Flying Kites with Ben Kweller
Ben Kweller’s career has been quite a ride, and he wouldn’t change a thing. You’d think that anyone who got their start at the age of 15 might turn somewhat bitter with age in such a fickle industry, but Kweller is anything but. In fact, he’s so entrenched in his art that he recently debuted his own record label The Noise Company as a vehicle for his own music, as well as introducing new artists to the world.
With his latest disc ‘Go Fly a Kite,’ Kweller traverses through the ups and downs of friendships and breakups set to his own soundtrack of addictive pop-rockers, sweeping ballads, and piano driven opuses chock full of everything from bluesy guitar solos, waltzing keys and perfectly crafted sing-a-long choruses all rounded out by Kweller’s signature quirkiness.
We recently caught up with Kweller to talk about ‘Go Fly a Kite,’ the new business venture, and his uncanny ability to put a positive spin on just about anything!
One of the things that your fans love about you so much is that you’re so versatile and we really never know what’s going to come next from you and that’s kind of part of the magic. After your last release that had a country vibe, you’ve returned to electric guitar and rock on ‘Go Fly a Kite.’ How do you sort of dictate that musical path and what’s going to pour out of you next?
It’s hard because the songs really just come to me randomly, sometimes they’re rock songs, sometimes they’re piano ballads, sometimes they’re country songs, that’s the one thing that’s hard to control. The only thing I can control is that when the song comes to me, that I finish it. The type of song and how it comes and when it comes is really not up to me, that’s kind of the weird thing about songwriting that I’m still trying to figure out.
I know I just wrote two songs last week that are so sad, really f—ing grim sad songs, but I shouldn’t even talk about it because that’s no indication of what my next album will be like because I’m going to write a bunch of songs between now and then. I’ve done this in the past where I’ll talk about writing a bunch of a certain style of songs and before I know it, the article comes out and my next record is going to be a funk album. It’s going to be….R&B…
So I shouldn’t tell people that you’re working on your dubstep debut?
Exactly! He wrote a dubstep song, so that’s where he’s headed. I write a bunch of songs so it really is hard to say. I knew I was going to do ‘Changing Horses’ (the countryfied disc), and I knew I was going to follow it up with ‘Go Fly a Kite,’ which at the time I was considering calling it a rock ‘n’ roll album. I knew there would be a lot of harmonies and some upbeat energy to it. I’ve learned that it’s just better if I don’t even predict what I’m going to do because it just ends up bumming people out. They either get excited about what I say and then the result is something different, or vice versa, so I’ll just surprise them.
One thing we can always expect in your tunes is that even if the topic is a sad or negative one, you tend to put a positive spin on things and I can’t think of a better example than the album title ‘Go Fly a Kite.’ You’re kind of telling us to eff off, but in the kindest of ways. Is that what you were going for with that, that tongue-in-cheek-iness?
Yeah, it was actually me saying “Go f— yourself.” I was being kind of pissed off, but at the same time, that’s what I love about it, you can’t tell. I don’t need everyone to know exactly what I’m feeling all the time. I know the true hidden meanings in all my lyrics and things that I do. It’s like magical items, if you hold this in your pocket and keep it with you every day, eventually the power will be there in the magical item. That’s how I feel about songs and lyrics and artwork, the more you work on it and obsess on it you’re putting magic energy in there. With that said, ‘Go Fly a Kite’ I do love it because it’s such a juxtaposition, it can be taken in so many ways but the original concept was definitely a kiss-off vibe.
It’s funny to me that even now, 15 years into your career, it’s hard to find a piece of press where they don’t drop the term ‘child prodigy’ title into it, referring to your early start in music. Does that ever bother you?
No, it bothered me when I was 15 and they would write about it, I just thought it was really stupid. Now it’s stupid for a different reason, clearly I’m not a kid anymore and it’s kind of flattering. Okay, if they really want to keep calling me a genius, cool. People can say whatever they want to say, I really don’t care, and I’ve never cared. Even when I was a kid, I’m talking before people even started writing about me – sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me . I just don’t give a f— about really anything other than the people I love, music and being a nice person. That’s kind of it. I’m just flattered that anyone wants to write anything about me really.
‘Mean to Me’ is such a dirty, gritty, little number and such a great way to kick off the disc. There’s a lyric in ‘Mean to Me’: “Don’t regret anything I ever did, Cuz I always knew where I was coming from.” Is that you talking?
That’s 100% me, I don’t regret being the ragged kid, I don’t regret anything I ever did. That’s the thing, that kind of goes back to what we were just talking about and the whole child prodigy thing, I don’t regret being the focus point about young rockers — the thing is, I always knew who I was. I always knew what I wanted to do. I knew when I was 15, and I saw the backlash to Silverchair, who I thought were a great band and I was friends with, I thought it was really sad what the press would say about them and I said to myself, I want to have a real career, I don’t want to be a child star. I don’t have any regrets, I live without regret and I believe everything was meant to be and you just have to learn from things.
You’ve called the lyrics to the song ‘Full Circle’ your favorite on the disc. Can you tell us more about that?
I’m just really proud with how those verses came together. I think it paints a really nice picture, that song and those words.
For me, the songwriters that I’m most drawn to are those that really do paint pictures with their lyrics and that’s something you’re so good at. Do you subscribe to that being an element of a great song?
Me and you are similar, is it an element of a good song? For me it is, for my taste. A lot of people like music with really s—ty lyrics, so I’m not going to debate what a good song is but for me personally, 100 percent it is. I need to feel like I am getting something out of the person singing to me. I want to know the person. Even if I really don’t know Bob Dylan, you feel like in each song he’s different people, whatever character is singing, you want to feel like you can connect with that character and connect with it. If Johnny Cash is singing about being behind bars you want to believe it and you want to see the jail cell, that’s important to me.
Speaking of Dylan, in so many reviews of ‘Go Fly a Kite’ you’re being compared to modern day versions of the likes of Paul McCartney, Dylan, lots of classics. Where does that come from?
That’s what I’ve been noticing too, really on this album I think people are saying it a lot, but I don’t really know. I play the kind of music that I like. I don’t know how to say it any other way. I think people compare me to a lot of stuff and think that I’m influenced by a lot of things that I’m not. I don’t consider myself like a musicologist, I don’t study each of these people, but maybe my musical influences happened when I was really young. At this point, I don’t listen to music for inspiration, I just live life.
The other thing is, I have no clue what’s cool and hip, I don’t give a f— about that either so maybe that’s why everyone’s saying, “wow, his stuff is really classic and old school and he’s great at copying these old artists but sounding different.” But really the reason I sound different is probably because I’m not copying anyone, I just do my thing.
There seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme of breaking up on the disc whether it’s intimate relationships, friendships, etc..am I interpreting that correctly?
Yes, mainly friendships. Getting older, people having kids, people not understanding each other, people being in different phases of life, things like that. Stuff that I guess is unavoidable it seems.
You play a lot of different instruments but I read that the first one you ever learned was drums and you use to play with your dad every night – did he kind of pave the way for you musically?
My dad 100 percent, he taught me drums when I was 7. He taught me my first chord on guitar, the E chord that’s on the cover of ‘Go Fly a Kite,’ he taught me what harmony was and how to sing harmony. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if I didn’t come from my dad. I’ve got the same blood he has and even his dad really wanted to be a musician and played a little bit of piano and loved to sing. It’s definitely in my genes and now I’m seeing it in my kids (watch a 2-year-old Dorian Kweller make his stage debut with his Dad here).
What was the driving force behind starting your own record company The Noise Company, because it seems as it an artist it’s a bit of an undertaking so there must have been some strong inspiration for you to want to do that?
Totally, I think ever since I was a kid I was a big music fan and record collector. I use to love looking at the different logos of different record companies and learning which bands were on which label and seeing themes and patterns between bands that were friends with each other signing to the same label, like Matador, or Geffen Records. I was always sort of into that geeky aspect of it.
I guess I always thought it would be cool to have a record label one day and find bands and put out music and bring music to the world. I obviously never had the resources to do that or the guts really, but as time went on and my career developed over fifteen years, my record deal was up last year with ATO Records and so I basically made the decision that instead of re-signing with them or talking to different labels, it just felt like the right thing for me to do, to start my own label, and be completely independent.
Have you found it difficult to wear that business hat a lot more, there’s got to be quite a few more aspects of the whole process that you have to deal with now?
There are but I really think, I’m so hands-on and I always have been with my music and every aspect of it so a lot of that hasn’t changed. I also think the state of music right now, most bands have to be self-sufficient and involved and I’ve noticed that with young bands. The drummer will be the web guy and the guitar player will be the tour manager and the singer settles up with the venue and counts the merch in and out, all these young bands are their own little companies really, mom and pop small businesses. Fifteen years ago that would have been super uncool, back then we would have managers and big record companies throwing money at us and paying for everything – meals and limos – it was such a different time. Now there’s no money in our industry so if you’re an artist you have no choice but to actually work on that other side of things.
So this label isn’t just to release your own music, the end goal is to sign new bands?
Yeah, 100%, it’s a real label. We have a small staff of 3 people doing the work of probably 15. That’s the other thing, it’s not just me sitting at a computer all day, I definitely wouldn’t be able to do that, and that’s also why I couldn’t start The Noise Company five or ten years ago just because I was in a different place. Certainly the goal is to sign other bands and put music out there in the world.
I wanted to mention the packaging for your latest disc. Obviously a lot of thought was put into it and I think fans really appreciate that and miss that. Are these the kind of ideas you’ll be implementing through your label?
Artwork and design is really important to me and that was a big factor on why I wanted my own label, to be able to make decisions like that without someone shooting it down. I’m a believer that if someone is going to spend their money on something, give them something of quality. When you buy an iPhone the packaging that it comes in is just so luxurious and you just feel like ‘Holy f—, it was worth spending way too much money for this phone.’ You know what I mean? That’s important. You want to feel like you’re getting something, otherwise just go ahead and download the invisible mp3s. I figure people will buy it digitally but I love physical music so much that I believe it’s worth something still.