Former Radish member, and forever the prolific songwriter, Austin, TX based Ben Kweller is out with another brand new solo album, Go Fly A Kite. It is not surprising that it is full of more of the retro-rock inspired sounds that he is so wonderfully accomplished at, however what is surprising is the level of cheery vibes that work their way into an album filled with heavy topics. After talking with Ben Kweller, it is no surprise at all! This is an artist that is serious about his challenges while maintaining the most laid back attitude about life, music making and the music business.
We were very lucky to get to talk to him about his new album and feel that much closer to the music as a result. Feel free to read our interview with Ben Kweller but whatever you do don't miss this terrific new album!
Congratulations on Go Fly A Kite! Can you tell our customers a bit more about what they can expect from this latest release?
It’s a rock n roll album. It is upbeat and sounds very happy sometimes but there’s definitely some dark moments happening throughout the album. It is kind of a rebellious album but I feel like it displays everything I do in one concise package. It is very even sounding to my ears.
If you had to pick one key track on the album, which would it be and why?
There are really 4 key songs; “Mean to Me”, “Free”, “Full Circle” and “Jealous Girl”. Those four songs personify the entire album. “Full Circle” is my favorite song lyrically; it is rootsy, folky and a bit of a nod to my previous album Changing Horses. I love “Free” because it has a classic rock sound.
You released this album on your own newly formed label, The Noise Company. How was the recording process different as an artist recording on your own label?
Luckily the recording process didn’t change. The music making part of everything is still the same, which I like. I can see how the business side of things and stress in general could get in the way of making good art but that didn’t happen here. We recorded the album at a friend’s professional backyard studio ‘The Hideout’ here in Austin. He lived down the street from me and we kind of partnered up for a while. He had the studio space and I brought over all my equipment. A bunch of local people recorded there actually but then he moved away so the studio is no longer. Everything that has changed with this album is in the post production - the marketing, the setup and all of that is very different.
What’s the next step for your label? Are you looking to sign any other artists? And if you could sign anyone who would it be?!
There are a lot of bands right now that I dig. Because I was an artist for so long, fighting for attention, the last thing I want to do is sign a bunch of bands that have to fight for attention. I am seeing firsthand how hard it is to successfully release one album, let alone 5 or 6 in a three months span! This whole process has given me a lot of love and respect for really good record labels. ATO Records, who I was with for 10 years, do a great job and they have had so much on their plate at times. The goal is to sign bands, but we are going to be really slow with it. We don’t want to be one of those labels that go out of business because we can’t keep up with ourselves.
You relocated to Austin after years of living in New York. What is it about Austin, TX that draws musicians from far and wide?
I am not sure what draws musicians here and all I can tell you is why I was drawn here. Me and my wife Liz were living in NYC and when we had our son Dorian we decided we didn’t want to raise a family in New York. I grew up in Texas, North of Dallas, so the thought of coming back to Texas was appealing. We were shopping around for places to live and Austin, TX was always at the top of our list. As a city it is truly one of the coolest places in the world. It has great outdoor space, it is kid friendly, people are laid back and it is friendly. For whatever reason, there are also lots of musicians here, which is good for me; there are always people to jam with and there are a ton of great venues. It is funny, there is a Gibson Guitar rep here. That only usually happens in major cities like New York, LA or Nashville. That is what we really love, the mixture of outdoor space and urban living.
Are there any artists in particular that you have been inspired by lately, Austin-based or otherwise?
The Murdocks are one of my favorite bands, The Happen-Ins are amazing, The Black Angels, Spoon of course. Centro-matic are one of my favorite bands from years ago, they are more from the Denton scene originally and I used to play with them when I was a teenager. Amy Cook, is one of my favorites, we are good friends.
And aside from Go Fly A Kite, which one record has excited you most in the past 12 months?
The new Mason Jennings album – I always love everything he does. We are good buds.
What informed your initial decision to become a solo artist?
I had started to write these songs that were really auto-biographical. The drummer from Radish, my band at the time, started a recording studio and was busy so we were kind of in limbo as a band. I started recording these demos of my new songs and realized I was the only one there. So I decided, I guess I will just be me, Ben Kweller. The hardest thing in the world is to come up with a good band name, I was like screw that I will be Ben Kweller! The music that I make is really sincere and and honest and it’s me.
So, have you always been the predominant song writer?
Yeah I was really. In Radish and all of the other bands I was the songwriter. We were all so young and my other friends didn’t really get into songwriting. For some reason I was always into it. When I was 8 years old someone introduced me to “Heart and Soul”. I saw the pattern and how it was repeated so I just changed it and went from there. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. Even with girls I was never good at playing it cool, I am not cool! I tell you how I feel and that comes out in my music. Therefore, it made the most sense to be whoever I am, ya know, Ben Kweller!
Do you have any plans to reform The Bens?
There are plans of this happening. It is just a matter of time. We just have to schedule it.
In your career you’ve seen the music industry change from physical to digital distribution. Would you say you’re a supporter of online media and music distribution or do you find yourself still wishing for pure fan interaction in the real world and vinyl distribution?
I think they can coexist and I see the beauty in both. MP3s and digital files are super convenient. I love how you can slap them onto an iPhone or your laptop and email them without zipping them. At the same time, I love the experience of getting an album, reading the lyrics looking at the photos and trying to learn as much about the artist as you can. That is why we went crazy with this album packaging. It is a user experience and that is what we were going for. We need to give them a reason to buy the physical. I don’t want the physical to die. I see the need for physical but I think there is an equal need in the artistic value of a physical package.
Who did the artwork on your packaging?
I worked with Em Dash, a company in town that mainly does books and magazines. This is their big foray into album packaging and they hit a homerun big time. The artist that did the image on the inside is Josh Cochran. It is dope.
Having been releasing records from a very young age, did you ever entertain the idea of doing anything else for a living? And if you couldn’t have been a musician, what would you have been?
I had thoughts that it would be fun to be an astronaut or archeologist, but they were never serious thoughts. The serious thought was that I was gonna play music and write songs. That is the key with art in general. If you are better at something else then you should go do it. But if you feel the only thing you can do is this, you have got to just go for and not think twice. You have to be able to just dive in and be willing to be homeless on the street for it, full throttle.
Your output implies you’re pretty prolific! Do you ever struggle with writer’s block? Where do you get your inspiration from and have these sources of inspiration changed over the years?
I go through phases of not writing songs. I will go a month or two or three… I have probably gone 4 months without writing a song. Usually when I am touring and so I don’t feel like I have ever had writers block because I don’t force it. I have done some writing exercises and have tried to treat it as a day job before but I am just not a routine person. I am impressed by people who can do that. I read a bit of the book The Artists Way but at the end of the day none of that stuff has helped me.
I was hanging out with Connor Oberst when he was in town playing at Stubbs. We were about songwriting and he asked “hey do you understand how it works?” I was like “no!” It is kind of like magic to us. It just comes down from nowhere and all of a sudden you have this thing and you have to put the pieces together and you have a song. It still blows my mind. I am inspired by life and everything that happens around me. In this new album there are songs about real people, real places and things that went down – a lot of them negative. It is hard to say though, sometimes I write a song and I don’t even know what it is about until 4 years later. It is kind of stream of consciousness.
What’s the plan for 2012? Will you be touring?
Yes, a lot! I will be playing full band concerts at record stores for week of release. Then I go on tour to Japan, Australia, SXSW here in Austin, more US then Europe, then more US. Who knows what happens next?!
And finally, what’s been the highlight of your career so far and what would you still like to achieve?
I have has so many highlights! So many cool things have happened to me and I am grateful for it all. A lot of them are moments rather than charts, awards or numbers. I did a show with the Violent Femmes and they had me come on stage and do a song with them. I just smiled and jumped up and down and played my guitar, it was amazing. I got to hang with Tom Petty once. I also once went to Brian Wilson’s house and he played “God Only Knows” on his piano. That kind of stuff is just over the top!
I have goals but realistically every fan I make is a huge accomplishment. To be able to touch somebody through music is an amazing thing. When I heard the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” for the first time that is when I knew I wanted to write music. I listened to it on my dad’s turntable and I started crying. I played the song on repeat. I didn’t understand what John Lennon was singing about but I loved his voice and the melody made me cry. I looked at the piano and knew that was what I wanted to do; I wanted to make people cry. It is that magical thing. When people come to me and tell me my music has helped them through a hard time it means more to me than anything. If I can just keep that going them I am good.