Looking for the magical hit-record recipe? Want a groundbreaking album to carry you to the stars? Stay clear of Ben Folds Five. Even with a fierce bidding war between record labels to sign the group last year and accolades from the press for their sophomore major release, Whatever and Ever Amen, the group heeds conventional wisdom with less than a passing acquaintance. The trio, sans guitar, play by their own rules and the dividends paid would make the VSE reel.
Led by pianist Ben Folds, the trio's forte is a wonderful blend of airy pop and lyrical whimsy. Yet Folds (piano & vocals), Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jesse (drums) have the chops to back the lyrical bite with enough deft pop, rock, jazz and show tune stylings to never fall into a comedy-act-on-vinyl morass.
Reached at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina before heading to the U.K. on tour, Folds heaves a sigh when asked the question everyone asks: Why 'Ben Folds Five' when the group is a trio? "I guess we didn't want to tell the truth. We wanted every angle of the band to be not quite right. Also, I wanted to make sure that people didn't take us that seriously. And I think the name helps. Besides, I think it sounds better than Ben Folds Three."
Asked if that is why the trio have opted out of having a guitar player, Folds replies, "Not really. We just never thought a guitar was necessary. We wanted to do things a little differently. The only thing is, a lot of club owners aren't used to a band without guitars. And when they see you bringing in a grand piano... [insert eye-rolling sound here]. You have to be pretty tough to drag a grand piano from show to show. It seems that every club you go to has the same asshole doorman with short peroxide hair and a nose-ring. People aren't really happy about helping you put your piano on stage!"
After the release of their first eponymous record, the trio were suddenly hit with the demands of a band on the rise. "It kind of snuck up on us. I guess we realized that we were doing okay when we didn't have to move the piano ourselves anymore," he says with a laugh. "At first it was really great; it was like 'You have two phone interviews tomorrow and a spot on a radio station in an hour.' And you think this is cool. But after a while it was more like, 'Get me out of here. I want a normal life!'"
While Folds understands the nature of the beast, he prefers the sanity of life in Chapel Hill. "When I first saw a tour bus, I thought 'These people are living in style.' Well, they're not. You've got 10 or 15 people living on the same bus day in day out and it gets to be a bit monotonous. We toured with Neil Young last year and it was the same thing for him. He lives on a tour bus. And he's Neil Young!"
The trio recorded Whatever and Ever Amen at Folds' home in Chapel Hill last fall, after the house was outfitted with 16-track recording equipment, a Steinway baby grand and considerable soundproofing. "It just felt right to do it at home. You aren't aware of the rules you're breaking at home. You turn the recorders and mikes on and just start playing. We didn't want to approach the album like, 'We are on a major label now, so let's make a lobotomized, hugely blown-up version of our first record that would sound good on modern rock radio.' We wanted to make a record that sounded good to us."
Not unlike XTC or the defunct Housemartins, Folds writes clever lyrics that hinge on the darker side of humanity as the melodies bubble with hummable ease. As Folds himself says, "It's a very English thing to do. It's the oldest trick in the book. I don't think that I can write a 'plain' pop song. It would probably bore the shit out of me."
And why the title Whatever and Ever Amen? "Well, originally it was going to be called Waist Deep in Hookers and Coke but that would have been too easy." Easy indeed, when you're a threesome named Ben Folds Five.
Ben Folds Five appear with the Counting Crows at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver, March 31, 1997.
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