Near death experience removes musician from music, loss of friend returns him to center stage.
Ben Kweller started early. The Texas-based singer and multi-instrumentalist wrote his first song when he was 8 years old. He got his first record deal at 15, and by 17 he had already met Liz Smith, the songwriter’s future wife and mother to their two boys.
Flash forward to 2012 when Kweller released his fifth studio album, Go Fly a Kite — the first release on Kweller’s own Noise Company label. Things were going about as well as possible following a successful 4-album deal with ATO Records that had given way to full creative control.
And then something very strange happened. In 2013, Kweller and his family returned for another vacation in the same New Mexico cabin they had enjoyed the year before. Only this time it almost killed them.
While the entire family ended up suffering acute carbon monoxide poisoning, authorities said later that if Liz hadn’t awakened when she did and taken action, all four of them would’ve died within 15 minutes.
The nearly catastrophic event weighed remarkably heavily on Kweller and soon the thought of traveling from city to city, away from his family, became unfathomable.
“There was a serious reorganization of priorities,” said Kweller from a recent tour stop in Tucson. “And it was in a very PTSD style. But I don’t think it was unreasonable. It was just, ‘Time out. Focus on my family. I can always do shows again.’”
Only the hard stop gave way to a serious battle with depression, and what Kweller thought might be a year or so off quickly turned into a handful of them.
“That was bizarre because I didn’t know I was depressed” he said. “People always think of me as this happy-go-lucky, up for anything, go with the flow kind of guy. And I am. But I just became totally lethargic in life.”
What he didn’t do is stop writing music. Yet despite penning nearly 50 songs in his extended absence, it was another tragic event that jarred him back onto his musical path — the untimely and freak accidental 2016 death of Kweller’s friend, actor/musician Anton Yelchin, when the latter’s Jeep rolled down his driveway and struck him into a brick pillar outside his home.
The cruelty and randomness of the event, coupled with its similarities to what could have happened in New Mexico, was not lost on Kweller.
“When that happened,” he said, “I was like, ‘Holy f**k, I was spared and my boy Anton wasn’t.’ So I had to ask myself, ‘Why am I just sitting on this couch feeling bad?’ I knew that if Anton was here, he’d be like, ‘Get the f**k up and grab a guitar. Call your booking agent. Book some shows.’ I really did need to heal for those years. But that was the thing that really got me back.”
Kweller did get up off the couch. He did grab his guitar. But instead of immediately booking some shows, he called his friend Dwight Baker, and the pair headed into the studio. They co-produced Kweller’s soon-to-be-released comeback album, Circuit Boredom, in two weeks.
I’m so stoked to be back. Just seeing all these fans show up, singing along, and requesting songs, that joy makes it all worth it.
The longer-than-expected layoff led to some uncertainty as far as a presentation schedule for the new music goes, but for now, Kweller is content just to be on the road again connecting with fans.
In February, his latest single, Heart Attack Kid, was released and it will likely be the first of three new songs to drop before the new album officially arrives.
Kweller recently also got the rights back to old material from ATO, so in addition to making new music (an album after Circuit Boredom is already in the works), some reissues may be on the way as well.
But after all that has transpired in the last few years, Kweller returns to the stage and studio with a newfound understanding and appreciation of the fragility of life and the true passion he has as a music maker.
“I’m so stoked to be back,” he said. “Just seeing all these fans show up, singing along, and requesting songs, that joy makes it all worth it. And I do know that it’s such an important part of my life. I always want to make the best music I can make. I just want to make sure that I can master that balance between home and away.”
When: 7:30 p.m. April 22
Where: The Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., downtown