Young Man Blues

Ben Kweller's back, and he's all grown up.



Graceland, 381-3094, $10 adv.

7 p.m. Tues., July 30

Ben Kweller used to be a rock star. Now he’s a musician.

“It’s much more amazing now, just because I’m more alert and more aware of what’s going on,” he says on the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. “I’m sort of calling the shots and just making sure that things are running the way that I want them to, as opposed to being run by the machine, you know?”

Kweller didn’t used to be drunk all the time, if that’s what you’re thinking, nor did he give up his decision-making ability in order to sell a gazillion records. He was 15 and fronting a Dallas-based grunge-pop band called Radish that the major-label “machine” decided should be America’s Silverchair. That didn’t really happen—America wasn’t too keen on Australia’s Silverchair, it turns out—but Kweller got a head start on an industry education most musicians don’t get till it’s too late for a rebirth.

“When I was 15, I was 15,” he laughs. “I was completely naive and just wanted to play my songs and didn’t really care about the business, but when I did want to get involved, no one allowed me to, because they were just like, ‘Let us take care of everything and don’t worry about it.’ That was sort of lame. But at the same time, I grew up a lot through it and learned a lot; I’m definitely a new artist now, but I also have years of experience under my belt.”

It sounds like it: Sha Sha, Kweller’s new solo album, is a remarkably assured song cycle about shaggy postadolescent life that displays the 21-year-old’s sharp ear for pop forms while achieving the kind of ineffable spontaneity Stephen Malkmus used to make look so easy. Songs stroll by in lazy swirls of piano and acoustic guitar, amplifiers growl with distortion, a pedal steel whines away, and Kweller sings about “long walks on the beach” and being in love with his girlfriend and a “strange neighbor who doesn’t have curtains on her windows.” Something like what Ben Folds’ solo album should’ve been, yet it doesn’t seem like the work of a market-tested personality.

But what did you expect from someone who’s been there? Kweller’s through streamlining his songs: Sha Sha‘s too hyper for the singer/songwriter thing (though Dave Matthews’ ATO label released it); it’s too funny for the Weezer set (though Kweller’s voice cracks like he might own a hash pipe); it’s too emo for alt-country (though big-time y’alternative imprint Lost Highway reportedly offered Kweller a record deal).

“All my favorite songwriters and performers have always been all across the board,” explains Kweller. “Neil Young rocked the fuck out, but then he’d make a country album or an R&B album. And Dylan, and the Beatles even—that was a band who just wrote songs, you know? It’s hard for people in this day and age to digest someone who’s all across the board, but I really just feel like certain songs you can express yourself better through different genres. Hopefully it’ll be refreshing to some people.”

After Radish dissolved in 1999, Kweller found an early supporter when he moved to New York. While playing to promote an album he recorded on his home computer, he met erstwhile Lemonhead Evan Dando, a fellow pop stylist with a similar history of record-biz confusion.

“We went on tour together, and we’d just drive around the East Coast in my Volvo with two acoustic guitars in the trunk,” Kweller says of the friendship. “And that right there was just so amazing; this is somebody who I’ve looked up to all my life and just loved his music. And then for him to hear the record I made in my apartment and really like it and get in touch with me and just start touring—that was so much different than shopping your CD around to get signed and just going through some guys behind desks.”

Kweller’s undoubtedly happier doing things his way, and if the major-league prospects for a smart, sweet kid traveling around playing his smart, sweet songs to appreciative audiences don’t compare to the spoils of pubescent celebrity, it wouldn’t be the first time a young talent has worried his parents. “I’m sure for a while they were like, ‘Geez, what’s he doing moving to New York?'” Kweller laughs of his folks’ reaction. “I basically had to explain to them that there’s different ways you can have a career. But they’re good learners, and they understand; they’ve always believed in me, that I would make something happen.”