No Emo: Ben Kweller Up Close


By Matt Gonzales

Ben Kweller

Photo credit: Michael Waring

Don’t call Ben Kweller emo. Not that several lazy critics haven’t already tried to wedge him into that unfortunately elastic “genre.” The temptation is to some extent understandable—Kweller does write earnest, heart-baring lyrics, and he’s more than willing to share his insecurities in song. But emo?

“First of all, I never even really knew about the phrase for a long time,” Kweller told me. “Then I thought about it, and I always thought of Fugazi and, like, hardcore bands. But now it just seems like such a generic term that people sort of throw around.” As he talks, the tics that characterize Kweller’s singing voice, those beguiling little creaks and quivers, pop up here and there. The Texas native and New York denizen speaks his mind with the impulsive haste one would expect from a 23-year-old, and yet he still gave me an excellent impromptu analysis of the whole misguided emo trend.

“If you really break it down,” he explained, “Emo means emotional. So you might as well say that Neil Young is emo, and John Lennon is emo, and Bob Dylan is emo, and Lou Reed is emo, and that the fuckin’ Violent Femmes are emo—you know what I mean? I just feel like that’s kind of a ridiculous—no one’s really explaining what it is or what it should be. I wish there was an actual definition for it.”

What about Dashboard Confessional?

“If Dashboard is the emo sound, then it’s confusing if people are calling me emo. I dunno—people just say shit, I really don’t care, but—

“People do just say shit,” I dumbly volunteered.

“Yeah!” he shouted, happy that I had caught his drift. “You know what I mean? I remember when I first started, and I put out Sha Sha, and there were like three piano songs out of like eleven songs on the album, and everyone was saying, ‘Oh, he must be like the new Ben Folds!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re right; I’m a guy, and I sing, and I play piano too!’ I know I opened Sha Sha with a piano song, so maybe they only got that far and were like, ‘Oh, well, Ben Folds was the most recent male songwriter that played piano, so let’s compare the two,’ instead of trying to dive a little deeper into music history.”

Not that Kweller really minds being compared to Folds; they’re good friends and occasional collaboration partners. It’s just that he and I were late into the interview, and were just sort of casually talking, shooting shit, which is something that Kweller will eagerly do. A lot of successful or semi-successful musicians treat press interviews like inconvenient chores—they whip through them without digging beyond the threshold where the cliches end and the original thoughts begin. Ben Kweller is different.

Not that he was easy to reach. My first phone call led to an outgoing message on his cell phone that sounded like this: “pwft bitta-shh tht / pwft-bitta shh / pwft bitta-shh tht / pwft-bitta shh—Good morning. Good evening. And afternoon. Hi. I’m Ben Kweller. Please leave a message after the beep and I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Pwft bitta-shh…” (he was beatboxing, by the way). When I eventually got through to him, he was at a restaurant in Houston, where he was playing a show that night with another oft-emo-tagged act, Death Cab for Cutie. Our conversation was a little rough-going at first, but once he got onto the tour bus, found his cigarettes, and settled in, it was like—well, it was like talking to a friend. The only problem was that the conversation tended to veer towards other things, and lots of times, other musicians. For example:

Ben on CCR
“I’ve been on a real Credence Clearwater kick. I’ve been collecting their albums on CD—right now I really like ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ I don’t know who actually wrote it; it might be a traditional, or like, an old blues song, I haven’t looked in the liner notes, but it’s the first song on their first album. I love all the hits; I mean fuck, I like every one of them. I think my favorite song by John Fogerty is ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’ They’re my favorite American band of all time, totally.”

Ben on Wilco
“I love Wilco a lot, though I love early Wilco more than the most recent stuff. A.M. is such a great album—there are so many great songs on it. I’m friends with Jeff [Tweedy], he’s one of the first people to take me out on the road when I was just starting out solo in New York, and he was doing solo shows, and he’d have me come and open up for him. He’s always been a big supporter of me—he’s just so inspiring.’

Ben on Elton John
“I never really liked Elton John really, even though people always compare me to him.”

Ben on Carole King
She’s my biggest influence as far as piano-driven songs go. I love her stuff.

When the conversation finally drifted back to Ben Kweller, I asked him what he thought about all of the talk surrounding his new album, On My Way. While its reception has been for the most part warm, a few critics have complained that it lacks the adolescent breeziness that made Sha Sha so much fun. More than one magazine review has called it Kweller’s attempt at a “mature” album.

“There was no clear intention of me trying to make a mature record or anything like that. I got married this year to my long-time girlfriend Lizzy, and my grandfather passed away, and he’s the first close person in my life to pass away. A lot of big life changes happened to me, and so maybe that came out in the music and the vibe of this record, ‘cause my records are usually my diary of the past year. When you get married or someone dies those are momentous, crazy things, you know?”

And while he has a point, On My Way does have a different—not necessarily more mature, but different—sound than its predecessor. That has a lot to do with Ethan Johns, who Kweller brought in to produce the album. Johns steered Kweller and his band away from the smooth and florid studio sound of Sha Sha toward a more stripped-down rock aesthetic.

“He had a lot to do with the whole thing,” Kweller said of Johns. “It was his idea to not use headphones, and to have us stand in one room together with no separation between the instruments, and record it in like an early sixties fashion. It was the most fun process I’ve ever been involved with in the studio. I think that’s how I’m going to record from now on—in the immediate future, anyway.”

The bottom line is that listeners who buy On My Way expecting to hear a continuation of Sha Sha might be a little disappointed. But if you give the disc more than a just couple of spins, you’ll eventually see that although Ben might be attempting to rock out a little more, his affability and youthful humor—not to mention his optimism—still bleed through in every song.

“I’m an optimistic person, you know? It’s usually just me convincing myself that there’s light at the end of the tunnel when I’m having a bad day. And that’s why my songs usually have lights at the end of the tunnels. That is definitely a personality trait that’s coming through in my music.”

Not to hate on Ben’s friends, but just to make a point: When was the last time you heard Julian Casablancas’ personality come through in a Strokes song? Does he even have one? When you listen to a Ben Kweller album, you listen to Ben. That—even more than his muppet hair and doe eyes—is what makes him so lovable. He’s no musical Yes, and he’s no lyrical Dylan. But as long as Ben Kweller keeps letting Ben come through in his music, people will keep coming back, if for nothing else, just to check up on how he’s doing—because they care.

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