By Mark Guarino
The late ‘60s and early ‘70s are in high fashion these days. If bands aren’t donning the threads of Robert Plant or Lou Reed, they are copping their riffs, in an embrace of the time period when synthesizers and MTV didn’t muck up purebred music making.
Ben Kweller’s baby face signals his 22 years but his new album, “On My Way” (ATO/RCA) shows his firm roots in timeless rock songcraft. Seventies troubadours Jackson Browne, Randy Newman, Elton John as well as the Velvet Underground and Stones are all references for his extremely singable songs, ranging from guitar pop to garage rockers. The songs also show a reverence for his generation, specifically the guitar freakouts and loopy irreverence of Pavement.
The record’s off-the-cuff ruggedness is due in part to producer Ethan Johns (Counting Crows, Ryan Adams), son of Glyn Johns who worked with the Mount Rushmore of ‘70s rock bands including the Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who. Johns the junior took a cue from his father and situated Kweller and band in a one-room studio and rolled tape live, refusing to give the band headphones for them to listen to the mix as it was happening. Because the microphones captured everything at once, it was impossible to go back and redo one specific part. The point was to do the song in as many takes as possible to capture that “super live feel,” said Kweller.
“It’s a super intuitive way to record. You set up the way you set up in a garage. You can hear everything. I love it because you’re playing music as a band as opposed to recording it,” he said.
Even at age 22, Kweller can say he’s going old school and not look like a poseur. He is already a seven-year veteran of the music industry, having fronted the band Radish at age 15 in his hometown of Greenville, Texas. The grunge trio became the focus of a high profile bidding war and even though he was a teenager, Kweller began receiving comparisons to Kurt Cobain, and reportedly one fan was Courtney Love. Danny Goldberg, the former Nirvana manager turned CEO of Mercury, signed Radish and released their debut in 1997. The hype eventually backfired and after Mercury was bought by Universal, Radish was dumped on the Island Def Jam roster and ignored. Their third album would never be released and Kweller was stuck in contractual limbo.
“It didn’t make me bitter one bit,” he says today. “I’m probably one of the most unjaded people you’ll ever meet. Maybe it’s because I go with the flow well. I don’t get caught up in the moment much. I’ve always been sort of a space cadet my whole life. I’m glad my system has been set up (that way) because what I’ve been through could definitely (expletive) up your average person, I’m sure.”
In the meantime, he moved from Texas to Brooklyn with his girlfriend and started releasing his own music independently. “Freakout with Ben Kweller” wound up in the hands of Evan Dando of the Lemonheads who became an instant fan and began introducing him around town and inviting him on tours as an opener. “He really took me under his wing,” Kweller said.
In short time, he caught the ear of Dave Matthews, who had just begun operating ATO, his boutique label that would become refuge for singer-songwriters like Patty Griffin, Ben Harper, David Gray and other cult favorites who together shared similar woes with major labels. Kweller hired new management and got out of his Universal deal and immediately signed with Matthews.
“I was never a Dave Matthews fan growing up, I was obviously more of a punk fan. But the thing is, I’ve always been able to recognize his sincerity as an artist and that, to me, is the most important thing,” Kweller said. “I was kind of surprised, like ‘wow, Dave Matthews like my music.’ That was kind of cool. I never expected that.”
“Sha Sha” (ATO/RCA), Kweller’s first album from 2002, won accolades for its offbeat pop tunes filled with singable nonsense, slacker charm, and chunky guitars reminiscent of Weezer. Although his sad-eyed lyrics earned him opening slots for emo stars like Dashboard Confessional (he shares a double bill with rising emo stars Death Cab For Cutie this weekend at the Vic), Kweller is far removed from the genre, mostly because of his sense of humor, lack of self-pity and often impressionist lyrics.
While a firmer rock record, “On My Way” boasts a few unabashed love songs — the piano ballad “Living Life” and the guitar ballad “Believer” among them. Their blushing sincerity and straightforward lyrics are due in part, he says, to his marriage to his long-time girlfriend last September.
“I didn’t hold back and I didn’t care if I sounded cheesy and over the top,” he said. Their openness is rare these days because, to Kweller, “there’s a toughness that people want to uphold. “And also finding true love is a rare thing so it’s hard to sing about,” he said. “There’s a lot of songs about unrequited love out there and that’s a real feeling that happens more than the opposite.”
Again, his inspiration to delve deep came from a member of the old guard: Neil Young. “He’s this amazing storyteller, Harley guy with this edge, but at the same time he sings about love so much in his music. It never sounds like Celine Dion because they’re not manufactured love songs. They’re deep from within himself,” he said. “I feel I’m getting to a point where I can let my sensitive emotions come out without feeling like a cheeseball.”
And like Young, Kweller has the next few years mapped out with several directions planned, including an all country album with major touring in-between. Also thrown in is his tenure in the Bens, a offshoot side project with Australian tunesmith Ben Lee and piano pop songwriter Ben Folds.
The Bens came to be after Dando introduced Kweller and Lee who later met Folds together at a show. Folds gave the pair a call to come to Nashville to write songs for three days which they did without telling their respective labels or management. The result is a four-song EP released on Folds’ internet label (attackedbyplastic.com) featuring CSN-style harmonies as well as crazy ‘80s techno pop. Epic, Folds’ label, balked upon its impending release but after negotiations among all three parties, it finally made the light of day earlier this year.
Kweller says that other than their first name, the three share a love for the “well-crafted pop song.” If you stretch, there are the little things, too: “me and Folds are both left-handed and me and Ben Lee are Jewish,” he said.
“But we all definitely have different musical influences. Folds is an Elton John fan and I’ve never loved Elton John.”