The Butcher and the baby
My, how time crawls. It seems like only yesterday when we first heard that a 15-year-old kid from Greenville was going to save rock and roll. Perhaps we first read about it in The New Yorker; maybe it was in Billboard or some other trade publication. But we heard all about it, loud and clear, as though blasted over a thousand megaphones.
Indeed, we never really even heard the music over the roar of the hype machine rolling through town. We were too busy listening to Mercury Records president Danny Goldberg promising us he was going to turn a child from North Texas into tomorrow's Kurt Cobain; we were too busy reading aloud the stories of how young Goldberg signed an unknown quantity to a three-record, $2-million deal and how little Ben Kwellar was hanging with Madonna and Tom Petty, wowing middle-aged rock stars with his prowess and youth.
For Ben Kwellar, April 1997 seems like forever ago. Exactly one year ago, Mercury Records released the band's major-label debut, Restraining Bolt, only to find the world wasn't much interested after all. All the hype in the world didn't matter: There wasn't much room left for another grunge band, no matter how young and adorable and affable the lead singer-guitarist-songwriter. Radio and MTV decided they could do without Radish, and according to SoundScan, which keeps track of record sales, so could the kids with allowances to burn. Only 13,000 copies of Restraining Bolt have been sold to date--far, far fewer than what Goldberg promised and everyone else expected.
"Things have never been better for me as a songwriter and as a person."
Surprise. That's Kwellar today, now a 16-year-old still living with his family in Greenville. And there's not a drop of cynicism, not a hint of anger in his voice--which is still very much the voice of a child.
"I'm so happy," he says, not at all trying to convince. "Things are looking up. Sure, there was so much hype, because I was young. I'm still young. Fuck, man, I'm 16. Everything happened the way I wanted it to. I knew and management knew if we became superstars off Restraining Bolt, it would be kinda like a double-edged sword. People would say, 'They're only big because he's young.' But now I feel like I ducked the Hanson, teenybopper thing, and I have credibility."
There is perhaps nothing worse than having to grow up in public, especially when a child is trying to make a career out of rock and roll. It's like listening to the sound of your own voice break as you try to find out who you are and what you aren't. From the start, Kwellar never had a chance: Radish was doomed before Restraining Bolt was even released--doomed to suffocate underneath the hype and expectations created by others, doomed to be tagged as has-beens before they ever were.
From the moment Goldberg signed Radish, the former manager of Nirvana heralded young Ben as the second coming of Cobain, which is the worst thing that can happen to a young man just learning to speak. Kwellar's father, a frustrated musician himself, didn't help matters much by buying into the hype, letting his son live out his vicarious fantasy. There wasn't even time to create any backlash; before anyone knew who Radish was, they had all but disappeared.
Which, believe it or not, is fine with Kwellar.
"Sure, I think any artist wouldn't mind having a big record, but at the time, I don't think we were ready for success," he says. "It was our second record, our first major-label record, and we wanted to take baby steps. Now, if we do become successful off the next record, I feel like I could handle it. I played every shitty club in America and toured in every shitty Dodge van. People gave us shit for not paying our dues, but we have now. No matter how old you are, being on the road from April to March is a long time."
A few months ago, Kwellar learned just how much those dues cost: Spin recently ran a piece about the band titled "Disappearing Act: Reintroducing Radish, the little band that couldn't." Keith Moerer wrote of how Mercury released three singles from Restraining Bolt--"Little Pink Stars," "My Guitar," and "Simple Sincerity"--only to watch them all fail to chart or land on MTV. "Radish are a textbook example of the publicity machine gone awry," Moerer wrote. He also noted that perhaps it was only appropriate that Mercury's other fresh-faced act, Hanson, would garner the kind of fame that eluded Radish from the beginning. "MMMMBop," after all, was the very antithesis of Radish's dated arena rock, and audiences only proved the long-held belief that grunge was dead and buried in Washington state.
Kwellar has long grown tired of hearing how Hanson accomplished what Radish never could. He read every word of the Spin article and couldn't understand how someone could be so mean about his little band. Kwellar understood Moerer's intentions--the author wasn't beating up on Kwellar as much as he was indicting the system that promised him easy fame--but nonetheless was upset by the piece's implications: that Radish was over.
"I've always said to myself that all this hype and stuff could kill me," Kwellar says. "I want to be left alone, and I'm just as happy being alone in my bedroom playing my songs. If we had never gotten any of this attention, I'd still be putting out these same records and writing these same songs. I'm a real humble person, and I never expected any of that stuff to happen, like The New Yorker. Sometimes you want to show people we could be the next big thing, and you wonder how come it's not happening, but in a way, I wanted to show people you can't just say something's going to be successful and have it be successful. There was a lot of mental and emotional stuff I was going through.
"I mean, I really love a lot of local bands, and that had a lot to do with it. I saw Tablet's last show and UFOFU's last show, and I didn't want to be big because I didn't want people to say, 'You sold out.' All the kids hate all that bullshit. I didn't want any of the musicians to hate me, and I thought they would because of my success. I thought maybe if Buck Jones wasn't as successful as Radish, they wouldn't like me. I felt bad."
But Kwellar never had to worry about alienating his friends in Deep Ellum: In October, Goldberg canceled Radish's planned U.S. tour in favor of breaking the band in Europe, and the band completely vanished. Now, Radish is back playing the clubs in Greenville and Deep Ellum and, this Saturday, taking the stage at the 21st Annual Greater Southwest Guitar Show and Music Fest. To make matters worse, on the surface, Radish isn't even headlining in its hometown: That honor belongs to Stevie Ray Vaughan-abe Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Maybe it's all for the best: Kwellar learned the hardest way possible how easily the hype machine will chew up and spit out its young and impressionable, and perhaps he's grown up a little. It could only help his songwriting, which needs more of him and less of everything else he's digested in his young life. For his part, he says his music is now more "experimental and intricate," more "mature." We shall see in September, when the band is scheduled to release its second Mercury album, which Radish will begin recording next month in Muscle Shoals.
Before you write off Radish completely, there's also a slight twist to this yet-unfinished story, and his name is Joe Butcher.
Until late last year, Butcher was one-third of UFOFU, one of the finest bands to call Dallas home in many years. Butcher, UFOFU's co-songwriter-vocalist-guitarist, is now in the running to join Radish as the band's new bassist, replacing Bryan Blur. He's one of a handful of potential bassists in line for the gig, but already Joe has performed once with the band and will again play with Radish on the Guitar Show stage.
Make no mistake: Having Butcher join Radish would be the best thing that ever happened to the band and, especially, Kwellar. Butcher, a veteran of myriad bands before forming UFOFU with Brandon and Ben Curtis, has the rock and roll experience and breadth of knowledge Kwellar can only dream of; he could broaden his musical horizons, teach him there's more to this world than Kurt Cobain and Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, Kwellar's real idol. In addition, Butcher brings to the band an indie-rock credibility Danny Goldberg could never buy: UFOFU's debut on the Medicine label was an astonishing record, a prog-punk-pop extravaganza that gets better with every listen.
And Butcher was once in a band Kwellar adored. Indeed, he used to wear a shirt on stage that said "UFOFU + Radish=Love"; it also read, on the front, "Ben Curtis Is My Friend," referring to UFOFU's young drummer, now with Tripping Daisy.
"Ben's a cool kid, and he's really mature for his age," Butcher says. "I'd really love to play with them. He writes good songs. Really. I mean, at first I wasn't sure. I didn't know if it was grunge rock or whatever, and he gave me a tape of 30 new songs, and they were good. That was my main consideration. If the songs were terrible, I wouldn't want to play with them."
Kwellar says he'd like to hire Butcher--he can sing, play more than one instrument, and write, which is more than what Ben's looking for in a bassist--but says the label and management are concerned about hiring a guy who's well into his 30s. Butcher, though cute and cuddly in his own special way, don't look like no 16-year-old.
Also, were Butcher to join Radish, it raises one intriguing question: Would this be the first time in history a band featured a 16-year-old frontboy and an openly gay bassist who's more than twice his age?
"Hey, anyone who knows me well knows I don't like young boys," Butcher says, waving off any potential Fleetwood Mac-like problems. "I like truckers. I like old men."
When asked if the label has a problem with Butcher's sexuality, Kwellar sort of laughs. No, he says, it's cool. Besides...
"The gay thing--I like that a lot better," Kwellar says. "I'd rather have a girl or a gay bass player, because we're so mellow. We don't want some redneck overloaded on testosterone. Joe's great because he's educated. He's from the Northeast, which is where my family's from, so we get along really great. He's not scared to say, 'Let's go to the library.'"
Kids, man. They say the darnedest things.
Radish performs March 21 at the 21st Annual Greater Southwest Guitar Show and Music Fest, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Fair Park.
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