Baby-faced singer/songwriter Ben Kweller has come a long way personally and professionally since fronting the teen-punk band Radish in the late 1990s, releasing 2002’s Sha Sha solo album and touring with his best mates, The Strokes. He’s had to.
With the first single to be taken from his new album about to be released, musicOMH discovered how he’s still very much On His Way – despite an emotionally heavy 2003.
Ben Kweller springs to his feet. “Hi, how ya doin’?” he drawls in his languid Texan-cum-New York accent. “I’m Ben. It’s nice to meet you.”
Despite a long day of face-to-face and over-the-phone interviews, Kweller bounds with nervous enthusiasm like a labrador puppy unable to settle. He’s genuine and generous from the off, giving the impression that there’s nothing better he would want to be doing right now – even though, as it later transpires, it’s his birthday and his wife Liz is enjoying the sunshine and shopping in Oxford Street.
At the tender age of 23, and looking years younger, Kweller is already a veteran of the music business. He fronted the much-vaunted teen-punk outfit Radish while still in school and in April released his second solo album On My Way.
Now, following an eight-week, 43-show, sell-out tour of the States, he’s in the UK on a punishing round of promotion, gigs and festival performances.
It’s relentless, but Kweller is looking forward to his T In The Park appearance, on July 11, where he can catch up with his friends and fellow musicians:
“The best thing about festivals is you get to hang out with your friends.” – And we thought it was performing to thousands of people…
Kweller met The Strokes and fellow New York bands such as Moldy Peaches after moving to the city five years ago and discovering that there was a friendly, collaborative vibe amongst fellow artists.
“I thought it would be like LA – y’know every band for itself,” confesses Kweller with a quick shake of his mop-top head, “but I found out pretty quickly that it was just another small community like Dallas, Texas, where I grew up.
The New York influence is clear in his music, but he cites his father’s love of The Beatles – also apparent – as his earliest inspiration. His dad was also responsible for his love of playing, having brought down a drumkit from the attic for Kweller when he was seven. He continues:
“Other inspirations have been The Velvet Underground, The Violent Femmes, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Iggy Pop… Y’know – people who do it their own way, who weren’t afraid of changing, experimenting.”
He’s clear about what he likes, what he doesn’t like and what he sees as the lazy side of the music industry.
“Play ballads, punk songs, country songs – do everything: play music instead of playing 12 songs sounding the same. I think that happens a lot because the music business finds it easier to promote something that sounds the same – it’s safer. The only band that could do that well were The Ramones. The spirit in them meant it didn’t matter that it was the same chord progression all the time! But listening to bands like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park – like, what a drag.”
“Listening to bands like Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park – like, what a drag.” – It appears Ben Kweller is not a fan of “nu-metal”.
Some reviewers have levelled accusations at Kweller that he pilfers too much from his influences and have criticised him for trying to mature too quickly with On My Way, following the jaunty, unabashed youthfulness of Sha Sha. These are things he strongly contests:
“I’m not trying anything except to speak my mind,” he retorts. “A lot of big things happened to me last year, which I put in to my lyrics. I got married last year; my grandfather passed away – which is probably the last time I really cried. It made me think about the life cycle, but what really affected me was my father crying because his father had died.”
“My new album is a lot less acoustic and a lot more garage. Everything was cut live without headphones, which gave it immediacy. It’s a lot more punk, but still melodic. It’s definitely a raw album. Every song pretty much has electric guitar, apart from two piano ballads.”
These ballads, like Kweller’s others, tend to be written late at night, often after parties out. He likes to come home, sit down in front of his piano and lose himself playing, he says.
“Different ideas come from playing different instruments, which is fine – it makes it a little more interesting. It would be hard to have a power-pop song for every emotion but you might want to write a sad song in a country and western vein. I feel that’s important.”
“He lives here? He lives here? Man… Maybe I could sing for him!” – Ben Kweller gets surprisingly over-excited at discovering Simon Cowell’s office is in the same building.
After spending the summer touring Kweller hopes to take some time out with his family – parents, his two sisters and Liz – at the Kweller lakeside holiday home. Then it’s back to the music.
“I have plans to make a real rootsy album, sort of country, folk-based,” he confides. “I’m going to have back-up singers – two sisters called The Pierce Sisters. Actually Catherine Pierce goes out with Albert from The Strokes. They’re from Nashville.”
They’ve already recorded one song together, which had been mooted as a B-side, but Kweller reneged, deeming it altogether too good.
Interview over, I ask Kweller if he has seen Pop Idol‘s Simon Cowell while at London’s BMG offices.
“He lives here?” he shrieks incredulously. “He lives here? Man… Maybe I could sing for him!”
Hmm, perky, production-line popstar a la Gareth Gates Kweller is not, but you get the feeling that if anybody could win over the acid-tongued music mogul with his zeal, earthy ambition and alacrity it would be this urban urchin.