Ben Kweller Stares Death in the Face

“Heart Attack Kid” practices optimism after near-fatal incident

In 2013, Ben Kweller and his family missed their doom by 15 minutes. That’s how much longer paramedics said they could have lasted in a vacation cabin-turned-lethal by a carbon monoxide leak.

Kweller performing at ACL Fest 2018 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

“Staring death in the face like that just rattled me to the core,” said Kweller by phone earlier this week. “I’ve always had a carefree way about me, but that immediately changed my whole outlook. I became hyper-vigilant, and nothing else mattered other than being with my family.”

Following five years spent wrestling depression and PTSD, the early-Aughts indie wiz now re-emerges for a U.S. tour, partially opening for Houndmouth. Suave new single “Heart Attack Kid” accompanies the live dates.

The tough-edged guitar work debuts on Kweller’s own label, The Noise Company, headquartered on the artist’s Dripping Springs property. Along with their two sons, Kweller and wife Liz retreated from Austin three years ago to “prioritize and simplify.”

“I was still in this mindset of, ‘I don't want to tour,’ like, ‘I don’t need to be Ben Kweller anymore,’” adds the storied performer. “But once in a while, I’d write a song and be like, ‘Oh, hi songwriting, my old friend. It’s so nice to see you.’”

Slowly, the pieces fell together. Marble Falls-based artist John David Kent, Kweller’s former bandmate in Nineties grunge act Radish, began driving over to jam in the barn of the onetime trio leader, who felt “like I was 15 years old again.” Meanwhile, Austin songwriter Dwight Baker badgered the singer to get back in the studio. Baker ended up co-producing Kweller’s entire album, Circuit Boredom, due later this year.

In 2016, the unexpected death of prominent Hollywood actor Anton Yelchin, a close friend of Kweller’s, provided the final push. The Star Trek star’s prolific creative legacy and accidental death re-centered the songwriter’s intentions.

“When [Yelchin] passed, that was the moment of, ‘Okay, it’s time,’” recalls Kweller. “I could have been okay with just making songs on the porch and in the barn, but a big reason why I’m here is to not just make music, but to make it for other people.”

Despite the shadowed backstory, “Heart Attack Kid” is a recognizably Kweller-ian effort in indie rock optimism. According to the artist, the opening album track bridges “classic Nineties grunge guitar, like my Gibson SG plugged into a Marshall Stack” with modern keys and synth, “like dial-up meets fiber internet.”

The heartfelt multi-instrumentalist did pen some darker material while on hiatus, but for now it’s staying on the shelf.

“If I’m going to hit the road and tour again, I want to be able to enjoy the live experience,” asserts Kweller, known for sprightly live sets. “Me sitting on a stool crying over an acoustic guitar didn’t sound like much fun, so that was the big deciding factor.”

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Ben Kweller, Radish, John David Kent, The Noise Company, Liz Smith, Anton Yelchin, Star Trek, Dwight Baker, Houndmouth

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