By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
In the media-intensive, market-savvy world we live in today, the growth cycle of pop bands has been steadily accelerated in the name of commercial return: Like the foresters who oversee the genetically altered pulpwood trees of East Texas, music execs want to grow 'em fast and move 'em out. Few bands are benefiting from this trend more than Greenville's Radish, currently the focus of a heated bidding war that has involved over a dozen labels even though the band is scarcely 2 years old and the trio's cumulative age is 40.
Radish will surely sign a major-label deal without ever having played at Trees or opened for a shitty band at the Galaxy Club on a Tuesday night. Although Radish enjoys an extra advantage, the speed with which its prospects have grown is still amazing.
Radish is driven by the songs of 15-year-old Ben Kweller, who just finished his freshman year at Greenville High School and writes almost all the band's music. Ben sings and plays guitar, while childhood pal John Kent drums and recently added Bryan Bler plays bass. Radish is a young power-pop band, the vanguard of a new generation of musicians: Kurt Cobain is their John Lennon, and their playing and attitude are covered with the fingerprints of Nirvana and Sonic Youth.
Carpenters will tell you that fast-growth pine is soft, light, generally inferior wood, and it's hard not to extend the analogy to fast-track bands. Radish, however, won't allow it: It's amazingly tight and remarkably directed, and Ben is an able and prolific songwriter. He started playing the piano and writing songs at 7; later, he picked up the guitar as soon as his hands grew large enough to fit around the neck.
Ben's father, Howie Kweller, had played around a bit in his younger days in Baltimore, and the bug stayed with him: He first taught his son to play the drums so he would have someone to accompany him when he played guitar; later, he taught Ben's buddies to drum so that his son could enjoy the same.
There were the usual boyhood bands with names like Green Eggs and Ham, but when Ben and John Kent decided to form a band in February of 1994, something clicked. John had also grown up with a father who dabbled in music; his father, David Kent, now "aw shucks" the time he spent playing guitar with minor-league country bands, but it exposed John to music. When all the other kids were playing outside, John would be standing, eyes glued to the stage and watching not his father but the drummer. At age 4 he started drumming himself.
In the third grade John started getting gigs playing "opries" in Greenville and surrounding towns like Celeste. Opries give amateurs a shot of show biz for a night, allowing them to sing favorite songs while the house band backs them up. Trying to play with people who often couldn't sing in tune or keep time developed John's reflexes and sharpened his attention.
"By the time we met, John was already a vet," Ben recalls, laughing. Although John is two years older than Ben, the two bonded; their relationship obviously forms the nucleus around which the band revolves. It's an orbit that bassist Bryan helps anchor, however: While Ben and John's hormones still have quite a bit of work ahead of them, the 18-year-old bassist is definitely a young adult, leaner and no longer living at home.
He's also the one who looks the most like a musician, with a billy-goat tuft gracing his chin and his long hair; John and Ben look more like the schoolboys that they are, and it's sometimes hard to believe that they are also the kids whose music could reportedly compel Mercury's Danny Goldberg to fly to Dallas, then drive to Greenville.
As Radish runs through its set it's not hard to understand. The band is kinetic without seeming contrived; the members' stage moves have the sincere ring that only the young can manage. A generation ago, bands playing in living rooms did not sound like this. John is a metronomic drummer, constructing a simple but flexible framework from which he can hang the few tricks he employs; his favorite drummer is Dennis Wilson. "I don't play like him, but I like him," he says. "I don't like busy drummers." Ben is self-possessed and intent, pulling squalling coils of sound out of his sticker-covered guitar, going for melody one minute and dissonance the next. Bryan's playing is independently solid: You couldn't slip a dollar bill between his parts.
In fact, Ben delivers almost too well; sometimes the rage behind his sound and the emotions he delivers don't quite jibe with his fresh face, or the green fields and woods that border his suburban house on the west side of Greenville, a neighborhood so easy and bucolic that even the car lots seem genteel. When he sings "I want to feel you from the inside," you wonder if he's old enough to satisfy the desire.
Of course, surroundings have never done much to soothe (adolescent) angst, and there's more than one definition of "inside." Ben's written songs since he first sat down at the piano, almost faucetlike--hundreds of them, many of which are born and eventually forgotten; if he lacks the credibility or sometimes the vocabulary that a song requires, it seems more a matter of time than skill or heart.