Ben Kweller's had a tough 20 years on this planet: His first band, Radish, a Texas "grunge"-punk trio consisting of him and his high-school buds, landed a major-label deal when he was mere 15, after the kind of major label bidding wars not seen since the post-Nirvana signing frenzies. Radish had less-than-"major" record sales when the bottom dropped out of the "indie rock" market, but they were able to realize their dream of making music and touring--including overseas, where they had a Top-20 hit in England. (As a result, they got to go to the Kerrrang! Awards and hang with Ozzy and Tony Iommi).
Then they recorded an album that never saw the light of day.
Following Radish, Kweller met an East Coast girl and fell in love, and together they moved to New York City. Actually Brooklyn, where he began to write and perform with other artists in the nascent anti-folk movement, such as Moldy Peaches (Kimya Dawson even sings on his new disc, but that's jumping ahead).
After self-releasing a collection of solo tunes in 2000, Kweller's first major-label debut, Sha Sha, is now on the shelves. The disc is on a new Univeral/BMG imprint, ATO. But if you've heard Radish and you're looking for more of the same, forget it: Sha Sha is 11 melodic, unadorned tracks that showcase Kweller's considerable skills as a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Picture Todd Rundgren circa 1970-something. Or, as far as his piano-based compositions, a less grandiose version of another musical Ben: Folds, that is.
Kweller, a kind of goofily charming, upbeat guy who did a solo gig with Evan Dando several months back at the Carrboro ArtsCenter, is one of those musicians who comes across as overwhelmingly, undeniably talented, an artist who's able to put his songs across with a minimum of bells and whistles. He also exuded an un-self-conscious candor and confidence--a likeability and lack of attitude--that made his stuff ring true. After the show, he greeted folks and sold his self-released CD, Freak Out! It's Ben Kweller (featuring his parody of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby," "BK Baby") at an improvised merch table.
A far cry from his upcoming show at The Ritz supporting Chris Carrabba (aka Dashboard Confessional), another singer/songwriter who, like Dando, heard Freak Out! and decided to give him a call.
Luckily for Kweller, he's still in the Brooklyn phone book--although he's starting to get lots of calls from fans who wonder if he can do stuff like fly to Chicago and play their girlfriend's birthday party--which is where Carrabba found his number to invite him to open some gigs for Dashboard Confessional. Once Kweller's CD came out and he assembled a touring lineup, he was asked to do the whole tour; this time, he's bringing his band.
Kweller took time out from the tour--37 gigs in 41 days--to talk to the Indy about music, recording, and what he plans to do when he turns 21 (go to Vegas, take over a table and "live the whole cheeseball experience," he says. On the phone, he's upbeat and enthusiastic. If he has any scars from the whole Radish experience, he's not showing it. His new label, ATO Records, is a subsidiary of RCA (through BMG) and also has David Grey and Chris Whitley. "They're serious when they talk about building careers for artists," he says, acknowledging that artist development--sticking with a musician until they find their following--is almost extinct in the majors.
Is he bitter, looking back on the way Radish played out? Not at all.
"Now that I look back, of course, everything seems so great ... me and two of my best friends from high school spent seven years of our lives together touring around the world and just living the rock 'n' roll dream that every kid wants to do," he says. "We never let any of the pressure get to us at all. As long as I could continue to write songs in my bedroom and play on stage as much as possible, I was psyched, you know? I've never been too flamboyant. I've never been like the rock star 'let's trash the place' kind of guy," he adds, laughing.
Kweller is much more interested in music and recording, as in how to get the sounds on tape in a way that calls to mind his favorite vintage discs. (He explains that, since his parents were "both hippies," he grew up listening to The Beatles and albums like Carole King's Tapestry.) Not surprisingly, Kweller chose to record Sha Sha using, for the most part, studio gear from those eras.
"It's so important," he says of the recording experience. "I just really wanted to make a very dry [non reverby] record with not a lot of effects--really warm and in-your-face. We didn't touch Pro Tools once [laughs]. That was the whole thing, like 'I will not,' and all analog gear. I mean ... listen to 'After the Gold Rush.'
"Our whole philosophy--me and Steven Harris, the producer--going into it, was we really had rules about overdubs. Basically the whole album is us three playing--simultaneously--every song; the background is all live."
There are also more keyboards, and the songs are rendered sparely--no extra fairy dust. It's a simplicity Kweller's no doubt picked up from his past few years on New York's anti-folk scene, where he gigged regularly. Like many transplants, Kweller can't imaginer living anywhere else.
"I love Brooklyn so much. When I moved there, that's all I did [play folk clubs]--The Mercury Lounge, Knitting Factory, The SideWalk Café ... the whole anti-folk [scene] were the first people I that befriended when I moved up there, like the Moldy Peaches," he says.
Listening to Kweller's latest CD and considering his previous incarnation in Radish, it seems like a stretch to hear him come up with the kind of outré 'n' naughty lyrics the Kimya Dawson and Adam Green have become famous for. As a prolific young songwriter, does he have a few Moldy Peaches-style tunes up his sleeve, waiting to be sprung on the world?
"At this point," he says, laughing, "I feel like I have one of every type of song up my sleeve."