The music of Ben Kweller has a similar effect on anyone with ears to listen and a heart to beat. In his most recent contribution to the music world, entitled On My Way, every note seems to take on a new meaning, just as Ben Kweller's life has during the making of the album. Ben's got a sound that wakes you up and makes you want to drive the car a little faster than usual. The flighty enjoyment of Sha Sha and Radish have evolved into the raw rocky rhythms of On My Way. Kweller's musical talent, which developed early for the native Texan, has morphed into a mod and mood shaking form of self-expression. After speaking with him, I discovered that the underlying element to Ben Kweller and his music is reality. Amidst creatively cryptic lyrics and strong, flowing melodies, is the sense that Ben doesn't craft a song for any particular audience. Instead, it is very apparent that Ben Kweller is real, and composes a song simply to sing it, and sing it well.
By Kari Lynn Hajduk
QRO: What do you miss most about your hometown?
Ben Kweller: Ooh, well, I miss the slow pace of it. I just miss trees and driving down country roads. I love New York. I've been there six years almost and it's so great and I owe so much to that city for where I am right now, because that's where I really started my whole career and everything. But I'm always in big cities, every day of my life. And so, then I come home to New York, which is great, but its hard to really relax there. So, I love going back to Greenville, where I grew up. And my parents just bought a lake house at this little bitty lake. And, so, I just go down there and go fishing and stuff and it's so fun and so relaxing.
QRO: When you're making music, what do you find is the best type of environment for writing songs?
Ben: Well, you know, first of all, songs can really hit you when you're not expecting it. I can be here right now and an idea will just fly through, and I'll be like, "Oh shit, I gotta go. I'll be back." But I mean, that's never really happened in a serious situation. But I definitely have to be by myself. People can't be in the room. I just have to be alone. Because, the song writing process isn't like a real pretty process, because you keep repeating one thing over and over again and toning it down, and shaping it. So it can be really kind of ugly. Sort of like watching someone sculpt. It can be real gross and icky looking. And then the finished product is beautiful, but you know, it's just a pile of clay at first. But yeah, I love being like on my back porch. Luckily, I live in a garden apartment, so I have a backyard with a big oak tree, in New York. So I always sit on the back porch. I like being outdoors to write songs.
QRO: Do you ever feel any pressure to change the song or alter its meaning?
Ben: Well, a lot of times, when I'm in the song writing process, it's not my baby yet. I'm still shaping it, so, I'll alter it as I go. Once a song is finished, I do have a harder time in the studio, changing things. But sometimes it can be such a great thing – to stumble upon a new idea for a song that I've had written for a few months. For "I Need You Back," on the new album, I had the song but I didn't have the [sings the melody] "boom boo doo," that whole groovy-like intro. And that just sort of happened on the spot. And see, we were just jamming, and I was like, "Oh my God, let's do that in 'I Need You Back.' And so, it took on a whole new life. So, that was sort of like the song graduated high school. It's your baby, but it just sort of became something else, but even cooler.
QRO: When you write a song, your own words and feelings are in it. But when writing the music for a song, is that more of a collaborative effort with you and your band?
Ben: No, the music and the words all happen together. I write the music first, actually. When I sit with my guitar or at the piano, I come up with music. and I'll have like a little core-progression that I'll repeat over and over, and then I'll just start singing a melody with words that I'm not even thinking about. I just sort of 'freestyle' the words. And then, if I say something cool, I think, "Oh wow, that was cool" and I write it down. And then I'll keep free-styling. And so it's all really like stream of consciousness, the way I write my lyrics at first. I don't think about a message or anything I'm really trying to say. I just let it sort of come out, naturally. And then, that tends to make the best song, as opposed to sitting down and saying, "Alright, I'm going to write a song about two kids flying a kite. And the string breaks, and then they have to go run in the woods." I just like letting it sort of come out and see what it's about. It's a little more abstract that way, and it can take on a lot of meanings, as opposed to just one direct meaning. Sometimes I do write with one meaning, and then I'll do that. But most of the time, it's stream of consciousness. And when a song's done, I'll get in the studio with the guys, and I'll teach it to them. And then they'll sort of come up with their own little parts. A lot of times, I do hear drum parts in my head, and I'll tell John or Fred or whoever's playing drums,"Hey, try this out," or "Let's do this." And we'll come up with arrangement ideas together. But that whole composition is usually done; it is always done actually.
QRO: Many of your fans would probably consider Sha Sha to be your kind of introspective, creative, soft flowing album. What events in your life influenced On My Way to possess a different mood?
Ben: Well, On My Way is a lot more garagey and more New York; sort of gritty sounding. But the lyrics, actually, got a little more friends and family, and loved-ones oriented, you know? I got married last year to my longtime girlfriend, Liz. But also my grandfather died last year. So, I met all these new emotions; like hardcore; real life changing events, for the first time. Death and love, for real. And, it just really made me think about friends and family and keeping that as close to me as possible. I think that New York shaped the sound of the record, though. Because, when I was writing a song for Sha Sha, I would start writing them in Texas, and then I moved to New York and finished the songs and wrote new ones. And so, that album's kind of a lot more free and [about] this kind of punk kid, like coming to New York, leaving a small town, and not really knowing what the hell's going to happen. But I was so excited, you know. And then, On My Way is a lot more sort of concise. It's got a sound and it's sort of like "five years in New York." It's a little more stable, although it does sound raw. That's just because we recorded it live. But, yeah, New York probably added a lot to the sound.
QRO: How do you feel about going on tour with a band like Incubus?
Ben: Well, this was really a surprise for me t o do because they just called me, out of nowhere and wanted me. The Vines were going to open up, but they decided not to because they sort of quit for awhile. So, Incubus called us up and they were like, "We really want Ben to open up for us." At first I thought, Wow! Incubus! They're such a big rock band, on MTV and stuff. And I don't even know their music. I'd heard some of their songs on the radio, but I didn't know what to expect. I was thinking, God, I don't know if the kids would get my music, or if they would heckle me, or what. Because the kids just want to see the big bands. But I've been really surprised at how cool their fans have been. And I think so many of them haven't ever heard me before, that I'm psyched to turn them onto something different. I think it's a good thing.
QRO: Have you gained a greater fan base from going on tour with Incubus?
Ben: I don't know yet, because this is only the third show. And usually, I'll find out on our next tour because kids will come and say, "Oh, I saw you with Incubus." That's how you find out. I have so many fans from when I played with the Strokes and Dashboard Confessional. So, you know, that's all been good. I played a lot of shows with Wilco and just, different bands and its definitely bringing fans from all these people. So, I'm sure that there'll be some Incubus fans turned on.
QRO: Where do you envision your career and your own music going in the next five years?
Ben: Well, in five years I hope to have another two albums out, or three, even. I just wanted to keep touring around the world, and just keep building my fan base. I want to eventually get to the point where I can just play anywhere by myself, and have fans come out. And I'm really psyched to continue to tour internationally.
QRO: In general, when you're on stage and performing, do you feel like you're sending out a message to your fans? Are you trying to reach them, or to reach everyone?
Ben: Well, I do. Certain songs have different ideas. So, sometimes, I'll be singing a song about hope, and about looking forward to tomorrow, and sort of, optimism, and I do want to transfer that on to people who might be down. So, I do, and hopefully my lyrics
can open peoples' minds a little and let them know that its one world, and we need to live together as one people. It's just important to remember not to take everything so seriously. But the serious stuff, you should at least recognize. I mean, I do like to spread some of my 'words of wisdom,' if that's what it is. But, I don't get very political on my fans much. Although, right lately, I've been wanting to, because we need to make some change. I want more young people to vote and learn about the issues.
QRO: You spoke about getting your music out to everyone. So, when you were in high school, were you that quiet kid in the back of the class, or were you the one with all the friends?
Ben: Yeah, I wasn't the one with all the friends, but I had friends in the popular crowd. Most of my friends were like long-haired, greasy stoner kids, who loved Nirvana. And I wasn't shy. I've never been a shy person. But I did my own thing, too. I didn't give into trends or anything. I think people always respected me for just sort of being Ben Kweller, and just not really giving a shit about conforming. Because, in small towns, it's hard to get away from that. Everyone's got to wear the same cool brand of jeans, whatever's out, and cool tennis shoes. And I never really gave into that. I think I was pretty liked by different people. I mean, there was a group of soccer players who really always wanted to kick my ass, for some reason [Laughs]. They didn't like me, and I almost got in a few fights with them, but that's just how it goes.
QRO: Was there anyone to push you to make your own music?
Ben: Well, no one ever pushed me to make my own music, because it's not really something that you think about as a parent. Like, "Oh, honey! Make your own song! Be a songwriter!" I just did it on my own one day. I just started making up these songs. I had about three songs, and they were all about love and girls, because that's what the Beatles sang about, and I was eight. And I would play them for my mom and her friends, while they were, like, drinking Bloody Marys. I'd be out playing and climbing trees, and they'd be like "Ben, come in and play us some of those love songs." So, it just sort of happened. It was strange. And I don't remember a point in my life when I wasn't making music. It's always been there.
QRO: Well, last question: If you were just an 'Average Joe' out in the world, would you listen to Ben Kweller's music?
Ben: Yeah, I would, definitely. There are so many different aspects of it. There's punk rock to country music to piano ballads and folk. And it's just music for life. So, I definitely would.