Ben Kweller is a guy with the ability to make people stop and listen. As a teenager, his punk band Radish was signed to Polygram, and he was having lunch with Madonna. These days, his songwriting is more tempered, but no less engaging; his debut full-length Sha Sha takes in country twang, grandiose piano and balls-to-the-wall rock over the course of its 11 tracks. And judging from the bevy of musicians he’s opened for over the past year, his fan base has only grown. TN got to chat with this burgeoning songwriter via phone last week.
Temple News: You’ve gigged with a wide range of artists, from singer-songwriters like Evan Dando to emo frontrunners Dashboard Confessional to indie old heads like John Spencer. How do you find yourself fitting in with such a diverse crop of musicians?
Ben Kweller: It starts out with growing up listening to tons of different music. My parents turned me on to the Beatles, I took classical piano lessons, Nirvana was the first band I discovered on my own … because I’ve always had different types of music around me, I write in different styles, and that has lead to me playing with different artists. And it’s fun. They all have their own crowds that I can turn on to what I’m doing.
TN: As a solo artist, how do you approach your live shows with a band or by yourself? Which is your preference?
BK: For the past two years I’ve been playing solo acoustic. With Sha Sha, I decided to get a band together; a bunch of friends who played on the album. This tour with Dashboard Confessional is the first I’ve played with [them] live. I love playing solo — it’s a completely different thing — but there’s nothing like playing with a band … that synergy onstage. And it’s great to have friends to give hi-fives to after the set.
TN: What was it like being in Radish at 15 years old? Songwriter-wise, how much of the Ben that existed then exists today?
BK: It was amazing. Radish was basically my high school garage band; everybody has one, and the only difference is mine got signed. It was one of the coolest things, for my band to get flown around the world [at that age]. Songwriter-wise, I’ve been writing songs for so long. Even though I’m only 20, I’ve been doing it for 11 or 12 years. Some aspects of then I add to what I’m doing now, though now I incorporate different styles, lyrical content — that stuff comes with experience. When I was in Radish, I was young … I wanted to sing about not liking school, you know? Things have changed a lot, but there are still times when I want to turn my amp to 10 and blast off.
TN: You write songs about Gregg Araki movies [“Wasted And Ready” is based on The Doom Generation] and drop references to The Planet Of The Apes. Are you a big fan of cult cinema, or is it just a lyrical thing?
BK: I’m a fan of cult cinema, for sure. I’m not an aficionado, but there are a quite a few that I love, and I tend to write about what I love. I tend to like anything cult-y that a small group of people love … music, art, everything. I like the underdog.
TN: Which three albums have had the most influence on your career?
BK: Bear in mind that this changes from day to day, but right now I’d have to say Pavement’s Crooked Rain Crooked Rain … The Beatles’ Rubber Soul … and The Violent Femmes’ self-titled album.
Ben Kweller will open for Dashboard Confessional at the Troc on April 7 and 8.
John Vettese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org