At an age when most rockers are just trying to get their careers started, singer/songwriter Ben Kweller is already working on his second musical life.
The subject of a sprawling profile in the New Yorker magazine at age 16 when he led the grunge trio Radish, Kweller has been woodshedding for the past several years, developing a new sound and vision.
“Radish was basically my high school punk band with my two best friends,… only we got to put out a record on a major label,” Kweller said. Now 20 and recording under his own name for the Dave Matthews-founded ATO Records, Kweller has released an album of eclectic, sunny pop songs titled Sha Sha.
And, for those who remember Radish’s Nirvana-inspired hard rock numbers about teen alienation and “how school sucks,” Sha Sha will sha shock. Mixing the piano pop of Ben Folds with the off-kilter, slacker rock of Pavement – a band Kweller said he was turned on to while recording Radish’s never-released second album – songs such as “In Other Words” and “Harriet’s Got a Song” rely more on acoustic guitars, dramatic piano riffs and heart-on-sleeve lyrics than angst and distortion.
“When I was 15, I wanted to sound like Nirvana and Sonic Youth,” said Kweller (“BK” to his pals), calling from a Cleveland tour stop on a stint opening for benefactor Matthews. “Between finishing that first [Radish] album, touring the world and recording the second album, our styles had changed.” During that period, Kweller returned to the piano, an instrument he’d started composing songs on when he was 7. He started writing more autobiographical songs and learned the most important lesson he thinks any songwriter can learn: less is more.
“When you start out, you’re concerned with sounding cool and you try to use cool-sounding metaphors,” he said. “But, with experience, you learn why old men don’t say a lot, they listen more. I’m a big fan of keeping it simple.”
The Greenville, Texas, native grew up in a musical household and was playing the drums and guitar and writing songs by the time he was in first grade. When he was 9, his demo tape won an honorable mention in a Billboard songwriting contest. At 13, already a veteran of three bands (Green Eggs & Ham, Mirage, Foxglove), he formed the power trio Radish.
Hyped as the new Silverchair, Radish signed a contract with Mercury Records and released their grungy major-label debut, Restraining Bolt, in 1997. Two years later, after the record had failed to live up to its hype and the label was not feeling the second album, Radish amicably split.
Kweller moved to New York with his girlfriend and, after having a hit single and playing to tens of thousands in Europe, he started over, throwing his acoustic guitar in the trunk of his gray Volvo and playing small acoustic shows on the East Coast. It was a phone call from a longtime hero that set his second wind in motion.
“Evan Dando was one of my first friends here,” Kweller said of the Lemonheads singer. “We started hanging out, and I’d open up shows for him and it was a huge inspiration. Playing with him I realized that if you believe in what you do, anything can happen.”
Kweller released a home-recorded album, Freak Out, It’s Ben Kweller, in 2000, which he sold at his shows. Soon, likeminded singer/songwriters such as Juliana Hatfield and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy began asking Kweller to open for them. “Suddenly, I’m doing everything I wanted all my life but never could because I wasn’t allowed to get my music out the way I wanted to.” When the artist-friendly ATO label came knocking, Kweller was ready to step into the spotlight again.
Despite his frustration at some of the decisions he said were made for him during the Radish years, Kweller’s songs have a cheery, forthright vibe, even when his heart is being stepped on. In the power-pop rocker “Walk on Me,” one of the first songs he wrote after leaving Texas for New York, his cracked voice pleads, “If I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t walk all over you/ So please don’t walk all over me.”
And, although it sounds like an off-the-bat attempt to disarm critics and comment on the Radish years, Kweller said it was his pal, Joe Butcher, who wrote the album’s opening line. “When I was a movie star, an asteroid hit the earth and prematurely ended my career,” Kweller deadpans over a carnival piano and Beach Boys-like backing harmonies on “How It Should Be (Sha Sha).”
The relentlessly upbeat Kweller admits that the life-affirming, Wilco-ish country tune “Family Tree,” however, does take a few shots at his detractors. “That’s verbatim,” he said of lines such as “though the press might shoot me down I’m still true” and “stick to love songs kid, that’s all you’re knowing,” something he said a boss at his former label told him.
It’s not all bitter pills and broken hearts, though. The album’s first single, the grungy pop poem “Wasted & Ready,” is a mix of bizarre non sequiturs from filmmaker Gregg Araki’s transgressive 1995 movie “Doom Generation” (“sex reminds her of eating spaghetti”) and cautionary tales about altering your mind. “It’s about that movie and the drug culture,” Kweller said. “But it’s also about the negative side of partying and waking up the next day and being bummed out about what you did.”
Whatever happens this time around, Kweller said he’s fine with it. “Ever since I started playing music, I knew this was what I wanted to do. This is the best time because I’m doing exactly what I want.”