Five minutes into a conversation with Ben Kweller over the telephone, you realize that he is not the precocious, complex rock star the media often portrays him to be. Musically gifted from the get-go (he founded his first band, Radish, at age 12) and a maturing songwriter, Kweller’s voice personifies youthful cheer. Unlike most musicians his age, Kweller, now 20, utilizes the piano and guitar to escape and convey his feelings to the world.
A resident of Brooklyn, New York, Kweller has managed to solidify an eclectic fan base that includes American college students, jaded metropolitan critics and cutting-edge Japanese adolescents. His unique mix of folk, punk, pop and indie rock locks him opening tour slots for artists such as Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield and Jeff Tweed, and most recently, the Strokes. Kweller continues to tour to promote his debut album Sha Sha.
This is a Life & Art interview with Kweller via telephone.
Q: Has living in Brooklyn changed your music and lyrics from when you were in Texas?
BK: It has really changed it because I’m so invigorated by the energy of the city and it’s just been so exciting. You know, just listening to bands like the Velvet Underground singing about New York and living here at the same time, it’s such an incredible vibe. Recording the album Sha Sha was so cool because I could hop on the train and go to work every morning. It is all so inspiring.
Q: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be?
BK: Oh shit. I’d probably wanna be a professional bass fisher – a fisherman down in Texas taking people on tours to go fishing. Something chill like that, or, own a baseball card shop.
Q: When are you heading back to the studio?
BK: I’ll think Ill go to the studio probably in June or July. It all depends on how the album does. If it keeps doing well, I’ll stay on the road for another year.
Q: What direction are the new songs taking? Are you using the same formula as in Sha Sha?
BK: They’re similar songs. I don’t want to try for my next album to have a new sound, you know? I don’t wanna be like Radiohead and make Kid A. I’m not ready for that. One day I might do something tripped out and f***ed up. Right now I just wanna be consistent. If you look at Tom Petty or the Beatles or Nirvana – all their first albums sound the same with different songs and people love that.
Q: We’re you surprised and overwhelmed by the success of Sha Sha?
BK: Oh, I’m surprised and so happy. I’m just so flattered. When I made the album I made it for myself, and to see all these great reviews and everything, it’s been great.
Q: When will you feel fully accomplished as an artist?
BK: Oh god. I used to think when I sold 50,000 records that would be it, and now I’ve sold 55,000 and I can’t believe it. And then my other goal was to tour with the Strokes and now I’m going on tour with them.
Q: Do you have any backstage pre -show rituals?
BK: Ahh, let’s see. I’m definitely neurotic before I go on stage. I’m totally weirded out and running around screaming. I can’t have a real conversation. I’m just like ‘yeah yeah yeah.’ I get butterflies and get so nervous. But the second I get on stage, it’s all gone. You have to talk to the audience like you would talk to your friends backstage. I’m always like ‘What’s up yo? I’m nervous as shit.’ It’s all about keeping it real. That’s how you connect with people, by being yourself. People like that. But I really don’t have any…I do like, jumping jacks (laughs).
Q: Which do you like performing in more: smaller clubs or bigger venues?
BK: I like medium-sized. A thousand people is really cool, because it’s big but it’s intimate enough and feels like a small club. You can connect with everybody. But like 2000 people gets too big and then arenas and shit, that’s just ridiculous. My whole thing is about connecting, so to answer your question, I prefer the small clubs.
Q: Of the guitars you play, which is your favorite one?
BK: My favorite guitar is my Gibson Acoustic G45. Actually you know what? I’m kind of pissed off at it right now ’cause I haven’t written any songs with it. So my favorite guitar is my 1972 Fender Mustang.
Q: How is your songwriting process?
BK: I sit at the piano or with the guitar and come up with the music first usually. Once the music is down, I start singing whatever comes out, then I write it down and work with it.
Q: Do you ever get scared that you might be growing up too fast?
BK: Nah, you know what? You grow up as fast as you want really. At the end of the day, it’s like, if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t. Every kid wants to grow up to be an adult but I don’t regret anything. I’ve had such a fun time and I think I’m really lucky.
Diana Pastrana can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org