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Interview: Ben Kweller

on July 10, 2009, 3:15am

It’s been five months since Ben Kweller unveiled Changing Horses, his latest studio album. With five months gone by, he’s had plenty of time to evaluate what is his most unique effort to date… and to plan for what’s next. Needless to say, we thought now would be the perfect time to talk to the Texas-based songwriter, who’s responsible for past relics like 2002’s Sha Sha and 2004’s On My Way.

What follows is a pretty candid discussion on everything from the experience of going country (and the reaction of his fanbase) to a potential reunion of The Bens and Radish re-releases. The latter is enough to whet any fan’s appetite, especially given the building hype surrounding both facets of Kweller’s evolving career.

So, please, do carry on…

How have the last six months treated you since the release of Changing Horses? Is it a completely different experience to release a folky, alt-country sort of album album then it is a more pop oriented album?

The experience has been great… It seems like lots of my fans like the acoustic songs anyway and my folky stuff so, I think it’s been a fun album for them. The coolest thing though it has opened my music to lots of new fans… to people who never heard of me before, or heard of me but didn’t like the rock stuff. So, this album has been a real door opener in a lot of ways.

It’s the first album I got to perform for NPR. It’s the first time I got reviewed by Country Weekly Magazine… and they actually gave it four stars! So, there’s been a lot of firsts for me and for my label, ATO Records as well — they have never done anything in the country scene before. The whole thing has just been really good… really great.

So, no negatives?

Well, other than the few fans that have come up to me and say, “I totally don’t know what you’re doing. Why are you playing country songs?”

I mean, it’s just one album and… and there’s nothing wrong with creating different music, whatever your medium is, and keep moving ahead and creating things. I remember when Weezer came out with Pinkerton and people were all bummed out, saying it was too raw and weird and they don’t understand… but now everyone loves it.

We put so much on the shoulders of new artists though. We think that every time someone releases a new album it has to be the best fucking thing ever… and we assume it’s supposed to be the voice and the epitome of an artist.

You got to just accept albums for what they are.

But, you don’t think some of this is just a product of the times? With audience fragmentation the way it is and so many different outlets now present, it seems like the pressure to create something great every time out is warranted?

When you make music, you can’t make it thinking about the times, because people still make music now the same way people made it in the 60s, the same way people made it in the 20s, the same way people made it 10,000 years ago, and the same way they’ll make it 10,000 years from now.

Yeah, I’m a huge believer in music as an art form… with song one being as important as song 12. But I do it in the same way I did in the 1990s when I was starting out… and no technology or trend is going to change the way I make music. It might change the way I live as a person, but when it comes to music and making music, I’m going to do it the same way now that I’ll do in 50 years if I’m so lucky.

You mentioned fans coming up to you asking why you were playing country. Did that happen a lot?

I mean at the gigs… it never was a problem. Yeah, maybe there were those who just came off the street who didn’t know, but my fans know I’m going to play all my songs even if I’m touring for a country album… or a jazz album. Well, maybe not a jazz album, but I think my fans are really open minded and I think that’s why they like me and they get that I’m not always going to be doing the same thing. Plus, I’ve always played an acoustic guitar and folky songs, so it’s not like anything I’m doing right now is all that different.

That said, my next album… you know, the one I’m working on right now, I think it’s going to please all my fans. You know, fans of Changing Horses, fans of Sha Sha, fans of the self-titled, fans of On My Way. And for that reason, I’m really looking forward to my next chapter.

So you don’t have any doubts of how you’ll be able to satisfy both your “pop” fans and your “folk” fans down the road?

Well, Ben Kweller music has always been folk and piano ballads and pop songs and quirky little fucking alternative numbers and blues and fol-uup country song. I’m always going to be a lot of different sounds and I think it’s kind of cool that my fans can expect something different.

Back to your next album… you mentioned you’re currently working on it. Care to share any details?

Yeah, I probably shouldn’t talk about it just yet because it’s going to be such a different thing now until when I finish it. I mean Changing Horses originally had 15 songs… and at one point it was going to be a covers album. Then, I wrote a bunch more of my own songs and decided to put them on it. I just have learned not to say too much because I don’t want fans to be bummed out when it turns out to be something other than what I said it was going to be.

What I can say though is that I’m really excited about it. It’s totally different from all my previous albums… and I’m really happy with a lot of the new songs.

Will you be self-producing it again, like you did with Changing Horses?

Most likely. I don’t know for sure, but I’ll probably just record with [engineer] John Dunne here in Austin. I’m actually driving around as we speak looking for a place to record.

And you’ll be recording after your remaining tour dates?

Yeah, exactly. Most of what we have left are fly in dates where we just fly in and fly out, but no more real touring for me until the new album.

You do get to play at George Wein’s Folk Festival in Rhode Island though. I’m sure you got offered a bunch of festival spots this year, why did you go with that one?

That was Newport Folk. That’s a bad ass fucking festival. Legendary… Dylan shit. I’m super stoked I get to do that.

So, you decided to do that based on the history and your current sound?

Yeah, the history and that it would really work well with Changing Horses and the vibe of our current sound.

I mean I like festivals but sometimes they feel like a buffet like where there is a lot of food there and it’s all you can eat, but nothing is that great there. Every band you like is there, but no one gets to sound check and the sets are kind of short, except for the headliner. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather see Pearl Jam… or Bright Eyes in a venue where the quality is better.

And finally, I have to ask, because it gets brought up every so often. Any chance, ever, for a reunion of The Bens?

Well, yeah, there is a chance for it. We all want to do it… it’s just a matter of timing and getting everyone together because we’re always on different schedules… but we’re going to do something together again. Definitely.

So… there’s a much better chance for that than there is for a Radish reunion?

[Laughs]. That’s a little different. The thing with that is me and John David Kent were really the only founding members that remained in the band through its whole existence, and so many other people played with us through the year that it’s hard to say how we’d even do it. Although, I am working on re-releasing some old Radish stuff, including the original album. So, there is something coming.

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