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15? No Way! Yes Way : Mercury Records won a heated bidding war for Radish, a band from Texas led by teenage singer-guitarist Ben Kweller.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ben Kweller is glad only a few hundred people showed up to see his band, Radish, on a recent Saturday night at the popular Liberty Lunch nightclub. It’s only the third time the group has played here, and he doesn’t want things to get out of hand.

“We just played a radio show outdoors in Dallas and there were like 2,000 kids there,” says Kweller, a kid himself. Though he’s 15, his puffy red cheeks and pouty eyes make him look closer to 12.

“Dude, that was so weird playing to that many people,” he continues. “It was nice they showed up, but we just want to play small clubs and keep things at sort of an indie level now, you know, because otherwise. . . .”

He doesn’t finish his sentence, but the most cynical ending would be, “otherwise . . . I might end up the youngest has-been in rock ‘n’ roll.”

At a time when alternative rock seems to be in a state of confusion and flux, Mercury Records is betting a ton of money on this pop-savvy trio from Greenville, 40 miles northeast of Dallas. The band, whose debut album will be released Tuesday, had mostly played only regional talent shows before it was signed last summer.

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“It’s not the biggest deal of the year for a new act, but it’s up there,” says Mercury Records President Danny Goldberg, declining to reveal the exact signing figure.

Maverick and Interscope, among others, also wanted Radish, which led to a bidding war last summer that brought out some big guns. While being courted, young Kweller ended up having lunch with Madonna (representing Maverick), playing guitar with Tom Petty at Jimmy Iovine’s house in Malibu (Interscope) and getting a call from Courtney Love. The last was compliments of Goldberg, who once managed Nirvana. Love is the widow of the band’s late leader, Kurt Cobain.

“All she said at first was, ‘Ben? Courtney,’ and I was thinking, ‘Do I know any chicks named Courtney?’ ” Kweller recalls.

But the youngster says it wasn’t the phone call that enabled Mercury to win him over, or the fact that Goldberg had managed Cobain, one of his heroes. It was Kweller’s belief that Mercury wouldn’t push him in the direction of “all that child prodigy b.s.”

“Danny didn’t talk to us like we were kids,” he says.

The other members of Radish are older than Kweller, but in the case of drummer John Kent, by only two years. Bassist Bryan Blur, 29, is the elder statesman. Kweller and Kent call him Brain because he’s been to college.

College, and high school for that matter, is something Kweller and Kent probably won’t see for a while, if at all. Kweller’s mom, Dee, is home-schooling them. Both of their parents helped with shuttling the kids to their gigs and overseeing management duties until recently, when professionals were hired to take over both tasks. The band is now managed by Warren Entner Management, which also handles Faith No More, Nada Surf and other rock acts.

But Kweller doesn’t expect his parents, especially his father, Howie, to leave his side entirely.

“My parents are sort of living vicariously through me,” he says with a laugh.

The elder Kweller used to play in a band in high school in Maryland with longtime Bruce Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren. He eventually gave up music to become a doctor, but his friendship with Lofgren paid off when Ben learned to play piano at 6 and to strum a guitar at 12.

After the younger Kweller formed a band with Kent, Lofgren introduced them to Roger Greenwalt, who produced recordings for Lofgren. Greenwalt did a three-song demo with Radish, which impressed record executives. A series of New York club dates last May convinced them, which led to the Mercury deal and album, “Restraining Bolt,” much of which was produced by Greenwalt.

Kweller may still be a bit naive about some of the finer points of the music business, but he seems to be well-versed on one aspect: how cruel it can be. Already, he worries about the image of the band and whether people will “blow them off” because they have signed with a major label. A lengthy story about the band and the bidding war ran in the April 7 issue of the New Yorker, setting up huge expectations for the young group.

Kweller also is aware of the battles that go on between artists and labels for creative control. Though he says he still believes Mercury is the right label for Radish, he admits that the title of the album is a veiled jab at the company for not letting him go with the original album concept, a mock greatest-hits package. An allusion to “Star Wars,” a restraining bolt is the device used to keep the robot R2D2 under control.

“Ben seems to have a healthy skepticism about the business, and I think that’s great, especially for someone in his shoes,” said Miles Zuniga, a singer-guitarist for Fastball, one of Kweller’s favorite Texas acts. The two bands will tour together in May.

Mercury’s Goldberg is eager to track the results.

“There are too many middle-aged bands out there trying to appeal to people half their age,” the label executive says. “What’s great about Ben is that he isn’t just a teenager who can sing and play guitar. . . . When I hear the songs Ben writes, I hear something special. And I think kids his age are going to hear it and perhaps identify with it all the more.”

On the eve of the album’s release, Kweller seems torn about all the attention to his age.

“I kind of wish it wasn’t all happening right now,” he says. “Like, it might have been better if I had waited until I was 18.”


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