Singer-songwriter Ben Weaver has been compared to Greg Brown, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen, but over seven albums he's sustained an independent streak that makes his music starkly singular. Mirepoix and Smoke, his second album for Chicago's Bloodshot Records, released in 2010, framed a rich lyrical tapestry in hauntingly sparse arrangements, and the new songs he has introduced in the years since delve further into the darkness. The album drew praise from around the world, establishing Weaver a fan base in Europe and an odd nod on Southwire's awesome first album earlier this year.
Weaver recently recorded his eighth album in a barn with Mike Lewis (Fat Kid Wednesdays, Happy Apple). During the long interim between albums, Weaver has begun taking regional bicycle tours, carrying instruments and camping gear. Recently, Gimme Noise offered Weaver a cold drink and asked a few questions about touring on bicycles and recording in a barn.
Gimme Noise: What have you been riding on tour?
Ben Weaver: This last tour I rode my main get-around bike. It's a Surly Long-haul trucker. I have two panniers that I put on it. I stuck my banjo in one of them and I borrowed a guitar at each show because back then I only had old Gibsons and I wasn't willing to strap one of them on the bike. I have since figured out a way, a new guitar that I've put a pickup on that I can strap on the bike and ride double guns or whatever. That banjo is a boat anchor. This tour was probably a smooth ride compared to all of the flights and the trips in the back seat of a car.
All I had to do was tune it up. It's a touring bike more than a town-y bike, and my day-to-day average on it is already 30 miles or so. I've gotten to where I only drive the car in the winter when it's super cold and I have to get my son to school. On the trip I brought my tent and camping stuff because I wasn't sure if I was going to stay with people. I only took one picture on the tour. I have never been a documenting sort of a person, but I'm trying to get better about that.
Because I love my bicycle. I'm still a kid when it comes to that. When I was in eighth grade, me and my friends used to have hardtail mountain bikes and we would sneak out of the house and ride up to this doughnut shop in the middle of the night. It was all about where we could go.
One night my friend's dad found we'd snuck out, and he called my mom. So she was waiting when I came home at dawn. I tried to convince her I had just gotten up early and gone for a morning ride, and she wasn't buying that. So they locked my bike up in the shed, and I went out to the shed with a hacksaw and cut through the chain. It's a metaphor for my life. That's the bicycle to me. I've always put myself into places where I can be free, breathe, and feel whatever I need at that moment. For me, the bicycle is -- besides making art -- a place where I can get that. I never get sick of it. My plan is to ride everywhere. If I'm playing there, I'm riding there.
If you're playing a show in Eau Claire, why can't you play a show in Menomonie the next day? Or a better example being if you play in Rochester, why can't you then play in Winona? Most people have this notion that if you're really big it's the draw. I can understand that if you're selling 5,000 tickets. But for someone like me, I don't have to go so far between shows. I can be more regional and more localized.
And if you're going to play in Rochester, and then in Winona the next night, you're going to have so much time to kill if you're in a van. You're not going to plan that -- no band wants to have that kind of time. What I've hated about music is that while I love playing it, and being out on tour and meeting people who share their stories and experiences, I don't like being away from my family, staying in a lousy hotel, making no money, getting fat, feeling unhealthy.
Getting on the bike allows me to eliminate all of that, except for the being away from the family part. I have some long-term plans in mind of how to get around that, too.
If you say I'm going to walk everywhere from now on, you're going to stop going to your friend's house in White Bear Lake every Thursday to play cards. Pretty soon your friends are going to start coming to the bar down the street from your house to play cards. It will start coming to you. That's my experience -- good things have come to me through bicycles. It isn't just a mode of transportation.
So your fans will have to come here to the upper Midwest?
I don't think I have very many fans anywhere. Except in Europe.
Is your next album going to be the "bicycle album," as Mirepoix and Smoke was your "food album"?
I started cooking because I was burned out on music, but eventually I realized I didn't want to run a restaurant. I don't want to go to the same place every day. I don't want to work for anybody anymore. And I couldn't stop writing music -- the songs didn't go away. I thought I could run away from music, but I found out what everyone who tries to run away from music finds out, which is that the songs follow you, like rattling bones knocking on your door in the middle of the night, and you've got to face them. So then I wrote Mirepoix and Smoke.
I smashed a guitar -- the only time I've ever done that -- writing that record. It was the hardest thing for me to write. The songs would not come. I wrote the worst songs for a year and a half, and I started to think I couldn't write anymore. Then I wrote "Rooster's Wife" and felt like I was there.
I had a little bookshelf in my room and I tried something I've never done before. I'm going to take one inspiring word from each book on my shelf and write from there. I did that and I got a little ways into the song and it started the fire burning.
And then I tried to go do things the way I always had. Go out on tour, play shows, make no money, be homesick and bored. And lonely. I came home form those tours and I knew that something had to change, but I didn't know what. I changed management and booking agents. I started handling little things myself.
I thought that since I always ride my bike everywhere, why don't I do that to get to shows. I had never done any long-distance bicycle touring, but that was a goal, so these things came together. It's been a slow progression. Being a dad, I can't just flip the switch and do whatever I want to do.
Has it helped you enjoy touring again?
I have a strong desire to have the music not just be about me. It's all about come to the show, buy the band's record, listen to the band's new songs, like the new band, spread the word about the new band, help the new band. I'm not Wilco, but I want to use my music to push the things I believe in. I won't get 5,000 people in a stadium and then tell them a bunch of stuff they should do and expect they're actually going to go and do it. Or get a lot of people to donate time to a cause. But I can do really small things and build up.
Nature is a huge part of my life, so I'd love to have something like a Greenway cleanup or a riverfront cleanup connected to the show. Break down the walls a little bit. My life's always been so many interests and so many things, and as I'm getting older I see them converging.
I would love to ride into towns and go to high schools and do a poetry or songwriting workshop with some kids, even if it's just three of them, before I do my sound check. Just to show them how rad it is. I'm happy, and I'm riding my bike around playing music -- you can do that. No one says you can't.
How did the bicycle tour lead you to record your next album in a barn?
I recorded the new album in a day and a half, me and Mike Lewis. He plays bass and sax. I was going to record it in Chicago with the same guy who recorded my last two records, but then our baby was born four weeks early.
I was supposed to be recording my new album, but it was for the best. I had seen this barn on my bike tour. [A friend's] dad had been a dairy farmer for Organic Valley, but he had just retired and they'd cleared out the top of the hay barn. When I went up there I knew it was where I would record someday.
So much of the new album is about animals, and their sounds and songs. It came to me in a dream. I don't know if this will make sense to anyone. Back in the days of MTV when everyone made videos, they'd show literal interpretations of the songs. Say the song was about a diner, the video would show the band in a diner. They'd be dressed as cooks and waiters. In my dream I was asking myself, why didn't they just record the song in the diner. Why make a video and dress up and pretend?
If my songs are all about this natural stuff, why go into a studio where you can't even hear the heat turning on because it's insulated so well. I want to go somewhere where the flaws are right there. Where life is happening around us and you can hear it. Like when you listen to the old Lomax recordings because you can hear the porch swing, you can hear the door open, you can hear them set the glass down. I wanted that stuff in my record because it's in my songs.
Where are you riding next?
I'm riding to Hayward in a week or so. I don't know if I'll tour entirely on a bicycle. I have been thinking about combining it with trains. I'm a very dramatic, all-or-nothing sort of person, so I can say some pretty ridiculous stuff.
You ever seen that documentary, Buck, about the horse guy? It's about the guy who inspired the whole "horse whisperer" thing, the whole nontraditional way of being around animals. He tells a story of growing up in Texas, around horses and cowboys and all. He went to see this guy he'd heard about, supposed to be like a shaman with horses.
The guy stepped into the ring with this wild colt, and had it doing stuff in minutes that he'd never seen anyone do with an animal in a whole day of working. He said, "When I saw that guy walk around that horse, I knew that whatever he was doing, that was what I was going to do with my life." I've spent my whole life chasing that, trying to figure out what that was.
For me, it's been music. I was in second grade when I first heard the Descendents' Liveage! at First Avenue in a skate video and I begged my mom to buy it for me. Which she did, which is a crazy thing to buy for a second-grader. Later it was Leonard Cohen; I remember hearing "Everybody Knows" in a Christian Slater movie [Pump Up the Volume]. But it wasn't in the credits, and on the soundtrack Concrete Blonde covers it. I remember going to Best Buy trying to figure out who sang that song, and when I finally did I heard "Suzanne" and all those songs. It was the same thing, whatever it was I knew it was what I wanted to do.
Have you approached bicycle companies about sponsoring a tour?
I don't want to put my energy in that direction. I'd rather spend my time find a way I could collaborate with a school.
Last summer I led these canoe trips working for a nonprofit, where we'd take city kids out on the river. Sometimes it felt like maybe only 10 percent or less were really moved by it. So I feel like to go into a school and make an impression, that's something I don't want to try to do. I don't think that's possible.
When I was a kid me and my friends, we'd ride our bikes everywhere. We'd skip out of lunch and we'd sit under some stairs. We had this thing about finding the perfect apple, and so we'd sit there and eat our apples and write stuff on the wall underneath those stairs. I want to find those kids, you know. There's brilliant kids in our schools who are having to deal with the mundane, bureaucratic stuff. Some of them will get through and they'll be the next Mike Lewises.
Here's how it's like music. When you're young you go and see somebody who you really love, and you see them vulnerable, putting themselves out there on the edge of the precipice, and you don't feel as lonely. You see that the edge is an okay place to go. I feel like we need more of that in this world.
Ben Weaver will pedal to Hayward, Wisconsin, to perform at the Park Theater on Friday, September 13. $10.