Launch Ramp

Five years later, Ben Kweller is taking off on his own.

Ben Kweller stares at the row of posters taped along a wall inside Fort Worth's Ridglea Theater, six or seven of the same make and model: an oversized reproduction of the cover of his new album, Sha Sha, a close-up of his face with a red toothbrush jammed in his mouth. As he looks at the posters, his mouth screws up into sort of a concerned frown, and he steps closer to them, touching the face on the posters. His face.

He's set to play here tonight, opening for Dashboard Confessional and its Vagrant Records label mates, The Anniversary. Behind him, outside the Ridglea's double doors, there are 100 or so fans crowded under the theater's marquee, letting out Total Request Live whoops and hollers at the slightest sign the doors are opening. In fact, the Ridglea staff takes great pleasure in this, flicking the lights on and off, teasing them a little bit. Behind all of those fans, there's at least 1,000 more standing in a line that wraps around the building and then some, a moat filled with teen-age hormones and Gap-commercial outerwear. Some of them, the ones at the front of the line, have been milling around outside since 5 p.m. It's almost 7:30 now, and the doors will open soon. They hope.

Kweller's still examining the posters--his posters. He was excited at first, appreciating the assistance from his label (ATO Records, a subsidiary of BMG), the kind of support he hasn't had in a while. But he's nervous, too, because this is the first thing the sellout crowd will see when they walk into the theater: His face, staring at them, promising them something, maybe. That's what he thinks, and that's what the frown is saying. I'm not even the headliner, he protests, pointing out that there isn't a similar row of Dashboard Confessional or The Anniversary posters. It puts too many expectations on him.

No expectations necessary: Ben Kweller has emerged as a songwriter beyond his years.
Alyssa Scheinson
No expectations necessary: Ben Kweller has emerged as a songwriter beyond his years.
Ben Kweller started over a couple of years ago, armed with an acoustic guitar and a Volvo.
Alyssa Scheinson
Ben Kweller started over a couple of years ago, armed with an acoustic guitar and a Volvo.

"I was in a band before with expectations," he says quietly.

The band Kweller is talking about is Radish, the trio he formed when he was just a kid in Greenville, 45 minutes northeast of Dallas. As he says now, Radish was just "my high school punk band," and he never expected much to come from it. He was 15 years old when Mercury Records released Radish's major-label debut, Restraining Bolt, in April 1997, the first installment of a reported three-record, $2 million deal. Writers began comparing him to one of his heroes, Kurt Cobain, in part, no doubt, because Nirvana's former manager, Danny Goldberg, was the man who signed Radish to Mercury, where he was president at the time. The New Yorker made Kweller and his burgeoning career the subject of a 10-page feature, rare for a rock-and-roll band, even rarer for a rock-and-roll band very few people had heard of, much less heard. The songs on Restraining Bolt were made irrelevant by the 15-year-old who wrote them and the journalists and publicists who couldn't get over that fact.

Five years later, Kweller has a record in his hands, Sha Sha, which justifies some of the praise that buried him back then. Released on March 5, Sha Sha finds Kweller, now 20, growing into the songwriter he's always tried to be, shaking free from the grip of influence. While he's not quite an adult yet, his songs are mature beyond their years, Kweller singing love songs because he means it, not just because the Beatles used to. Rock-solid rock-pop ("No Reason" and "Wasted & Ready") makes time with piano-bar ballads ("In Other Words") and back-porch breakdowns ("In Other Words" again, the last banjo-fueled minute, anyway). Love letters to his girlfriend (the so-low acoustic "Lizzy") share space with park-bench philosophy ("How It Should Be (Sha Sha)," with its "Nothing isn't nothing/Nothing's something that's important to me" lyrics).

Sha Sha is a versatile, vibrant collection, but no, it's not an album that will make him famous--although, hey, why not? Of course, that's not what Kweller was after when he was 15, and it's not what he wants now. He wants to be a musician, not a celebrity.

"There were times during Radish that it was like, 'Man, this is so not right,'" Kweller says, restringing his guitar in his dressing room at the Ridglea. Radish quietly dissolved a few years ago, though drummer John Kent, who was in the band with Kweller from the beginning, plays on Sha Sha. "Because I was having articles written about me by people that didn't even know me or know my band. And the first thing they heard about my band was that"--his voice turns into a headline-- "'Danny Goldberg signs teen band Radish.' For all this money--and it really wasn't a ton of money." He laughs. "It was just all this shit. I remember sitting backstage before we did [Late Night with] Conan O'Brien, which was, like, the day the album came out, and I was like, 'Man, I'm not doing it. There's no way I'm going out there.'

"At the time, Silverchair had been out for a while, and I was just starting to see their whole backlash, because they were sort of looked at as a novelty thing," he continues. "I was like, 'Man, I wanna have a career 10 years from now. I want to be taken seriously.' I just knew that doing the whole 'teen' angle wasn't the way to do it." He pauses, then delivers his real point. "At the same time, I would never give up any of that experience, because Radish is such a little speck in the music timeline. It doesn't mean anything to anyone."

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