Ben Kweller's whole other ball game
"Austin City Limits is a whole concert -- a whole other son of a bitch," says Ben Kweller of the most obvious difference between the world-famous PBS postcard and playing one song on Late Night With Conan O'Brien or Late Show With David Letterman. The 21-year-old ex-Radish frontman/Dallas area native gladly seized recent opportunities to promote his debut solo album, Sha Sha, on both after-hours talk shows, but says he's particularly jazzed about next week's Austin City Limits taping. "You have the first 10 seconds to get into it on the other shows. This ought to be a completely different trip."
Kweller's maiden ACL appearance could also be something of a different trip for the show itself. "It was never just about cowboys" may be the series' unofficial slogan, but Kweller might well wind up pushing the envelope, particularly if he opens with his traditional leadoff, an acoustic reworking of Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" he calls "BK Baby." And while Kweller is perhaps the program's first guest to be characterized as "emocore" or "anti-folk," that neither tag truly fits nor is seriously off the mark is a tribute to the reformed flannel rocker's remarkable range. As trite as some of the comparisons may be, Sha Sha reviews customarily mention the Pixies, Ben Folds, and Weezer.
"Critics like to use Elliott Smith, because I'm a solo artist, and Ben Folds because I play piano," admits Kweller. "I don't think that's necessarily fair, but by now I've learned how to deal with the comparisons -- I do what I do and sort of turn the other cheek."
If Kweller is less anxious to pigeonhole himself these days, perhaps it's because he's been turning a cheek for so long; as a 15-year-old, he endured constant Kurt Cobain comparisons after a bidding war for Radish was won by Mercury's Danny Goldberg, Nirvana's former manager. Even though the resulting album was competent, the trio's paint-by-numbers grunge came accompanied by a gold rush of publicity, including a rare New Yorker spread, and Restraining Bolt wound up serving as a cautionary tale: the story of a next-big-thing that wasn't because raw talent was sausaged through the major-label machinery before its time.
"I was a kid thrown into a world that was about trying to impress corporate CEOs and A&R guys who were sitting behind a desk telling me to put drum loops in my songs," says Kweller. "I genuinely wanted to be in an indie band like Sonic Youth or Pavement. I wanted that kind of career, but wasn't given the chance. When I'd mention Merge or any other indie, they told me I was crazy. It was, 'You're 15. Let us take care of the business and you just play the music.'"
Nearly four years ago, Kweller moved east, first to Connecticut, later to New York, and began the crawl toward shedding his Radish baggage. After apprenticing in the city's "anti-folk" singer-songwriter scene with encouragement from new friends like Evan Dando, Jeff Tweedy, Juliana Hatfield, and the Moldy Peaches, Kweller played wherever he could and released a home-burned demo online, 2000's Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller.
That, in turn, led to an invitation from ATO Records, the artist-friendly Dave Matthews-owned BMG imprint that's also home to Patty Griffin, David Gray, and Chris Whitley. After releasing last year's five-track EP Phone Home, ATO delivered Sha Sha in March. Initial reviews had been almost universal raves, but Sha Sha seems to be coming into its own right about now; The formidable word-of-mouth that Kweller cultivated on two tours with Dashboard Confessional seems to have generated a new round of press and television invites.
"I'm so flattered that someone at the show feels like I could do well there," says Kweller, who's reserved a grand piano for the occasion. "I hope I'm demonstrating that you can be a solo artist and be in rock music -- that it doesn't necessarily mean the bare-footed singer-songwriter on the railroad track. And while I also like that more traditional folk and singer-songwriter stuff, here's the thing: It's very hard for me to commit to one genre and say. 'I'm this.' The next minute I might not be."
Tickets for Ben Kweller's Austin City Limits taping on Thursday, July 18, will be given away Tuesday, July 16, 2pm, at the front desk of UT's Communications Building B, 26th & Guadalupe. These tickets are free, and do not guarantee admission. Two tickets per person, first come, first served basis. For more info call the ACL ticket hotline: 475-9077. Kweller also plays Emo's on Wednesday, July 17.