Ben Kweller Is Back
The Upbeat Musician Puts a Positive Spin on Personal Trauma
Ben Kweller is the smart, exuberant amalgam of Mitch Easter, Harry Nilsson and Evan Dando. For the better part of two decades, his '90s-meets-the-'60s style of pop-injected positivity has served him well. The "sugar metal" commercial alternative fizz of his band Radish seamlessly blended into his current status as a prolific solo artist with his own band and an impressive catalog of EPs, collaborations and albums.
Now back on the road after five years of contemplative woodshedding - due to a near-death experience in 2013 from carbon monoxide poisoning and the passing of friend Anton Yelchin in 2016 - he's back to his usual, upbeat self. He has a batch of new material ready for release as single tracks, videos and eventually in standard album form as Circuit Boredom later this year. "Heart Attack Kid," the lead track, arrives February 8.
INsite spoke with Kweller during a wide-ranging conversation from his home in Texas.
Probably the best thing to say to you is simply, 'Welcome back.'
(Laughs) Yeah, I guess I was away there for a while - to the tune of about five years. For the first time, I was dealing with the concept of, 'One second you're here and the next second you're gone.' So it was a mix of good, bad and needed.
Give us the short version of what happened.
We were just on a little family vacation [to a cabin in New Mexico in the winter of 2013] and we almost died. Me, my wife Lizzy and our two boys wouldn't be here if Liz hadn't woken us up that night. She said, 'Something's wrong. I feel terrible.' I jumped out of bed and just collapsed. We crawled to the door and managed to get everyone outside in the snow. I called 911 as the boys were falling in and out of consciousness. They tested our blood and they said we were maybe 15 minutes away from not waking up because our CO levels were so high. When we got back home, I called up my team and told them to just cancel everything. And then depression set in.
You had a long road back.
I did. I'd never dealt with depression before. I'm usually pretty carefree and I just go with the flow, you know? But this was the first time I really felt out of control of myself. I didn't want to leave my family, I didn't want to do shows or anything.
What was your next step at that point?
Well I grew up near Dallas and in the Deep Elum scene - which is a lot like the Little Five Points scene you have in Atlanta. And we've lived in New York and Austin but we wanted to get away from the city. So we came out here to this little ranch in Dripping Springs, about 45 minutes outside of town - just to be with nature and our thoughts.
You weren't interested in playing live, but were you still writing songs?
Yeah, the one constant I had was songwriting. It wasn't every day, but songs were still coming out of me. I've always had that and it's always been my best friend. I was like, 'I've got my family and I've got my songs.' But I didn't know if anyone would ever hear them. Eventually I had around 50 but I was still reluctant to start the machine back up. Then one day my friend [producer] Dwight Baker called me and said, 'Dude, get your ass over here and let's record something together, just for fun.' That became my new album and it's really fresh and really fun.
Enduring that much trauma might inspire some really dark music.
When I first started writing again, some of the songs were pretty dark. I went for what I was feeling at the time. But then I was like, 'Damn, if I ever do put this out, it'll be this horrible, emo, suicide record.' Maybe one day I'll put that out. But as time went on, it became clear. I'm coming back and getting reacquainted with my fans, and they've told me my music is a light at the end of the tunnel for them. So I purposely picked songs with that sort of classic, hopeful feeling that my music is often associated with.
The death of your friend [actor, visual artist] Anton Yelchin was a big influence as well, right?
When he was gone in the blink of an eye, it really woke me up. Before I got to know him, I was like, 'What is it with actors? They just kinda learn some lines. Are they like a cover band or what?' But when I got to know him, I realized it's a craft, a real art, to express someone else's writing. He put a fire under my ass. That dude was working on something every day - a movie or a commercial or taking pictures. He was just always making art. When he left us, I was like, 'Ok, I really need to get back to work.'
If someone has to leave a legacy, what better way to do it than to inspire creativity and productivity?
That's it, man! That's exactly what it's all about. Music lasts forever and the recordings will outlast us all.
Ben Kweller plays Tuesday, February 26 at the Masquerade. For more information, please visit masqueradeatlanta.com.