When I catch up with pop musician Ben Kweller, he's pulled off on the side of a Louisiana highway, gazing west toward his home state of Texas, which lies just a few dozen miles down the road.
"My tour manager texted me a little while ago that there's a huge storm down in Houston, which is where we're going tomorrow," Kweller says.
With his wife, Liz, and young son, Dorian, in tow, he'll have to drive through tropical storm Erin — and maybe Hurricane Dean — before rolling into Memphis for a gig at Newby's Thursday, August 23rd.
Yet the mop-topped Kweller, who speaks in an intimate, stoner-next-door style that immediately evokes images of fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Owen Wilson, seems hardly fazed by the challenge.
Apparently, it's just another day in the life for this twentysomething recording star, who toured with the likes of Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, and Kristen Hersh when he was still a teenager.
His first three solo efforts — 2000's Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller, 2002's Sha Sha, and 2004's On My Way — garnered comparisons to Beck and Elliott Smith and set the stage for his latest, eponymous release, which came out last September.
"It just felt like if I was gonna have a self-titled album, that was the one," says Kweller, who played every instrument on the album and even designed the cover art. "The listeners get 100 percent of me, which is good, because when you press 'play,' you're inviting me into your living room. In so many ways, it felt like a debut record, because I was real open and real focused."
When asked if the track "Thirteen" was influenced by the Big Star song of the same title, he demurs.
"I love that song, but I wasn't even thinking about it. One of my friends, when he saw the record, he was like, 'Whoa, did you cover that Big Star tune?' But there's no relation at all. Thirteen is just a lucky number for me. Liz's birthday is on the 13th, and our wedding day was on the 13th, and the take you hear on the album is the 13th take.
"This album was kind of a last-minute thing. I was gonna go into the studio with a few of my friends, but when my producer [Gil Norton, who also helmed Echo and the Bunnymen's debut album, the Pixies' Doolittle, and the last two Foo Fighter records] found out I'd played all the instruments on the demos, he said, 'Wait, let's go in one-on-one and see what happens,'" Kweller says.
"Whenever I put out an album and go on tour, I really try to reproduce the record as close as I can. The songs are so fresh and the recordings are so new, why wouldn't I? But once you've been on the road for months and months, the songs evolve. Instead of saying, aw, shit, I wish I'd thought of that bass line, I'm saying, I can't wait to get into the studio with [his live band, bassist Chris Morrissey and drummer Mark Stepro] for the next one."
Kweller, who grew up on the outskirts of Dallas but relocated to Brooklyn some years ago, says that after taping an appearance on Austin City Limits next month, the band will remain in Texas to cut a new album. "We do ACL on September 16th, and we go into the studio on Monday the 17th, like some old-school Rolling Stones shit, where you just tour and record all the time," he says.
Unfortunately, diehard fans won't get to hear him woodshed any of the new songs live.
"We actually have played one of the songs live twice, but it's really rare," Kweller says. "When I first started playing gigs, I would play new material all the time. Nowadays, it kinda sucks when you wanna try out a new song in front of a crowd, but you know you're gonna see it on the Internet.
"I can't worry about what my fans think too much, because otherwise, I couldn't make music. I'd be second-guessing myself too much. I've seen friends go in for their second or third album with so much pressure on 'em that they end up staying in the studio for months. I do feel really lucky for the amount of kids who have stayed with me and gone through these last three albums with me.
"It's such an honor," Kweller says, "because when you write a song, you're just sitting on a bed in a room somewhere, all alone."
Thursday, August 23rd