In the wake of Nirvana’s runaway success, Greenville-based grunge band Radish were the subject of a major-label bidding war; they signed to Mercury Records when their front man was only fifteen. A solo career followed for Kweller, now thirty, who has just released his latest album, GO FLY A KITE.
You’ve moved around a lot, but you seem to have settled into Austin.
I moved to New York when I was eighteen and lived there for eight years. When I was on tour, my wife and I would walk around and say, “Hmm, could we live here?” It was a game we’d play, and Austin kept winning. When we had our first boy, we decided to take the plunge.
You’ve taken another plunge: you’ve started your own label, Noise Company. How did you come to that decision and why?
I got started as a kid, making mix tapes for friends. I used to pretend I had this record company called Practice Amp Records, and our logo was a cassette. I’d record friends’ bands and make cassettes of their music and distribute them to friends.
You were a pretend label mogul.
I was a big record executive at thirteen! [ Laughs.] I’ve always been enamored of every part of music. I think it goes back to going to the record store, the Hastings in Greenville, where I grew up, the day Nirvana’s In Utero came out, getting the record and sitting at home listening, reading the liner notes, and absorbing everything. When I started with Radish, I kept learning. I went solo and signed with ATO Records, which was my label for ten years. In 2010 my deal with them was up, and I wanted to put my music out on my own and have control.
When you’re doing it yourself, how do you know when it’s time to make a record? You don’t have a record company knocking on your door going, “Uh, Ben?”
I’m always putting different songs in my sketchbook under different columns—“Oh, this batch of songs would make a cool hardcore punk-rock record” or “Ooh, maybe I’ll do an album of piano ballads one day.” That’s how Changing Horses (2009) came about—once in a while a song would come out sounding very country, and eventually I made a country record. One of the songs on that record goes back thirteen years. While we were making that record, I knew that the follow-up would be [the more rock-oriented] Go Fly a Kite.
Now you’re back to your grunge basics.
I wanted to get my electric guitars out again and fire up the Marshall stack. We toured on Horses for over two years, and I didn’t play an electric guitar one time. I got so sick of playing acoustic guitar.
Some songs on the new record sound really personal. “Gossip” boasts a rather wounded narrator.
It’s true. There is some darkness about lost friendships over the years, and a lot of that had to do with people in New York that were very close to me and aren’t anymore. There really is a “Jealous Girl”; “Gossip” is about some friends of the jealous girl; and “I Miss You” is about one of the friends involved in that group as well. It’s really a bummer to think about it. I’m known for having ultra-positive records, and at the end of the day, there is still that signature optimism. I have to believe that if you’re having a terrible day, tomorrow could be better.
What got you into this business in the first place?
Hearing the Beatles, through my dad. They got me into wanting to write songs, and then Nirvana came out and hit me over the head so hard. I talked to my dad, who’s actually in town—we’ve been hanging out today—about how I was the same age when I first heard Nirvana that he was when he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan . To be twelve years old and have something like that speak to you, it just lasts forever.