Ben Kweller’s watch ticks a little faster than the average Casio: He was writing songs by the age of eight, had an album deal with his band Radish by fifteen, and at twenty, when most kids are still shaking off the Jagermeister, Kweller was launching his comeback. Now, at twenty-five, he has a wife and a baby boy, not to mention four solo albums. His latest, Ben Kweller, is evidence that growing up doesn’t have to mean turning down the volume. It has lots of charming, ’60s-influenced piano pop and starburst choruses; don’t even try to keep your head from bobbing. But he balances the giddiness with muted ballads like “Thirteen,” a sweet-sad love note to his wife, Liz. The album finds Kweller seeking balance in life as well as songcraft, as he cleverly splits the difference between the lovably goofy, impetuous melody of his 2002 album, Sha Sha, and the more mature balladry of 2004′s On My Way. In September, Kweller hit the road. But this time, he tried something he’d never done in his well-traveled twenty-five years: he brought wife and baby along for the ride. – Sarah Hepola
A friend told me her newborn loves your album.
Aww, really? That’s so nice. Babies are crazy like that. They react to music immediately.
It’s important to find albums that work with babies, and children’s music can be such crap. What does your son listen to?
For some reason he loves “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” And I put him on my lap at the piano, and I play him “Yellow Submarine,” “Lean on Me,” all that stuff. We haven’t really put on my own music much. But yesterday morning in Austin I was doing a radio interview at the Four Seasons, and he and his mommy came and watched me, and I wondered if he understood that was his daddy playing guitar. He hasn’t seen me onstage yet. He goes to bed pretty early. We got him these little shotgun headphones, so he can be protected from the noise.
I’ve seen little kids burst into tears when they see their parents onstage.
I remember touring with Ben Folds, and that was a problem. His kids would get upset seeing him. I don’t know why, maybe the noise and the microphone.
I wonder if, when you’re singing, it looks like you’re screaming.
Yeah, maybe. I don’t know what will happen. I guess I’ll find out.
I’m just impressed you’re touring with a newborn. As if it weren’t hard enough to have your first child.
We decided immediately we were just gonna make it work. We got a custom bus with a bed in the back, and they bolted a bassinet to the floor. We show up in a town each morning, get up around seven or eight, bathe him, we have the whole routine. The tour just began yesterday, so I don’t really know how it’s gonna work. I see myself taking a bunch of naps.
The song “Thirteen” is about your wife, Liz, and you’ve said it’s your favorite on the album, but also that you used to have a hard time listening to it. Why is that?
There are some details in there that probably sound so regular, details that might feel like any details you’d use in a little love song, but they’re real personal things. The necklace Liz gave me that belonged to her mother, who died when Liz was 9, and the place where we got married. It’s just us, 100%. Some of it was hard to listen to. I would drive around and listen to the early mix of the album, and that song would just make me cry. And Liz, too.
How did you guys meet?
We were introduced by my old bass player, and we all went back to his house one night, and Liz and I sat on his front porch and talked all night. She was going on a road trip with her friend Anna, and she told me she was coming through Texas and didn’t know anyone. I said well, you have to stay with the Kwellers. And then, for the rest of that month while she was on a road trip, we talked on the phone. That’s how we really got to know each other. There’s a line in that song about how we fell in love on the phone.
There’s something unique about getting to know someone over the phone. It’s such a different kind of intimacy, their little voice in your ear.
Totally. There’s no physical presence, no physical baggage. You feel like you can say anything. You can talk for hours. You can tell anybody your deep, dark secrets. Which is what we did.
You recently shot a video for the song “Sundress.” Is that Liz in the video?
That is Liz. That’s her acting debut.
Can you talk about the decision to use her, as opposed to an actress?
Well, I had talked to the director, Michael Palmieri, about the concept. We knew we wanted to have close scenes and romantic moments, and this is why I could never be an actor. How could you kiss another person and make it seem real? How would you even know how to interact with a stranger? So Liz agreed to do it. At first she was a little nervous. She didn’t know if she wanted to do it, but she did great.
You two got married relatively young. Do you ever feel like you missed out on, like, your wild groupies days?
My wild groupie days happened when I was fifteen years old. Everything happened so early for me. I got a jumpstart before a lot of kids my age. So most average people, they look at me and they say, he’s twenty-five, he’s got a kid, that’s so young. But life has just been different for me. I never went to high school. I never went to my prom, although I did go to someone else’s prom. I was recording an album in Alabama, and this girl asked me to her prom, and I went to a thrift store and bought a mustard yellow suit and went to prom with her. Somewhere out there are photos of that prom, and man, I wish I could find them.
You found fame at an early age. Does that give you any sympathy for these young stars who grew up in the spotlight? The Britney Spearses and Lindsay Lohans?
Oh, I don’t know. I could probably relate with them on small levels, but they’re from such a different galaxy. I was learning stuff from Jeff Tweedy and Evan Dando, and these kids were learning from their agents. The whole red-carpet, VIP scene is such a different world than what I do. I was always into indie rock. I wasn’t ready for wireless microphones for a long, long time. Which is funny, because I’m ready for a much bigger production now. Something about this new album makes me want to do something big.
Listening to your music, people may not realize you have a rather antic stage persona. You’re often running around, jumping between instruments. Where did that come from?
That’s just me. That’s what I’ve been like ever since I was a little boy, jumping around on the couch, listening to “Born in the USA” with my toy guitar and bandana when I was three or four. It’s just one of those things that comes naturally to me. My favorite game as a child was playing Bruce Springsteen.
For someone who’s been in the limelight for so long, you’re awful nice and humble. I wonder if that’s the influence of being from a small town in Texas.
When things started happening, when I was really young, I had to tell myself not to believe all the bullshit. Just to not let it go to my head. Sure, it’s partly being from Greenville, Texas. Mainly it’s parenting. My parents always taught me how to be humble, be nice to people. There are plenty of bad people out there. Be nice.