Ben Weaver: If I'm playing somewhere, I'm riding my bike there

Categories: Q&A
Photo by Jonathan Levitt

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.

See Also: How Paul Doffing toured his music around the U.S. -- on his bike

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.

Why ride?

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.

Photo by Ben Weaver

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.

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