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.
"I don't just write the dark, angry 'fuck you' kind of stuff," he explains from his upstairs room, where he and his bandmates have retired after practice for their very first interview, no parents allowed. The walls are wallpapered with posters, and Kurt, Billie Joe, and even Janis stare down at the young musicians. "I mean, I'm into life, and I want to be versatile, it's just that the music"--punchy power pop with some punk underpinning and dark alternative coloring--"probably makes it sound that way, probably more than it really is."
Father Howie had wandered down the garage-band path years ago back in Baltimore, where one of his junior-high pals was an accordion prodigy with a penchant for playing Beatles medleys--Nils Lofgren. The two stayed in touch.
"I remember when Ben was born," recalls Lofgren, who switched to guitar when the coolness quotient of the Beatles sunk in. "I kept track. Growing up with Howie and Dee, there was always a lot of music around...(and) he was always interested. I heard him play with a band when he was 12," Lofgren adds, "and I thought that for a 12-year-old, he was fantastic. Now, I don't add that qualifier."
Impressed, Lofgren kept mentioning Ben to Roger Greenawalt, the producer who worked with Lofgren on his recent Damaged Goods. Meanwhile, Radish made a little self-produced tape and drove from Greenville to Club Dada, where the band participated in Tom Prejean's open-mike night.
"They were a great band," Prejean remembers. "They had a great sound, and it's amazing how accomplished they were for being so young. We have a lot of musicians who hang out here on weeknights, and they seemed to like it. They get a lot of support from their families--especially Howie--and it's a healthy energy, not some crazy stage-daddy thing."
Doak Boettiger, one of Club Dada's owners, may be a bit harder to impress but still recalls the band favorably. "They did well," he says. "They're a good band--sounded like a little Nirvana--and their folks were real supportive. It's cool when kids are that young and their folks are going out there with them." Radish got on the Dada calendar for a few weeknights, played some acoustic gigs at Rock'n'Java, then not much else. Bassist Ryan Green played on the band's first self-made CD, Dizzy, and departed; Bryan signed on.
Back in Baltimore, Greenawalt finally listened to the Radish demo, and he was intrigued; last November, he came out and visited the band members. Three months later, he brought them out to Baltimore's Sheffield Studios to make another demo, introducing them to professional tools like click tracks and tweaking them towards a more coherent whole.
"Roger got us tight," Ben says. "He showed us how to fuse our sounds, how to put our instruments together." The band's new demo began to make the rounds and A&R types began to raise their snouts, sniffing. Last month Radish--without having really even entered the Deep Ellum food chain--went to New York City and played a showcase at CBGBs, and the A&R types, now with a noseful of live Radish, commenced the hue and cry.
"It was a religious experience," Ben says of playing punk's Buckingham Palace.
"It's not that different from the Orbit Room or the Galaxy Club, really," Bryan admits.
"In New York, everybody was so nice," John notes. "They just accepted us like we were, and we think Dallas will, too."
Ah, Dallas. Local Band Hell is a many-leveled place, and those who dwell there often toil long and hard before moving up a tier, all the while beset by imps, demons, club owners, and promoters. Imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth when someone--particularly someone 10, 15, 20 years younger than you--is able to bypass the whole bloody mess and sail overhead with seeming ease. Hard feelings, anyone? Some resentment on the side?
"We really want to play Texas," Bryan maintains, and he and the other members of Radish really don't foresee any problems.
"When people hear the tape, they don't know how old we are," Ben claims. "We don't want to be a novelty like Silverchair; we want the music to speak for itself."
"If you look at Ben's song catalog, there are some great songs in there," Bryan adds. "This isn't just us getting lucky, and we want to be accepted by the local scene."
Of course, even if they're not, being accepted by the national scene might help ease their pain. Equally obvious is the fact that the shifting sands of pop music are littered with the bleached bones of punky power-pop bands.
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"This is what we've always wanted," John says. "This is what we got into a band for."
"We didn't think it'd come this soon," Bryan concedes.
"There are so many companies after us," Ben says, "that they're giving us everything that they can, including total creative freedom. No one's gonna tell us that we can't do our songs."
Of course, not being able to do your own songs is a walk in the park compared to some of the pitfalls of the music biz, but Howie, Dee, and unofficial uncle Nils have a faith that this slight, polite kid and his band will be OK.
"Yeah, you worry, and it's a legitimate worry, especially for someone going into the profession at an early age," Lofgren admits, "but he's known long before this what he's wanted to do. I think he's got a great shot at a great career.