Interview: Ben Kweller's Rebirth

by - janeiro 21, 2021

Photo credit: Sophia Lawson 

Entrevista originalmente publicada no Scream & Yell, em português. Acesse aqui

DRIPPING SPRINGS, TX — American singer and songwriter Ben Kweller is back after a 9-year break from new album releases. Circuit Boredom is his first full record since Go Fly A Kite (2012). In this interview, originally published in PT-BR on Scream & Yell, the Texas-based musician explains what took him so long.

So, how are you doing…

I’m good!

…with the pandemic and all, how are you handling the situation?

It's been so messed up, you know. It's sad that it's gone on so long that now it just… Is the new normal, you know. Yeah, I, as you can see, I've invested in some cameras, so it's my life of, you know, being able to just have my world here. And I've been kind of… You know, dude, I've been actually doing a lot of song writing. One cool thing about COVID, if there's any cool thing, it's that, um, there's been a lot of song writing sessions via Zoom, like this, but where we're just writing songs together, so that's really fun. Usually I fly to L.A., or New York, or Nashville to do song writing sessions, so now it's been really fun and I was even able to get some sessions with artists that I normally wouldn't even, you know, write with. Everyone's been kind of open to it, so that's been cool.

Where exactly are you living now?

I'm outside of Austin, Texas. I live out in the country, I'm in a small town called Dripping Springs. It's kind of, like, ‘the Woodstock of Austin’, in the hills. And it's really beautiful, there's a good community here of musicians.

Apart from a couple of singles, it's been a while since we've heard from you. And I wanted to start by asking you if are there any specific reasons for you not releasing a full record in nine years, and what drove you and motivated you to do it now?

Well, it's kind of a bummer story… So, I released Go Fly a Kite in 2012, and everything was going great, and I was touring all over the world and we actually got nominated for a Grammy for the first time in my career… And things were so good around that time…

It was around that time that you came to Brazil too.

Yes, exactly, my first tour in Brazil, which was so fucking cool… So, in the winter time, my family, we rented a little cabin at the top of a mountain in New Mexico. It was really fun, except one night, my wife woke up and said, ‘Ben, get up, get up, something's horribly wrong. I feel really sick’. And so I stood up and just, like, collapsed to the ground, and we were all really sick and didn't know what it was. We got outside of the cabin and called 911. The ambulance came to pick us up and they said, ‘You guys are 15 minutes away from not waking up. You have carbon monoxide poisoning’.

Oh, a gas leak or something?

Gas leak, exactly.

Wow. Damn it.

So we were in the hospital for days, on oxygen, and our brains were fried… We came back to Austin a few days later, and I just had to cancel everything. I was just, like, a zombie. A few weeks went by, and then months went by… I didn't want to tour, I didn't want to perform, I was just super depressed, and just didn't really know what to do with myself. Just before I knew it, years had gone on, and the one good side was that I continued to write songs, but I would just sit on my bed, you know, and write songs. But I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything. I didn't want to record. So about two years ago, one of my friends, Dwight Baker, called me up and said, ‘Man, I know that you're really depressed, but I was thinking, maybe you could just come over. Let's record a song for fun and just fuck around in the studio, because maybe making music with a friend would make you feel better. So we recorded ‘Heart Attack Kid’, and that was really the beginning. I mean, I can't believe that nine years went by, you know. It's so, so sad to me, just because I love music. I mean, music's my favourite thing. I had never really been depressed before, so it really made me look at my mental health, and I got therapy and, you know, I've gotten over the carbon monoxide, but it kind of affected a bunch of stuff as well. Just, like, physically, with my memory and all different things. It kind of affects your whole system, so that's really why… [it took so long to release a new album] And now I feel like I'm racing myself to make up for lost time, you know.

That's great to have you back.

Yes, glad to be back, man!

Can you tell me a little about the recordings of Circuit Boredom? Did you do it at home or at a studio? I know you've worked with Dwight Baker, who you mentioned before, he co-produced it with you, is that right?

Yeah.

But did you do it during the pandemic and did it impact the process at all?

Well, it's funny. We finished it right before the pandemic, and I was gonna release it in March, and then pandemic hit. So then we were like, ‘Fuck! What do we do?’, you know, and then finally… This has been going on so long, I just said, I'm putting it out on New Year's Day, just to do something fun. Because normally you would never release an album on New Year’s, because the whole music industry shuts down and I just… My fans would be on their phones, so they'll get a notification that the new album's here.

The recording process was very simple, it was me and my friend John David Kent, who is a great drummer — he was in my band, Radish, when we were teenagers. And he's played on most of my solo albums, so it was me and John and Dwight at the mixing desk, and my friend Daniel played keys and synth bass. But we just over dubbed all his stuff, so really it was just, like, me on guitar and singing with a drummer. That was the basic tracks, and then we overdubbed keys and synth, bass guitar. There was one day where I brought in just a bunch of my friends to be the choir, to sing all the backing vocals and some harmonies and ‘oh's and woos’, you know.

Considering everything that you went through, are you a songwriter who is constantly working on new music or do you focus on creating only when you have a specific project, like an album or a single in mind?

I write all the time, meaning not every second or every day, but I write throughout the year. What I try to do, at least once a week, I try to write a song for someone else. Just to sort of… Writing songs is my favourite thing, so I'll get together, like… Lately it's been over Zoom, with different friends, and we'll say, ‘Okay, let's write a country song today’, or ‘Let's write a pop song, that we can send to Ariana Grande’, or, you know, just like, it's fun to have that exercise.

So, sometimes you actually send the songs to those people.

Yeah, we try to. We get them to A&R people and managers. I'm still sort of putting together a folder, right now, of everything that I've been writing during the pandemic. So, yeah, we're going to start getting them out there so that's pretty cool. It's exciting.

Would you say the new album has a theme, a concept or that it's about something specific…

Yes.

…and where does the album title come from?

It very much does have a theme. It's called Circuit Boredom because, well, the play on the words of, like, a circuit board, you know, and being bored… Because we live in this technology age where we have every answer at our fingertips. You can Google anything, you can find anything, do anything… So much information now.

You can ask Alexa and you don't even have to type anymore.

Yeah, and so we have all of this, but we still somehow find that we're bored all the time. People are just bored, and don't know what to do, so it's kind of a funny situation, you know, where you… It seems like you have so much, yet you feel like you have nothing. So that's kind of what Circuit Boredom is to me. I recorded 15 songs for the album, but I only put eight of them on the record, because it was kind of… No one has time for anything, so I was like, ‘eight songs is probably enough’. If you do 15, that's way too fucking much for people now. And I noticed a lot of the rappers are doing that, like Kanye. A bunch of his albums are like eight songs, lately. And I've just kind of noticed this trend, and I'm kind of getting on board with it. Because it's like, less really is more, you know. And back to the single thing, I released all these singles, and I never would have done that, but it's because of the technology that I'm doing it. It's almost like the technology is playing a big role in how the art is made now, which is really weird, but Spotify has basically turned our industry into a singles industry again. I don't know if you know this, but when you upload music to Spotify, you can only send one song to editors, to try to get on playlists. So, when you submit your whole album, you only have one song that you can give to playlists, and that's why so many artists, like two years ago, just started releasing singles, because it's like, ‘well, why would I give you all my content if you're only going to listen to one song? I'll just give you one song, then one more song, then one more song, and each song has a chance to get on playlists. I think 10 years ago I would have bitched about that, and been like, ‘fuck that! I make albums!’, and I would have been so righteous about the art. But now I'm kind of, it's interesting to me, to just kind of react to what's put in place for us. It's kind of fun to work within a system and then just kind of see what you can make of it.

But at the same time, like, the first Black Sabbath albums, for example, they had around eight songs each as well.

Yes.

So it's something that was already being done 50 years ago or something.

Yes, totally. And a lot of those short albums, that's kind of what makes them a little more classic too, because you can listen to it in one sitting. But I'm just ready to make another one. I'm ready to keep it going.

What do you plan to do with the extra seven songs that you have? Do you plan to release them as singles or to make another album?

I'll make another album and they'll probably appear somewhere. Sometimes I hold songs back because there can be a fun project, like maybe a movie comes along and they want a song of mine that is original, that's never been released, you know. The best ones, obviously, I'm going to put out on the next Ben Kweller album. You know, it's so funny, because normally I would be on the road right now. We'd be talking on the phone, I'd be at a hotel room or at a venue right now somewhere… It's just so weird to have a new album out, but I'm here at home. I guess I'll just make an album. There's nothing else to do, I'll just keep making music.

So, the next question is about something you were also talking about before. I read on your site something where you say that you're ‘kind of sick of the algorithm’. Could you please elaborate more on what your thoughts are on Spotify and other streaming services? There are lots of artists complaining about not getting a fair share for their work on these platforms.

When I wrote that, I was specifically talking about social media. I was talking more about Google, Facebook, Instagram… Particularly Facebook, because before Instagram really took over Facebook, which is all part of the same company, anyway… Back in the day, if you had thousands of followers on Facebook and you sent out a message, all of your people would get it. But then Facebook came up with Facebook Ads and they started realizing that they could make so much money from selling ads. One of the things they can monetize is a creator talking to his or her audience, and so now, if I have 70,000 people on my Facebook page and I send a message out, it only goes to 10% of them. Only 7,000 people even see the message, and so if I want to reach the rest of my fans, I have to pay Facebook, like, 500 bucks to just get the message. So it's really sad, because sometimes you just want to say ‘hi, I love you, how you doing, what's going on…’. And no musician can afford to be spending hundreds of dollars every time they just want to say ‘hi’. So that just started to really get under my skin, so I kind of went old school and looked at my e-mail list from back in the day. I even found my mailing list from before e-mail, with like, people's home addresses… We used to send out a fanzine in the early 2000s, so I have some addresses. I mean, they're probably invalid, I doubt anyone's even there, but I put together all of my e-mails and I just started — on all the social media platforms —saying, ‘hey, sign up for my mailing list, so I can e-mail you directly. Come to benkweller.com!’ I have control over that website and it's not attached to some big corporate entity that is just trying to make money off of my fans and my friends. That's really the algorithm I was talking about.

About Spotify, there are tons of algorithms there, that whole playlist situation is one of the issues. I wish that you could just upload an album and that Spotify could really put your songs on certain playlists. I mean, it's weird that the playlisting thing is as big as it is, it's the new radio in a lot of ways. And radio in the States is still pretty corrupt, like you if want to be on the radio, you have to… There are some stations that'll play your music because they love it, but if you want them to keep playing it after a certain amount of time, you have to pay for it. So it's like, so fucked up, man. That's why you hear the same 10 artists and they have to be on.

That's what's always happened here in Brazil, that's been the policy for a long time now. And about the album and playlist thing, no one asks for an album recommendation anymore. They just tell you ‘send me your playlist’.

That's it, it's all about the one song at a time. So every song has to be good, you know. You better just make good songs.

Let's hope that people don't want to just go to a concert to hear one song and then go home.

I know, I know! That used to happen with radio, with the one-hit wonders. I remember Beck, early on, when ‘Loser’ came out, I saw him, and he was opening for That Dog or something. He was not even famous yet, but ‘Loser’ was kind of becoming popular, and he walked out on stage with his guitar and said, ‘okay, I'm gonna play this song Loser, and then you guys can all go home’. So he played his one song and then people left and then his real fans stayed and he played the rest of his songs. (laughs)

That's funny. So, Ben, a lot is going on in the world, especially in the United States with the whole political scenario, and the Black Lives Matter movement and also the music venues having trouble to survive as well as the music industry in general. There are roadies, technical crews, everyone who helps the wheels keep moving are being affected right now. What are your thoughts on the immediate future of the music business and how do you think artists can help minimize the pandemic impact on the lives of those workers?

Man, uh…

I know that's a hard question.

Yeah, that’s big, man. That's a lot. Yeah, you know, I think that people that get into music as a profession, by nature they're creative people, and they know how to sort of go with the flow and get creative. So I think that, first of all, so many people are out of work, which is horrible. So many great venues are going out of business. There will be casualties, there will be companies and businesses that won't survive and that's horrible. And artists that maybe can't continue, but I think most people in this industry are resilient and they're going to come up with new ideas and new ways to promote music and bring it to people in new ways. I think touring will return. Hopefully this vaccine works out, and things can go back to somewhat, you know, the way they were before. I don't know, man, it's so… The political scene is really scary and there's so much to it right now, and I've really just, I don't know. I think everyone's just holding their breath wondering what's gonna happen. I'm ready for a peaceful changeover, I hope that Biden can do a great job. We just need unity in this country, we need unity so bad, and I worry that both sides are… They yell at each other and I don't know how we're gonna come together, but we have to, because my country is super divided right now, and it's really hard for me, because I'm a real communicator, and who I am as a person, is all about bringing people together. That's why music is such a great art form, too. It is one of the art forms that can bring you to a time and a place in your life, and a memory, and a smell, and a feeling, you know. Songs just can do that, no matter what color your skin is, or what religion you are, or what beliefs you have. Music is really special for that, and so I guess my little job in this world is just to try to keep making the music that comes to me, and if it brings people hope, like, that really is all I can do.

Right now even artists are struggling. I mean, I'm sure you've heard even big names like Bob Dylan and Neil Young just sold huge parts of their catalogues recently. What do you think is the best way for people to support their favourite artists at times like these?

Well, I think one cool thing, and I was proud of Spotify for that, is they did turn on this feature where you can send direct donations to artists. I don't know if it's live around the world. I always say ‘if you love an artist, just try to find that direct line of communication’. For most people, it's social media pages, which again, there's this corporation in between you and the artist. So I try to go directly to the websites. Buying physical music is always great, if you can buy vinyl or merchandise directly from the artist. And if you have to buy from one of the big platforms, iTunes is still the best, as far as what they pay to the artist. I have my own sort of fan club on my website, and I have, I think, 160 fans that are on there right now. It's one of my favourite things, because we have a direct line of communication and i'll do Zooms like this with the different members.

Quite a few bands and musicians who started out in the 90s such as yourself have also been reissuing some of their classic albums with extra material, b-sides, live recordings etc. Do you have any intention to do so with your own stuff. For example, Sha Sha is about to reach its 20-year anniversary in 2022...

[Excited] Yes, Sha Sha!

…do you have any plans about that?

You got it, bro! 2022, yes! My label, The Noise Company, we got the rights to all of my first albums. So, in 2022 we're going to do Sha Sha 20-year anniversary. I have demos, I have voice memos, all from that time, from 2002. That's really cool, it's gonna be fun.

Do you also plan to do anything related to that with the Radish stuff as well? I mean, Restraining Bolt is about to reach the 25-year landmark next year as well…

Yeah. I would like to. The Radish stuff is, um… What's kind of weird is we can't find some of the tapes. It's so old, and there were so many different… Like, the record company we were assigned to got bought by another company, and so some of the stuff, we have the rights to do it if we want, but it might only be able to be remastered. I don't even know. It might be a DAT type, this little digital audio tape, and we definitely have some CDs, but to have the actual two-inch tape would be amazing. So that's a little trickier. But all of my Ben Kweller stuff has been archived, luckily. ATO Records, who I signed with years ago, they did a good job at keeping everything organized. But in the Radish days, everything was a little crazier.

That's great, let's hope we can hear it as soon as possible. About Radish, I mean, you had different band formations, different people playing in the band… Do you still get along with all those guys? Have you received any offers to get together and play shows or anything like that?

Ah, you know, not really. Occasionally we get an e-mail from someone like you, who's, like, ‘oh, can Radish do a reunion?’, or ‘what's going on?’. I'm still friends with John, the drummer. Sometimes we think about it, ‘oh, it would be cool to do a reunion for fun’, but honestly, we don't even know where the bass player is. Brian, who was our main bass player, he's not on social media, we don't have his e-mail or phone number. So I don't even know how we… He's kind of, like, off the grid, you know.

Wow.

So, we need to track him down. Maybe one day we'll find him and then we'll do a show. I don't know.

Let's hope so. You also did The Bens a few years ago, with Ben Folds and Ben Lee. I wanted to ask you if there's any artists — and it doesn't have to be someone named Ben — that you would love to do a similar project with. Like, to record together or maybe to form a band with.

My friend Conor Oberst, from Bright Eyes, is someone who I've always loved hanging out with. We've done a lot of touring together and he would be really fun. I would love to collaborate with some hip-hop artists. There's this guy, Trippie Redd, who I really like. I'd love to collab with him. There's some producers… There's sort of a dream collaboration for me, personally, would be Max Martin, who is a very famous songwriter, producer… He did so many huge songs, like Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, Taylor Swift and stuff. But I just think that he's an incredible scientist, you know. The way that he approaches it, just to be in the studio with him would be so fun for me, just to kind of see his process. Let me look at my phone here, let's see… There's a country artist who I love, Alan Jackson, he's probably only famous in the U.S., maybe, but that would be a dream collaboration for me. My friend Jason Schwartzman, do you know his band, Coconut Records? Check that out, so good. It's like two albums and we've been talking about making something, like putting together a band. Who else? I'd love to do something with Sonic Youth, that'd be amazing. Little Uzi Vert… I've been listening to a lot of rap, so, I want to bring some grungy, indie rock guitar into it, and really… I mean. Dude, I would love to work with Kanye West, even though he's crazy. Clearly, he's insane, but I think he's such a genius musically. Maybe he'll come to Brazil and read this article or see the blog post or something.

How do these collabs occur? I mean, do you have to have the same manager or something?

That helps, I think. The music business is pretty small, and you can usually get to someone you know. There might be one or two people between you and that person. Sometimes it's just finding an e-mail and reaching out. The best way is, obviously, meeting the person and having a good time, hanging out, then you're, like, ‘hey, let's get together and write some music’. That's the best part, you know. Being on tour together is fun. I remember, years ago, when I used to tour with The Strokes. Julian would come and sleep on my bus for a few days, and then I'd go and hang out on their bus and, you know, just kind of being gypsies. That's really fun. That obviously hasn't happened for years, especially now. But again, you can do it with Zoom. But see, that's kind of tricky, because if I set up a hangout with me and Kanye West on Zoom, he might get pissed off in two seconds and then just hang up and leave.

Hey, but you could release that Zoom session on YouTube and maybe that would be a hit.

Exactly!

You're still very young, but you have surely built a musical legacy along the years. Last year I interviewed Matt Caws, from Nada Surf, and he said he believed they're part of the ‘old guard’ now, as far as alternative rock goes. Do you feel that way too and do you hear your influence on new bands today? And if you do, can you give a few examples of bands that you like and maybe were inspired by the music you've made in the past?

I wouldn't say I'm in the old guard yet. Nada Surf is still five or ten years older than me. I remember being a teenager when they came out with ‘Popular’, you know, a big hit. I was that still listening to Weezer and Nirvana back then. I remember when I moved to New York, I did a lot of shows with Nada Surf. I think Matthew is such a legend, you know? But I still feel that I'm a little younger.

Sure, actually we have the same age [laughs]. I’m asking that because you started out so young.

Exactly, we were in high school when Radish started out. I meet artists now who are much younger than me, and who say ‘oh, my god, you inspired me to make music’, that kind of thing. There's a band in Nashville that do really well, called Cadillac Three, I don't know if you've heard of them, but they have always said that I was an inspiration for them. There’s also Alvvays, who I like. Kevin Morby is a friend of mine now… He has reached out to me because, you know, he said, ‘god, dude, I used to listen to you all the time’, you know. So, it is sweet. Now I'm like, ‘all right, cool, when touring starts let me come open for you’. (laughs)

Do you have any memories from when you came to Brazil in 2012?

Well, I remember I loved Fortaleza. I loved the big cities, obviously [he also played in Rio and São Paulo]. I think it was in the São Paulo show where I crowd surfed. I was just playing solo acoustic, and I had my distortion pedal, so I was able to make it really fucking loud. But I just couldn't believe it, some of the shows had mosh pits, you know. For an acoustic show! And I loved Belém, up north, you know, by the rainforest.

Yeah, my wife's from there.

Nice! I love it up there, dude! I went to this restaurant, and you're sitting in the restaurant and, like, you're looking out the window and what you see out there, that's all jungle. Like, that's the rain forest, you could go in there and you'll never come back. And I'll never forget the breakfast buffets, with all the fruit.

Yeah, they have some amazing fruit there.

[Very excited] Amazing fruit, man! Yeah.

I'm a fan as well. So, just to wrap it up, what are your expectations for this year? I mean, do you plan on doing live shows if the vaccine succeeds and it becomes safe to do so? Or do you plan any live streams or some other way to promote the album?

Yeah, I did a live stream in August, over the summer, but I had to go to Austin. I did it from a venue that's been closed, The Continental Club, which is one of my favourite clubs in Austin. So I wanted to do it there, so they would get money from the tickets and it was really fun. We had a great time. It was, like, four cameras, so it was really professional, it wasn't just me on the couch, you know, playing my songs. My problem here, where I am now, is my internet is so bad. Right now we're doing pretty good on the Zoom, but some days it's in and out, and so I'm working on getting fiber internet delivered here, which is going to be really expensive, but I'm hoping that I can start doing more live streams. It’s one of those funny things, as a musician you have to have fast internet now, to have a business. So I'm now investing in my internet. I have plans to set up a Twitch account. I was thinking of just turning it on and going live, writing songs and just fucking around here in the studio, whatever. It'll just be part of the journey, maybe, for the next album, where people can kind of be a part of it as I make it.

Cool, thank you so much for the interview. It's great to see you doing well and let's hope we can get rid of this situation as soon as possible and that you can come back to play for us again.

Yeah, totally. You know, I think about Brazil all the time, it was such a fun tour.
 

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