[ there's no place like home ]
by Eric J. Iannelli


"Why do so many people want to talk to me? I don't know, man. Because I'm a wild and crazy kid -- you remember that show? I'm psyched that people are talking to me, that you're calling me up to chat about my music. The fact that I can make something in my bedroom that so many people can relate to...it's crazy, man."

No need to attribute the quote. You've probably recognized the voice already. Like someone's cheeky kid brother, or the amiable stoner you knew in high school, Ben Kweller sounds just as you might expect. And though his attitude and outlook must usually be some variation on this theme, the events of the past year have put him on a giddy plateau. He knows folks are buzzing about his album, Sha Sha, because he's preparing to head out on his second world tour in support of it. He knows it's selling, because his modest label, ATO Records, is dizzy from its financial windfall. And yet he honestly has no clear idea how he got to where he is now.

It might, however, have something to do with The Beatles and "All You Need Is Love."

"I was about seven-years-old. My parents had it on vinyl and I would just listen to it over and over," he says. "It would make me cry. Literally." As if to prove how dear he holds the song, he launches into a faltering rendition of the chorus.

[ ben kweller ]
[ give a listen! ] "Wasted & Ready" MP3
96kbs/41sec/498kb

"That chord progression is fucking ridiculous. All you need is love, man, and then at the end [John] Lennon turns it around and says, 'Love is all you need.' Wow. Something about that song just killed me."

It's like talking to Holden Caulfield on a euphoric high -- a good thing, in fact, because if Kweller were discovered to have a chip on his shoulder, something about his music would seem markedly less agreeable, and the shy romanticism of his schoolboy lyrics less genuine.

But then you have to stop and remind yourself that, for Kweller, this is more or less how life has been since he signed his first record deal with Mercury Records at just 15 years of age. Now 21, he can be relatively level-headed in an industry that takes people many years his senior much longer to figure out. Some never do, and their careers are permanently shredded before they can regain control.

"I'm in this great position right now. Because Dave [Matthews] is on RCA Records, what's amazing is that ATO makes the albums with me," and the RCA handles the distribution. "It's kinda cool because you get the best of both worlds. I'm shielded from the bureaucracy and the A&R. I don't have anyone saying, 'You gotta make these hits.'" That is to say, it's an indie ethic with major label clout. "They've proven they can reach a lot of people. I don't think I'll ever outgrow this label."

His days with Mercury, back when Kweller still fronted an indie-pop outfit called Radish, "looked as good as it could've looked from a 15-year-old's point of view from a small town in Texas," he admits. "The prospects were good because [KISS publicist and Nirvana manager] Danny Goldberg was the new president there, but then later on, I realized how na´ve I was."

About two years after that pivotal record deal, after Radish had split up and Kweller had moved to New York, he began writing the songs that would later become Sha Sha.

"I really wanted to make this classic, '70s-style American album," he says, describing his idea as a truly eclectic record that drew from as many music genres as possible, encompassing everything from piano ballads to melodic punk.

"I have ADD and I'm a Gemini, and people tell me that a Gemini has different personalities. I have so many different interests and hobbies," he explains.

"What I'm doing is I'm putting out albums that have a lot of diversity to them. I'm not giving in to the modern protocols, this world of cut and paste and loops and all that bullshit. I'm not putting the same song over and over. I'm not scared to branch out. I feel like I can put a country song and a punk song and a piano ballad all back-to-back, and that's what my fans like.

"[Bob] Dylan, The Beatles, Neil Young, The Violent Femmes -- they all did their own thing, they all had diversity. Even Nirvana, he could put 'Drain You' and then, uh, 'Something In the Way' right after it."

This talk about multiple albums (he has just one solo effort to his name) and the comparisons to Neil Young and Bob Dylan (two of rock's most influential and enduring musicians) is Kweller at his cockiest. Of course, he's older than some major pop stars or up-and-coming rock acts, but he can at times share with them the same youthful exuberance, and the over-optimistic solipsism that goes with it.

[ ben kweller ]

He also doesn't pretend otherwise. "I'm writing from where I am right now," he says, adding that he think of himself as a "very nostalgic person," even for events that didn't happen. "I've never had kids before, but I have this song called 'Song for My Children,' and it's all about what I think it would be like."

He moves more into a more familiar realm with songs like "Wasted and Ready," the first single from Sha Sha, a tune often likened to Weezer and which talks about a "junior high love affair" and some cartoonesque dreaming for a "force field super shield."

"That's just stuff that every kid's gone through," Kweller shrugs. "But, yeah, there's still a bit of youthful perspective in my writing."

But there is also plenty of maturity in his thoughts, as is evident in one of the anecdotes he shares.

"Some kid came up to me after a Dashboard Confessional concert and said, 'Don't do what they did. If you're on MTV, we won't like you anymore.'"

"That reminded me of what I sounded like when I was 14. Growing up, everyone goes into that phase where you get into indie rock, and you're always concerned about selling out, and all you listen to is The Descendants and you hate every band on MTV."

Likewise, he can offer a glimpse of his career plans for the near future, as well as his limitations as a musician, with a fair degree of objectivity. Kweller makes no intimations of being superhuman, avoiding the common stumbling block of most new music sensations -- that is, thinking oneself to be invincible. He can't envision a life without writing and recording music, but the prospect of touring -- especially now, after traversing the world to spread the pop gospel of Sha Sha -- isn't one that is particularly appealing at the moment.

"The touring process lasts a hell of a lot longer than the record process," he says. "The only thing I see myself getting burnt out on is touring non-stop. I've had to call my manager in the middle of the night and say, 'Look, man, I need some time off, because I'm running myself into the ground'."

Soon he'll be criss-crossing America with The Strokes and then heading across the Atlantic to take on the UK with Idlewild, whose latest album, The Remote Part, earned them a current supporting slot with Coldplay.

"I used to be able to do it really well," Kweller sighs, when asked if he's writing on the road. "But pretty much when I have time off, I'm writing new songs. I was so damn inspired in Australia and Japan. I have about 11 songs." He plans to be back in the studio by June of 2003 to work on the follow-up to Sha Sha. "One thing that bums me out is that bands don't put out albums enough, and they're not allowed time to develop. Even if it sucks and we don't like it, at least they're being productive."

So far Kweller has managed to stay productive and write songs that do anything but suck. And if he's able to abide by his own insight and find time to develop, it's likely that he could follow in the footsteps of his rock idols like Dylan and Young. He's certainly given himself a solid head start.

On the web:
Ben Kweller (official site)

Inside Earpollution:
Sha Sha album review

[ sha sha ]
[ give a listen! ] "Falling" MP3
96kbs/44sec/539kb

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