Ben Kweller reconnects with his Texas roots
"Don't worry; it's nothin' illegal," laughs Ben Kweller immediately as he opens the front door of his South Austin home, nodding down at the loose herbs of maté floating in his cup. Kweller's sleepy-eyed grin spreads across his boyish cheeks as he takes a sip of his tea.
In the living room, a pile of pillows crushes up against the small drum set of his 2½-year-old son, Dorian. Toys scattered about make the modest two-story home disarmingly domestic, the antithesis of Kweller's former New York City apartment. That change of pace is precisely what the 27-year-old musician and his wife, Liz, sought when they moved to Austin last April.
"We lived in New York for almost nine years and loved it," says Kweller, sitting on his back patio, train whistle blowing in the distance. "I owe a lot personally to that city, because my solo career really started there. It was a wonderful place, but when you live there and you don't have any kids, you put up with a bunch of bullshit that you don't even notice. You're blind to the hardships of New York City. And then when you have a kid, all of a sudden, it smacks you in the face, and you're like: 'What am I doing here? This place is really hard, people are mean, and no one's really into helping anybody.'
"Also, musically and artistically, I was ready for a change," he continues. "In New York there's a party every night. There's always something happening, and it's easy to get caught up in the scene. I started to get sick of that. I wanted to go back to writing songs and not giving a shit about what everybody else is doing. Austin was always at the top of our list for favorite places in America. Since I'm from Texas, the thought of coming back here was really appealing."
Musically, that change is manifested in Kweller's fourth LP, Changing Horses, which finds him cutting steel and Dobro into his characteristic pop style. Coupled with the move to Austin, the album has allowed the Greenville, Texas, native to indulge in his rural upbringing, but it's hardly a complete reflection of Kweller or the life he's settled into here.
"It's a part of me, that redneck side, the fishin', dippin' Skoal, being a dumbass," he asserts. "But it's like the music in that there are so many more sides."
As his son comes bounding outside through the back door, home from day care, it's easy to discern the current driving force in Kweller's life. The father's own youthful face lights up as his son leaps into his lap, the pair's equally shaggy hair tousled in the afternoon sunlight.
Kweller seems to have absorbed parenthood with the same laid-back attitude that he's projected throughout his career, and balancing family life with the rigors of touring is simply the latest turn in his already long-winding career.
Catcher in the Rye
The small city of Greenville lies some 50 miles northeast of Dallas, straddling the intersection of Highway 69 and I-30. Kweller grew up just shy of the city limits, farms and woodlands stretching out beyond.
His focus was always singularly directed toward music, an interest he took from his father, who'd grown up playing drums alongside childhood friend and future E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. Before he was 10, Kweller was proficient on piano, guitar, and drums and writing his own songs. By 15, his band Radish had signed a major label deal with Mercury Records. That was 1996.
"I was so young and naive, I didn't know what the fuck was going on," he marvels. "I didn't know who any of the record company people were, all these guys that signed the Ramones or Madonna. They were just dudes to me. If I had let that get to me, it probably would have messed me up. So as a result of being young and not really caring what was happening, I continued to be my free-spirited self. I didn't know that I wasn't playing the game!"
Kweller dropped out of high school in favor of worldwide touring and an education on the road that was altogether different from his life in Greenville. With his characteristically easygoing style, Kweller absorbed teenage success with a mixture of innocent inexperience and willful abandon.
"We got to live our dreams when we were having dreams about having a band and not going to school," he enthuses. "That's the two best things in the world, and we had permission to do both. I totally lived it up!
"I actually had a hooker experience when I was 16," Kweller laughs nonchalantly. "I was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City, and I really wanted to get laid, so I was looking in the back of The Village Voice. I'm such a researcher, so I started talking to all these different pimps. Finally this girl showed up, and she was from Russia or something, and paper skinny. It was about 4am, and she shows up and goes: 'Okay, where's the money? You're the last one of the night.' That's the worst thing to tell your client! And she had the smell of cheap perfume over sex, so I couldn't even get it up.
"It was such a Holden Caulfield kind of moment."
By the time he was 19, Radish had run its course, releasing one perfunctory full-length on Mercury, 1997's Restraining Bolt. As his friends in Texas departed for college, Kweller moved to Connecticut to close the long-distance relationship with Liz, and the two eventually moved to Brooklyn.
The New York music scene in 2000 was just beginning to congeal, and though Kweller gained attention alongside groups like the Strokes and the Moldy Peaches, his solo work fit with neither the former's rock polish nor the latter's anti-folk. His shows became one-man DIY spectacles, the stage loaded with toy keyboards to accompany his acoustic guitar, harmonica hanging around his neck, and a glitter-painted piece of cardboard proclaiming "BK" behind him.
His demo, Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller, caught the attention of the Lemonheads' Evan Dando and eventually Jeff Tweedy, both of whom corralled the young songwriter to open tours for them. After securing a deal with ATO Records, Kweller began to emerge at the fore of the fleet of young indie artists breaking into wider mainstream appeal.
Like the artist, Kweller's music casually eludes distinct categorization, but the Americana-pop of Changing Horses sets his sound more in line with fellow songwriters who have also grown up in the spotlight, such as his friends Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams. As opposed to the former's angst-riddled narratives or the latter's schizophrenic turns, Kweller assumes the role of affable innocent in the triumvirate.
"I don't know if I could define us as a group, but we all kind of came together in a way," affirms Kweller. "We definitely all feel like we're in the same boat."
The line stretching around the parking lot of Waterloo Records looks like the rush for South by Southwest wristbands, and as Kweller arrives to play in-store, fans inside crowd every square inch of space.
"I live here now!" he exclaims to an equally exultant response. From the elevated stage, he floats posters into the audience and then tosses out T-shirts commemorating his 2006 Austin City Limits Music Festival performance, which was famously cut short by a bloody nose.
With his beaten acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, Kweller launches into songs from the new album. The sweetly imperfect grain of his voice matches the new roots-oriented style and hearkens Gram Parsons, while the doe-eyed young girls camped at the front of the stage suggest a comparable level of adoration directed toward Kweller.
Though he had been collecting songs for a more country-inflected album for years, Kweller acknowledges that Changing Horses owes much of its sound to his tour manager and bus driver, Kitt Kitterman, who brought his pedal steel and Dobro into the mix. Recorded locally at Spoon drummer Jim Eno's Public Hi-Fi studio, Horses drifts through bluesy ballads ("Gypsy Rose"), kickin' country rockers ("Fight"), and keening, upbeat piano-pop ("Sawdust Man").
"People hear pedal steel and Dobro, and they go, 'Whoa, yeehaw!' but it's really just a Ben Kweller album," he laughs. "Musically I've had so many side roads in my sound that it's never been one thing. I think that's because I get bored easily. Changing Horses is actually the most consistent album I've done because it's completely unified. The songs are all different stories, and they don't have much to do with each other, but the sound is all similar. I mean, it's an album that starts with a prostitute and ends with a junkie!"
Kweller clearly revels in playing up his redneck roots with the album. On his recent performance of "Fight" on The Late Show With David Letterman, he rollicked through the trucker anthem clad in flannel, camouflage, and a backward ball cap.
"When it comes to my music, that's the one thing I'm serious about," he allows. "And keeping my family happy. That's the new thing for me the past few years."
As Kweller pulls his hybrid SUV back home into his driveway, Dorian rushes to the front door buck naked to greet him with a smile. Kweller laughs as he rustles the boy's blond hair.
"When you're a kid, you're just fearless," he says. "It's just cooler to never grow up."
By Ben Kweller, as told to Doug Freeman
A song I've had lying around for a long time. "Gypsy Rosita" was a demo I had [on the How Ya Lookin' Southbound? Come In ... EP]. I knew it was going to be about a prostitute and a guy who loves her. I know this guy, a friend of mine who lives in Mexico, and he's in love with this prostitute and goes and visits her every Monday morning at 9am. So I just thought about that, about this guy that doesn't have anything except this woman that he puts everything into and thinks that it's a real relationship, but it's just a money thing. Crazy way to start an album.
One of those songs that popped out really quickly, a great feeling. "Some days are aces, some days are faces, some days are twos and threes" might be the best line I've ever come up with on a mass-appeal level.
'Ballad of Wendy Baker'
That was written when I was about 16. We were in high school, and Wendy, one of my good friends, died in a car crash. We were at a Chinese restaurant a few days later, and I got a fortune cookie that said, "No one loves 'til it's gone." That was my first taste of the lesson of the importance of cherishing things and living in the moment, and I went home and wrote that song for her. I never wanted to put it out there though, but it felt like this was a good record for it.
The line "I'm on top of the Greyhound station" just came up, and I sang it all day. I tried to change it up because "Greyhound station" was cool and "on top of" didn't make any sense, but I loved it so much, and it felt so good to sing that I just made the song about some dude that climbs up on the roof of the station and waits for his woman.
Willy Mason came on the scene in New York and started playing shows with Conor and me around New York. One night at the Knitting Factory, Willy's mom and brother got up onstage with him and did this song. I thought it was an old hymn, a traditional or something. So I asked what was that song, and she said that it was a song that she and her husband wrote back in the Sixties but nobody wanted to record it. I told her, "I'm going to record that song!" I know Willy wanted to record it at some point too, but I beat him to it.