Ben Kweller is 20 years old, looks about 10, and made his major-label debut at 15 in a baby grunge trio called Radish that was the subject of a substantial New Yorker profile and the kind of industrial hype that practically yells “kick me”; the critical backlash set in before anyone had even heard their record, which relatively few people ever did. (I never did, anyway.) Now Ben is back as a solo artist, with a new album titled Sha Sha (ATO), and he‘s wiser and older but still younger than you.
I first met Kweller last fall, when he was even younger. It was a rare rainy night in Seattle, and he was a late addition to a bill I was on, a busy little dude with a swingin’-‘60s bowl haircut, an acoustic guitar, and a box or two of his recent EP Phone Home. The club was configured that night for folk music, with tables and candles, but BK, as he sometimes is informally known, set himself spinning like a top. He manifested the real rock spirit, evinced that special helplessness reserved for those who have found their calling: There were moments when his guitar seemed to be playing him. By the end of his set, I was a true, stupid fan.
Last month, just after the release of the most excellent Sha Sha, Kweller came to L.A., on tour with emo darling Dashboard Confessional, an act with whom he has to my ears nothing in common, though Kweller goes down well with the Dashboard crowd; they are leaving him mash notes in his online message box. He has also opened shows for his pal Evan Dando and Jeff Tweedy and Eels. At the House of Blues, Kweller, who switched from acoustic to electric guitar to piano, played with a band. They were good but not too good — kind of crappy, kind of great.
In pop years, 20 is young, but not young as all that. Kweller and Alicia Keys are the same age. Pete Townshend was 20 when The Who recorded “My Generation”; Redd Kross were barely into puberty when they made their first record; and Jeremy Gelbwaks was drumming in the Partridge Family at the age of 8, until he was replaced by Brian Foster. Still, it’s impossible to be 15 on a major label without someone — someone older — making a deal out of it, a show-business freak show. “I always knew it was a little weird that I was 15,” says Kweller, who does not brake for periods when he speaks, “and they were trying to make it into such a story, and I knew that I wanted to have a career in music and that I wanted to be doing it a long time from 15, and I remember the night before we were supposed to go and do Conan O‘Brien, it was the same day our record came out and I was backstage thinking, No, I don’t want to go out there, because I‘m 15, people are gonna see me and think, Okay, it’s like this whole teen thing, and I wanted to be taken seriously, and no one takes a 15-year-old seriously, and that‘s fine, you know, I’ll just keep playing in clubs, let me grow up a bit.” Which he did.
Kweller is a nice Jewish boy from the small Dallas satellite of Greenville, Texas; while not overtly Texan (no twang, no boots, no bouffant, Jewish), he might not be out of place in a Richard Linklater film. He has an older sister in real estate and a younger sister in cheerleading, and he loves his parents, who are “really cool and total hippies,” and unlike his first rock hero Kurt Cobain he “basically had a great childhood, trees to climb in, nice neighborhood,” though “In high school, I was, you know, considered like the greasy-haired hippie kid, and the soccer kids wanted to kick my ass.” Damn soccer kids!
His father was not only a total hippie (a total hippie doctor, to be precise) but a drummer, “so we always had a drum set in the living room, and amplifiers; he taught me how to play drums just as soon as I could sit up and hold the sticks.” (He offers a brief lesson at this point in the rudiments of timekeeping.) “We had quite a little repertoire. All British Invasion stuff.” He got his first guitar at 10. He heard Nirvana, as did so many. He started a band; he was 12 or 13 (he isn‘t good with dates). Radish played around Dallas, sold a mess of their self-produced album, Dizzy, and shortly thereafter came to the attention of. “Every kid had a garage band,” says Kweller, “except mine got signed.” They were bruited as the baby Nirvana, possibly not the band’s idea. “I was just so oblivious to everything that was going on and sort of naive, but at the same time having the time of my life. I just wanted to play music, and I was doing it with great friends.”
The rest of the world did not care, particularly. BK graduated high school and the band broke up and he moved to Connecticut to be with his girlfriend and they moved down to Brooklyn. “And being all alone with my acoustic guitar, that right there was the beginning of whatever I am now. I really built this from scratch on my own, I wasn‘t swept up by big hungry label people, I had to book shows and work it and roll around in my Volvo with the guitar in the trunk and meet people.” Which he did, and one thing led to another and now he’s got his first solo album out on a label founded by Dave Matthews (for whom he‘ll open several shows this month), and though it is distributed by the megacorporate BMG, it feels like an indie to Ben, which is good.
Sha Sha is aptly titled. Here are some sample lyrics, not all from the same song:
Sha Sha. Sha doo.
Ooh ooh ooh ooh oooh ah ah ah
Do do do do
Ba ba ba ba ba.
There are also lyrics with actual dictionary words, but as in most pop songs their meaning comes in spurts, half-heard and shaped largely by the music. “Butterflies are passive-aggressive,” sings BK, “and put their problems on the shelfBut they’re so beautiful.” I don‘t know what that means, if it means anything, but it scans well and is set to a lovely melody and delivered with unshowy conviction, and I can’t get it out of my head.
Kweller is not out to conquer the world, or to remake music from the ground up, or to make the record Brian Wilson almost did but couldn‘t. He just wants to make you feel like he feels. There are bits of things you already know: the loud-soft dynamic, low-string open chords and “Louie Louie” riffing that are Nirvana’s gift to the ages, mixed with classic ‘70s Cal-rock harmonies, some elementary Elton, some of the earnest yearning one hears in the voice of Alex Chilton. (Direct references to the Beatles are surprisingly few.) People who have listened to more Ben Folds than I have compare him to Ben Folds, and people who have listened to more Weezer than I have compare him to Weezer, but I won’t. His songs, though they take some interesting sudden turns, don‘t choke on cleverness; the arrangements are not cluttered with obvious marks of genius. It all comes down to the “Let’s go!” spirit, which he has in spades. Sha Sha is a pretty happy record, even when it pretends, temporarily, to be sad. But BK is a pretty happy guy.
“Everything in my life has pretty much happened five years ahead of most people, and I had so many experiences from the time I was 15 to now,” says Kweller, “and I‘ve had so much time to write, and write bad songs and good songs — that’s the big thing, I‘ve had a lot of time to practice writing, and so now I feel that when I go onstage I’m truly happy with every word I‘m saying and every chord I’m playing and I feel like it really represents me completely.” Life for BK “is just one big constant evolution.” The age he is now is “a good age to be. It‘s young,” he says, “but it’s older than 15.”