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Ben Kweller doesn't resort to irony the way that Steven Malkmus and Rivers Cuomo -- both of whom Kweller is compared to -- do in their respective bands. Kweller's photographs in music magazines, and his somewhat tongue-in-cheek album cover imagery (which he oversees himself) may suggest self-conscious geek chic, but he is refreshingly irony-free. For that alone -- and for his courage in bursting into song during our interview, croaky-warble voice and all -- he must be applauded.
The BBC recently had this to say: "One thing is very striking when talking to Kweller, and is probably one of the main reasons for his longevity as an artist. The fact is, as trite as it might sound, that he is an incredibly nice, charming, and chatty guy, without a hint of arrogance or pretension in his demeanor."
When Kweller sits down on his parents' back porch to chat, within an hour of having just arrived in his hometown of Greenville, Texas, for a few days off before playing the Austin City Limits festival, his disarming nature is palpable and absorbing. Audibly content to be in the house he grew up in, Kweller is immediately forthcoming. In fact, he doesn't even require questions before he starts to talk. Having lived with his wife Lizzy in New York for six years now, the 23-year-old muses over the possibility of living in the country. "It'd be nice to maybe one day have a few acres of land and just sit there with my guitar and, like, my dog or something," he says.
Greenville, a small town of 23,000 people, lies about 50 miles northeast of Dallas. "We were the only Jewish family," Kweller explains, though he does insist that he's comfortable there. "I found a good group of friends to hang out with. I had good friends growing up. We were sort of the long-haired, greasy-haired stoner kids that caused trouble. Then I dropped out of high school in ninth grade to play rock and roll. My parents actually let me do that, which was pretty fuckin' lucky."
Kweller is referring to his much-publicized turn in the band Radish, who was scooped up by a major label when Kweller was just 15. One would think -- almost wants to think -- that a man exposed to the public eye at such a young age would sound way more traumatized. But even when he breaks unexpectedly into lines from a Carole King song ("I feel the earth move/Under my feet / I feel the sky tum-bul-in' down") to explain the impact of hearing King in his mom's car, it is without the self-absorbed air so common to famous people.
"I was born in San Francisco," Kweller explains. "They were conducting an experiment, I guess, on some hippies out there, including my parents. This was 1981. They were putting headphones on newborn babies and playing Beatles music for them, thinking that it would make them turn out to be happy people."
This anecdote would seem unremarkable were it not for the overt Beatles influence in his music, and the slow, steady determination with which he has stuck to writing songs, which he's been doing since he was eight. In his mind, he's just doing what he's always done, and what he likely will always do.
Not long after Kweller decided to take his chances in New York as a solo acoustic act, both Evan Dando and Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy took him out as an opening act when he was still unsigned. It's hard to imagine that Kweller's easy-does-it demeanor didn't somehow play a part in his unusually good fortune. That ease seems to stem in part from strong encouragement from his parents.
"They probably wanted to plant the seeds in me," he says. "I'm sure they thought [the experiment] couldn't hurt." Then he starts to speak with that combination deadpan/absent-minded earnestness found in his lyrics.
"When you go into town," he continues, "you go to Wal Mart, you know? And fuckin' get new toothpaste and NERF footballs or whatever ... some cheese and tortilla chips to make nachos with later. Then you run into people in the electronics section who you haven't seen in like ten years! It can be cool."
Since leaving the third-generation grunge-punk of Radish behind him, Kweller has churned out three solo albums of lightly distorted folk-rock. His latest album, On My Way, traverses through fuzzed-out foot stompers, as well as a few acoustic love letters to his lady, his cats, and his city. Though he still nurtures a love for punk, and, like most 20-somethings, his interest in rock and roll was sparked by hair bands like Twisted Sister and Bon Jovi, for now he's sticking to the lighter stuff and keeping the glam rock in a file under N for nostalgia.
"My first record was Stay Hungry," he says without a trace of shame. "I used to jump on the trampoline to it -- and I'm looking at the trampoline right now! It's a green-framed trampoline, but it has no more TRAMP on it. It's just a LINE right now, just a metal frame. There's no center bouncy thing. I used to jam to Twisted Sister's 'We're Not Gonna Take It,' and jump, do flips, and play air guitar."
And what about now -- does he still bust out Stay Hungry? "Well, the only time I reconnect with that music is at karaoke parties when I'm in Japan."