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Ben There, Done That

A Major-Label Casualty by 18, Former Teen-Grunge Poster Boy Ben Kweller is Back

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/4/2002

Ben Kweller

It is a cold, windy November afternoon in downtown St. Louis. A young kid with shaggy hair wanders into a convenience store and tries to purchase a soft pack of Parliament Lights. The clerk cards him. As the kid reaches for his ID (he's actually 21, but doesn't look a day over 15), a man in line behind him says, "Hey, Ben. I'm coming to your show tonight."

The kid is amazed. "Somebody in the fucking store just recognized me," he whispers excitedly into his cell phone moments later. "Isn't that crazy? Weird shit like that has been happening--" Then, catching himself, Ben Kweller, takes a drag from his cigarette and rearranges his voice into subdued, indie-rock insouciance. "Which is pretty cool, I guess. It makes you feel like you're connecting with people."

Kweller can't curb his enthusiasm for very long. He's just come off a six-show stint opening for the Strokes and is currently headlining his own mini-tour, snaking his way from the Midwest back to New York. Things are going pretty well. "Actually, it's been fucking amazing," he admits.

Having recently opened up for Jeff Tweedy, Evan Dando, and Dave Matthews, Kweller is used to playing second fiddle to more established names. But with his first major-label solo album, Sha Sha (on Matthews' boutique label ATO Records), earning both critical and word-of-mouth buzz, the singer/songwriter is developing a taste for his own rising star. "I get off the bus and there's a line of kids outside the club, and when I walk by they actually call out my name," he says. "I had no idea. I figure they're all Strokes fans, and people are like, 'BK! BK!' Asking me to be in photos. The stuff that fans do, you know?"

Kweller sounds almost awed by his nascent success. Without missing a beat, he's off on a new gush, this time about his tour mates. "And the Strokes guys are amazing to hang with. The best part of the tour was watching them play every night. They have so much passion when they play, it's incredible."

From someone else, such sunny enthusiasm might be hard to handle, or come off as disingenuous, but Kweller sounds as refreshingly genuine and infectious as the folk-tinged ballads and fuzz-pop anthems on his album. He's clearly having a lot of fun. And why shouldn't he? A young kid from Greenville, Texas, a sleepy hamlet about 45 minutes northeast of Dallas, barely a year in the big city, suddenly hailed a power-pop wunderkind--you'd be grinning, too. The odd thing is that this isn't the first time Kweller has been anointed rock 'n' roll wonder boy. That book was written years ago.

Precocious child of Beatles fans composes pop songs on the living room upright before his baby teeth have dropped, and makes his mother's cheeks burn with pride when her kid's songwriting is recognized by Billboard--all before he hits the big one-oh. At the tender age of 12, he discovers the importance of being angry, spends his allowance on Nirvana records, and forms a "punk rock" band. Because he's still a growing boy, our little punker names his trio after a nutritious vegetable. Against all odds, Radish survives the harrowing voice-changing years, becomes a fixture in the Dallas rock scene, and, in the sign-sign-sign '90s, spawns a major-label bidding war. (Our hero is now 15, but still pretty cute.) Convinced they've purchased the next Silverchair, winning bidder Mercury dispatches the Radish boys on a world tour. Europe. The Reading Festival. Partying with Mike D. Rolling Stone crowns the adorable rocker the next Kurt Cobain; even the New Yorker does a profile. Oh, yeah, somewhere along the way Radish records an album--which brings us to the dreaded, predictable turning point: the evil corporate nimrods who run the label (i.e., adults) ruin everything by insisting on a slick, post-grunge sound. Consequently, Radish's debut album, 1997's Restraining Bolt, tanks. People yawn. Critics sneer.

All is lost . . . but, in an oddly redemptive denouement, our hero finishes high school and moves to Gotham, where he ditches the band, sequesters himself in a picturesque south Brooklyn brownstone, listens to a whole lot of Carole King records, and dreams of returning to the stage.

Don't call it a comeback; he hasn't even finished coming of age. Older, wiser, but not old (in fact, still a teenager--and still cute), Kweller settled into his Smith Street apartment in 1999 and recorded a bunch of new songs, compositions that reflected both a broadening of his musical influences and a return to his Beach Boys-and-Beatles childhood--think Everclear to Evan Dando. In fact, it was a phone call from the former Lemonhead that convinced Kweller he was onto something good.

"I had just made this album called Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller on my computer, and it's being passed around," he says. "I get this random phone call from Evan Dando, and he's like, 'Hey, I just got a copy of your album and I can't stop playing it. I love it. Give me a call and let's hang out.'" Kweller pauses for emphasis. "I was like: Oh. My. God. You know? I wasn't signed. I had just moved to New York. I was intimidated by the city, I didn't know which direction I was headed. To get that call from him meant more to me than anything."

Buoyed by the vote of confidence from one of his rock 'n' roll heroes, Kweller started playing shows in the New York region, sometimes solo, other times accompanying Dando, building a buzz and earning positive comparisons to Beck, Weezer, Ben Folds, and that other wunderkind and Dandophile, Ben Lee. In 2001, Kweller signed to ATO; Sha Sha was released early this year.

While Ben Lee may have peaked at pre-teen punk, Kweller's musical output appears to be in its first real flowering. Sha Sha is as engaging and satisfying a power-pop record as they come, combining catchy punk-pop anthems, old-school piano pop, and brittle ballads worthy of Alex Chilton. Kweller's lyrics are often throwaway bits of junk-culture whimsy, but he also has the gift of artfully conveying genuine emotion without being saccharine or sentimental. This talent is particularly evident in the prettier songs, such as "Lizzy" and "Falling." All in all, it's an auspicious start for what should hopefully be a very long career, so long as Kweller doesn't fall victim to the substance-abusing shenanigans that have plagued his idol (Dando once bad-mouthed marijuana because "the seeds get stuck in the syringe"). By all accounts, Kweller is as clean as his melodies. Which is a good thing.

So, if you like young boys, big hooks and power chords, check out Ben Kweller, all grown up, or getting there. You'll walk away with his songs stuck in your head, as if you've heard them a million times. And that's also a good thing, too.

Ben Kweller plays Fletcher's Dec. 4 with Brenden Benson and the Wellfed Boys. Call (410) 481-7328 or visit www.930.com.

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