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vol 6 - issue 09 (may 2004) :: interviews
BEN KWELLER
Interview by D.J. Kirkbride
Photograph by Michael Waring

BEN KWELLER HAS BEEN IN THE MUSIC BIZ SINCE JUNIOR HIGH. IN THIS TASTES LIKE CHICKEN INTERVIEW, D.J. KIRKBRIDE TALKS TO BEN ABOUT HIS EARLY GRUNGE BAND, RADISH, MOVING TO NEW YORK, STARTING A VERY DIFFERENT SOUNDING SOLO CAREER, OTHER MUSICIANS NAMED BEN, AND WIFFLE BALLS.

D.J.: We got a preview copy of your new album, On My Way.

Ben: Yeah?

D.J.: Yeah. And I just wanted to say congrats. It sounds great.

B: Ah, thank you so much!

D.J.: Yeah, we really enjoyed it. So, itís being released on April 19th, right?

B: No. It came out April 6th.

D.J.: Oh. I thought I saw on your site that it was pushed back to April 19th.

B: No, itís out. Where are you right now?

D.J.: Weíre in Milwaukee.

B: Oh, okay. Yeah. It came out April 6th. Hold on real quick. Iím crossing the road.

D.J.: Okay. Be careful.

B: (to an anonymous person) I gotta go now! Iím gonna get run over! Bye! (to D.J.) Okay, you there?

D.J.: Yeah.

B: Okay. You can edit this, right?

D.J.: (laughs) Oh, yeah. Totally. Donít worry.

B: So, anyway, it came out April 6th, and Iím excited, man. Weíve been out on tour now for a few weeks. We started the tour before the album came out, so none of the kids knew the new songs yet. And now itís so crazy to see the kids singing the words to the new album already. Theyíve already learned the songs.

D.J.: Thatís a good sign right there, isnít it?

B: Yeah.

D.J.: So, the tour is going well then?

B: Yeah. The tour is going really well, except for we had a really big glitch. The day before yesterday, we were playing wiffle ball in a parking lot, and Josh, our bass player, fell down and broke his wrist.

D.J.: Aw, man! Playing wiffle ball?

B: Yeah, playing wiffle ball, of all things. And so, he broke his wrist, and now heís in a cast and a sling. So I have to play these next few shows by myself.

D.J.: Are you gonna play the bass yourself?

B: No. Iím just gonna play acoustic, which is how it started out when I first moved to New York about five years ago. I didnít know anybody, and I didnít have a band, so Iíd just play shows by myself with a guitar, piano, toy instruments, and stuff like that. Iíd just do an acoustic punk show, you know?

D.J.: Yeah.

B: And thatís when I met Evan Dando from The Lemonheads. He sort of took me under his wing, and Iíd open up for him by myself. Thatís how I got my start. So, the next few shows are sort of like going back to my roots. Iím playing by myself, which Iím kinda bummed about, because the album just came out, and Iím excited to play these songs with my band. But we got a man on the disabled list, and I didnít wanna cancel the shows, you know?

D.J.: Thatís cool that you didnít. Itíll be a unique experience for the people who see the acoustic show.

B: Exactly.

D.J.: Actually, I read on your message board that you broke your leg, but youíre walking, so, clearly, thatís not true.

B: That I what?

D.J.: On one of your message boards it said that you had broken your leg.

B: Nah.

D.J.: You didnít break anything. Josh broke his wrist.

B: Josh broke his wrist.

D.J.: But your leg is fine.

B: (laughs) Yeah. My leg is fine! Walking right now.

D.J.: Thatís good. Backing up a little bit, I read that your first record deal was with a band called Radish.

B: Yeah. Exactly.

D.J.: How old were you when that started?

B: We started the band in high school. Actually, junior high, man. I was 13 when we formed, and... ah, hold on. I was just getting lost. Iím in Nashville, and I donít know where Iím going.

D.J.: (laughs)

B: So, I was about 13 when we formed Radish. We played shows in Dallas, started building a fan base, and then we made two recordings. A CD and a cassette. Our first recording was on cassette, because it was before you could even make a CD, you know?

D.J.: Oh, yeah. Before you could burn 'em.

B: So we made 500 cassettes, and then we eventually made a CD when it was possible. And then we got signed to Mercury Records when I was 15. So I left high school in ninth grade, and I went on tour to play rock 'n' roll! (laughs)

D.J.: Oh, man! So, Radish, I havenít heard them, but I read you guys were a little more punk and rock.

B: Yeah. It was a little more grungy. Big guitars.

D.J.: Do you ever miss that? I mean, because the new album is good rock 'n' roll, but itís a little more poppy and folky. Do you ever miss the big, crunchy, grungy guitars?

B: Well, the guitars are a little more Sixties garage; not just big, like rock.

D.J.: (laughs) Yeah.

B: I don't know. I wanted to do something a little more Creedence Clearwater Revival, or early Neil Young. I love that shit.

D.J.: On the album, you were saying itís more of a garage sound. I read that the recording of it was pretty low-tech.

B: Yeah. Totally. We recorded with no headphones, in one room, with no separation between the amplifiers and the drums. We just stood around in a semi-circle facing each other, and we just banged out the songs, you know? And we mixed each song at the end of the day. So we would mix the album as we went. Really simple, and real spontaneous.

D.J.: Yeah. Itís got a really nice live sound to it, which is cool. So, this is your second solo album after Sha Sha.

B: Yeah, this is my second. Well, itís my second solo album in stores. When I first moved to New York, I made an album called Freak Out, Itís Ben Kweller.

D.J.: (laughs)

B: But that I just made on my computer, and I would sell it at shows. You can now find it on eBay once in awhile, but I would say On My Way is my second official release.

D.J.: Were any of the songs from Freak Out, Itís Ben Kweller featured on Sha Sha?

B: Yeah, actually, "In Other Words" and "How It Should Be (Sha Sha)" on Sha Sha, early versions of those were on Freak Out....

D.J.: And in between On My Way and Sha Sha you were in a super group called The Bens.

B: Yeah!

D.J.: Iím a Ben Folds fan also, and I read about that on his site. I was wondering how all that came about. Besides the fact that you all have the same first name. How did you hook up with Ben Folds and Ben Lee?

B: Well, Evan Dando introduced me to Ben Lee, and then Ben Lee introduced me to Ben Folds, and we just all became fast friends. We would play shows together. And then, one day, Folds just called me up. He was in Nashville, and he was like, "Dude, you and Ben Lee should come down. We should write some songs together." So, we just decided to do it. And it was just kind of funny how all our names were the same.

D.J.: So it was just total coincidence?

B: Yeah. Totally. We were like, "Dude, weíll call ourselves The Bens!"

D.J.: (laughs) There you go.

B: We wrote and recorded four songs in three days.

D.J.: So it was a pretty fast one.

B: Yeah, totally.

D.J.: And did all three of you write everything together, or did you bring in some notes and ideas?

B: No, we wrote everything together and on the spot, from scratch. It was really cool, man.

D.J.: Itís a good album. Itís really fun. A nice mix. You can hear everybodyís styles.

B: Right on.

D.J.: I was wondering why Ben Harper wasnít invited, but now I know the Ben thing was a coincidence.

B: Yeah. Totally. It wasnít like a record company ploy.

Both: (laugh)

D.J.: Comparing On My Way to Sha Sha, do you like the growth that you hear in the two albums?

B: Each of my albums are the journals of the previous year, you know? So, On My Way has deeper feelings on it, just because a lot of things happened this past year. I got married this past September.

D.J.: Congrats.

B: Thank you, man. I lucked out with my longtime girlfriend, Lizzy, and that was an amazing thing. And then my grandfather passed away last year, too. He was the first person in my family to pass away, so that affected me, big time. A lot of big life changes happened, so I think my songs are a little more meaningful for me, personally. I really just started thinking about how important friends and family are this past year. Sha Sha was all about change and confusion, like leaving a small town for the big city, and not knowing anybody in New York. Going through all that. Theyíre different albums. The new album is definitely a New York album.

D.J.: What made you decide to make that huge move from Texas to New York?

B: Well, Iíve always wanted to live in New York. And Iíd just fallen in love with Liz, whoís from Connecticut, so I moved to be with her. And we just decided one day to go to New York! It was fun.

D.J.: New York is a nice city. I donít know if I could live there, though. The hussle and bussle.

B: Itís a busy place.

D.J.: So, you said youíre in Nashville now. Are you playing tonight?

B: Yeah. Iím playing tonight at this place called Rocket Town, and my buddies, Kings of Leon, are in town. They live here, so theyíre coming out to the show. (pauses) Dude, hold on. (yelling) You guys! We just ran into each other! I took the long road! (to D.J.) Hey. Iím sorry.

D.J.: (laughs) Thatís cool.

B: I just bumped into some friends on the tour. Earlier, I was talking to you about being lost, but then I found the road that Iím supposed to be on, and theyíre walking home.

D.J.: Nice. Well, Ben, Iíll let you go. I just have an official tastes like chicken question I have to ask.

B: Cool.

D.J.: Do dogs have lips?

B: Do... you know what? Cats have lips.

D.J.: You think so? Do you have any cats?

B: I kiss my cats on the lips. They have, like, a little, pink ridge.

Both: (laugh)

B: And I kiss 'em.

D.J.: Awww.

B: Awww. Dude, I miss my cats now! You know, I donít know if dogs have lips, but Iím certain at least one of my cats, Zach, has lips.

D.J.: At the very least, one of 'em has lips.

B: Exactly. I have two cats.

D.J.: What are their names?

B: Aslan and Zach. Both boys.

D.J.: So, you hooked up with some friends right now?

B: Theyíre on the other side of the street. Itís cool, dude.

D.J.: Well, is there anything else you want to talk about or plug?

B: I guess thatís it, dude. Iím just hanging out on tour, hoping that Joshís wrist gets better soon. It was good talking to ya. Frog legs taste like chicken.

D.J.: I'll take your word for it. I haven't had 'em yet.

B: Theyíre good, man.

D.J.: Should I check 'em out? I do like chicken--

B: Totally. Right on.

D.J.: Right on. (laughs) Well, thanks for your time. Have a good show tonight, and congratulations on the album.

B: Thank you so much.

D.J.: Yeah. You take it easy.

B: Bye.

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