Ben Kweller has always been ahead of the curve, writing his first song at the age of eight, and signing his first record deal before he could legally drive. Now 30 years old, the Texas-based troubadour splits his time between running his own record label, raising his two sons and blending his favorite genres – including indie folk, Americana, pop and heartland rock and roll – into albums like Go Fly A Kite. We caught up with Kweller to talk about songwriting, vintage recording equipment and life as a record exec.
Things have been a little busy in the Kweller camp, haven’t they?
It’s been crazy around here, with the new album coming out. My deal with ATO Records was up after Changing Horses, so I started a label called the Noise Company. We’re putting out this album ourselves. It’s super fantastic, but at the same time, it’s so much work.
You signed your first record deal as a 15 year old. After working with other record companies for years, releasing an album on your own label must feel different.
Totally. As the years went on with ATO, though, I got more and more hands-on with the process of releasing my music. I was lucky to be with that label for so long. I did as much as I could when it came to making sure that my physical releases had awesome packaging and artwork, and those guys were always supportive of my creative ideas … although for a few years, we were under the confines of a major label through RCA Records, and big companies like that have a lot of rules. Like, “a CD can’t cost more than $0.98 to manufacture, so if you wanna have crazy glitter artwork or something, and that’s gonna cost $1.10 per unit, then you can’t do that.” So many rules. It was the age-old fight between the artist and the label.
Now you get to make your own rules. So bring on the glitter, right?
Well, for Go Fly A Kite, we pulled off this incredible thing with the packaging. It folds out. You basically construct your own diorama box. It’s like 7th grade science class, when you’d experiment with creating shadow boxes and stuff.
You also created “The Golden Laminate,” which allows one lucky person free admission to all Ben Kweller shows for life.
Yeah, dude! The Golden Laminate! Totally. That’s just another one of those brainstorm ideas I had, when I was thinking, “God, what would I have loved Sonic Youth to do back in 1997?” It would’ve been a golden laminate. Basically, you pre-order the album and every name that comes through will be put into a hat, and we’ll do the drawing sometime after record release. The person who wins will be able to see as many of my shows as they want.
The whole thing sounds very “Willy Wonka.”
Yep. I love that.
Since you began releasing music in the mid-‘90s, the methods of engaging an audience have changed so much. You’ve probably gone from Napster to MySpace to Facebook …
To Twitter! Right. It’s been a crazy evolution. Back in the early days, before the Internet took off, it was all about printing up black and white flyers and going around town with your staple gun, stapling them onto telephone poles. That was the extent of your promotion. I was in a band called Radish, and I still have a floppy disk of our original mailing list, which was full of snail-mail addresses instead of e-mail addresses. We used to do physical mailings. Then everything changed. It’s been really fun to watch it all.
So you’re happy with the way technology has changed the music business?
I really do love technology, although when it comes to physically recording my music, I don’t utilize a lot of it. I still record on tape with old tube mics and a lot of equipment that was state-of-the-art in the 1960s. I remember going to my first recording session with Radish. I must have been 14 years old, and I’d been calling record stores and guitar shops around my small town of Greenville, Texas, asking if anyone knew of a recording studio in the area. I got a recommendation for a guy up in Dallas, so we saved up some money and went there for a weekend and recorded three songs. That was before computers really entered the recording studio, so it was all on quarter inch tape. So I started recording that way, and I still record music that way. I’m more comfortable hearing the music as opposed to seeing the music, you know? It freaks me out a little when you go into a studio and there’s a big flatscreen monitor right by the console. You can actually see the sound waves. It freaks me out! The drummer’s like, “Wait, the bass drum – I can see that it’s not lining up perfectly with the bass guitar at this specific point.” It’s like, can’t we just use our ears?
Your albums tend to jump between genres. When you started writing songs for Go Fly A Kite, did you make an effort to choose a more singular direction?
Sometimes, you can’t really control what the hell kind of song comes down from outer space to you. For me, it might be a rock song or a piano ballad or a country song, and on my earlier records, I’d just put the entire strange collection of songs together. There was this constant process of jumping from one genre to the next. The first album that wasn’t a complete mixture of everything I can do was Changing Horses, which was more of an Americana/country project. I knew that Kite was going to be the rock record that followed Changing Horses, but it’s a mixture of things, too. There are a few folk songs, a sad piano ballad or two … but the overall feel of it is uptempo. It’s heavy on the electric guitar, heavy on the harmonies and full of the quirky pop thing that I do, you know?
I like the quirky pop thing.
I do, too, man! I can’t help it.