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Rockin' the Broch

By Sarah Cook     3/19/09 7:00pm

Interviewing one of your favorite artists can be nerve-wracking, to say the least. Interviewing Ben Kweller seemed especially intimidating to me for a few reasons.Kweller, whose awesome record Sha Sha was released my freshman year of high school, was the guy a lot of the "cool kids" listened to. He seemed to be their soundtrack for what I imagined to be the crazy weekends filled with parties and drinking, occuring while I stayed at home, listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter, riding horses and reading. In my mind, I had set his personality as one of those popular kids: polite, but well aware of the fact that they're cooler than you'll ever be.

After hearing the list of things he required from Rice Program Council, which seemed truly rockstar-esque - likeone quart of not-from-concentrate, fresh-squeezed, organic pineapple juice on Mondays - I was terrified. I imagined him as the worst kind of jerk: the kind you wish you were.

Yet I waited with the rest of the band, all of whom were incredibly nice and funny, until Kweller walked up and said hello. I would not have known it was him if I hadn't seen him in concert a few times. He was unassuming and soft-spoken at first, only really speaking up once we started talking about his son and his music, both of which made him light up with excitement.

Kweller has been playing music since he was seven. He's had record deals since he was 15, when he formed Radish with friend John Kent. The young group sparked a bidding war before signing with Mercury Records, earning accolades and playing on TV shows like The Late Show with David Letterman.

After earning a large cult following in the United Kingdom, Kweller broke from the band at 19 and moved to New York, recording LPs on his laptop till he was invited to tour with The Lemonheads. This led to the recording of the eclectic pop album Sha Sha (2002). Kweller went on to play in a group known as The Bens, featuring Ben Folds and Ben Lee. He collaborated briefly with Guster as well. His success grew with On My Way (2004) and Ben Kweller (2006), on which he plays every instrument. With Changing Horses (2009), Ben has moved from the pop feel of his previous albums with a new folk vibe, which, after a couple questions about animals and family, we touched on.

Rice Thresher: We ask everyone we interview what their spirit animal is .

Ben Kweller: I've actually been trying to find my power animal for a long time. One of my favorite books is a book called Natural Healing - no, hold on, Native Healing? Well, it's a book that I have that's really badass. It helps guide you to find your power animal because it can't be a dog or a cat. It's gotta be something a little more. . Someone once told me I have a lot of whale in me. I guess that's Eskimo power animal shit. I've been searching, I'm still searching. I know I have a lot of dog in me. I'm very loyal. I might be wolf.

RT: That's your son's middle name, right?

BK: Yeah, yeah. It's Zev [which means wolf in Hebrew].

RT: What about [your son] Dorian? Is he on tour with you right now?

BK: Well, he's in Austin right now. I just got done with a tour with [Dorian and wife Liz]. We try to tour together as much as we can. I'm about to go to Australia and Japan and they're not gonna go because of all the flying. But I try to take them out as much as possible.

RT: How old is Dorian?

BK: He's two-and-a-half. He'll be three in May, actually. He's such a good boy. So fun and cool.

RT: What would you do if you weren't a musician?

BK: Well, it's the only thing I know. It's the only thing I'm really great at. I would love to be a professional bass fisherman, take people out on the lake where all the bass are. Be a tour guide or a pro bass fisherman like on ESPN 2, have my own bass show. That would be fun as [anything]. To fish for a living would be really fun.

RT: So, you fish a lot?

BK: As much as I can. It's one of my favorite activities.

RT: When you were 13, you were in Radish. What was it like being in a band so young?

BK: Well, you know, just like any kid in a band. [I was] just having fun playing music and meeting other kids who play music. When we got a record deal it felt like a really big deal for us, so that was a big life-changer for us because we left high school to pursue music. I've been doing it ever since. There's nothing better than playing music with other friends.

RT: Are there any groups out right now that you really love? That you're really listening to?

BK: Yeah, I'm not up on a lot of new bands but I'm friends with a lot so I listen to them a lot. My new favorite record right now is the new Conor Oberst record.

RT: When I was listening to your new record, it seems to have a really similar vibe .

BK: Yeah, well, we've been friends for a while. We tour together so we're definitely similar. We love the same stuff, me and Conor. Also, Kings of Leon, The Strokes, I still love their records. White Stripes. The Raconteurs. Mason Jennings is one of my favorite artists. There's a guy named Nils Lofgren who's been around since the 1960s. He was a badass. His old records are really good. What other new stuff? There's an artist from Australia named Whitley who's really good. I can't really think of anybody else. Willy Mason is really good, too.

RT: A lot of those guys seem to have real folk vibes. Have you been listening to them closely with the new sound of this record?

BK: Well, see, that's just it. I've always been into folk and country since I grew up in Texas, and that's just always been there. Like, Garth Brooks' Ropin' the Wind was my favorite as a kid. I don't listen to music very much actually, especially when I'm recording. I never try to listen to a lot of other people's music. I don't try to take inspiration from other music. The bands I love, I love listening to recreationally but I don't really try to draw from them. I draw from life. I think when I was 15, 16 I'd listen to Nirvana and try to be like Kurt Cobain, but when you start trying to be an artist you start trying to make your own [music].

RT: Your new album has the same name as a great Dan Fogelberg song. Is that a coincidence?

BK: Hmm . I didn't know that. I got it from a Mark Twain short story.

RT: What's your favorite song off this album?

BK: I love 'em all. I love "Old Hat" and I love "Sawdust Man." I really love 'em all. They're all new and fresh to me.

RT: What's your favorite one to play?

BK: I love playing "Gypsy Rose" live. It's really fun. Really dramatic. And I love "Fight." It's really fun to sing.

RT: So, living in Austin, being in Austin, did that change the sound of the record?

BK: Well, I moved to Austin after I wrote all the songs. I wrote them there or on the road or before. I just love being in Austin. It's paradise. It's great. I love it.

RT: So I guess if you could just expand a little more on this new album. Stories behind some of the songs. The direction you saw it going.

BK: The album is something I've been writing over the past few years. One of the songs, "The Ballad of Wendy Baker," goes back to when I was 16. A friend of mine, Wendy, died in a car crash. I wrote that song back then for her. Saved it through the years for the right album. Whenever I wrote a song over the years that was really country, like "Fight," I would save them. I always knew I wanted to make a record like this. I was just kind of waiting for all the songs to appear. Most people ask, "Why did you all of a sudden want to make a country record?" but I didn't just wake up and want to make a country record. It's been many years in the making.

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