Ben Folds Five

From The New York Observer; 1997

Ben Folds Bashes His Piano, As a Good Punk Should

“Are you ready to rawk?” screeched Ben Folds in a high falsetto to the audience gathered at Irving Plaza on April 28. Mr. Folds, who is the singer and pianist for the alternative rock band Ben Folds Five, was wearing a blue V-neck sweater, corduroy pants and suede sneakers. He looked about as ready to rawk as a New Yorker writer, circa 1978.

Then bassist Robert Sledge, sporting white nail polish on his right hand, asked his bandmates, “Are we going to rock? Because I know I feel like rocking at this point.” Mr. Sledge gave a two-fingered Satan salute, drummer Darren Jessee solemnly crossed his drumsticks in the air above his head, and the band broke into a Spinal Tap-ish heavy metal song they called “The Ultimate Sacrifice.”

The audience got the joke. Ben Folds Five is not a metal band. They don’t even have a guitar player. In fact, the trio’s music is dominated by Mr. Folds’ baby grand Baldwin piano. It often sounds like 70’s-era Elton John or Randy Newman coupled with the pop sensibility of 80’s British pop groups XTC and Squeeze. But for a band without a guitar player, Ben Folds Five, who hail from Chapel Hill, N.C., spend a lot of time “rockin’.”

“I’ve been called a nerd in every possible paper across the United States,” Mr. Folds says in the band’s video portrait. Well, he’s nerdy, maybe, but not a nerd. Suffice it to say, Mr. Folds is not your average rock star. The Ben Folds Five’s breakthrough hit was basically a show tune called “Underground,” in which Mr. Folds used witty lyrics, and a sarcastic kiss-off (“Buh-bye!”), to skewer the entire indie-rock scene. It pretty much set the tone for the clever, sometimes sophomoric humor throughout the group’s eponymous 1995 debut album for Caroline Records. And on the success of Ben Folds Five (which went gold in Japan!), the band was snapped up by Sony 550 for an alleged half a million dollars in cash, plus a payout to Caroline. What could follow but pop hysteria, unbridled piano man nostalgia, and the usual heady rock-star debasement for the benefit of the media and fans alike?

Well, almost. Sitting in the kitchen of the Baldwin Piano Company showroom in the Hit Factory studio building in midtown Manhattan the day after their show, Mr. Folds said the band came close to calling their second album Waist High in Hookers and Coke. “But then we were playing in London, and there were all these little girls in the audience,” he said, “and I’m thinking, I really don’t want to say that the name of our next record is Waist High in Hookers and Coke, and then look out at these little girls.”

Instead, they called their first major label release Whatever and Ever Amen (Sony 550). The title alludes to the catch phrase from the movie Clueless — “What-ever” — the bored, dismissive refrain of young people across the country. Mr. Folds, who is 30, gleefully takes a stab at this same attitude on the band’s terrific first single, “Battle of Who Could Care Less.” Singing in a slackerlike tenor, Mr. Folds pleads, “I know it’s not your thing to care/ I know it’s cool to be so bored/ But it sucks me in when you’re aloof/ It sucks me in, it sucks, it works/ I guess it’s cool to be alone.” Then he nails the woman in question: “See, I’ve got your old ID/ And you’re all dressed up like the Cure.” The little girls may not understand.

But it turns out Laughing Boy has a sensitive side, too. The jazzy “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” “Brick” and “Missing the War” are earnest, introspective, emotional songs that Mr. Folds probably couldn’t have written for the last record. “Most bands who have a history, their first album is very concisely one part of what they do,” Mr. Folds said as he munched on his sandwich. “We’re not one-dimensional people. We’re going to expand.”

Incessantly compared to Elton John, Billy Joel and even Todd Rundgren for their 70’s-style melodies and chords, to Joe Jackson for their lyrical crankiness and sophistication, and to Queen and the Beach Boys for their penchant for falsetto ooh-la-la-la-la-la’s, Ben Folds Five, through sheer musical virtuosity and infectious rule-breaking, sounds totally fresh in a pop world overpopulated with guitar bands. Even smart guitar bands. As Mr. Folds put it in Musician: “The idea was to be a piano trio that was also a power trio, so we kind of overcompensate with piano and bass guitar to keep up with the energy of guitar bands.”

“You can sound like a George Winston record, something light and polite, with a piano band real quick,” Mr. Sledge, 28, said. “You walk up to any sound man and go, ‘We’re piano, bass and drums. Can you mix us?’ He’ll say, ‘I know exactly how to do it!’ Then he’ll totally make you sound like a Yanni record. You have to play in a way that disables the Yanni button in their brain.”

Mr. Folds plays more like Jerry Lee Lewis than any of the other pianists he’s been compared to. A classically trained percussionist who dropped out of music school, he rarely sits on the piano stool and sometimes bashes the keys with his elbow, forearm, even his rear end — whatever sounds good at the time. Couple that intensity with Mr. Sledge’s fuzzed-out bass standing in for guitar and Mr. Jessee’s constantly crashing cymbals, and you’ve practically got a punk band, albeit one with a taste for the mainstream.

It’s a good thing, too. As they sit in the Baldwin showroom, waiting for the next media moment, an in-house promotional video shoot for Sony, the band’s manager comes into the kitchen to announce that “Battle of Who Could Care Less” has just been added to “stress rotation” on MTV.

“That means they’re going, ‘We can’t stress this to you enough,'” Mr. Folds joked.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to have to play with Veruca Salt, does it?” Mr. Sledge asked, referring to the superheavy rock vixens who recently opened for Bush at Madison Square Garden.

Strange, but it’s not hard to imagine Ben Folds Five headlining the Garden someday, especially if someone as eminently dopey as frat rock noodler Dave Matthews can sell out two nights there. Judging by the rapt audience at Irving Plaza — a packed house singing along joyously with every song — piano-based, guitarless pop songs aren’t as hard to swallow as record companies, currently obsessed with electronica and the next big guitar band, would seem to think. Which is just another way of saying Ben Folds is not Bruce Hornsby.

His audience in England and Japan may be made up of little girls, but here in the United States, Mr. Folds appeals mainly to a generation of post-adolescents nostalgic for the singles they heard in their sad, misbegotten, disaffected and sorely missed youth: Elton John’s “Honky Cat,” Randy Newman’s “Short People,” Squeeze’s “Tempted,” Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” The list, of course, goes on and on.

But Ben Folds isn’t Elton John, either. His playing is far too aggressive, and his lyrics are never sappy. Though Mr. Folds’ melodies echo those of an earlier decade, his words are his own — “Now I’m big and important, one angry dwarf, and 200 solemn faces are you” — and that should get the band past the “70’s throwback” criticism. Indeed, Ben Folds Five has succeeded in putting over a cosmic joke: They’re so alternative, they’re practically traditional. With grunge finally dead (Bush notwithstanding), somehow Ben Folds Five makes sense.