Gentle Ben

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

Ben Kweller stares at the row of posters taped along a wall inside Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater, six or seven of the same make and model: an oversize reproduction of the cover of his new album, Sha Sha, a close-up of his face with a red toothbrush jammed in his mouth. As he looks at the posters, his mouth screws up into sort of a concerned frown, and he steps closer to them, touching the face on the posters. His face.

He's set to play here tonight, opening for Dashboard Confessional and its Vagrant Records labelmates, The Anniversary. Behind him, outside the Ridglea's double doors, there are 100 or so fans crowded under the theater's marquee, letting out Total Request Live whoops and hollers at the slightest sign the doors are opening. In fact, the Ridglea staff takes great pleasure in this, flicking the lights on and off, teasing them a little bit. Behind all of those fans, there are at least 1,000 more standing in a line that wraps around the building and then some, a moat filled with teenage hormones and Gap-commercial outerwear. Some of them, the ones at the front of the line, have been milling around outside since 5 p.m. It's almost 7:30 now, and the doors will open soon. They hope.

Kweller's still examining the posters -- his posters. He was excited at first, appreciating the assistance from his label (ATO Records, a subsidiary of BMG), the kind of support he hasn't had in a while. But he's nervous, too, because this is the first thing the sellout crowd will see when they walk into the theater: his face, staring at them, promising them something, maybe. That's what he thinks, and that's what the frown is saying. I'm not even the headliner, he protests, pointing out that there isn't a similar row of Dashboard Confessional or The Anniversary posters. It puts too many expectations on him.

Ben Kweller: A would-be '90s teen sensation with the band Radish.
Ben Kweller: A would-be '90s teen sensation with the band Radish.
Ben Kweller: Still only 20, but now a fully mature songwriter.
Ben Kweller: Still only 20, but now a fully mature songwriter.

"I was in a band before with expectations," he says quietly.

The band Kweller is talking about is Radish, the trio he formed when he was just a kid in Greenville, 45 minutes northeast of Dallas. As he says now, Radish was just "my high school punk band," and he never expected much to come from it. He was 15 years old when Mercury Records released Radish's major-label debut, Restraining Bolt, in April 1997, the first installment of a reported three-record, $2 million deal. Writers began comparing him to one of his heroes, Kurt Cobain, in part, no doubt, because Nirvana's former manager, Danny Goldberg, was the man who signed Radish to Mercury, where he was president at the time. The New Yorker made Kweller and his burgeoning career the subject of a 10-page feature, rare for a rock band, even rarer for a rock band very few people had heard of, much less heard. The songs on Restraining Bolt were made irrelevant by the 15-year-old who wrote them and the journalists and publicists who couldn't get over that fact.

Five years later, Kweller has a record in his hands, Sha Sha, which justifies some of the praise that buried him back then. Released on March 5, Sha Sha finds Kweller, now 20, growing into the songwriter he's always tried to be, shaking free from the grip of influence. While he's not quite an adult yet, his songs are mature beyond their years, Kweller singing love songs because he means it, not just because the Beatles used to. Rock-solid rock-pop ("No Reason" and "Wasted & Ready") makes time with piano-bar ballads ("In Other Words") and back-porch breakdowns ("In Other Words" again, the last banjo-fueled minute, anyway). Love letters to his girlfriend (the so-low acoustic "Lizzy") share space with park-bench philosophy ("How It Should Be [Sha Sha]," with its "Nothing isn't nothing/Nothing's something that's important to me" lyrics).

Sha Sha is a versatile, vibrant collection, but no, it's not an album that will make him famous -- although, hey, why not? Of course, that's not what Kweller was after when he was 15, and it's not what he wants now. He wants to be a musician, not a celebrity.

"There were times during Radish that it was like, 'Man, this is so not right,'" Kweller says. Radish quietly dissolved a few years ago, though drummer John Kent, who was in the band with Kweller from the beginning, plays on Sha Sha. "Because I was having articles written about me by people that didn't even know me or know my band. And the first thing they heard about my band was that" -- his voice turns into a headline -- "'Danny Goldberg signs teen band Radish.' For all this money -- and it really wasn't a ton of money." He laughs. "It was just all this shit. I remember sitting backstage before we did [Late Night With] Conan O'Brien, which was, like, the day the album came out, and I was like, 'Man, I'm not doing it. There's no way I'm going out there.'

"At the time, Silverchair had been out for a while, and I was just starting to see their whole backlash, because they were sort of looked at as a novelty thing," he continues. "I was like, 'Man, I wanna have a career 10 years from now. I want to be taken seriously.' I just knew that doing the whole 'teen' angle wasn't the way to do it." He pauses, then delivers his real point. "At the same time, I would never give up any of that experience, because Radish is such a little speck in the music time line. It doesn't mean anything to anyone."

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 Out from 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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