Interview with Ben Kweller about the package he produced for his 2012 record release titled Go Fly A Kite
While I’ve written before about the number of musicians who’ve shown great talent in all of the creative aspects of their professional lives, it seems that most of them sought out a formal education in the arts before setting out on their paths to musical stardom. You’ll recall examples such as Pink Floyd (Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Richard Wright all went to London’s Polytechnic College on Regent Street in London, while Syd Barrett studied at Camberwell), Talking Heads (David Byrne, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz all attended the Rhode Island School of Design), Devo (Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale studied at Kent State) and The Clash (Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon and Mick Jones), along with Freddie Mercury, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Ray Davies, Michael Stipe, Pete Townshend, Ron Wood and many others.
Nominated for both a 2012 Grammy Award in the “Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package” and a 2012 Independent Music Award (IMA) in the “Album Packaging” category, musician/songwriter Ben Kweller’s work on Go Fly A Kite – the debut CD/LP on his own The Noise Company label – is an impressive example of a multi-talented musical performer involving himself in every creative aspect of his products. What’s even more impressive is that Kweller is self-taught, having dropped out of high school at 15 to devote full time to his first band, Radish. By telling the “formal” music business to “go fly a kite – I’ve got the talent to make it on my own”, it is Ben’s commitment to all aspects of his craft – along with a long list of fans both in and outside of the music business – that has provided him with the ability to impress both fans and critics on his own terms with each successive outing. Drawing on inspirations from his love of comic book illustrations and taking advantage of a chance meeting with someone at his young son’s pre-school, the intricate and impressive packaging for his latest release had me wondering about how it all came to be, and faithful readers know what happens when I get to wondering…. 😉
Interview with Ben Kweller (interviewed in April and May, 2013) –
Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com – Hello Ben, and thanks for taking time out of your schedule to talk with me about your work on the packaging for Go Fly A Kite. I love the way that it folds out to reveal a detailed diorama of a massive battle between the good “Kweller Heads” and the evil “Biz Skeletons”. Please let me know how and when were you introduced to your design team for this assignment, or did you have to do some research and then contact them? Had you worked with the team before?
Ben Kweller, musician and designer – I’m a believer in local sourcing, so since we’re based in Austin, I wanted to work with a local design firm. I met the EmDash people – Erin, actually – in a fairly unusual way. My son Dorian went to a “hippie-style” pre-school here. At the end of the year, one parent we’d met had crafted a graduation yearbook herself that I thought was really cool. The next year, I wanted to keep that idea going and asked the school owner to introduce us to the parent who’d made the yearbook the previous year, and that turned out to be Erin at EmDash. I told her that I wanted to make a new yearbook, so she shared her Adobe InDesign templates with me. I know Photoshop pretty well but wasn’t experienced in InDesign, so Erin gave me some basic instruction in it. She then showed me some of the album cover work she’d done and I liked what I saw so much that I knew that she was someone who’d be able to help us create a great cover.
When my wife Liz and I sat down and brainstormed a bit with the EmDash team, we were expecting that they’d come back with a few possible ideas, but when we returned the next week, they showed us over 20 comps! Obviously, a very creative group!
Mike G – Since you were so hands-on in the effort, how did you go about choosing the additional talent – the designer, illustrator, photographer, writer, etc. – who would work with you on this effort? Had you already decided on the basic approach to the design and/or composition? Had you seen similar examples of their work that you hoped they’d adapt for this effort?
Ben K – Two people who were really critical to the success of the project were the illustrator, Josh Cochran, who’d done the cover illustration for the awesome Zombies Vs. Unicorns book, and Rick Gasparini, our project lead with the printing company we worked with, Ross-Ellis in Chicago.
Erin and Kate had worked with Josh before and had sent me a copy of his book – I just loved his style, so once we’d selected Josh as the illustrator, I sent him a list of 52 references to the music to provide him with inspiration. To create the “Kwellerheads vs. Bizkeletons” artwork you find in the package, he drew inspiration from that list and created a new work in the style of his original Zombies vs. Unicorns – there are lots of symbolic references in the new work he did.
(Editor’s note/mini-bio – Josh Cochran grew up in both Taiwan and the United States, graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena with honors and began his career as an illustrator immediately upon graduation. He works for a broad range of clients in the fields of advertising, publishing, broadcast and the web. Josh also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in NYC works occasionally as a guest art director for the NY Times Op-Ed page. He exhibits his fine art efforts in a variety of galleries and lives in Brooklyn with his dog, Porkchop.)
Rick worked very closely with us during the pre-production process, really going out of his way to help us create the intricate die-cuts that we ended up using. He let us experiment a lot, so we felt that by the time we got to the final stages of printing, we were confident that the finished product would be just what we had anticipated.
MG – Can you tell us what the inspirations were for the particular images chosen for the cover/booklet? Did your music or previous visual styles provide you with some inspiration as to how to develop the basis for the package? How important is it for you to include visual connections to the music you’re designing the packaging for?
BK – I’ve always been interested in album art. I did the artwork for my own mix tapes and my early cassettes and just always loved being able to enjoy looking at the artwork and reading the lyrics. This release is on our own label (The Noise Company), so both Liz and I wanted the artwork to make an impression. The cover image embodies the symbolism of the song lyrics. I also wanted to carry on the tradition of me being in the middle of the cover, and one of the first ideas that was discussed was having a battle between an army of Kwellers versus an army of business suits, and so after we met with Josh and saw his work, that’s what we built the diorama around. As for the actual cover, most of the work on the record had been finished and I decided that I wanted to include a song book with chord charts in the package as well. I was working on adding the graphics for the chords when I accidentally blew up a picture of an E-chord – which the first song on the album, called “Mean To Me”, starts with – and voila! I added some colors and we had our cover image.
MG – So, from concept to final product, how long did it take you to develop the finished package? Were there any special processes or other aids used? Can you let me know about the # of designs that were considered or submitted before the final decision was made?
BK – We worked mostly in InDesign, and EmDash produced the type and did a lot of project management, making sure that the designs were balanced and that all of the colors were just right. The whole process took about 6 months, start to finish. Some of that time was needed to make the custom templates required as we were going to need two separate sheets to make the diorama. There were two full comps of the ink illustrations and, even after the final art was done, we worked with Rick and did 4-5 cut-outs until we got it just right. We ended up using a very thick matte paper stock so that the diorama would be sturdy when it was assembled.
MG – Obviously, you were quite pleased with the final product. Is that why you submitted this particular work for consideration for both the Grammy and IMA Awards?
BK – My friend Connor Oberst won a Grammy a few years ago and I felt that we could make something just as good, so after we finished the package for Go Fly A Kite and got such great feedback from people we showed it to, I thought that we should go ahead and submit it. We first sent it to the Recording Academy for Grammy consideration, and they obviously liked it since we were nominated for one. They put it in the “Box Set/Limited Edition Package” category, even after I explained to them that it wasn’t a box set and was not meant to be a limited edition. They told me that they just wanted to make sure that it was considered for a Grammy because it was too good not to be, so I guess that I’m happy that they liked it so much. We didn’t win, but it was great to be able to go to the Awards ceremony as a team.
We felt strongly about the success we’d had with the package and so we submitted it to the Grammy and IMA people for consideration as well, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed this time..(Editor’s Note #2 – since this interview was completed, the IMA Awards were handed out and, while impressed with the package for Go Fly A Kite, the award for was given to another nominee, Smithsonian Records’ Woody At 100 Box Set).
MG – With all this work on Go Fly A Kite now behind you, can you tell us what are you working on now? Is art part of your life on an ongoing basis?
BK – You caught me in the middle of some acting work I’m doing for a film by William H. Macy called Rudderless. I play a character who is in a band and some of my music is being used in the film as well. As far as art on a day-to-day basis goes, I do sketches and paintings in oils and pastels of people that inhabit the places I travel through while on tour. These are for myself…
About the artist, Ben Kweller –
Born in San Francisco, CA in June, 1981, Ben’s family moved soon after to Texas, eventually settling down in Greenville. Showing a talent for music and song-writing early on, young Ben had taught himself how to play the drums by the age of seven, composed a dozen songs on piano by the age of nine and learned to play the guitar (a Red Fender received as a birthday gift) by age 11. In 1993, at the age of 12, Ben met drummer John Kent and bassist Ryan Green and, together, they formed a band called Radish, which played local gigs and released two independent records – an EP titled Hello and a full-length album titled Dizzy. Shortly after the release of Dizzy, Green decided to return to his schooling and, ultimately, was replaced by Bryan Bradford, AKA “Brain”.
Looking to expand their audience, the band sent a copy of Dizzy to a friend of Ben’s father, guitarist Nils Lofgren, who after hearing the band recommended them to producer/musician/ukulele aficionado Roger Greenwalt. Greenwalt, whose own band The Dark had shown his appreciation for musical talent of all stripes, brought the band into the studio, recorded a demo and sent it to his contacts at a number of record labels and, after a bidding war, signed them to Mercury Records in 1996. Ben was 15 at the time…
Contracted to release a trio of singles and then a full-length album (Restraining Bolt), the band then went on an extended promo tour, hitting all of the late-night talk shows and then went on tours through the U.S. and Europe, including appearances at Lollapalooza in 1996 and the Reading Festival in 1997, opening for more-established acts including Failure, Faith No More and SevenDust. Adding two additional players in 1998, the band then went to the famed Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama to record the band’s sophomore effort (this time, for Polygram Records) titled Discount Fireworks which, as the result of the label’s merger with Universal Music Group, was never released.
In spite of all of the critical success and hard work, the band didn’t ever “break into the bigtime”, and so in 1999, Ben moved to Brooklyn, New York with girlfriend Liz Smith and set out to start a career as a solo act. Recording to a computer in his apartment, his first release of “anti-folk” music was a CD titled Freak Out…It’s Ben Kweller. A short while after the release, Ben received a phone call from a new fan – Evan Dando of The Lemonheads – who invited Ben out on tour with him. That tour was then followed by tours with Guster, Juliana Hatfield and Jeff Tweedy and, whenever he found himself back in the NYC area, he’d play at established clubs including Brownies, the Knitting Factory and the Mercury Lounge. In 2001, he was approached by the founders of indie label ATO Records (Michael McDonald and guitarist Dave Matthews) to be their first world-wide signing and, after the initial release of a five-song EP titled Phone Home, Kweller released his first LP – called Sha Sha – in early 2002 and which, powered by the strength of its single “Wasted & Ready”, sold over 200K records. Ben then put together a live band and embarked on a world-wide tour, joining acts such as Kings of Leon, My Morning Jacket and The Strokes.
Teaming up with a couple of other talented Bens – Ben Folds and Ben Lee – the trio called themselves “The Bens” and released an EP by that name in 2003. Kweller also continued writing songs both for a second solo album titled On My Way and for other acts as well (we wrote and sang on Guster’s 2003 single “I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today”). After touring in support of On My Way, in 2006 Ben released his third album simply titled Ben Kweller, which was a true solo effort, with Kweller playing all of the instruments himself. His fourth solo effort, Changing Horses, was released in early 2009 and then, in 2010, Ben chose to set off on his own, leaving ATO Records to form his own label, The Noise Company. Working with some of the musicians featured on Changing Horses, Kweller debuted his first self-produced record, Go Fly A Kite, in 2012.
To read more about this artist, please visit his website at http://www.benwkweller.com
About this AlbumCoverHallofFame.com interview –
Our ongoing series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.
In each interview feature, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.
We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.
All images featured in this story are Copyright 2002 – 2013 Ben Kweller and The Noise Company – All rights reserved – and are used by the author’s permission. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2013 – Mike Goldstein, AlbumCoverHallofFame.com (www.albumcoverhalloffame.com) & RockPoP Productions – All rights reserved.