UTOPiAfest 2012 Artist Ben Kweller Talks with Pop Press International

When UTOPiAfest announced Ben Kweller as one of their premier artists for this year’s festival, my first thought was that they couldn’t possibly have booked an artist that made more sense. Kweller is a Texas native who both inhabits the individualistic identity of a true Texas and also simultaneously stretches our concept of what our contemporary music outlaw looks like. The result seems to be a similar aim for UTOPiAfest.

True, Kweller has acheived wide commercial success in recent years, working with major labels, performing large festivals, and selling his fair share of records. However, his laid back attitude and his music seem to be far more important than becoming an international icon. In doing some research for a my interview with him, I came across a video of Kweller performing a set for Sleepover Shows—a series by a husband/wife duo who record low-key intimate sets with artists on the road. This particular set was recorded in his tour bus. I felt in awe of his willingness to perform such a raw set and to welcome these strangers into his personal space. Within a few seconds of my recent phone interview with him, Kweller immediately displays this humble earnestness. After some technical difficulties transferring the call, he apologizes for still learning to navigate the new phones systems at the offices for his own, newly established Noise Company Records.

During the confusion, I catch a brief few seconds of their outgoing voicemail message: Ben playing a rock’n’roll riff and singing “Thank you for calling the noise company!” like he’s rocking Madison Square Garden. When he finally comes on the line I ask him about it and he chuckles before humming the riff, “Du-duh-de-deh, Du-duh-de-deh.” Kweller is immediately affable, and he possesses a vocal inflection that predicts an easy conversation. I ask what it was like doing his newest record, Go Fly A Kite on his own label. “I have always been very hands-on, even behind the scenes,” he says, adding, “this time I was able to take it one step further and be involved with everything.”

The Noise Company’s offices are in Austin, and Kweller’s move from New York back to Texas seems to have much to do with following the dream of forming his own label. “I could never have an office in New York,” he says, “It’s too expensive.” He explains his move to New York by describing his youthful feelings of small, isolated Greenville, Texas: “Like most kids like me that are a little weird and a little different and left of center and artistic—we wanted to get the hell out. I wanted to be around that energy that only New York has. Y’know? The city that never sleeps. I wanted anything and everything at my fingertips, which I think is the big appeal of that city.”

Kweller continues to tell me that after his son Dorian was born, he and his wife Liz had a concern: “I don’t know if we can do New York for life.” He states, “Austin was always at the top of our list for places we could se ourselves living.” Returning home seems to be something almost unavoidable for artists. I grew up only a short drive east from Greenville, in small, isolated Longview, Texas. I know what Kweller means. But Kweller’s return has opened up many career doors for the musician.

Kweller calls himself a “big thinker,” and tells me his entrepreneurial aspirations were part of his decision to move back to Austin. I ask about artists with whom he’s interested in working. “Yeah, there’s a lot actually,” he says excitedly, “There’s a band called the Happenins that I really like. There’s a band called Wild Child that I think are really great and have been talking to about producing their new album. A lot of things going on locally that I’m pretty jazzed about.” Wild Child will be playing out at UTOPiAfest alongside Kweller the last weekend in September. With any luck, Kweller may quickly emerge as a powerhouse force that influences the landscape of Austin music.

Amy Cook is another Austin musician that Kweller recently collaborated with. Her record Summer Skin dropped last month, and Kweller wrote and sang the album track “Getting to You” with Cook. The two played a free show for Austin’s Blues on the Green concert series this summer.  His voice softens in sincerity when I ask about working with Cook. “Amy’s a really good friend of mine, and one of my first friends when I moved to Austin. She’s just a great talent and one of my favorite singers right now.”

I ask Kweller about his philosophy on giving back to the community and playing free shows. He talks through his thoughts on the matter, saying, “I think it’s just important for anybody to give back to the community, no matter what line of work you’re in. Artists usually have a philanthropic side to what they do. Art by nature is so many times a reflection of society and community. For me, personally, I always love when I have the opportunity to put my music with a good cause. It’s hard for to make broad statements like “All musicians must give back or be a part of the world.” I don’t know if I need to be that bold. For me, I’m very community minded.”

Austin is fortunate to have a voice like Kweller’s and we can only avidly anticipate the day that some of his big ideas begin coming to fruition. For now, you can catch Kweller along with other outstanding acts from Austin and all over the nation at UTOPiAfest, September 28th and 29th. For full information about the event and to purchase tickets, click right here.


About author
Bryan Parker is a writer and photographer living and working in Austin, TX. He is the founder of blog Pop Press International and print journal True Sincerity and recently released his first book, a volume on Beat Happening in the 33 1/3 series.

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