Ben Kweller Makes Some Noise
The Austin-based musician talks about his new album, his record label, and making viral videos with Jason Schwartzman.
Last week, Ben Kweller was on his hands and knees on the front lawn of his South Austin office, helping a delivery driver shrink-wrap a pallet of one thousand CDs destined for Japan. When they had secured the goods, the thirty-year-old singer-songwriter—dressed in a black version of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” jacket and ripped jeans—popped a leg onto the boxes and threw up a devil’s sign, posing for a picture he immediately texted to his Tokyo distributor to show that the CDs were indeed on their way.
For the first time in his career, Kweller is in not only in charge of making the music, but also of the shipping and receiving department. And the wide-eyed grin in the snapshot is a small display of what independence looks like.
“It’s fun, fascinating and a ridiculous amount of work to go from sitting back and letting a major label decide my fate to doing everything myself,” said Kweller, who after ten years on the major-label offshoot ATO Records will release his new album, Go Fly a Kite, on February 7 through his own label, The Noise Company. “We run our label like a mom-and-pop business. I feel like record labels shouldn’t be operated any differently than a shoe store or a bakery.”
Kweller has been immersed in the complexities of the music industry since he was fourteen. In 1997, when he was fifteen, a ten-page feature in the New Yorker documented the major-label bidding war for Kweller’s Greenville-based garage band, Radish, with labels reportedly throwing around seven-figure record deals in hopes that the precocious, home-schooled pop savant with an unapologetically Nirvana sound might be the next big thing. Ultimately, the band’s one major-label album, released by Mercury Records in 1997, did reasonably well in the United Kingdom but failed to register at home. Time later classified Radish as Kweller’s “early—and public—failure.”
“When I look back, I’m not mad at myself for trying to play the kind of music you love listening to,” Kweller said. “I’m not embarrassed by it anymore. Now I can actually see the artistic value in what we were doing and I’m kind of impressed. I think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good guitar playing for a fifteen-year-old.’.”
Even so, Kweller is quick to admit Radish’s rapid rise and fall stung a bit and that the “boy wonder” tag has been hard to shake. He moved to New York in 1999 and later signed with ATO Records, a label co-owned by Dave Matthews that has also been home to David Gray, Patty Griffin, and My Morning Jacket.
His four solo records for the label built on each other like a coming-of-age tale and ranged stylistically from the giddy Cheap Trick-style pop of 2002’s Sha Sha and 2004’s On My Way to his first record after moving to Austin in 2008, the appropriately country-themed Changing Horses (which was co-released with The Noise Company).
Kweller’s new album is something of a greatest hits set, but with all new songs. “It touches on each of my records, in that they’re hooky pop songs driven by pianos, guitars, harmonies, and melodies,” Kweller said. “I think it might be my best album so far, because it seems like a nice and concise look at what I do.”
In founding The Noise Company and operating without a manager, Kweller has brought virtually every aspect of shepherding Go Fly a Kite to the marketplace in-house. Literally. The label’s headquarters—which operates with a staff of four, including Kweller’s wife, Liz—is in a two-bedroom house on the same plot of land as Kweller’s residence. The homespun operation has already enjoyed some early successes that might have been too expensive for a major-label operation to approve, from an intricate CD and vinyl packaging design that folds into a colorful diorama to a Willy Wonka-inspired “Golden Laminate” giveaway that lets fans who pre-order the record vie for a chance to win a lifetime pass to see Kweller play.
Kweller also helped conceptualize what he deems a “goofy viral video” for the album that features the actor Jason Schwartzman interviewing Kweller about Go Fly a Kite, with the Olympic gold medalist Shaun White intermittently posing as him throughout the clip. White (standing in as Kweller), talks about “translucent sounds” and an out-of-body experience, making light of what Kweller believes is an amusing misperception that he’s the “goofy stoner kid” of rock ’n’ roll.
While Kweller may be having some fun with The Noise Company’s marketing efforts, he says that every day brings reminders that it is also serious business. And while he has outsourced publicity and radio promotion, he insists that the primary reason to run his own business is simple: for the first time in his career, he is involved in every decision big or small.
“My wife can testify that everything I do, I do full on,” Kweller said. “A lot of that is because I never had a fall-back plan. Music is all I’ve been good at it. I put all my eggs in that basket, and I’ve done everything I can to keep them as safe as possible. The mistakes are going to be mine, too. That’s a good feeling. I’d rather know that I tried and failed but knew we gave it one hundred percent than hand it off to someone else and see what happens.”