INTERVIEW: Ben Kweller (USA), September 2010

Let’s make something clear. I don’t care if you’re a metalhead, a dance nut, a hip-hop head… whatever you are. If you don’t like Ben Kweller, I’m calling shenanigans. The highest order of shenanigans. How could you say not to that adorable, forever-twentysomething face? Those insanely catchy songs? The joy that just thinking of Ben Kweller brings? Naturally, motherfucker brought the sunshine in this interview. Haven’t had the pleasure since, but I did finally get to see him live in 2012. He was really great. Of course he was.

– DJY, October 2014

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It’s seemingly impossible to find Ben Kweller in an unhappy mood. The chipper singer-songwriter is in high spirits, on the line from his house. He even sounds upbeat about housework: “I did some yard work today!” he reports happily.

Kweller lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Liz, and two kids – Dorian, 4, and Judah, five months. The Kwellers made the move shortly after Dorian’s birth. “A lot of people still think I’m a New Yorker,” says Kweller, formerly of Brooklyn, “but I made the move after I recorded [last album] Changing Horses. It was actually recorded down here in Spoon’s studio – y’know the band Spoon? And after being here for like a month, we were like “man, let’s just move to Austin.” I grew up in Texas, and it’s nice being near my parents – I think it was a good change.”

Aside from raising both his family and his plants, Kweller has been working on a new record. At the time of the interview, its working title is Go Fly a Kite. “It’s basically code for ‘go fuck yourself,’” says Kweller with a snicker. He talks at length and with a great excitement about the album, which marks yet another change of direction from the down-beat Americana of Changing Horses. “It’s definitely a rock & roll record,” he comments. “A lot of electric guitars, piano and what have you. I’m really happy with it.” It also marks a musical change of having significantly less musicians than last time, whittling it down to just bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Mark Stepro. “I did that one record where I played everything myself [2006’s Ben Kweller ] – and that was fun, and I might try it again sometime, but there’s really nothing like playing with other people. I think the thrill of music can be found in reacting to another person when you’re playing, seeing what they’re doing – y’know, just creating something as a group.”

The way Kweller discusses the lyrics of the record, Go Fly a Kite may also feature some of Ben’s darker work to date. “It’s kind of a grittier subject matter,” he says frankly when asked about the songwriting process. I had a big falling-out with one of my best friends. He had this new girlfriend that just came in and didn’t want him to do anything with the friends he already had and the people who loved him. She just wanted to push him away from everything. So there’s a few songs addressing all that – one called Gossip, and there’s another one called Jealous Girl.” In spite of all this, Ben is also quick to assure that “there’s still that Kweller optimism” when it comes down to it. Don’t let the bastards get you down, right, Ben?

It seems out of character for Kweller to be singing about such interpersonal dramas – he’s usually the type to sing sweet lines like “I’m in love with someone who’s as pretty as a flower” and “I’d do anything you want me to.” The twenty-nine-year-old may seem like one of rock’s biggest softies, but Kweller laughs good-naturedly at the suggestion, adding that he’s definitely “had his fights.” “I just have a different outlook on life,” he continues. “I try to stay positive and deal with the bullshit that comes my way, but always remember that tomorrow is a new day.”

It’s on this note that conversation switches to Kweller bringing his sunny disposition, as well as his two-piece band, to Australia for the first time in about eighteen months.”Oh yeah!” says Kweller with a smile so obvious it can be seen through a phone line. “Can’t wait for that. It’s always so much fun in Australia. I’m ready for my Vegemite in the morning!”

This tour will also see Kweller playing on the south coast of New South Wales for the first time ever, as a part of a three-day blues festival. Despite being a frequent visitor to Australia since the famous Bens tour in 2003 (alongside fellow ‘Bens’ – Lee and Folds), Kweller has never played many places beyond the capital cities. Exploring the country is always a treat for him, however – “I’ve been to a few outskirts,” he recalls. “I had a friend who lived in Geelong, so I’ve been to the suburbs; and I’ve been to the little beach-y towns. I seem to have a good time everywhere I go [in Australia] – the people are always so mellow. Kinda reminds me a bit of being in Texas, actually. The land looks the same, and the people have the right vibe.”

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INTERVIEW: Jim Ward (USA), December 2008

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Funny story about this one: I remember it was scheduled the same day as my orientation day at uni, but I was in no position to say no to interviewing Jim Ward. So, naturally, I got my lunch break and I did my interview at the Uni Bar out the front while a staff member looked on with confusion. Jim was a pensive, thoughtful interviewee; and ended up being a very lovely guy in his own right when I met him not too long after I did this interview at his show at the Annandale. That, fittingly enough, was my first ever Annandale show – I can’t believe I’ve been going to that sumbitch for nearly five years! I’ll always love Jim Ward, no matter what music he’s making. This experience simply solidified that love.

– DJY, July 2013

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Jim Ward is no stranger to Australian shores. Each time he has come, however, he has brought something different along with him. Back in 2001, it was with genre-defying quintet At The Drive-In, holding down the rhythm section whilst the future Mars Volta leaders Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez threw themselves across the stage.

A few years later, Ward was positioned up the front as his new band, Sparta, warmed up an audience in hot anticipation of Blink 182. Earlier this year, he returned without either band to perform solo and acoustically, as both the opening act for Incubus and one of the many artists featured at the 2008 Soundwave Festival.

Now, just over six months since that appearance, Jim Ward is set to play a number of low-key, intimate shows this month. This time, however, he will be showcasing tracks from his latest project, Sleepercar, and its album West Texas.

“This is definitely music I’ve wanted to make for a while,” he comments on the album’s rootsy, country vibe. “It’s stuff that I love, both in the singer-songwriter format and the band format as well. I’ve been working on it for quite a while, and it seemed like the right time to release it, with Sparta moving into a ‘vacation’ stage… it just seemed like something I wanted to do.”

The entire record is a notable change for Ward; not only as a guitarist (favouring a trusty old acoustic in favour of his Fender Esquire) but as a vocalist. His lower-range storytelling shows scarcely any resemblance to the high-octave scream of “Cut away! Cut away!” in the classic One Armed Scissor.

“It’s stretched my limits,” Ward confesses when asked whether the solo acoustic work has challenged him as a singer. He still remains positive that the challenge of creating entirely different music from his past has paid off. “It’s a good thing to be able to learn new stuff and better yourself,” he muses.

Despite having a new backing band in Sleepercar, with which he has toured with extensively this year, Ward’s visit to Australia is on his lonesome. He makes a point of his experiences of tours without a band, and what you take in as a result of solo touring and travelling.

When asked to comment on the life of the one man show, Ward describes it as “a whole new way of seeing things,” in a slightly weary tone (quite possibly the toll of his extensive tours). “It can get a little lonely at times, but it’s also good to explore your head and think about things… it’s a little selfish to do, but I think it’s an important thing to do sometimes, just to get everything together.”

Anyone who has followed Jim’s career to its full extent will note that he has evolved further and further in independence as a musician and songwriter, developing from a key band member to band leader, and subsequently as a solo musician. Each career step, one could argue that Ward has revealed more and more of his musical identity, his soul.

“Yeah, that’s fair to say,” he responds when presented with this thesis. “I think it’s given me a chance to find myself and explore other music, which you don’t normally get to do when you’re working with other people. Over the years, I’ve definitely found more comfort in making music. It’s definitely broadened my horizons.”

Ward’s work with other musicians, of course, has not come without in-band controversy. Huge creative differences were cited as the reason for ATDI’s demise; as Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala went on to form the Mars Volta. Even when the dust had settled on that one, another personal blow to the Sparta camp came when guitarist Paul Hinojos jumped ship… to join his former Drive-In bandmates in the Mars Volta. Despite such potential grudges still to be held, Ward emphasises that such conflicts of his past is water under the bridge.

“I still talk to them,” he states when questioned about his former bandmates. “They played in El Paso [city of Texas in which ATD-I was formed] the other day and I went to the show. Y’know, you grow up and you move on; but it’s still nice to be reminded where you come from.”

He’s certainly come a long way since releasing Hell Paso as a seventeen year old in At the Drive-In with his college funds. However, it seems very evident from the conversation that has just passed with an intelligent, thoughtful and humble man that his creative streak is far from running out. Ladies and gentlemen, please experience Jim Ward.