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Interview: Ben Kweller

14 January 2021

Photo by Dave Kemper

There’s not much competition when you drop an album on the first day of the new year,. When I connect with Ben Kweller on a Zoom call a week later, I jokingly tell him that Circuit Boredom is my favorite album of the year but follow it up by saying that by next week, I’ll have found my next favorite album. He laughs and says, “I was going to say, ‘Wow! It’s only been out a week!’” But, undoubtedly, Kweller’s seventh studio album is one that has already burned it’s way into my head – there are memorable pop hooks galore from the glittery, ’80s-influenced “Starz” to the Weezer-sounding “Wanna Go Home.” It won’t be hard to remember this when putting together my “Favorites of 2021” list eleven months from now.

As the Zoom call starts, the first thing I see is what appears to be a home studio.

You’ve got a nice little set-up there

BEN: This is a good little set-up. It’s an old house, it was actually moved here, to this property where I live. It’s just got a really good vibe. In Austin, there’s a place called the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, and Charles Umlauf was a popular sculptor in Austin in like the 1930s and 1940s. We wanted to move out to the country and we found this property and we’re like 45 minutes west of Austin now in Dripping Springs. We were walking around this property and we saw this little house on one end and we were like, “What’s up with this house?” And they said, “Oh yeah, it was Charles Umlauf’s house and they moved it out here when he passed away.” That kind of sealed the deal for us for this property. It just has a really good energy. This is the band house. This is where my band stays when we rehearse and prep for touring, which doesn’t happen any more. I have all my gear in here, I’ve got some GoPro cameras, because I’m experimenting with the live stream thing, as you must these days.

I saw on the liner notes that Israel Nash contributes backing vocals to the album. I know he lives in Dripping Springs, do you live near him?

BEN: Exactly. We’re both on ranches in Dripping Springs and we’re about 15 minutes from each other. We see each other in town and we come to each others houses and hang out. He’s a good friend. We have, like, sister ranches. We should start a company called Sister Ranches for satellite locations for recording.

When I think of Texas, I think of Friday Night Lights. Is it really as big as it seems?

BEN: Oh, yes. Friday Night Lights is a real thing here, in fact, my son Dorian is 14-years-old now and he’s a freshman in high school which I can’t believe. I was always the teenager, you know what I mean? I feel like I’ve been a teenager my whole life because of the press, even when I hit my 20s, and then hit my 30s, and now I have a teenage boy and he’s in high school. He’s in the marching band, he plays bass drum so Liz and I, my wife, we go to these Friday night football games and it’s so fun. It’s cool when you have a kid out there being part of it. Frito Chili Pie. Dr. Pepper. It’s definitely the thing.

You’ve always been in my peripheral vision. I reviewed the Radish record when it came out in 1997. I’m very familiar with you, but not intimately familiar with you. Somebody sent me a note and said, “Ben dropped a new album on January 1,” and that seemed like it came out of nowhere. Was it a surprise release or was I not paying attention?

BEN: It kind of dropped out of nowhere, mainly because I’d been working on this album for a few years. I was planning on releasing it last March or April and then all of this happened. Fellow artists, managers, and industry people, none of us knew what to do and I know a lot of people are still waiting it out, just to be like, “We want to release it at the optimal time.”

For me, I just started getting a little frustrated, like, what’s the point in waiting and I started to think, “You know what? This has been such a fucked up year, let’s slam the door on 2020. The perfect time to release music would be on January 1, 2021 to give my fans some hope and some good vibes.” Obviously, everyone on my team was like, “That’s a cool idea but it’s the worst possible time to release new music.” I’m like, “I know, it normally is, but maybe that’s why it’s the best time.”

I will say, my operation is very DIY, you know? My deal with ATO Records was up in 2008 and we started the Noise Company, which is my label. We’ve had a few signings. We had a hit with the band Wild Child and then they upstreamed to Dualtone. We had little successes, but it’s very modest. It’s a rag-tag thing. And part of that is because I’m a DIY, indie kid at heart.

We didn’t do a ton of build up. The marketing behind this album has really been my Instagram feed. I, more than anything, have moved away from the Big Tech social media stuff, I obviously still have a lot of fans that want to hear from me there, but a lot of my thing is through and nurturing my biggest fans through my fan club, which is called Bright & Early. It’s essentially a DIY Patreon. We do it all through my website, we have a little more flexibility there.

I do a lot of direct emails to my fans. That’s really just been my favorite way to keep in touch. You’re going right into somebody’s email box. I try not to bombard people. Email marketing is a thing and I didn’t realize how deep that world is. It’s kind of a double-edged sword because the way IP addresses work, you have to warm them up to send mass emails. The IP addresses want you to send frequently because that further ingrains your URL in Google’s software and so they recognize Ben Kweller as an entity. On one hand, it’s best to email your list often, but as someone who doesn’t want to be a dick, I don’t want to email you often. I’m still trying to learn the right balance.

It’s been all about serving my fans first. Yes, I want to be out there. I want to grow my career. I’m still young enough where I have it in me to be competitive in music and make my mark. I’m still not satisfied. I’ve had an amazing career, don’t get me wrong, but I’m still striving for more.

One cool thing about the New Year’s drop is that all these New Music Friday playlists added me – Sweden, Denmark, China, Vietnam. If you look on the backend of my Spotify for Artists, Taiwan has the most listeners right after the U.S. I’ve never known anything about Taiwan and all of a sudden I’m trending in Taiwan. I texted a friend of mine who’s a promoter in Southeast Asia. He’s always wanted me to come tour but I’ve never done China, Vietnam, Thailand. I’m like, “Dude, what’s up with Taiwan? Do you deal with Taiwan? Because when this all opens up, we’re going.”

Have you been doing the Spotify thing long enough to understand if ‘plays’ turn into people showing up for shows?

BEN: Hmm. That’s a really good question because I don’t know. I haven’t seen streams turn into ticket sales. That’s an interesting one. I don’t really know what turns into ticket sales Radio can be a similar thing where a band will be huge on the radio – I remember back in the 2000s, my best friend in New York, Adam Green from The Moldy Peaches, we used to always go to shows together. He was obsessed with that girl who had that huge pop hit, (singing) “Making my way downtown.” Vanessa Carlton. She had that big smash. That had to have been a top 10 or a number 1. We go to Irving Plaza, which is like 1,000 people, that should clearly be sold out on a hit like that. Oh my God, there was only like 150 people there. And Adam was so depressed, in his mind, she was this pop star like Madonna. It was eye opening.

To bring someone physically to a concert, that’s a big thing to have that power. I don’t know what does it. Early on, my career was based around touring. I really feel like I did the grind for a good solid 10 years where I toured the world, kind of non-stop, starting with Sha Sha. I had some great opening opportunities early on, artists that took me under their wing, like the Lemonheads and Wilco and Juliana Hatfield; like, early days for me like when I first got to New York. All of those fans moved over to my train a little bit so when I’d come through town, I definitely saw people show up.

As far as the streaming thing, it’s weird to me. I don’t know, man. The album, as an art form, feels a little dead to me and that’s really sad for someone who loves the album format like me. Spotify’s dictating a lot. They make it where when you upload a release to Spotify, you can only send one song to the editors to get on playlists. That means, when you upload an album, you can only submit one single. That’s why everyone in the hip-hop world, and even the pop world, maybe two years ago, they were like, “Fuck that. I’ll just release singles because that way I’m guaranteed that every song I put out is going to go to editors.” That’s why you see so many singles. It’s kind of cool, it’s like, “Oh, we’re back in 1957`and we’re dropping our 45s, it’s all about the single.”

But, it’s all about playlists now, unfortunately, or fortunately. I mean, my song “Heart Attack Kid,” is at almost 2 million streams. Some of my biggest songs throughout my career are at 2 million steams which is so weird because “Heart Attack Kid,” which is a new song, is on paper as big as “Falling” or “Penny on the Train Track” or “Wasted and Ready” which are supposed to be like my biggest hits. That’s really because there is like this one playlist that’s an amazing playlist called “Rocking Vibes” and they have 400,000 listeners every month and “Heart Attack Kid” has been on that playlist for a year. You see songs on Spotify, you’re like “Holy shit. Twenty million streams? This band is huge.” Well, they might not be able to sell 500 tickets when they come through town.

If you break it down and put that business brain on, the live show is a different product. If somebody streams your song over and over and loves it, they might come to the show but that’s another ask. You’re asking them to pay $15 or $20 for a ticket just to hear one song. Back in the day, when we would tour constantly in the van, people would come to the show, they’d tell their friends if they had a good time. That’s the product they’re buying, then it was worth going to see the band.

Then you had the flip, there were bands that were only known for their live concerts but couldn’t get anything to happen on the radio or any record sales other than what they sold at the merch booth. The jam scene, I don’t know a lot of those bands but I’ve heard there’s tons in that world where they’d sell a thousand tickets. A good one is here in Texas. There’s a really interesting scene, it’s called the Red Dirt Scene. It’s Texas country music. It’s huge. There’s even a Texas radio chart for these bands. They tour all year – when it’s not Covid – and they don’t ever leave Texas. They play every little city, every little town, every dance hall. And these bands are huge. A thousand people will come to every gig. Like, tonight you’ll play in San Marcus and then you’ll play Austin, which is like 30 minutes away from San Marcus, and the same amount of people will come. It’s incredible. And it’s a live music things. There’s a reputation where, like, “We’re going to have a great time. We’re going to drink some beers, we’re going to dance and have fun.” That’s the thing people are buying. But, as far as record sales and streams, that’s not there for them. And, they can’t go outside of Texas. I’m fascinated by that, it’s a niche market I guess.

I listened to Circuit Boredom for the first time on January 1. The second time I listened, I was humming along to the music, singing along with some of the words. It’s so full of memorable hooks. I don’t know how you pulled that off.

BEN: That’s intentional. One of my goals, as a songwriter, is to boil the songs down to their simplest elements. I’m tired of boring music. That’s one thing I’m loving about rap music right now, some of the songs are under two minutes. It’s like Buddy Holly shit. It’s like, verse, chorus, chorus. Whoa. No second verse? “Nope, don’t need it. You got the idea.” And then it’s onto the next song. I love that.

So, shorter songs, it was intentional. I recorded 15 songs for this album. The whole theme of Circuit Boredom, the concept is that our whole attention deficit society, everyone is always on their phones and we live in this time where we have access to so much technology and so much information all at once, yet at the same time so many people find themselves bored. How can that be? It’s like, sensory overload makes you bored. That’s the Circuit Boredom concept. Then, going even deeper into it, I went to the minutia level of the track listing having to reflect that. I recorded 15 songs but that’s way too old school, that’s way too much information. People can only handle eight songs. And, honestly, I even find it for me, that’s a good length. It’s almost like eight is the new 12-song record. Ten songs was sort of the minimum you could do. I always loved the Cars for that. And even the early Weezer records, like five songs a side. I like that. Now it’s four songs a side, that’s just where we are.

I’m a guest sometimes on the Dig Me Out Podcast where the hosts review albums from the ’90s that were overlooked. They often talk about how when we entered the CD era, bands tried to fill all 74 minutes on a CD.

BEN: Yes. Yes. I was speaking to a guy that I know who works for AT&T on the broadband side. He said there’s some kind of scientific law that someone came up with in the last 10 years that does say that whatever bandwidth we’re given, we reach it. You might say, “I don’t need the 512gb hard drive.” Well, you do actually, because in three months you will max it out. Somehow we always find a way.

I’m going to be doing a livestream that I can’t talk about yet, they were insisting on a 60-to-75-minute set and I had to explain to them, “I know, traditionally, like a concert contract would be for a 60-to-75-minute set, I get that for a headliner, but livestream thing is different.” If the vibe is good and we have the retention rate, fans are still there at 60 minutes, then, sure. But there’s a good chance we might be at 45 minutes and the show has kind of reached it’s peak. Time to play the last song, thank you everybody, have a good night. Doing it virtually, it’s just not the same. We have to do it in a smaller dose, maybe.

If you have 15 songs but only put eight on Circuit Boredom, are you going to try to put out something later this year?

BEN: Yes. I’m already thinking about the new album, or the new collection of singles that I’ll release (laughs).

What was 2020 like for you? You said you had the plan to release the album in March or April and then, all of a sudden, a pandemic hit.

BEN: It’s kind of funny because I felt like I had been quarantining for three years already by living out here in the middle of nowhere. So, some things didn’t change. It was, obviously, a weird time. In the very beginning, I was really bummed because I had an opportunity that I’m hoping we’ll be able to reschedule. I had a plane ticket that was booked for the end of March. I was flying to England to write with Ed Sheeran for his new album. And that would have been the biggest songwriting opportunity of my life. He’s the biggest pop star in the world and when you get those opportunities, you want to make them happen.

At first, I was most depressed about that. And then, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne died, and that was horrible. That’s the first person I knew personally that was affected by Covid. And then it was like, “Okay, this is real.”

Time went on. My internet out here has remained being shitty so I couldn’t really livestream like most of my peers were doing. I couldn’t pivot. But, I started talking with my friend who owns the Continental Club in Austin and so we set up shop there and I did a ticketed livestream there which was really fun. And the venue made some money from that.

That’s been the saddest thing. The venues, all they do is rely on live music. Performing for me is just one aspect of what I do, I do a lot of songwriting for other artists and we have the streaming thing. I’m able to pay my bills with other revenue streams. It’s cut drastically down, because there isn’t touring. Financially, it’s been a scare. I was lucky for some of the programs that were offered. My touring company was able to get a small PPP loan. The Noise Company, the record label, also got a PPP loan so I was able to pay my crew and my band for a few months through Covid, I think through June, which felt good.

My mortgage, I had to do a forbearance, like, Wells Fargo had a forbearance – this is such geeky shit for a rock and roll interview but it’s life. This is the real shit. I was able to do this forbearance program which deferred my mortgage payments, which start back up February 1.

Financially, it’s been tough. Spiritually, it’s been okay. There’s still this need for music. One interesting thing early on, we’d get a lot of emails through the website like, “Hey, it’s my wife’s birthday next week. Can you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to her?” or “Our anniversary is coming up, we want to Zoom with you.” So we started doing all these different experiences through the website. That was really fun. That has died down a little bit because I think the novelty of doing what you and I are doing right now has worn off because now it’s just normal, it’s just communication.

I feel like I did a lot of what could have been done to keep myself out there. The songwriting has been the most fun. There’s this new thing where you can do a Zoom songwriting session which, at first, kind of sounds like the worst thing in the world and it can be. But if you know the other writer really well, it can be really fun. You open up a Google doc for your lyrics, you’re both looking at the lyrics, you’re working on a song. That’s been fun. I’ve been able to hook up some writing sessions with people I normally wouldn’t even get in the room with, which has been cool. Ed refuses to do a co-writing session, which I totally understand. But, for some of us little guys, it’s kind of the only way we can get together. Normally I’d fly to Nashville a few times a year, or LA, and have a week set up with different songwriting sessions, now I can just do it here from the ranch.

My internet has been a problem. I’ve been with AT&T and they say they are bringing fiber to me in February, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Once that happens, I think a lot will change. I really want to set up those cameras and just send out content. It’s all about the content.

I saw the Bee Gees documentary and something that struck me was that later in their career, when they weren’t the cool thing anymore, they were still writing hit singles songs for other artists and they were fine with that. I bring that up because it sounds like you’re writing songs for other people.

BEN: I am. I sort of got the idea from my friend Butch Walker, who has had an incredible career as an artist but also behind the scenes. My favorite thing to do is to write songs. It’s just like you, just as a writer, writing is such a cool art form because you start with a blank page and then all of a sudden you have something. With a song, you’re creating something out of thin air that didn’t exist earlier today. And now you have a thing. It’s really satisfying. And doing it collaboratively, which is something I never did, I always wrote privately, just on my own.

The first time I really collaborated was with Ben Folds and Ben Lee when we did The Bens. That sort of started as a joke, like, “Hey, why don’t we start a supergroup called The Bens?” And Ben Folds was like, “Guys, you just need to fly to Nashville. Let’s get together and see what happens.” It turned out to be magical. When you’re writing with someone else to feed that energy off each other, and to see where the other person goes, to a place where you wouldn’t normally go, that’s so exciting. So, yeah, it’s definitely something I’m trying to nurture.