Between SXSW getting underway, a crammed tour schedule, trying to balance music life with as-close-to-normal-as-possible life, building a totally interactive, fan-friendly website from the ground up, and running The Noise Company, his very own record label, Ben Kweller is understandably and self-admittedly being pulled in a million directions at once. Nevertheless, he is—as always—chipper, upbeat, and seemingly stoked when he calls me for our interview. He apologizes for barely being late, and asks me how I am. The Southern boy on all the records is the Southern boy on the telephone. “Everything is crazy right now, I’m all over the place. I’m trying to get everything organized,” he says, with food on the way in his few hours of “down” time.
This sense of frenzy is nothing new to him; he’s been wrapped up in and totally enamored with music since he was just a kid in Greenville, Texas. “My dad’s Beatles records and dancing around our house to Bruce Springsteen songs… Those are some of my first memories,” he says. His father, a doctor, started teaching him how to play drums when he was around seven-years-old. “He took his old drumset down from the attic one day and I’ve been playing ever since.”
His playing is not, by any means, limited to drums; Kweller is a multi-instrumentalist, playing drums, piano and keyboard, as well as the guitar and singing. For a lot of musicians, the decision to enter—and stay within—this lifestyle comes with age and the experience to fully back up the commitment, but Kweller knew when he was just around eight or nine that this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. “I remember being, like, eight-years-old, and hearing ‘All You Need Is Love’ by The Beatles for the very first time. I just cried. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, this is so beautiful, I wanna do this.’ I wanted to do that—be able to touch people with music in that way. And so that’s what I’ve been trying to do! Someone taught me how to play ‘Heart And Soul’ on the piano around that time, and I started writing my own songs around those chords. I had about 12 or so original songs put together by the time I was nine.” Fans everywhere and music appreciators in general can be thankful he had such a supportive upbringing; talents nurtured, creating encouraged. “If I wasn’t making music though, well, I think I would be a professional fisherman. Or I would own a baseball card shop. That or I’d be doing something in the world of computers.”
But he is making music, and has been professionally since 1993 with the formation of his first band, Radish. Self-described as ‘sugar metal,’ Radish put out two demos and a studio record, Restraining Bolt (1997, Mercury Records). Two of the three singles off that record became UK hits, and garnered them a sizeable indie following in America as well. They called it quits in 1999, and Kweller then moved with his girlfriend Liz (now his wife and the mother of their children) to New York and began to actively pursue his solo career, and music rather different than that which he played with Radish. However different the past and present genres are, his time in that band prepared and inspired him to create his brand of soulful Southern, indie-bluesy rock music.
“Being in Radish did help me a lot actually, definitely. You know, music is like anything else. The more you practice and play the better you get. Being in the recording studios, working with producers, writing all those songs; it all prepared me. I learned who I was as an artist in those years. I found my voice. And when I released my first solo record, Sha Sha (2002, ATO Records), I felt like I’d already traveled all over the world, I already had the experience I needed to make this all happen.”
He makes it look so easy; five records now under his belt, each one more complex, distinct, and profound than the last. He has collaborated with bands like Guster, toured with Death Cab For Cutie and The Bens along with Ben Folds and Ben Lee, and been a favorite at Austin City Limits for years now as well as doing many other festival appearances in America and abroad. He released his most recent record Go Fly A Kite, which dropped in February, on his own label, The Noise Company, after his split from ATO Records. This album features some slightly darker subject matter than fans are used to, but he says it’s not related to the label change. “That’s more of a coincidence really. I was going through a lot when I wrote these songs. Breakups with friends, discovering what was truly important in life.”
But perhaps the most difficult thing, would be balancing rock ‘n’ roll with real life. “I really think the hardest thing for me, in doing all this, has been putting things on hold. Sacrificing normal life for tour and traveling, in order to bring my music to as many people as possible. But I have no regrets.”
The humility, the honesty, and the perseverance make for a truly down to Earth, organic feel to his music—which is what you can expect from The Noise Company. “Oh yeah, it is very much for sure organic. One hundred percent. We’re not rushing to sign every band that comes our way, we’re taking our time and doing things right. How it should be done. I have a lot of goals. My life dream is to own a farm in Central Texas, with a studio setup so I can record whenever I want. But in the near future I just hope to put out as many 7” records as possible—my own songs as well as stuff from other bands.”
In making his music, as well as the music of others, so easily accessible, he has formed a rather personal relationship with his fans. He spent over a year developing and perfecting his own interactive website, benkweller.com, just for the sake of having an independent, real place for his fans to go for music and information. Something different—not the typical Myspace/Facebook detached third-party internet schtick. He’s working on getting a database of all previous shows, all music, and a public forum put together. “I’m really excited about it! I have a lot more to do though. I want it to be a social network for my fans, where they can talk to each other and access videos, photos, content; all from a one hundred percent official resource.”
And it’s so great to see a well-loved musician such as himself readily opening up to his entire fanbase—but in a time when nothing is sacred or private on the internet, does he ever feel maybe a little bit over-exposed? Nah. “I don’t mind it, really. I’m a performer. But I do know how to balance my public and personal life. I’m a very accessible person, but like anyone else it’s hard to know me unless you hang out with me all the time, unless I let you in. I’m still a private enough person at the end of the day. But I love my fans and meeting new people.” I met Ben for the first time in 2004 when he played at Stockton College; it’s refreshing to see that the friendly aspect to all that he does hasn’t changed with fame over the years since then.
Getting back to the states from Japan in late February and Australia at the beginning of this month, he’s got maybe a few days of rest and relaxation before he heads out on the road again, kicking off his U.S. tour in Connecticut on March 20. “Oh, it’s gonna be a fun tour,” he says excitedly. I’ll be playing a lot from Go Fly A Kite, but also songs from all of my past records. I’ll even be taking audience requests! It’s gonna be the same high energy, electric, fun show I try to put on every time.” I would highly recommend grabbing tickets to these shows while they’re still available; not only is Kweller’s music more than worth it on its own, but some of the supporting bands he’ll have with him are fantastic as well.
You can see Ben Kweller at Union Transfer in Philadelphia on March 21 and at Irving Plaza in NYC on March 24. For more information, check out benkweller.com.