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Ben Kweller, power pop and that whole other country

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kwellerhat.jpgBen Kweller lashed about the stage during a showcase performance in mid-March at the annual South by Southwest music conference, bashing out new songs on guitar and piano. Aside from his gray jeans looking dad-tight instead of hipster-skinny, he was still the picture of youthful abandon -- and heaven knows we've heard enough about his teenage escapades.

Now 30 and a father of two, Kweller formed the band Radish when he was 12. That's not so unusual for a Beatles-loving kid. The major-label bidding war that erupted over the band, resulting in Kweller signing a recording contract at age 15 -- that was the story, and a controversial one.

Fortunately, however, Kweller hasn't burned out or faded away. The new songs are from "Go Fly a Kite," his fifth album. The SXSW show was in Austin, Texas, home to Kweller's new record label, the Noise Company. In our post-SXSW chat, we talked about that aspect of his youth -- Texas, country music and all those tumbleweeds that still roll through his power-pop.

BEN KWELLER
with Sleeper Agent, the Dig
• 10 p.m. March 31
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets, $18-$20; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com

Question: You grew up in northeast Texas, and you made a whole album of country-inspired songs (2009's superb "Changing Horses"). But a certain Texas mosey seems present in a lot of your music.
Ben Kweller: Lyrically, I talk about Texas a lot. I reference the state in a bunch of different songs. Even on the new album I talk about Marfa, Texas, this crazy little art community in deep west Texas in the mountain region. Most people don't know there is a mountain region in Texas. But country music has always been there for me, especially as a kid growing up in Greenville. My parents were from the Northeast, so at home they were playing rock 'n' roll, British invasion. But I'd go out as a kid or to a friend's house, and Garth Brooks was kind of unescapable. Johnny Cash, all the classic stuff, too. So as a writer, a country song pops out every once in a while.

Q. Was "Changing Horses" a concerted effort at writing country, or were you basically cleaning out your attic?
BK: Well, yeah, I'd been saving those [country] songs over the years, and "Changing Horses" was a collection of them. I love that album. I'm really proud of it.

Q. But your country leanings aren't confined to that one album. Songs like "Out the Door" and "Full Circle" on the new album have that same lope to them, right?
BK: "Out the Door," I love that one. "Full Circle" certainly could have fit on "Changing Horses." I actually had that song when we cut "Changing Horses," but it wasn't quite ready.

Q. So you discovered music and decided to start playing in Texas. Was there a particular a-ha moment?
BK: I remember it clearly. I was 8 years old at home listening to my dad's "Magical Mystery Tour" record on one of those big old console record players, like a piece of furniture. It was my great-grandmother's. I was listening to "All You Need Is Love" over and over again, and it made me cry. I'd move the needle back to the beginning, and keep crying. I didn't know why I was crying other than the melody was so beautiful and John's voice spoke to me. I didn't understand what he was singing about. I just thought, "Whatever's happening to me right now, I want to do." So I started writing songs.

Q. At age 8?
BK: Yeah. There were three of them. The first was an instrumental on piano called "Recovery." The other two were "I Didn't Need Another Girl" and "One Teardrop." They were little love songs. That's what I heard the Beatles singing, so I guessed that what you wrote about. You wrote about girls and love. I did my 8-year-old best to pretend I knew what the f--- I was talking about. They were cute little piano ballads. I think I had five of them.

Q. Big hits in the neighborhood?
BK: I'd be out playing Rambo in the trees, and my mom would yell at me, "Come in and play your songs for my friends!" They'd be sitting there drinking Bloody Marys, and I'd sing my little love songs and they'd all be crying. "How does he know what he's talking about?" That was the very beginning.

Q. What was the bridge from Bloody Marys to serious business?
BK: Dad subscribed to Musician magazine, and they had an ad for a songwriting contest. You had to be an amateur, and I certainly fit the bill. I showed it to my dad and told him I wanted to send in a tape. We borrowed a four-track recorder from my dentist and recorded those five love songs. I still have that cassette somewhere. I've been meaning to archive it, digitize it.

Q. What was your dentist doing with a four-track?
BK: [Laughs] He was a musician. There was a cover band of '50s rock 'n' roll, the Blandelles, from Greenville. [They still exist.] My dad played drums.

Q. Do your new independent business ventures reflect that same family spirit?
BK: The Noise Company is family-run, very mom-and-pop.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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