Ben Kweller Freaks Out – Rolling Stone
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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.”

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