To begin, a clarification: Ben Kweller’s new album is not a tribute to Mary Poppins. While for musical lovers that could have been groundbreaking, I’m pleased to report that the reality is pretty good too.
Go Fly a Kite, written and produced by Kweller and released through his own label The Noise Company is a euphemistic screw you to the naysayers who try to rain on his parade; not only his personal adversaries but those of his artsy, slightly leftfield and occasionally irregular fans.
“A lot of the songs on the album are kind of sad stories about losing friends, trust issues, things like that. I’m saying go fly a kite – not about me against the world – but me, my friends and the people that I relate with, it’s us against the world. I’m not giving my middle finger to everybody, is more about the people who are the same, coming together. “
Indeed, barely scraping out of his twenties and with 15 plus years and 5 album releases under his belt, this old-soul of a young man breeds loyalty when it comes to his music. You certainly get the impression from him that this touring life is a collaborative effort between Ben, band and fans. More to his credit, part of this recipe for longevity despite never having been a huge player in terms of his record sales seems to be down to his grasp on what it’s all about: music as catharsis, meaningful messages and playing kickass shows for the mutual pleasure of the artist and the crowd.
Meeting him in an empty Islington pub on a rainy Wednesday, I was hugely relieved to discover a welcoming, down to earth bloke who is eager to talk about everything and nothing. (Full disclosure: as a paid-up fan of his catchy, grunge-tinged pop rock myself, the stakes are somewhat high.) The nothing is mainly generated by me; the everything, the music, comes naturally to him.
Similarly to the way he writes and performs, he talks openly about his need for music , which has been tested in more recent years by his young family back in Texas and the weight of leaving them behind for the road. On tour, he lives for those two hours on stage each night and for the other 22 he keeps busy flexing his creative muscles. “Music is the only thing that I know. It’s my one passion. It definitely keeps me going. If I’m being creative, I’m happy.” From the mouths of Bieberesque babes I may have shivered at the ostensible cliché, but sitting across from Ben, hearing the contagion in his voice, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his statement.
Go Fly a Kite is punchy, satisfyingly guitar-heavy and laden with sweetened lyrics, laced with the twin, opposite senses of caring deeply and not giving a shit what the cool kids think. The format will be familiar to Kweller fans: it’s instantly catchy and plays like an old friend, but the album sounds clean and deserves standalone praise. Still, like they say back in Austin, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Don’t fix it, but if you’re still not happy with the overall package, grab it by the balls and make it goddamn better.
The Noise Company was founded in 2007 by Kweller, giving him total artistic independence and ownership of the label organism. “I like to know everything, that’s just my personality. I like to know how things work, I like to know the truth. You know, what’s the real shit, what goes on behind the scenes.” This level of control clearly suits BK, and so far the label is doing the job it was intended to do – allowing him to freely release the music he likes: “Having the label now, I’m really seeing the nuts and bolts of everything. That’s the number one; being able to do whatever I want creatively and to put out whatever I want. That, and to help out other artists in the future.”
And so to that very optimistic future. Interested parties might well have been asking ‘what next?’ of Ben Kweller for nigh on two decades: the fact that the question still resonates is testament to the man himself and – family that he clearly adores aside – the lifelong love affair with the musical mistress that consumes him.
In the short term there are June dates in Europe, an appearance at The Hop Festival, perhaps some time spent in L.A, guest writing and producing. Longer term, there’s the label and undoubtedly more albums and tours. There doesn’t seem to be an end, or even a slow-down in sight. I suggest he must miss Austin sometimes, and what would be the ideal night out be back home?
“Ah! You’d have to start earlier in the day. First a dip in the Barton Springs pool, a natural spring-fed pool that runs into the Colorado River. Maybe rent a canoe, have some snacks. Then walk back through the park on your way to get ready before going out to your reservation at Uchi, a bad ass sushi restaurant in town where you’d eat the 6 course tasting menu. After dinner you’d head to the Alamo Draft House, a really cool movie theatre then just take a stroll down by the river. It would be a pretty casual night.”
Add one of your gigs to the programme and I’m calling my friends and booking our tickets. And with that, BK proves that fail-safe’s need never lose their appeal. Present company most certainly included.
Go Fly A Kite is out now.
- Interview by Anna Lumley