Ben Kweller Freaks Out

Former Radish prodigy ripens

If singer-songwriter Ben Kweller were not on a tour bus on the way to a show in Rochester, New York, preparing to sing songs from his full-length debut Sha Sha, you might find him out fishing or camping -- interests he might parlay into a career as a park ranger. Or he might be scuba diving instructor. The problem with his non-musical interests is, he explains, "none of them are money making."

Still if he had his choice he'd open Benny's Baseball Card Shop. "I think that would be cool," he says. Among his prize possessions, a 1959 Mickey Mantle card. "I'm totally fanatical about keeping it safe and in great condition, but when I was young I just trashed them. Now I treat them like little gems. If it's collectible, I'll do it. We were helping my grandparents clean up their house and in the attic we found a box of old dolls. I figure one day I'll go to an antique road show and check those out. I love anything like that -- old things, records, a little of everything."

An appreciation of old and new and a willingness to include "a little of everything" not only describes Kweller's ideal baseball card/antique shop but the sensibility that informs Sha Sha. Classic pop, power pop, alt-pop, indie-pop and anti-folk are all at home on the album. The title track, "Sha Sha (How It Should Be)," gives safe haven to both a Brill building pop sound -- replete with "sha shas" and "sha doos" -- and canned drum beats, feedback, echoes and a Planet of the Apes reference. "I'm all about juxtaposition, skulls and strawberries," Kweller says. "I'm totally drawn to that -- I wanted to make a classic sounding album but at the same time put my modern perspective on it."

That perspective is more modern than you might assume for an artist who's been in the music business half his life. Kweller is just twenty years old. He wrote his first song at age eight, formed his first band at age nine and signed his first record deal with his band, the ill-fated post-grunge outfit Radish, at age fourteen and faced the possibility of a wrecked career at age seventeen.

While business affairs and the music industry created plenty of unusual situations for a kid, Kweller's prodigious musical abilities never gave him pause. "It definitely came easy to me but I never really thought much of it," he says. "I remember my mom's friends being over and drinking Bloody Marys and saying, 'Ben, play us a song,' and I'd come into the living room and play a song and afterwards run out and go climb up a tree and play Rambo. I still led a really normal life playing in creeks and GI Joes and stuff."

Born and raised in Greenville, Texas, just outside of Dallas, Kweller was raised by "total hippies" who reared him on the music they grew up listening to. "My parents were confident that music therapy is the real deal and you should play the Beatles for a newborn," Kweller says. "My father also taught me how to play drums when I was really little. He would play guitar while I would play drums and we had a little repertoire of early Beatles songs, "No Reply" and "She Loves You," and Hendrix's "Little Wing" and "Bus Stop" by the Hollies."

Barely out of first grade, Kweller was introduced to the piano and the inimitable "Heart and Soul," "like every American kid," he says singing the melody. But this is where Kweller's story departs from every American kid and becomes distinctly his own. "I saw the pattern of ['Heart and Soul']," he explains "and thought to myself, 'OK, if the pattern is 1-2-3-4, what if I go 1-3-2-4?' I just sort of reversed some of the chords and it's a completely different song. That's how I wrote some of my first songs, by just reversing the patterns of 'Heart and Soul.' And I'd sing melodies and make up words about love and girls and was like eight-years-old and knew nothing about love and girls but that's what the Beatles and Beach Boys sang about so that's what I sang about."

Radish became the booty prize of a major-label bidding war and finally settled on Mercury Records, which released Restraining Bolt, their major-label debut, in 1997. Ben was fifteen. The band was marketed as the American Silverchair -- the kid brothers, if not quite the offspring of the grunge movement. The group would disband two years later after a U.K. Top Forty hit, late night talk show appearances and a major New Yorker profile that exposed more about the machinery of the music business than it did about Kweller. It was a fitting experience considering the music business worked harder to create more Kweller-hype than it did to promote and release his music. Kweller's youth was the bread and butter, overshadowing his personality and talent.

"The first time the whole age thing really bothered me was when I was backstage at Conan O'Brien," Kweller says. "I remember sitting back there thinking, 'This is so ridiculous. I don't want to go on stage because everyone is going to look at me and think that it's this young kid novelty thing,' and I knew I wanted to have a career five or six years from then so that really freaked me out."

For an artist who has been defined and discussed almost entirely in terms of his age, it's no wonder Sha Sha is both a youthful record -- from the simple buoyancy of the title to those infantile influences that shaped the sound -- and a record about youth, more specifically Kweller's coming of age. Written before and after the breakup of Radish when Kweller left his band and his hometown and headed north, eventually settling in Brooklyn, New York, Sha Sha chronicles his independence personally and professionally.

"I moved from Texas and lived in Connecticut for a few months and would go into New York every week and have meetings with the head A&R guy," he says. "And without saying it, he knew, since I didn't sound like Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit or Korn, I wasn't going to be making an album any time soon. But at the same time I had just started playing shows. I decided to not have a band name and just be Ben Kweller, 'cause my music's kind of straightforward, and my personality's that way. So I have no excuses and just have to make it work for myself."

He did. Kweller recorded an EP, Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller, on his own and the record ended up in the hands of singer-songwriter and veteran of record label capriciousness, Juliana Hatfield, who in turn gave it to ex-Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, who called Kweller. "That was the first big accomplishment after moving to New York," Kweller says. "That right there meant more to me than any record deal or any praise from some bigwig at a big record company, 'cause that's the real shit and Evan was such a hero of mine growing up and to be accepted -- that was the ultimate platinum album. So I called him back and we became good friends and started playing shows and hopped in my Volvo and put two acoustic guitars in my trunk and drive around the East Coast and I'd open up for him."

Kweller signed to Dave Matthews' record label, ATO, a few months later. With Radish officially split, Kweller left the grunge format behind and developed piano driven songs. The result is a variety of tracks that allow for more nuance of emotion, capturing both the loneliness and freedom of early adulthood, not to mention Kweller's penchant for the old fashioned.

A bouncy acoustic guitar and saloon-style piano on "Family Tree," is the salve in a song about moving away from family and friends, and Kweller's realization that his record company had lost interest in him. On "Falling," percussion, violins and cello support the piano as Kweller wistfully sings the opening lyric, "Wind is cold alright back in Dallas/The neon light from the building lets you know you're home."

"Whenever I sing that," Kweller says, "I always think -- I'm picturing right now -- when I still lived in Texas. And I'm on an airplane and I'd be on tour or something somewhere flying back home and you're about to land in the airport and you see the Dallas skyline at nighttime and see the Big Green, this big building with green neon lights running up and down. And you know you're going back to your parents house and it's a good feeling."

And on one of the album's best tracks, the melancholic ballad "In Other Words," the piano does a 180-degree turn, and the simple melody is sped up into a barrage of Jerry Lee Lewis-styled piano attack backed by pedal steel guitar and banjo and ending the song on Kweller's triumphant repetition of "Yeah yeah yeah yeah." Kweller says the song "popped out all at once" and he's still searching for the meaning of the verses but recognizes that the song might hold the key to the rest of his work. If there's a common theme that runs through Sha Sha uniting the strawberries and skulls, it's Kweller's hopeful streak.

"It's parallel to my whole outlook on life, me just saying, 'OK, today was a fucked up day and I'm really depressed,'" he says. "But when the song starts speeding up, that's tomorrow and the light at the end of the tunnel. So you gotta just stand up and just be strong."