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Photo by Alyssa ScheinsonBen Kweller just turned 21, and he still believes that somebody will someday write a story about him that doesn't begin by mentioning his age.
"I really feel like it's slowly dying down, the whole age thing," Kweller says patiently. "I'm getting the feeling that people will soon start to realize, 'Hey, he's in his 20s—maybe we should talk to him about his music.' Know what I mean?"
Yeah, well, maybe tomorrow.
Today, we want to know how Ben Kweller feels to be a refugee from Radish, a band of teenaged punk-pop prodigies who signed a major-label deal, toured the world, and then soured on the whole thing before they'd even gotten over pimples. We want to know how he feels mounting a career comeback at his just-turned-drinking age. We want to know how he feels to be such a cute little rascal!
"It doesn't bother me anymore," Kweller says, unoffended. "When I was 15, it really bothered me. It was a bummer that people focused on our ages instead of our music. But that's the thing with getting older and dealing with it so long. Now I can understand why. It was a freak thing for me to be 15 and in a band signed to a major label and doing a world tour."
Don't forget the major takeout feature in The New Yorker and the backlash from the music critics.
"I haven't," says Kweller, and a smidgen of exasperation has crept into his voice. "I've learned to deal with the press without letting it bother me, too."
And then Ben Kweller smiles—you can hear it from the other end of the phone, which is in Brooklyn, which is where he moved from Texas three years ago, after Radish, just to see what would turn up.
"I've been thinking about all this a lot lately," he says breezily. "I'm coming to realize that I'm pretty good at going with the flow. And I'm coming to be feel really lucky to have that trait. Lots of other people in my shoes probably would have gone crazy by now."
Kweller's serenity might be the most astonishing part of his story, if not for the music he makes on his new major-label debut, Sha Sha. It's really, really good—kind of like early Beck mixed with late Paul Westerberg crossed with a tribute album to Gram Parsons that would fit in nicely on a radio set list of singles by the Strokes, the Hives, the White Stripes, Moldy Peaches and the Yeah Yeah Yeah's. Kinda like that.
Meanwhile, Vice magazine just designated Sha Sha its Worst Album of the Month, describing Kweller as a "baby Ben Folds," criticizing him as "cutesy" and "clever," and pointing out that he's "going on tour with Dave Matthews soon." We can't quibble with the Dave Matthews observation, but otherwise, it seems that Kweller's biggest crimes involve not assuming the angry posture that seems to prevail among the models in Vice's bad-ass ads for high-priced merchandise.
"I came to New York with an acoustic guitar and no band and looking to do something different," says Kweller. "I recorded a CD at home and called it Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller; I booked myself at some shows and sold Freak Outthere. It was all a complete departure from Radish. And that's why I loved it."
Kweller ended up opening for people like Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Evan Dando (The Lemonheads), Juliana Hatfield and the Eels. And he began to get music-business attention again, eventually signing with ATO Records—the otherwise despicable Dave Matthews' label.
And now, although Kweller has a bio that could fill an episode of Behind the Music and a revival that would seem to lead toward an over-the-hill gig at the Grove of Anaheim, he's playing Chain Reaction.
"Awesome," he says when you describe the place as a garage with a great sound system. "It definitely feels like I'm starting over, and that's what I want. Nobody knows who I am."
Well, nobody who hasn't caught Kweller's performances on David Letterman, Conan O'Brien or Carson Daly. Kweller also just finished shooting a video for his single, "Wasted & Ready," which was directed by Chuck Statler—the guy who directed the Devo movie We're All Devo. Kweller may feelas though he's starting over, but he's not. The Radish years still count for something.
"Oh, I agree," he says. "I'm like a new artist—but with some great experience under my belt, which I couldn't have gotten any other way. I've had that intimidation of not knowing when you're allowed to speak up. And when I did speak up, I've had the experience of people telling me, 'You just worry about the music; we'll take care of the rest.' As a result, I realize that at the end of the day, it is your project, your creation, your monster—that no one has as good a vision for it as you. I've learned that even though it's hard, it's important to stand your ground."
Despite all those lessons, however, Kweller is relieved they ended when they did.