Way too early one morning, I was greeted with a phone call from Ben Kweller. After exchanging pleasantries and wondering why an honest to goodness rock star was awake at 9 a.m., we had a short conversation on his music, Asheville, and the ‘90s alterna-rock boom. What follows are the excerpts.
Mountain Xpress: You’re 26, and you are writing these perfect three-minute pop songs, and do you think it’s because you are “that good” or do you think it’s because you’ve basically been a songwriter since you were 13 years old?
Ben Kweller: I do believe the longer you do something, the better you get at it. If I were a carpenter and been doing that for as long, hopefully I’d be pretty damn good at it by now. At the same time, I’m not a big believer that you have to be old to write good songs. Rock ‘n’ roll is young. All of my heroes wrote their best music when they were 22 to 27 years old. I feel behind the bar at this point. I watched Neil Young videos from the BBC and he has that line “24 and so much more”, and I thought ‘Jesus Christ, he was 24 when he wrote Harvest!’, you know? I still have a lot to do. I’m pretty damn good compared to a lot of people out there. I strive to be one of the greats, but only time will really tell. I just go from album to album.
Xpress: It seems like pop in the last 10 years has gotten a dirty name. Do you feel like you are trying to take back pop music?
Kweller: I never really thought about that. I know that what I consider myself to be writing is pop music, and I know that Kurt Cobain considered what he did pop music, you know? I at this point feel like the word pop as the literal meaning of it, what it began as: popular music. I feel like I play popular music. I feel like the name has become Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. That’s what people tend to see when they say pop. I remember a time when The Lemonheads were pop music. I’m not trying to give anything a good name; I’m just trying to play my music. I’m just doing my thing. Because if I work to hard at saying what I do is pop music then I’m going to go and make a country album and piss everyone off.
Xpress: Is this your first time in Asheville?
Kweller: It is, and I’m really looking forward to it. All I know is that I read in Time magazine, and Asheville is always mentioned as one of the top five places to live.
Xpress: You came up in the ‘90s with Radish, and you’ve spoken a lot about ‘90s bands and artists, so how do you feel about a lot of the scorn that people feel towards ‘90s bands now? Is it just cyclical and not hip to like that stuff right now?
Kweller: I think I was probably sick of it a lot quicker than most people because I was so affected by it and my music was so derived from that era. I think I got over it and I was more embarrassed by it. When I moved to New York in 2000, I was so over that s**t. I was ready to do something completely new and fresh. Now for me, I’ve come full circle with that music. My band and I are always talking about our favorite songs from that era, and jamming on “Black Hole Sun” and we listened to Pearl Jam’s Vitology on cassette. I never heard that before. I had Pearl Jam’s first album, but to me it was always “The Beatles versus The Stones” with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But I’m getting back into it. It doesn’t affect the music that I write now, but it’s fun to listen to it and remember it all.
Xpress: The thing I take from it is that it’s the same way people discover punk rock. The fact that I liked Pearl Jam in high school made it easier for me to discover Dinosaur Jr., and when I learned about them it was easier to discover Sebadoh. Maybe it’s because I’m not as involved with the newer scenes that are happening. But I don’t think that someone is going to discover you because a friend likes Dashboard Confessional or My Chemical Romance.
Kweller: I think I attribute all of that to Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain wearing the t-shirts and talking about their roots, talking about Sonic Youth and The Velvet Underground that helped people discover these bands. I don’t think that there are people who are promoting or even know where they come from. I have such a respect for the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and I take it very seriously. I don’t know how many popular bands are in that same sort of boat as I am. I have some friends that are: Conner Oberst, Julian Casablancas and Jack White — those guys have a sense of roots and know where it all comes from. As far as the people on the cover of Spin Magazine go, I don’t know. I don’t want to talk s**t, but that’s all I know.