Ben Kweller has been a solo act for years, but never as much as he is on his great new album.
"This is the best thing I've ever made," Ben Kweller says on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. "It's a mindblower." The 25-year-old singer-songwriter is exceedingly proud of his new CD, but that's not what's got him throwing out superlatives like they're going out of style. In fact, Kweller's talking about his son, Dorian, who was born last spring right about the time his dad finished recording Ben Kweller (ATO), his third full-length collection of catchy pop-rock tunes.
Inspired by the "really pristine '80s-era" sound of records like Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever and Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., Kweller made the self-titled disc with producer Gil Norton, who convinced Kweller to play all the instruments himself - a first for the young rocker, who's toured with the Strokes and Death Cab for Cutie. He'll spend the fall on the road supporting the album with his wife and baby in tow. The idea is to pack as much as possible into the next five years. "We don't really have to settle down until kindergarten," he says of his newly minted family. "That's lots of time to work."
You recorded your last album, 2004's On My Way, live in the studio with your band. But you played all the instruments on the new one yourself. Was making Ben Kweller a more meticulous process?
Totally - and that's what I wanted it to be. When I made On My Way, I set out to record the band that I'd been touring with for the past year and a half. I wanted to document that four-piece; I didn't want to do any preproduction or work on the songs beforehand. I just came into the studio, and we'd play a song four times and pick the best take. And that's it. Maybe I'd sing a harmony or add a tambourine track. But for this one, I wanted to make something more anthemic and a little bigger-sounding, and that was a big leap for me. Drums were my first instrument, but I had never really recorded every instrument before. So working with somebody as experienced and as talented as Gil really gave me the confidence to pull it off. It would've been a lot different if it were just me in the studio with a friend engineering. I would've been in there for years trying to finish it.
Norton is best known for working with bands like the Pixies and Foo Fighters. How'd you decide to hire him?
I sent demos to a bunch of producers and met with probably 12 or 13. It came down to two, and I picked Gil because we really hit it off. It was his idea for me to play all the instruments; he thought it would make such a special album. He'd never worked with a solo artist before - he'd only worked with bands. And he'd never worked one-on-one with anyone in the studio, so he was really excited about that idea.
What about you? Did you dig it immediately?
Deep down, I really loved the idea, but there was a big problem with it because my best friend, Josh Lattanzi, who's been playing bass guitar with me for years, immediately came to my mind. I've had different guitar players and drummers, but Josh has really been a constant. So I told Gil, "It'd be really cool to play all the instruments, but Josh has to be on this record." And Gil was sympathetic to that and totally respected where I was coming from, but he also said, "This is one album in your career, and you're gonna make tons of albums." He really believes that you've gotta do whatever's best for the album. And if this batch of songs needed to be played by me and have my fingerprint on every instrument, then that's what needed to happen.
There's more piano on the record than on your last few.
A lot of the songs were written on piano. I wanted it to have all the classic rock-and-roll instruments. But every song pretty much has piano and guitar happening together. It's hard for me to say that "Sundress" is a piano song and "I Don't Know Why" is a guitar song, because you can play 'em on any instrument. I'm trying to simplify my music, and I think that's a big goal for a lot of songwriters. The more you do it, the more you just wanna get to the real root of the subject. I think my music sounds easy to play, which is good. But I know that not just any guy could come up and do what I do.