Ben Folds Five, just because you use the piano, or Weezer because of some chunky guitar riffs, but you see yourself as more of a modern folk singer, don't you?
Yeah, I totally do. When people say Pavement, I think that's a more accurate band to compare my music to. I mean, if they have to make a comparison to another band. There's always gonna be Beatle-esque [elements] in my music, because I'm such a fan of that classic recording - just one guitar that goes through three multi-track guitars to get that huge sound. You know, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, big harmonies. I love vocal parts, like the Beach Boys. But I've never understood the Ben Folds thing. I think that's just because I'm the only other guy that's coming out with piano rock music. When I think of Ben Folds, it seems a little more jazzy, more musical. Another guy I think of is Neil Young. If there were a model for the kind of career I'd want to have it would be him. Just to remain with that... no pretension, everything straight from the heart, always making music as much as possible. Neil is one of my biggest heroes. Musically too, he'll make a country album, or a punk album, an R&B album. You've opened for and played with an exceptional range of musicians. Who did you learn from the most?
Well, Evan [Dando]. Just because he was the first person when I moved to New York to take me out on the road and take me under his wing. It was just him and I in my car, with two acoustic guitars. We'd stay in hotels together, we talked a lot. Just watching him every night I learned so much. Even about singing and how to use the microphone and how to sing on the microphone and how to sing off it. There's a lot of stuff I find myself doing when I'm on stage that reminds me of him. No one else might notice, but I can tell, because he's such an amazing vocalist. His voice is so amazing. Sometimes you can get bogged down by having a radio thing, then you have an interview, then a sound check, then a photo shoot, then the show, then you do it all over again. [Evan's] such a great person to talk to about all that stuff - how to handle and deal with it, because he's been through all of it on the biggest level. You know, having hit songs and being a real star. So it's cool to have someone like that whom you can confide in and ask how he handled it. Jeff Tweedy I got a lot from, as well. And I'm such a huge Wilco fan, especially the early alt.country stuff. When I toured with him, I had my earlier record out and that was a lot more 'AntiFolk' meets alt. country. Just raw, acoustic punk. It was a great match at the time and I'd love to play with him again. As someone with major label exper-ience how are you finding the inde-pendent route in comparison?
There's a huge difference. Being on a major label is so hard, because it can be really great when you 'sign there', but then if you don't sell 'x' amount of records, or you don't get 'x' amount of spins on the radio, they start losing confidence. When you're label is so big and there's so much money involved, with fucking stockholders and big CEOs, there's a lot of pressure on everybody to have huge success. The way some artists, like me, judge success is a lot different than how big A&R people judge success. People like me consider a long career of making albums and growing as an artist and building a fan base slowly, as opposed to overnight growth by getting on MTV. It's tough because you're dealing with a lot of competition, a lot of people who are scared to make decisions that might be a little left of centre. People who are always looking over their shoulders to see what everyone else is signing, though usually six months too late.
The great thing about being at 679 and ATO is they love your music first. It's more like a family. They don't sign you because they think you're going to be the next big thing, they just believe your going to do great things because they love your music and believe it's going to happen. Also, these companies let me handle the artwork and basically let me make the record I want to make. Whether or not something is on the charts should make no difference as to how much you love it.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002