Ben Kweller is 28, but he looks like he’s 13, which is actually how old he was when he made his first record, as part of a Texas–based punk/pop band called Radish.
One more number? Kweller wrote his first song at the age of 9.
Kweller, who performs Jan. 7 at the Trustees Theater, is an insanely gifted songwriter and a multi–instrumentalist — on his eponymous third solo album, he played everything and overdubbed every vocal part.
In the studio, he bounces effortlessly between blissful pop, sweet ballads and uptempo everything, from punkish rock ‘n’ roll to hoe–downy country music.
(His most recent recording, 2009’s Changing Horses, is the sort of folky alt–country album Ryan Adams used to make, before he turned into Jerry Garcia.)
His main instrument is piano, which he’s been playing since childhood, but he also writes and performs on guitar.
Kweller has been championed by the likes of Evan Dando, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Juliana Hatfield, Guster and Death Cab For Cutie, all of whom have toured with him, and by simpatico singer/songwriters Ben Folds and Ben Lee (together, the threesome toured Australia as The Bens).
Kweller, his wife Liz and their son Dorian live modestly in Austin. During this interview, Kweller was driving to his local Wal–Mart, on the hunt for supplies for the family’s New Year’s Eve bash.
You have what’s called an “underground following” – is that OK in the current climate, or do you aspire to more?
Ben Kweller: I’m happy to have fans. I feel really lucky to have the following that I do. People say I’m like a cult artist and all that, and I guess that just kind of means that I don’t have any hit songs. But that’s fine with me, too.
My goal has always been to get my music to as many people as possible. Ever since I was 9 years old. There was a time when I was 9, and I was listening to “All You Need is Love” on my dad’s turntable, and I just kept playing that song over and over again. And it made cry. I realized at that moment “I want to do this. I want to make music and touch people the way that this music’s touching me right now.” That’s when I started writing songs on the piano.
Has it always remained the same?
Ben Kweller: I’ve basically gone through many phases, as I think a lot of artists do. There was definitely the phase of “you can’t sell out,” kind of pushing away any kind of success. Which is what I did with my first band, Radish. We were all teenagers and got signed to Mercury Records, and I really didn’t play the game very well with the label.
Looking back, I’m actually glad that I didn’t, because it’s allowed me to have a really good solo career. If we’d gotten famous at 16 years old, there might have been kind of a backlash, you know?
So the fact that Radish didn’t make it was a good thing?
Ben Kweller: Exactly! I think it was awesome, because it allowed me to experience working with lots of different producers, recording in different studios, honing my writing abilities and just writing tons of songs, and dealing with the music business firsthand — all the shady parts of it and the good parts of it. And big record companies.
By the time I was 18 and had moved to New York, and started my own thing, I felt like I had already done and seen so much that when it was time to sign with ATO Records and make that album Sha Sha, I felt like I just had a lot of experience already under my belt. So that was really good, but at the same time no one really knew who Ben Kweller was.
After Radish, why did you veer away from the hard punky stuff?
Ben Kweller: I don’t know, I can’t really explain it other than I’m always writing songs, and sometimes they come out as rockers, and sometimes they’re piano ballads, and sometimes they’re country songs or folk songs. I just have to follow that down.
Changing Horses was really a collection of songs I’d been working on over, like, 13 years. Literally – some of those songs go back to when I was 16, sitting on my bed in my parents’ house. Songs like “Fight,” “Sawdust Man” or “Things I Like to Do,” whenever I’d write a song like that I’d think “Man, this is a really cool song, but instead of putting it on my next record I want to save it and put it on an album with its brothers and sisters.” Make an album where all those songs fit together sonically.
I like the easy sense of construction on your pop records. Can you see the end at the beginning? Like “This is the way I want it to sound.”
Ben Kweller: The second I start writing a song, I hear all the overdubs in my head, I hear how I want the drums to be, whether it’s a big, roomy drum sound or something tight. But then, once we get in the studio I’m always surprised. I try to be totally prepared going into my recording; I’m pretty old–school in that I put a lot of weight on pre–production and getting the arrangements together with the band before we even go into the studio.
But once you do that, and you know what you’re all going to play, you can go in, lay it down, but then there’s that spontaneous element that always happens. Like “Oh, we should add this here, or go get a gong somewhere and put that there.” And it’s really good.
But I definitely prefer that method as opposed to just going in blindly and not having anything. I’ve seen friends go into the studio to write the record, and I just don’t think I could handle that kind of pressure.
What’s next for you?
Ben Kweller: I’ve just finished producing a record for this band called Triple Cobra. They’re from San Francisco, they’re a total glam–rock band, like T–Rex meets Queen, or early Guns N Roses. They’re totally slammin.’ They’re unsigned and they’re looking for a deal.
And I’m getting right back in the studio to make my next record, which is called Go Fly a Kite. We’re dusting off the electrics. It’s going to be a pretty big production sound, I think. I think it’s going to be really well–rounded.
So are you bringing a band to Savannah?
Ben Kweller: No, it’s a solo show! I’m excited about it because I don’t do too many of these any more, and I’m always really excited to do it because it kinda reminds me of the time I was starting out in New York. And that’s how I really made a name for myself, before I even had a band.
Apparently the theater’s real nice, they have a cool piano, the acoustics are good — I’m excited because I’ve been told by so many friends that tour around the country to do Savannah, that it’s a fun place to play.
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
When: At 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7
Phone: (912) 525–5050
Artist’s Web site: www.benkweller.com