Gentle Ben

Five years after his teen band was buried by hype, Ben Kweller is taking off on his own

Not that it ever had much of a chance to make a difference. Radish recorded a follow-up to Restraining Bolt-- a disc, as it turns out, also called Sha Sha-- an album that took a major step away from such youthful novelty acts as Silverchair and Hanson, and toward the career Kweller wanted to have. He began writing songs on piano instead of guitar, retreating to the instrument he had been playing since he was too young to spell it, and the tunes that came out reflected the switch. Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama with Breeders and Pavement producer Bryce Goggin, it was an eclectic, electric set of songs, "Queen-style piano ballads and fucking punk rock" (the twin poles of his personality) and everything in between. It was an album that lived up to the hyperbole that advanced Restraining Bolt, or at least came much closer to meeting the job description.

That record never came out, though some of the tracks appear on the new version of Sha Sha, as well as on Phone Home, the five-song EP ATO released late last year to get the word out about the new album. The disc should have hit stores in March 1999, but Mercury had other things to worry about: The label, along with a handful of others, was in the process of being folded into the Universal Music Group; Mercury was eventually dissolved into UMG's new Island Def Jam Music Group. Radish's sophomore disc dropped off the release schedule and was more or less forgotten. The only person who seemed to care about the record was the kid who made it.

By then, Kweller had moved from Greenville to Connecticut to be with his girlfriend, Liz. After a few months, Kweller tired of making the constant commute to NYC to pester his bosses at the label to do something: Put out the record, release him from his contract, whatever. So he and Liz moved to Brooklyn; if he had to keep bothering the suits at Island Def Jam, at least he'd save the gas money. It opened his eyes -- not just to the untenable situation at the label, but to all the other possibilities that were available. His career wasn't at a dead end, he realized. He just hadn't opened up his map yet.

"The way it was, I was living in Texas, and I was on this big major label," Kweller explains. "And, like, nothing was happening. And it was so weird, because I couldn't see who I was talking to on the phone. You know? So I wanted to move to New York to just make shit happen and be in their face every day. So, like, moving to New York, I was in their face every day, but then I realized how lame they were." He laughs. "There was just no hope for me at a label like that, because they were trying to find Britney Spears. And so what I did was, I just started playing shows. I was like, 'Okay, fuck it. Rock Band 101. I don't have a band. I just have my acoustic guitar, so I'm just going to make the most of it and start booking shows.'"

Making the most of it also included buying a recording program for his computer and turning his house into a mini-studio; if Island Def Jam wasn't going to put out his records, then screw them, he'd do it himself. He culled an eight-song disc (Freak Out . . . It's Ben Kweller, released in 2000) from his home recordings, the sessions with Goggin and a few other sources and began selling the disc online and at the shows he was playing, barnstorming tours opening for Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Juliana Hatfield. The self-released album began making the rounds, and so did Kweller, taking endless road trips with nothing but Liz and his acoustic guitar packed into the Volvo, winning new fans wherever they landed, including former Lemonhead Evan Dando, another one of his heroes when he was growing up. Dando got a copy of Freak Outfrom Hatfield and called Kweller, asking if they could hang out the next time he was in New York; they later toured together.

After years of indifference at Mercury and Island Def Jam, Kweller's relationship with ATO began naturally, almost by accident; label co-founder Michael McDonald (no, not that one) was thinking about moving to Brooklyn, and John Moore, booking agent for NYC's Mercury Lounge and Bowery Ballroom, suggested he give Kweller a call. They were already friends by the time Moore slipped McDonald one of Kweller's albums. Island Def Jam had offered Kweller the option of recording for one of its boutique imprints, Lost Highway, home to Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams and Willie Nelson, among others. But he was simply ready to leave, start over. He wanted to work with people who believed in what he was doing. People like McDonald.

"I didn't even wanna continue with those guys, because I'd been holding on for so long," he says. "The passion wasn't there. I fired everyone that was involved with Radish, and was like, from now on, I'm only working with people that have the passion and love what I do. At the end of the day, you want a team. You don't want someone who's working with you who just wants you because they think you're going to be famous or the next big thing."

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