The man who rocked Spring Jam

Ben Kweller, the adorable and hip Texas folk-rocker talks new album, the state of pop music.

by Jay Boller

Spring Jam ’08 was a busy one for Ben Kweller. While students (namely those living on a certain block or “row,” if you will) started their boozin’ in the morning and dizzily pissed away the day in the name of Spring – and umm – jamming, Mr. Kweller swooped into Minneapolis and just as quickly darted out.

In the middle of all his swooping and darting, though, Kweller did play an absolutely packed free show at Coffman’s Great Hall. His set was tight as always and the University student body lapped up his effortlessly catchy hooks. Kweller was set to chat with A&E after the show, but his frantic schedule didn’t allow it.

A professional and a gentlemen, he did manage a shake of hands and signed an autograph as he was hurried into a car behind Coffman Union. He was also good enough to call bright and early Sunday morning from the airport to discuss – among other topics – wolves, Sheryl Crow, the superiority of analog recording and why folks from all walks of life seem to love Ben Kweller. Freak out, It’s (an interview with) Ben Kweller.

Where you flying off to?

Austin, Texas, heading home.

You recently moved from NYC back to Texas?

Yeah! Austin is my favorite city in the world. NYC is great, I love it. It was the perfect place for starting my career. But, I’m a father now and I want my kid to be able to grow up in a smaller town. I want him to be able to grow up like I did, where you can bike on the street, play in trees. I love the outdoors.

Speaking of the outdoors, I’ve always wondered whose awesome dogs those were on the cover of “On My Way” (Kweller’s 2004 LP)?

Those were actually wolves! That’s why I look so nervous in the picture. But yeah, I’m a big fan of wolves and we rented those from some animal training company in California. Their trainer kept feeding them beef jerky from a pouch so they wouldn’t start gnawing on me.

I hear you’re a pretty avid fisherman?

Definitely. I’m not a hunter, but I am an angler.

I’m a big fan of fishing myself.

Oh yeah? What do you fish for?

Mostly catfish at this little place on the bank of the Mississippi. It’s fun. Have you heard that noise catfish make after you catch them?

Yeah, they make that *mimics high-pitch catfish snort*

*Laughs* Exactly. How are you feeling about the new record (The yet to be released “Changing Horses”)?

Really excited. It’s different from all my other albums, but they’re all different from each other, so that doesn’t say much. On my old albums, they’d be peppered with a rootsy song or two and so I thought, “Why not make a whole record in that style?” It’s really just getting back to my country roots. The whole process feels really authentic. We recorded it straight to tape, with no computers and with really good mics.

Will the new record be released on ATO (Dave Matthews’ label, which has released all Kweller’s previous solo albums)?

Well, my deal is up with ATO. We’ve been feeling around with other labels. I actually was ATO’s first signing in ’01, but I do feel changing directions in life is important. At the end of the day, that side is business and has nothing to do with the art.

In the times we live in, artists are forced to deal with the business aspect. They have to learn how to protect their art and not be taken advantage of. The goal of any creator is to find themselves in a business situation with other people who love what’s being created. After the online music revolution in the early 2000s, a lot of labels changed the way they do business.

I have been courted pretty hard by Rounder Records (Allison Krauss, Ween). They’re out of Massachusetts and have a lot of great folk artists.

Will the album for sure come out on an indie label?

Probably. Either an indie or my own new label (Noise Company).

You produce records as well?

Yeah, I love producing, guess that’s the Jack White in me. I’ve been doing the solo thing for over 10 years and I’m still just 26 years old. It’s crazy to see young musicians starting out who grew up on my music. I’ve produced records for this French artist named Pierre Guimard and that’s been great. Producing records is a really fulfilling thing, to be able to help document what’s going on in the studio.

What’s Guimard’s sound like?

He’s folky with a rock edge. Like me, he loves all different types of music.

With regard to production, do you have a certain style? Either in terms of methods or equipment?

My style is to try and bring the best out. In my opinion, the style should be that of the band. When an album sounds more like a specific producer than the actual artists, what’s the point?

My strength has always been in arranging and songwriting, but I also like keeping morale up in the studio, keeping the artist excited. In terms of equipment, I prefer analog. No computers in the studio. Digital recording has led to an epidemic with music in general. It has no character. Sheryl Crow, Britney Spears, Coldplay Ö they all sound sort of the same, they sound too perfect. Before 1970, there was certainly more character in music. Like, in hearing the Beatles, those records are timeless. Digital studios and ProTools make anyone sound like a talented musician and I feel it cheapens the art form. It lowers the need for talented artists.

Your MySpace page’s only two gigs are the U of M one you just played and a show at the Minnesota Zoo in June. Also, you’re top friends with Minnesota native Mason Jennings. Do you feel any sort of Minnesota connection?

Well, my bass player, Chris Morrissey, lives in Minnesota. I also go way back with Mason Jennings. But yeah, Minneapolis is a great town, has some great music and is always welcoming.

As for the MySpace thing, that’s just a coincidence. Last night was special gig. It was the last Trio on the Train Track (Kweller’s full band) show. But I’m really excited to be performing with Kitt Kitterman (pedal steel/dobro) at the zoo and on the next tour. Chris Morrisey might fit it somewhere, too. Next September we’re going to be doing a club tour with all new material from “Changing Horses.” The new album might come out that September, or maybe just an EP with three songs off it. We might have to wait until early next year to release it. It all depends on the label situation.

When I was observing all the show attendees tonight, it’s clear you have a very broad following. Even in talking with different groups of my friends, there’s almost a Beatles-esqe universal appeal to your music. Whether you’re talking jocks, indie kids or any type of person, they all seem to like your music. Why do you feel this is?

I don’t know. I don’t try and involve myself with any sort of trends or scenes. For me, music is one thing. It’s not compartmentalized, it’s one thing. Basically, I just follow my instincts. If I feel like writing a country song, I write a country song. If I feel like writing a beer-drinking song, I write a beer-drinking song. If I feel like writing a sensitive song, I write a sensitive song. My music is about life, about seeking the light at the end of the tunnel. Music has always gotten me through hard times. The biggest gift, for me, is when fans come up to me and tell me that my music helped them through a divorce, through their dad dying or whatever. I think it’s great my music isn’t just enjoyed by one social class. The true goal is to help people, to help everybody.