From Spin; May 1999
Songs In the Key of Sincerity
Ben Folds Five used to be the angriest band without a guitar. Now they’re sophisticated, straightforward, and, surprise, grown-up.
It’s an unseasonably warm February afternoon and Ben Folds is shuffling through a live butterfly exhibit at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History. The foliage-filled glass room — 80 degrees and oppressively humid — is packed with excitable kids, weary parents, German tourists, and hundreds of swooping butterflies. As Folds takes in the chaos, a large Blue Morpho alights on his shoulder and flutters its phosphorus wings. A foot away, a little girl in a purple T-shirt shouts, “Mom! Look what’s on that guy’s shoulder!”
“Yeah, how about that?” Folds says politely.
Mom pauses and eyeballs the nerdy-looking young man with the toothy grin and the thinning hair and smiles weakly. “Isn’t that nice.”
“Can we take a picture?” the girl pleads.
“I took one earlier of the same butterfly somewhere else,” Mom says.
“Take it! Take it!” the girl shrieks.
Folds looks at the girl and shrugs.
“Hey, look at this!” Mom says, leading her away.
“Yeah, no photos please,” Folds jokingly calls after her.
Folds walks slowly through the exhibit so as not to disturb his new friend. “That’s incredible,” he says. “He’s not budging.”
Dressed anonymously in blue work pants and a white T-shirt, Folds may look like a landing pad for wayward butterflies, but he’s better known as alt-rock’s angry young piano man with an ax to grind. As frontman for the North Carolina piano/bass/drums trio Ben Folds Five, he has written sweet-sounding-but-sarcastic songs about avenging nerds, enraged ex-boyfriends, and the woman who dump on them. Until now, Folds, 32, and his bandmates — bassist Robert Sledge, 31, and drummer Darren Jessee, 28 — haven’t done much to dispel their image as smart-mouthed geeks; they have even wound up interviewers with fictitious stories, like the one about how they met in a gay disco on karaoke night. Once, Jessee told a reporter that his New Year’s resolution was to stop jacking off into his own mouth.
In the museum, though, the guys are anything but obnoxious — Jessee even helps Sledge with his adhesive admission bracelet. “Some people are really good at turning it on,” Jessee says. “But I don’t think any of us feel like being brats anymore. Or being anything other than what we are.”
That same mind-set applies to their new album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which lays bare the emotions the band members previously hid behind irony and bitter one-liners. They started getting in touch with their inner James Taylor in 1997 on their platinum second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, which included several slow jams about failed romance. Messner picks up the story from there. On “Mess,” a song Folds ostensibly wrote for his ex-wife, he sings “I want to be for her / What I could never be for you.” On “Magic,” Jessee — the guy who penned the group’s famous line “Give me my money back, you bitch” — is now supplying Folds with sentimental lyrics such as “Saw you last night / Dance by the light of the moon / Stars in your eyes / Free from the life that you knew.” It may just be that Jessee is getting more action these days, but the band does seem to have grown up a bit.
The album takes its title from the name Jessee and his friends used on their old fake IDs. “We were all ‘Reinhold Messner,'” he says. “There’d be five or six scrawny high-school guys going to some really cheesy meat-market bar in Charlotte using the same name and the same ID. No one seemed to care. Then we found out that Reinhold is this Austrian explorer. He climbed mountains and went to the North Pole.”
“He smoked hash at zero oxygen level and sat up there tripping out,” Sledge says. “Doesn’t that sound great?”
It would have been easy for Ben Folds Five to call the new album Whatever and Ever, Again!, and stick to the formula. But fans of their piano boogie and adolescent humor will be surprised that the 11-song Messner has barely any piano boogie, barely any adolescent humor, and — on first listen — few discernible singles. Basically, Folds was in such a strange head space last fall that he forgot to write any proper songs. What the album does have is lush orchestration, textured string arrangements, and Bacharach-style flugelhorns. “Originally I wanted it to be a suite with every song being 30 seconds long,” he says. “Ben thought he was going to make an art project out of it,” says the band’s longtime producer Caleb Southern. “Like Side Two of Abbey Road.”
Such a suspiciously adult feel could have something to do with what happened outside the recording studio — Folds divorced his second wife more than a year ago and has since found love with an Australian woman he declines to discuss. It could also have something to do with — gasp! — coming to terms with being in his 30s. “I think some people grow up in a way that makes it okay to be yourself at a younger age,” Folds says. “Being Southern and working-class, it took longer for me. First of all, you’re a sissy for singing or playing piano in the first place. It’s like, ‘Well, if I can make a joke out of this, I won’t get my ass kicked.'”
Ben Folds was raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the son of an amateur painter and a contractor. (A rambling answering machine message from Dad appears on Messner.) Convinced of his songwriting talent by the time he attended the University of Miami, Folds put in time playing piano bars in Florida, doing musical theater in New York, and writing songs in Nashville. In 1994, he moved to Chapel Hill and recruited locals Sledge and Jessee with the idea of forming a guitar-free piano trio that rocked with the energy of a guitar band. The next year, their self-titled indie-label debut sold a respectable 175,000 copies on the strength of “Underground” — a sarcastic kiss-off to the indie-rock world. After Sony 550 snapped up the group for an alleged half-million dollars, the band members joked about calling their second album Waist-High in Hookers and Coke.
Though their music had ’70s-style melodies, Ben Folds Five stood out as a fresh sound at a time when alt-rock was dominated by guitar bands. In 1997, when Sony released Whatever, its second single, “Brick,” reached No. 17 — probably the first ballad about teen abortion to become a genuine hit. “Their sound was different,” says Mike Tierney, vice president of music programming at VH1. “When ‘Brick’ came to radio, there was no mistaking who it was. It was impossible to ignore.” They also won fans on the road, where Folds’s style of playing piano as if it were a contact sport made them seem more like a punk band than a piano trio. College kids, especially, went nuts — drawn not only to Folds’ witty tales of twenty-something life, but also because he reminded them of the piano men of their youth — Elton John, Billy Joel, and Joe Jackson.
They won’t find anything familiar about Messner‘s opening track, “Narcolepsy,” which packs an operatic blast so bizarre, it makes you wonder about Folds’ mental health. The song begins sweetly enough with classical piano trills, but then the drums crash in, the violins whine, and Folds begins to howl “I get upset!” It’s either commercial suicide or the most shameless crowd-pleasing moment of their career — possibly the latter if “Bohemian Rhapsody” is anything to go on. “People will listen to ‘Narcolepsy’ and go, ‘Hey, that sounds like Elton John!'” Folds says. “Then their friend will correct them and go, ‘No man, I know where they’re coming from. It’s Queen.'”
Which isn’t to say Folds wasn’t freaked out at the prospect of trying to express himself in a more sophisticated way. Trying to write the album, “I just procrastinated and felt bad,” he says. At one point, the fear got so intense that Folds asked his manager if he could arrange for him to play piano on Elliott Smith’s tour instead of making another record. “I’d write a set of lyrics, then come into the studio the next day knowing we’d spent a quarter of a million dollars, and everyone looking at me like ‘Okay, what’s this about now?’ and it would be about something really close to me. They’re not folk songs, but it can be uncomfortable.”
Of course, sensitivity has its upside. “I’ll bet Jewel’s going to want to make out with you when she hears this record,” Sledge says with a chuckle.
After a light lunch in the museum restaurant, Folds, Sledge, and Jessee climb into the enormous black van their publicist has hired to make sure they get back to their hotel. As the driver maneuvers through Fifth Avenue traffic, Sledge and Jessee kibitz up front while Folds stretches out in back and talks about what the world will make of a Ben Folds Five album without snickers or sneers. “I just don’t think you can guess what anyone will like,” Folds says. “On the last album, the song that everyone disagreed about including was ‘Evaporated.’ The idea was that it was too mature. But the people who loved that song were 15-year-old boys — they’d come up to me and go, ‘Man, that song makes me cry.'”
As the van pulls up to the hotel, Folds puts on his coat. “We all knew there was more going on inside than was making it onto the records,” he says, stepping onto the curb. “I’ve never made an album I’m comfortable with. This one I definitely am.”