Exposed to music at an early age, Texas boy Ben Kweller began playing drums when he was seven and took up piano and guitar soon after. In 1995 his band Radish were signed and dubbed ‘the next Nirvana’ by hungry PR men (Kweller was still only fifteen!) Four years on he quit to go solo, making friends with the likes of Ben Folds, Evan Dando (The Lemonheads) and Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips). Now, aged twenty six, with four solo albums behind him, we met up in Notts over a cup of tea…
Tell us about your early days with Radish. That must have been a whirlwind…
The band started when I was about fourteen and we made two albums on our own. I sent a CD to family friend Nils Lofgren, because he was the only person in the music industry that I knew. His producer checked it out and really liked it, so he phoned me up and said he wanted to record a three song demo and before we knew it, five record companies wanted to sign us.
We ended up with Mercury Records because Nirvana publicist Danny Goldberg was the president and we were all huge Nirvana fans. We recorded our major label debut. That was called Restraining Bolt, which did really well in the UK – we had a top 40 hit with Little Pink Stars and I was on the cover of Kerrang.
Our second album was Discount Fireworks and at that time Mercury got bought by another company and became Island Def Jam Music Group. No-one at the new label cared about Radish because they didn’t sign the band and they didn’t want to put it out. We were bummed out about that, but at the same time, me and the drummer were both doing different things. He started his own record company and had his own band going, and I fell in love with this girl Liz Smith and moved up to New York City.
That’s essentially where I started my solo career, in 1999. I didn’t know anybody in New York yet, I had these songs that were really personal and I looked around the room, realised I didn’t have a band and said ‘well, fuck it, I’m just Ben Kweller now’.
I recorded a CD on my computer and called it Freak Out, its Ben Kweller. That’s when it all started for me. Radish was a great band, but we were so young and still learning about so much. I feel like it gave me so much great experience and taught me so much about the music business and about being an artist, writing, and working with producers in studios. So when it was time for me to become a solo artist, I really knew what I wanted to achieve. It takes a lot of effort to keep a band together. So I feel really lucky I had that experience so young.
You’re still quite young now…
Yeah, twenty five.
I get the impression you’re quite famous in America…
I’m not a household name, I’m still underground. In America I definitely sell more records and more people know who I am but it’s a bigger country too… I’m not selling millions. I’m at a good place there. I want to bring my music to as many people as possible, but I would have never told you that ten years ago. In the Radish days, because I was so young and we got a lot of press I really wanted to pay my dues. Radish never had a tour bus, we always stayed in a van and I wanted to do interviews for fanzines, not magazines. It was really important to me to have this indie credibility. I‘ve been able to have that as a solo artist and it’s been really nice, but now I’m at the point where I‘ve come full circle and realised that I’ve been given this gift and want to give people hope through my music. That’s why I’m here. Which is a nice realisation, because when I was eight years old I remember standing in front of my Dad's turntable and I was listening to All you need is Love…
I was listening to that today!
Cool. It just made me cry. I didn’t know what they were talking about… I knew about love but I didn’t really know about love. What eight year old does? But the melody was so beautiful it made me cry and I was just listening to it over and over again. I said to myself right then ‘this is what I want to do, I want to make music like this and evoke emotion out of other people through music like these people are doing to me right now.’
I remembered that story last year and I realised that’s what I want to do. I don’t need to be famous or have tons of money or be on the cover of magazines. But I want people to hear my music and I want to let people know that there are better days ahead. Music has always done that for me, it’s given me hope and uplifted me. But if all the fame and all that bullshit comes along with it, that’s fine too. If I have to be on MTV, I’m prepared for it, because I’ve been through so much that I feel that I could handle it.
Evan Dando’s a fan of yours…
Yeah, that’s how my solo stuff started. He got Freak out, its Ben Kweller and he called me up because I was in the yellow pages. I’d just moved to New York and he said ‘Hey, this is Evan Dando. I just got a copy of your CD and I can’t stop listening to it! Give me a call and we’ll hang out!’ It was a message and I saved it on my computer and burned a CD of it. I called him back, he took me on tour and that’s how it started for me.
What was it like touring with him?
He had been laying low for a long time. At that time the Lemonheads weren’t doing anything. He was partying a lot and not being creative. Then he met me and I was so young and my energy for it really invigorated him. We would tour in my car, with two acoustic guitars in the trunk, which was a really great time for me. It meant so much more to me than any of the Radish experiences. Luckily I moved to New York at a really great time and there were a lot of other bands starting out like The Strokes, The Mouldy Peaches and The Walkmen. We were all really close and playing these 200 seat clubs together. It was nice to have that community finally.
You’ve done a fair few US chat shows. Do you prefer Weird Al, David Letterman or Conan O’Brien?
Conan is my favourite. He’s a musician. In his dressing room he’s got guitars all over the wall and every time I’m there he’s playing some Beatles solos, trying to get the Harrison parts. They’re always one note off of where it should be and you just want to go in and be like ‘Dude, it’s this note!’ But he’s so fucking cool and actually talks to the bands. I’ve done that show now five times from Radish to now. Conan’s definitely my favourite. He’s the funniest too.
Tell us about your side project, the Bens. I’m a bit Ben Folds fan too…
He’s so talented. He’s the best piano player I know. It’s just so good sitting in the room with two other great, inspiring songwriters. It’s something that none of us had ever done because we all write our own songs and don’t really like collaborating with other people. But when we all got together, it was so creative. Someone would always come up with something really good. We wrote and recorded four songs in three days and then we did a tour in Australia. We haven’t done anything since and that was a few years back, but I saw Folds a week or two ago in New York. We talked about it and we want to make an album and maybe do a world tour at some point.
I heard that the Austin City Limits music festival was a bit of a weird gig for you. There was lots of blood involved?
Lots of blood! It’s my favourite festival in the world, its so fucking cool! Austin’s such a great, eclectic and diverse place, right in the middle of Texas of all places - it’s the most liberal, open-minded place in the world. I was so excited because Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were playing, and the Raconteurs and the Kings of Leon. I was on the main stage and it was going to be a huge gig and an hour before I was on the bus. The air is so fucking dry on these buses with the air conditioning and I started getting a bloody nose. I didn’t even pick it or anything, it just started bleeding out of both nostrils. I wasn’t doing coke or anything crazy, it was just the air. I tried to stop it but it lasted an hour before the gig. They got the paramedics and everyone wanted to take me to the hospital. They said ‘just cancel the gig, don’t worry about it’ and I was like “fuck that, I’ve got to go on stage!” There were twenty thousand people out there, and I didn’t want to cancel a gig because I had a nose bleed. So I went out there, and the bleeding kept getting more and more in the heat. I asked the crowd if anyone had a tampon because I figured that would help if I put it up my nose… and it turned into this big publicity stunt. Then Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips came up to me the next day and was like “dude, you stole my show” and I was like “Wayne, its real blood, man!” That night he did this ten minute tribute to my nosebleed during their show, which was really sweet. He’s such a good guy too. Everything you’d imagine about him is true. He’s weird but totally down home and cool.
I was reading you became a dad earlier this year. Its Doreen Zev right?
Doreen Zev, yeah. Zev means wolf. And my middle name is Lev which means heart and so together we’re heart of the wolf in Hebrew. Which is al old language, so I thought it was cool. Liz Smith, the girl I fell in love with all those years ago is my wife, its like a family business almost.
That’s a beautiful thing.
Yeah, I’m really lucky for that. A lot of girls can’t put up with the rock and roll thing at all. It’s really hard.
What was the last thing that made you laugh a lot?
Probably Doreen. He just cracks me up every day. He just does the funniest things. He smiles and it’s just the most beautiful thing, just cracks me up. But I really want to see this Borat movie. I know that’ll be the next thing that’ll make me laugh. Did you see it?
I haven’t yet actually, but I need to. What was the last thing that made you cry?
I was singing on stage. You know the song Thirteen which is on my new album, it’s just a piano and vocal and its probably my most personal song yet. It talks about my relationship with Liz and everything we’ve been through, and the friends that have come and gone. Recently I had a falling out with my best friend of eight years and it was just tragic. We actually used to make music together a lot and now we’re still friends but things but things are really fucked up. While I was making the album things were bad between us and some of the lyrics just reminded me. There’s this line talking about me and Liz and that we’ve seen the sun rise with new eyes, we’ve seen the damage of gossip and true lies, and we’ve seen the sun go down. The line about gossip and lies is just about what I was going through. People were talking and pitting me and my friend against each other and it was just a bunch of rumours and lies that weren’t true. It makes me sad, as you get older it really is harder to find friends.
Is there anything else you want to say to our readers?
Just keep doing your thing, be who you are. Don’t look over your shoulder and try to be the next guy. It’s so important to follow your heart in all your decisions. As you get older, you get more and more hard decisions come your way and it’s really crazy.