Just after starting his set of 20th anniversary Sha Sha shows, Ben Kweller talked with QRO. The singer/songwriter talked the anniversary tour, why he isn’t playing the songs in album order, his tributes & grief on his recently passed son Dorian, playing Austin City Limits Festival two weekends in a row, working with everyone from Ed Sheeran to Jason Schwartzman to McLovin, and more…
QRO: How was the first of the 20th anniversary Sha Sha shows, at Teragram Ballroom last weekend?
Ben Kweller: It was one of the best shows I’ve ever – I think it’s my favorite show I’ve ever performed, in my career! Like, holy shit, for real…
I was sort of made for these types of performances. Because everyone who knows Ben Kweller’s work, knows how nostalgic I am. I’m all about emotional connections to the past… [laughs]
It was fun to play these songs that I haven’t played in so long. There is always four-or-five songs off that album that are in steady rotation when I’m on tour. But then the rest of them, I haven’t touched, in like fifteen years. Songs like “Harriet’s Got a Song”, and “Walk On Me”, they sounded so good; they felt so good.
Also, we had some special guests. Angela Moore, from Fishbone, came up and played saxophone on a song. Mike Campbell from The Heartbreakers sat in on two songs.
And then, in the encore, Alex Greenwald and Jason Schwartzman of Phantom Planet, they both came up, and we all did “California”. Because that album came out at the same month as Sha Sha, so we were always just seeing each other on the road, in in-stores. We were both just out there working at the same time.
Jason left Phantom Planet back in 2003, so that was the first time he and Alex had played music together in 20 years! Many layers of anniversary…
QRO: Why did you decided to do these Sha anniversary shows?
BK: Because again, this stuff is important to me. I’ve always wanted to keep a diary or a journal, but I’ve never had the discipline. But I’ve always written songs, consistently, so I realized a long time ago that my songs are actually my diary pages.
It’s my life. That album is a huge part of my life, and a big reason why I’m still here today, still doing music. So, I just wanted to honor that.
Because everyone who knows Ben Kweller’s work, knows how nostalgic I am. I’m all about emotional connections to the past…
Also, as a music fan, I love that shit. I wanted to give my fans something, you know? That sort of recognizes the importance of it in their lives – so I’ve been told by different fans. I’m not like arrogant, thinking, ‘Well, this is such an important album for everyone…’ But, you know, I’ve been told a few times, that it’s a really important album to certain people. I thought it would be fun to just, alright, ‘Alright, let’s just embrace it!’
Because I don’t see myself doing a forty year, or a fifty year. Some bands do ten year, but I kinda feel like that’s too soon. But two decades? Okay, that’s the real time.
QRO: Have you ever done a ‘play an album in full’ show before this?
BK: I have. I did it back in, I think it was when my third album came out, the self-titled album. I did three nights in Brooklyn, and we did the three albums in order. One night was Sha Sha, the next night was On My Way, and the third night was the new album, Ben Kweller. And we did them true, in sequence and the whole thing.
For this anniversary, the Sha Sha twenty, I decided not to play it in order. When you make an album, the track listing of an album, there’s such an art to creating the right track listing. Similarly, when you do a concert, you make a set list, and those are two very different experiences.
Like, on an album, you might want to frontload it a little bit with some of your favorite jams, especially these days, in a period where no one has any attention span. Where, in a live concert, you usually save your best shit for the end, because you want motherfuckers to stay, and not leave!…
Also, there’s some instrumentation issues with Sha Sha, where if I followed the sequence, I would be running around the stage, just grabbing a different instrument on every song, like, ‘Acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, back to the electric, back to the piano, back to the acoustic…’ And it would be kind of uneasy for me, as a performer.
I chose flow over exact replication, you know what I’m saying? That was the balance I had to choose between.
QRO: Do you feel old whenever you look at the Sha Sha cover photo of yourself?
BK: I do. Well, I guess I don’t feel old, I just feel like that guys looks really young…
But that’s it – time marches on, no doubt…
My hair is so long, too. I don’t think I look so much older, it’s just that my hair is very long. It’s just a completely different look.
QRO: [laughs] As long as you brush your teeth…
BK: I brush my teeth, twice a day. Except I use a Sonicare these days, I don’t use a little plastic thing. See, technology has changed, everything has changed…
QRO: The new deluxe edition has some b-sides and other rarities – are you playing any of those live?
BK: That’s a good question. We’re staying on the album.
So, there was talk of doing my cover of “Today” by The [Smashing] Pumpkins, which was one of those outtakes. We might do that in Chicago, kind of makes sense.
But no, actually. We’re really just doing the album, and then we’re adding some of the hits from the discography, as you do.
QRO: How was Austin City Limits Festival last month?
BK: Fabulous – I love that festival! It’s like a hometown fest for me. Lot of memories there. It was great. I loved it.
QRO: I’ve always wondered: What’s it like to play the same festival, same day of the week & time, on consecutive weekends?
BK: It’s cool! It’s one of the few moments in live music where you get a redo… [laughs]
You can make tweaks – if there was something you didn’t like about the first weekend, you gotta second weekend, you know? How nice…
QRO: Like, do you change your set list weekend-to-weekend, or just stick with one for both?
BK: A lot of people don’t attend both weekends. Those festivals have gotten very expensive.
We played the same set both weekends. Except we subbed one song. I think one weekend we played “Penny On the Train Track”, and the other weekend, we did “Sundress”. But I think if you went both weekends, you wouldn’t even noticed…
I chose flow over exact replication, you know what I’m saying? That was the balance I had to choose between.
QRO: And speaking of the guy who just played with Jason Schwartzman – how did you get Christopher Mintz-Plasse in your band?
BK: [laughs] Well, he’s an incredible bass player, and he had band called “MainMan”. Chris, and Ryan [Dean], the drummer, they were both in MainMan, and they opened for me a bunch back in 2018, so pre-pandemic.
And then after the pandemic, and I started playing again, I was just putting together a new band, and I just love those guys. They’re a great rhythm section. They live near each other; they rehearse all the time together. It was kind of a no-brainer. You want your rhythm section to be locked – bass & drums always live in the same world, musically. We just started doing shows together, and it really stuck. I love both of them so much.
I think of Chris as a musician, first and foremost, even though, everywhere we go, everyone is spotting McLovin, and they’re like, “Oh my god!” He is SO famous – it’s amazing!
Even at ACL, we went to the main stage to watch Lil Yachty. From the front of the stage to the soundboard, there’s always this little lane, you know, where you can run from one station to the front of house through the crowd. We ran to the front of house.
It was a WAVE of people realizing who he was, and as we were going. It broke the festival. It was a fucking roar – insane…
Especially in the hip-hop community. As he likes to say, “McLovin is mentioned in like fifty different rap songs…”
QRO: QRO had a photographer who got a photo of someone in the crowd during your set, flying a flag that was a giant version of the ‘McLovin’ fake ID…
Though I wondered if he hates being called “McLovin”?…
BK: No, he loves it. He loves when people recognize him as McLovin – it’s just that he doesn’t like it when his friends call him McLovin…
It’s kind of clear – he has a spiel that he explains. He’s just like, ‘If you’re like my homey, and you call me “McLovin,” I know we’re on a different wavelength with each other.’
He’s the first to say, “Dude, that movie changed my life! I’m so grateful for the McLovin character.” So, he’s got a good perspective, head on his shoulders.
QRO: And how were the shows opening for Ed Sheeran?
BK: So good.
It’s crazy the amount of different shit I do. My music is very diverse, kind of that schizophrenic piano ballad to folk song, to punk rock, to indie-rock, to classic rock, stoner jams… That’s who I am as a person. And I think that shows in the different friends that I have. It’s such an eclectic group of people.
That Ed Sheeran tour, I don’t think Ben Kweller would have been the first artist that people would have thought of to put together as the opening slot on an Ed Sheeran tour. But Ed’s an old friend of mine, and he’s an incredible artist. Even though he’s the biggest pop star on Earth, we have a lot of similarities in like our musical tastes.
It was just an amazing tour, but it was also a very healing tour, because my son Dorian had passed away in February, and so that was the first time I went on the road since Dorian passed. Ed knew that, and Ed invited me for the sole purpose to really let me reconnect with music, and the healing power of it. To let me grieve on stage through my music.
At the same time, he recently had lost a friend of his, so we were in a similar sort of grief vibe.
QRO: I know you did some tribute shows – will these shows incorporate a tribute to your son Dorian?
BK: So, in July, when I was tour, it was all about Zev [Dorian Kweller’s middle name & band name], and his music – he was gonna open that tour. We did a video every night with his songs, and then we ended the show with “How I Am”, which is one of my favorite of Dorian’s songs.
Instead of ending the night with “How I Am”, we’re still doing a tribute to Dorian, but we do it in the middle of the show.
QRO: I saw you in 2009 at Town Hall…
BK: Oh, Changing Horses era!
QRO: And I think toddler Dorian walked on stage while you were playing…
BK: He did, he did!
That was such a fabulous gig! I loved that gig, and I loved that venue (QRO venue review)…
We specifically wanted to play that room with that music, more of an acoustic feel. It felt right.
Judah [Kweller] will be selling merch, as he does – family business…
QRO: And are you working on any new material?
BK: Yes, yes I am. And actually, my studio is almost done. We’ve been renovating the barn on my property. It’s almost finished.
I’ve been demoing on my phone, and I can’t wait to start recording the new album. So, that’s a big one.
QRO: Your family went on tour with you back in July – are they going to be on this tour?
BK: They did L.A., and they’re doing New York. But they’re not going to be with me in Chicago & Minneapolis.
But they’re coming to New York for both nights. Night one is sold out; there’s still some tickets left for Sunday. Judah will be selling merch, as he does – family business…
QRO: I just read the Texas Monthly feature piece. This is a short interview – I don’t think I can even approach getting into everything that you & your family have been through this year. I’m not going to do as well as that feature…
BK: Don’t worry – it’s all good…