Words by Jim Testa
Ben Kweller burst on the music scene in 1995 when, at age 14, his band Radish signed a headline-making contract with Mercury Records. That deal went nowhere, though, and it wasn’t until the 19-year old Kweller and his girlfriend Liz Smith moved to Brooklyn in 1999 that he started building a national following.
Arriving at the same time as bands like the Strokes and Interpol were exploding in a post-9/11 NYC Rock Renaissance, Kweller’s fuzzy, feel-good indie-pop – initially self-released on a string on home-recorded EP’s – started connecting with fans and earned him a faithful following that adores him to this day.
Fast forward to 2021 and the release of Circuit Boredom, Kweller’s first album since 2012’s Go Fly A Kite. These days, Ben and his wife Lizzy share a 28-acre ranch on the outskirts of Austin with his sons Dorian and Judah, ages 14 and 10, along with a home studio that serves as the base for his label, The Noise Company. The last eight years have been a long, strange trip indeed, but the goofy kid with the crooked smile who once sang about being “Dazed And Confused” is feeling pretty good about the world again.
I have a long history with Ben, having seen one of the final performances of Radish at SXSW in 1999 and then literally bumping into him on a Manhattan street in early 2000. After an awkward introduction in the middle of Madison Avenue, I started going to see Ben’s small acoustic shows at places like CBGB Gallery and got to see his career blossom firsthand.
Off Shelf: I’m trying to remember, we met just a few months after you moved from Texas, right?
Ben Kweller: Yeah, I moved there in ‘99. When we met on the street, I hadn’t even made “Freak Out, It’s Ben Kweller” yet. But then I was doing shows with my little team and you would come to them. My first memory actually is talking to you on the phone. Because I remember being in my first apartment, in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, on Smith Street. And I was just so excited to have a real stoner interview that felt like a real big deal. And it was for your zine, Jersey Beat.
OS: Well, a few more people have heard of you since then. And now you have a new album, the first in quite a while.
BK: Yeah, it’s cool. We live in a really interesting time. I love it. I mean, this new album, there’s so many things to tell you. But I mean, I guess starting at the beginning, with Go Fly A Kite in 2012. That was a big moment for me because my deal was up at ATO Records. I decided not to renew with them. We started our own label, Noise Company. We put out Go Fly A Kite. We signed a baby band here in Austin called Wild Child who I really love. And I produced their album, it did really well. Then we got nominated for a Grammy for the first time through Go Fly A Kite, and things were going so well. And then it was Christmas time and my kids wanted to see snow, as all Texans and all kids want in December. And so we drove to New Mexico. You might have even read about this, but basically we all almost died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
We were in a little cabin in New Mexico. And Liz woke up in the middle of the night and said, something’s horribly wrong, I feel really sick. And so I stood up and collapsed to the ground. So it wasn’t just her. And we were like, Holy fuck, like what’s going on? Something’s horrible. And I crawled to the front door and opened it and the fresh air came in. And we were like, oh my god, we got to get out of this cabin, and I called 911 for the first time in my life. The ambulance came, they tested us, and they said, ‘you guys were 15 minutes away from not waking up. And you’re so lucky you got out of there.’ We were then sent to the hospital and put on oxygen for a few days. And we eventually made our way back to Austin. At that point, I called up (publicist) Ken Weinstein and my booking agents and everyone on my team and just said, I’m done. I have to cancel everything. I had just almost died and my brain was mush, you know? And so a few weeks went by and then months went by and then years went by.
OS: And that led a five year hiatus?
BK: Right. Exactly. And so, you know, we moved out to the country. We just really reprioritized. We asked ourselves, what are the important things to us? And being surrounded by nature is important to us. Also, I always wanted to have a studio, and we found this perfect property in the country, 45 minutes west of Austin, in a town called Dripping Springs, which has sort of become the Woodstock of Austin in a way. It’s got good, good Hill Country vibes. And so we’ve been living out here. I went through a major depression for the first time in my life and just really didn’t want to leave the family. I didn’t want to fly, didn’t want to travel, didn’t have the desire to get on stage. And a friend of mine, Dwight Baker, really great producer in town, called me one day and said, ‘man, I know that you’re totally in a weird headspace right now. But I was thinking, why don’t you just come over, let’s hang out and make some music for fun and just see what happens? Because maybe making music with other people might be good for you, you know?’ And so I went over there.
I had just written the song ‘Heart Attack Kid’ and finished it up and we just started tracking it. I had so much fun. And I was like, okay, I can do this again. At the same time, one of my best friends growing up, John Kent, who was the drummer in Radish, moved to the town next to my town. And so I said, ‘Dude, I have this barn on my property. Let’s set up all of our instruments and just rock out like we did when we were kids.’ So he came over, we set up the drums, set up a Marshall stack, opened up my SG KS, plugged it into the amp, and we just started jamming. And it was like we were 14 again. Everything just started to fall into place. I was really relieved to find the fire is still burning inside me.
Then COVID started and I had plans to release the album in March or April, 2020, but of course, you know what happened there. So nothing happened, as far as my album was concerned. And now at this point, I want to make up for lost time. I feel like I had all these years sort of taken away from me in a way, but it’s okay, because I’m in a good place. And I’m just… I’m excited to just keep making music.
OS: What I wanted to ask was, going from the self-titled album, then to Go Fly A Kite, I went back and listened to both of those. It seems to me like they have a little bit more of a country vibe to them. And the new route seems more like, ‘No, this is modern pop. I’m here now.’
BK: Right? Yes, I wanted to make something really memorable, and really digestible, and fun, but still guitar heavy. It’s funny because so many people say guitar music is dead, and rock and roll is dead. I can never believe that. The guitar is such a huge part of who I am as an artist. So I wanted to really mix that sort of synth bass you hear in pop music with electric guitar, with a grand vibe to it. And also, I just wanted the songs to be extremely hooky. I’m just so sick of boring music and self-indulgent music, and five minutes songs. I’m just kind of over it, you know? And that’s what Circuit Boredom is, in general, that’s what the whole theme is.
I knew that I wanted the album cover to be me staring at my phone, because that’s all we see is people staring at their phone. That’s who we are now. And we live in an age where we have access to all technology, – any music, the history of recorded music, is at your fingertips. Yet somehow, we find ourselves bored so often, and that’s the full Circuit Boredom theme, all the way down to the fact that I recorded 15 songs for the album. But I thought to myself, well, that doesn’t work because 15 is way too much content for people to handle right now. So it’s got to be an eight song album. I really like it. Yeah, I’m happy about it and just excited to keep putting out music.
OS: One of the songs I wanted to ask you about specifically was ‘American Cigarettes.’ It’s my favorite.
BK: That one came about in a really fun way. Because one thing that sort of happened over the past few years is – and it’s probably because I’m getting older – I’m noticing that there are a lot of artists that are coming up now or becoming popular now even, that cite me as an influence on them, which is just mind blowing to me. I felt for so many years that I was the young guy in the room, and now I’m the older guy. We’ve been getting more and more emails from A&R people and bands and managers. They’re like, ‘Hey, did you know Ben Kweller is my artist’s favorite songwriter? Can we set up a songwriting session? Or can you produce this EP?’ Or whatever it is.
There was an artist called Modern Love Child, who reached out maybe two or three years ago, and said, I’m asking some of my favorite artists to write songs for this album. Can we get together? They sent me some demos, I really liked them. So he came to the ranch and we spent three days together and basically wrote his whole album. And one of the songs that we wrote together was ‘American Cigarettes.’ He ended up not putting it on his album. This is one of the coolest songs. I loved it. And so I definitely wanted to put it out somehow. So we put it on Circuit Board.
I remember specifically when we wrote that song, I was thinking about a songwriting session that I did, like a year prior. With a country writer, this super talented guy named Jaren Johnston, out of Nashville. He’s written a lot of hits for so many artists, like Keith Urban. I remember, they flew me out to write with him, just to write country songs, you know, to pitch to other country artists. Because it’s interesting, the country world’s pretty cool, because it’s still one of the last genres of music where there’s this songwriting infrastructure, where the artists, a lot of the artists, don’t write. So they need songs. And so as a songwriter, it’s a cool lane to be in, because you can just churn out songs and circulate them within the industry. And then artists, if you’re lucky, eventually, you know, pick up on your songs.
OS: I know, I have I have a couple friends from Jersey, who when their careers stalled, moved to Nashville to be professional songwriters.
BK: Yeah, I love it. I love it! So I went out, Jaren’s band Cadillac Three were on tour and we rode in the back of the bus. And I remember vividly working on a song and we had a really cool verse. And it was time to figure out the chorus. And so I’m searching around on the guitar for a different chord; like, where are we going to go? Where does the chorus go? And Jaren looked at me and was like, ‘What do you mean, dude? We just keep doing the same thing we did in the verse, we just write a new melody over it.’ And I’m like, really? ‘Oh, yeah, dude,’ he says, ‘people don’t give a fuck about any of those fancy chords. If the verse feels good, that’s also going to be the chorus.’ And I was like, mind. blown.
But then looking back to some of my favorite songs, someone who did that a lot was Tom Petty. ‘Freefalling’ is the same three chords, the same pattern over and over again. So I thought a lot about that. Then when Modern Love Child was out here, and we’d already written a bunch of songs, I was kind of strumming this chord progression, which would eventually become ‘American Cigarettes.’ And I purposely said, ‘Dude, let’s just write this song and make the verse and the chorus the same, and let’s just come up with a killer melody for the chorus.’
The other sort of side note, my reasoning behind doing ‘American Cigarettes’ the way we did it was, I came to realize that a lot of my songs, a lot of Ben Kweller songs, are deceivingly complicated. They sound simple, but they’re actually kind of hard to reproduce. And that can be a problem. I’ll find myself like in a situation – like at a wedding, or, you know, a party – and there’s a band, and they want me to come up and sing a song. And I end up having to do a simple cover, like, ‘Stand By Me’ or something, because it’s, you know, four chords that everyone knows. And I’ve always wanted a song that I can just say, ‘Hey, here’s the chord progression, G, D, A minor, C, and just keep doing that, kind of like Marty McFly. Watch me for the changes, try to keep up.’ And so ‘American Cigarettes’ is that song. So now I finally have a simple song that I can play with anybody.
OS: You mentioned that your son’s been your A&R department, keeping you up to date on music. Is there anything where he said, ‘Hey, Dad, listen to this,’ and you thought, ‘Wow, that’s something I can use?’ Or, ‘that’s a really cool sound?’
BK: There’s tons of stuff. Let me see, one thing he got really into for a long time was XXXTentacion, who was this hip hop artist who passed away. He had some personal issues that were probably not that great, but his music is so fascinating to me. Because he’s a rapper but he pulls from so many different places. And there’s even some sort of screamo punk rock elements to his stuff. He’s a great artist. And then people like Juice WRLD, Trippie Redd, a lot of these new pop rap, guys. But at the same time, my son just discovered Pavement, and all these lo-fi indie bands. He discovered the Pixies, and I told him, ‘Man, you gotta hear Frank Black’s “Teenager Of The Year.”’ And so we put that on, and it just kind of blew his mind.
OS: Awesome. How about anything that’s been out lately, like this past year. Phoebe Bridgers?
BK: Yeah, Phoebe is cool. Her and my old friend Conor [Oberst], the thing they were doing together [Better Oblivion Community Center] was really good. I’ve been getting so into pop music, stuff like Harry Styles. I actually have a lot of respect for him because I feel like he’s doing some things that are really authentic; you can feel he’s trying to do something faithful in the pop realm, which I really appreciate… I love all the Post Malone stuff. So yeah, I’ve definitely been trying to find music that’s super mainstream, that I can still relate with. Because for so long, that’s always been hard to find. Mainstream music was sort of the antithesis of what I enjoyed. I always liked the weirder shit, more underground. But as you know, deep down, I love a good melody.
I’ve always been sort of this conflicted artist because really, at the end of the day, I’m a power pop writer. I came up at a time where it was really uncool to be popular. And so there’s been this constant struggle, from the beginning of my career, where I’ve always wanted to have hits, but at the same time, I want to retain my integrity. I never wanted to make music that I couldn’t get behind or believe in. I feel like especially in the rap world, the music is really authentic, and pop is now following that trend, which I’m really happy about.
OS: Obviously touring is still somewhere in the future because of COVID. You mentioned that you have seven songs left over from the Circuit Boredom sessions that you didn’t use. Any immediate plans? Obviously you can’t use just release another album next week. But what are you looking at short term and long term?
BK: Well, I’m definitely thinking about what the next album is. I think I want to do something a little more stripped down. But at the same time, I don’t know, maybe I do sort of a similar thing. One thing I do know, and this is just an interesting part of our culture and kind of where music is right now… Because music is so heavily driven by Spotify, they’ve made it where, when you upload music to Spotify, you can only choose one song to submit to playlists, to their editors in hopes of getting on playlists. And so that means when you release an album, you can only choose one single to potentially get put on playlists. So two years ago, a lot of artists were like, well fuck, why would I put out my whole album if you’re only going to give me one chance to be playlisted? And that’s why the singles culture has really come back. Because if you put out a single, you just submit that as the one song for playlist.
And so even with a band like Smashing Pumpkins, they released this big album, but they did eight singles leading up to it. That’s kind of a fun way to get into it. They’re playing within this system that we’re all kind of slaves to now, for better or worse. Some of it, I think, is really cool. In a lot of ways, it’s like 1958 again, just releasing our 45’s, you know? Back in 2000, you thought, if I could just get one of my songs on a movie soundtrack or a dance show… And now, it’s totally this playlist culture. It’s where all the interesting stuff is happening.
So back to your question on what’s the next album release, I think what I’m excited about is the idea that I could be in the studio, write a new song, record it, and be like, ‘Oh, this is rad. Alright, let’s upload it and put it out, have it released in two weeks.’ Because that’s the other kind of tricky thing with Spotify, you have to give them a certain amount of time to evaluate a new song for playlists. So you can’t really just upload it and have it released tomorrow. There is this two week delay. But still, that’s pretty darn fast. So I think I see myself doing that and just continue to put out music.
OS: Well, all the luck in the world with this record. Maybe Pitchfork will actually give you a spin and give you an 8.0.
BK: I don’t even know if we’re telling Pitchfork about it. My biggest thing, especially during COVID, has been trying to serve my fans directly. And, you know, keeping them happy, because we have all been going through this together. And it’s been such a weird time.
OS: How did you make out with a teenage son and a 10 year old at home during COVID?
BK: When it got really rough was when school was virtual and all four of us were trying to do Zooms, because our Internet is really bad out here in the country. So it was really frustrating, especially for them, you know, they feel lucky that they’re going to school in person again. So that definitely makes it easier. We survived. You know, like I said, we live out we’re on 28 acres. So there’s a lot to do out here. A lot of hiking and swimming and stuff. And so we we got through it. For sure. There was a lot of Netflix watching, a lot of family movie nights, almost every night.
OS: How did Austin do with South by Southwest being canceled? I bet that was a huge hit to the economy.
BK: Wasn’t it? For me, it felt like SXSW was of the first things to go down. Yeah, it was March. It was rough. And then I feel like right after that, Adam Schlesinger died, he was the first person that I knew personally that was affected by COVID. So it was one thing after another. We were like, holy shit, is this real? And here we are months later, almost March again.