Q&A: Ben Kweller Talks Production, His New Album, Parenthood and Finding Out That an Old 97's Song Was In His Wedding Video

Categories: Interviews
Ben Kweller
The story of Ben Kweller has been documented pretty relentlessly around these parts--from forming the band Radish at the age of 12 to signing with Mercury Records at 16 after being hailed by critics as "the next Nirvana" to then following his girlfriend to New York where he'd end up recording his first three solo albums, and, finally, to moving back to his home state in 2008 and tempting with fate by recording a country album.

Subsequent to this homecoming of sorts, we in the in the Metroplex have had the privilege of more frequent performances from Kweller than ever. So it's not exactly earth-shattering news to find out that Ben will be performing at the Granada Theater this week as part of the fourth annual CF Concert Series benefit show.

But the fact that Ben will be doing a solo acoustic performance this time around is one aspect that makes this week's show not just the typical Ben Kweller show. Even more special than that is the fact that Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller will be turning in a similar effort. And, after speaking with Kweller in advance of the show this week, it looks like a very real possibility that the two will at some point in the night will likely get together for a few duets.

Over the course of our talk, Kweller also talked about recording his upcoming album, what he digs so much about production work, his favorite Old 97's songs, and why he may never play a Radish song again. Read the Q&A in full after the jump.

I've heard you're busy working on a new album, Go Fly a Kite, and that it's supposed to be a lot more electric than [last year's] Changing Horses. What else can you tell us about it?
Yeah, it's definitely very poppy and melodic and upbeat--a lot of up-tempo songs, but it's got this growl to it. The lyrics have a bunch of darker material, I would say. Kind of sad lyrics about lost friendships and things like that, and songs about being taken advantage of by other people and being screwed over in various situations. So, it's kind of like a "Fuck you" album, in a way. But it also has a lot of hope to it, and, like I said, it sounds fun on the surface like this really fun upbeat record. But I think a lot of people will relate to it.

So the title of the record is more of a tell-off than a reference to the Mary Poppins song.
Yeah exactly, it's definitely less Mary Poppins and more Spotless Mind, I would say.

Either way it sounds like you're not doing the whole country thing this time around. I think the thing I am most impressed with when looking over your entire career is the way you can completely change styles from album to album, or even from song to song within an album without it ever sounding too forced.
Thank you! I think that is because of growing up in East Texas with parents from the Northeast who grew up in the '60s. I grew up with this interesting mix of popular country music from the '90s as well as old-time country western, folk, and blues, but also with rock 'n' roll music from my parent's generation, the British invasion, and then, of course, mainstream rock radio from growing up listening to 94.5 The Edge and hearing stuff like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time. It's an interesting mixture, so I've always been able to go back and forth between all different American roots music and rock 'n' roll. Obviously, I would say that because I learned piano before I learned guitar, I've always written on both instruments and they can each compliment certain [styles of] music. So you can sit down at the piano and write a really sweet love song and then pick up your electric guitar and write this rock song about how you hate school or how you don't want to go to work. It's just different outlets.

You seem just as passionate about producing records for other people--Triple Cobra for instance--as you do about working on your own material. What is it about the studio that you find so appealing?
I've loved the art of recording ever since I was a little kid. When I was about 8, my dentist had a four-track recorder and so I borrowed it from him and my dad recorded me doing some songs. That was the first time I ever recorded. When I formed bands in high school we found a studio in Dallas and went in and recorded and I just got bit by the bug. As a songwriter, I sit on the bed and write songs, and I hear all the parts in my head, and a lot of times they're things you can't really pull off live. In the studio, that's the place where you can kind of make what you hear in your head come alive. I remember I used to be really concerned when I first started recording, especially in Radish when we started going into real studios and making albums that were going to be released, it was a big concern of mine to make sure that what I recorded would be something I'd be able to play live, so I never wanted to do any [overdubs]. If a producer wanted to add extra parts or extra harmonies, things he knew I could do, I was really reluctant to do it a lot early on. And then there was a producer who told me, "When you're in a studio you're making a record, and the record is going to live on forever and it doesn't matter if you can't do it live." That's the thing about a record; it's always going to be around. A concert is just going to be there for one night. Over the years, I've really thought about that and discovered that he was right. I look back at Queen footage of [them recording] "Bohemian Rhapsody" and they have, like, a cassette player doing all the harmonies with them and they would make it into this kind of kitschy thing. But I'm so happy they recorded "Bohemian Rhapsody" the way they did because now we're all left with this beautiful masterpiece. I definitely separate the two things, the live show from the studio, and I love them equally just like I love piano and guitar equally, but they're very different. As far as producing other people, I love helping out other bands and songwriters, lending a hand and helping develop something that's different from what I do. It's very fun. It's one of those things that is very consuming so I don't really do it that often. The Triple Cobra album took us about two months, so for those two months I didn't write one song or think about anything of my own. The Ben Kweller thing kind of shut down for two months and I wore a producer's hat and I was just in Triple Cobra world. That's really what you have to do when you produce a band because they're really relying on you and your vision to really help them, so if you're not 100 percent immersed in the thing then you're not doing them a service.

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