By the age of 10, Ben Kweller knew how to play the drums, guitar and piano, and had won an honorable mention in a Billboard songwriting contest (at age 9, no less). Born in San Francisco, California, but raised in Greenville, Texas, Kweller's first instrument was the drums as his father Howard was a former drummer. For Kweller's twelfth birthday, he received his first electric guitar and soon became proficient at it. He played in a small handful of short-lived bands as a preteen including ones called Mirage, Green Eggs & Ham and Foxglove. Though Kweller was very influenced by the Beatles and Neil Young, when he was 13 he started a Nirvana-influenced, grunge-heavy band called Radish, that became an integral part to the Dallas music scene.
In 1993, Kweller formed Radish with friends Bryan Blur and John Kent. One year later they released the EP Hello and the album Dizzy for an independent label. Their buzz was in full affect when the group signed a deal with Mercury records in 1996. When their Mercury debut, Restraining Bolt, was released, Radish toured heavily in the United States and Europe. The teenagers received international press and even appeared on late-night TV programs The Conan O'Brien Show and Late Night with David Letterman. Radish was often called Nirvana Jr., a heavy comparison for such a young band. Kweller admitted to LA Weekly that he had no idea what was happening in the Radish frenzy, "I was just so oblivious to everything that was going on and sort of naïve, but at the same time having the time of my life. I just wanted to play music, and I was doing it with great friends," he said.
Radish disbanded in 1999 and Kweller moved from Texas to Connecticut to be with his girlfriend whom he had met in Boston when he was 17. A year later, the young couple moved to Brooklyn, New York to get a fresh start and for Kweller to being a solo career.
When Kweller began to write solo songs, he let go of the teenage angst and returned to the piano to pen a collection of piano-heavy indie-rock songs which he then recorded mostly on his computer and self-released as an album titled Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller in 2000. The record got passed around to friends and ended up in the hands of former Lemonheads singer Evan Dando, who took a shine to the young songwriter. Dando called Kweller up and asked him to do a solo tour together. "Evan took me under his wing, and that was my biggest confidence booster," Kweller told CMJ. "Moving to New York, I pictured it being very intimidating—like every band for themselves. When I met Evan, it just alleviated all of that and helped me realize that it would be possible to find my own place." Kweller went on his first solo tour with Dando in 2000. He played guitar and harmonica on stage with all the stage-presence of a gawky, but confident teenager. "We literally threw two acoustic guitars in the trunk of my car and toured up and down the East Coast," Kweller told Columbus Alive.
After playing shows with Dando and Juliana Hatfield, Kweller caught the attention of ATO Records, a label started by Dave Matthews. Kweller signed a deal with ATO, a division of major label BMG, and began to work on a new record. In 2001 ATO released the 5-song disc EP Phone Home, a collection of Kweller's bedroom recordings and demos for his upcoming full-length. "Suddenly, I'm doing everything I wanted all my life but never could because I wasn't allowed to get my music out the way I wanted to," Kweller told MTV.com. Kweller was creating a niche for himself as a power-pop wunderkind, writing youthful, riff-heavy sugary melodies and easy choruses. "Kweller's a pop guy, and he's not afraid to fill out a verse with some la-la-la-las …" wrote Time's Josh Tyrangiel of Kweller's emerging sound.
Kweller next went into Sear Sound studio in New York City with John Kent on drums and Josh Lattanzi on bass to record his first major label full-length as a solo artist. Sha Sha hit the streets in March of 2002 and Kweller was feverishly off to tour for it, opening for bands like Dashboard Confessional, the Moldy Peaches, the Strokes, and Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. MTV.com described Sha Sha as "… the piano pop of Ben Folds with the off-kilter, slacker rock of Pavement." With the quirky power pop sound of musicians like Brendan Benson and Ben Folds, Kweller found himself the toast of the town. Rolling Stone's Laura Sinagra called him "… an alt-rock whiz kid, trafficking in Seventies-style radio-pop charm." In-between touring, Kweller found time to marry his girlfriend Liz, in September of 2003 and record a 4-song EP in Australia with singer-songwriters Ben Lee and Ben Folds. The group called itself The Bens and released a limited edition self-titled EP in January of 2004.
For his next album, Kweller teamed up with producer Ethan Johns. Kweller and Johns decided to forgo the polished pure pop sound of Sha Sha in favor of a more raw, rock style. In April of 2004, ATO released Kweller's new album, On My Way. It had a heavier sound than Sha Sha, as Kweller described to New York's Daily News, "There's more of a city feel on this one. I feel like the album has a much grittier edge, just by the constant inspiration of the subway running underground and the dirt on the sidewalks."
Shortly after On My Way was released, Kweller went on tour with Death Cab for Cutie before he embarked on a headlining tour with his band. Though his songs and his live shows now took on a more rock than pop sound, as Alternative Press noted, Kweller still had his feet firmly planted in pop history. "Kweller uses obvious influences from Weezer to Pavement to the Beatles to craft pop songs that feel classic on first listen."
(With Radish) Dizzy, Practice Amp Records, 1994.
(With Radish) Restraining Bolt, Polygram, 1997.
Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller, Self Released, 2000.
EP Phone Home, ATO, 2001.
Sha Sha, ATO, 2002.
On My Way, ATO, 2004.
(With The Bens) The Bens, Attacked By Plastic, 2004.
For the Record …
Born Benjamin Kweller on June 16, 1981 in San Francisco, CA; married Liz Smith, September, 2003.
Began playing piano, guitar and drums as a young child; at 13, he formed the grunge band Radish and signed to a major label, toured the world; became a solo artist in 2000, signed to ATO Records/BMG in 2001; released Sha Sha, 2002; On My Way, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—ATO Records, 157 Chambers St., 12th Fl., New York, NY 10007. Website—Ben Kweller Official Website: http://www.benkweller.com.
Alternative Press, May 2004.
CMJ, Issue No. 123, 2004.
Columbus Alive, November 21, 2002.
Daily News (New York), April 7, 2004.
LA Weekly, April 26, 2002.
Rolling Stone, April 1, 2004.
Time, April 12, 2004.
Ben Kweller, All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (August 23, 2005).
"Sha Sha Na," Columbus Alive, http://www.columbusalive.com/2002/20021121/112102/11210202.html (August 23, 2005).
"Former Radish Singer Ben Kweller Mounts Comeback At Age 20," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1453637/20020429/story.jhtml (August 29, 2005).
Additional information provided by ATO Records.
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