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Ben Folds Five dress for success

By Gary Susman

APRIL 26, 1999:  NEW YORK -- I caught Ben Folds with his pants down.

The postpunk pianist was changing out of a pair of extra baggy jeans of the sort he and his Ben Folds Five bandmates Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee had been modeling for a Levi's spread. (He's a boxers man, I noted, in case inquiring minds want to know.) After the photo shoot (held conveniently on the street in front of the band's publicist's apartment, around the corner from the Irving Plaza rock club), Folds talked with his manager, who reassured him about the ethics of modeling clothes Folds doubts he would wear otherwise, proposed to him that the band perform on a tribute album of "villain" songs from Disney movies, and asked him what the Squirrel Nut Zippers should wear when they appear with the BF5 in an upcoming gig. "Clean underwear," Folds deadpanned. "And tank tops."

In case you couldn't tell, Ben Folds is a wise-ass, from the appellation of his trio (where alliteration takes precedence over numerical accuracy) to the whoppers he and bassist Sledge and drummer Jessee have told about their background (one had them meeting while performing in a gay karaoke bar, another had Journey drummer Steve Smith pounding on Jessee's hotel window one night, claiming he could outdrum Jessee and demanding his place in BF5) to the often wry wordplay and witty appropriations of disparate musical styles in BF5's meticulously crafted songs. Maybe it's a defense mechanism built up against years of inane questions from reporters ("Where are the other two guys?"; "Why no guitar?") and the laughter from grungier alternative bands on the club circuit as Folds lugged his Baldwin baby grand on and off the stage. Maybe it's also a way of remaining wary and detached, now that the band are on the verge of mainstream success, after a whirlwind 15 months or so that began with a hit song ("Brick," off their second CD, Whatever and Ever Amen) and was followed by much touring, several nationwide TV appearances, two more albums (the B-side compilation Naked Baby Photos and the Folds instrumental side project Fear of Pop Volume I), and, finally, the recording of the new The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (Sony/550 Music), which comes out this Tuesday.

The title, typically, is an in-joke for the band members, who had been long-time friends kicking around the Chapel Hill music scene for years before forming the trio in 1994. "He's a mountaineer," says Folds of the title's namesake. "He's Austrian."

"He's an Austrian hero," Sledge helpfully adds. (Editor's note: Reinhold Messner was the first mountaineer to scale all 14 of the world's 8000-meter peaks.)

"We didn't know who he was," Folds continues. "Darren made fake IDs in high school. A friend said he should use the name Reinhold Messner on all the IDs, which he did." (Jessee himself left before the interview started, citing another appointment, but said his absence wouldn't matter because "I don't talk much, anyway.")

Reinhold Messner expands on the orchestral possibilities of the trio's already grandly theatrical sound. Says Folds, "I was trying to go for a little different tone on the piano, a little more bell in the tone, a little less rumble." Adds Sledge, "It's just more fully thought out, sonically, just making the band sound bigger. There's a lot more dreaming-type songs. It's a lot more spiritual record. There's more mojo in it."

By "dreaming-type" songs, Sledge may be referring to the album's bookend tracks, which are literally about sleep. The opener, "Narcolepsy," is a Queen-like mini-opera in which the singer's disorder serves as an excuse for him to sleep through a relationship. The finale, "Lullabye," is a hilariously absurd barrelhouse number that still makes an oddly lovely benediction. In between are songs filled with regret (one is even called "Regrets") and resignation for an unruly life that has failed to accommodate the singer's plans. "Mess" is an eerily perky folk ditty about hopelessness and loss of faith. "Hospital Song" is a sedated, jazzy reverie sung by a patient who's just heard some bad news from his doctor. "Your Most Valuable Possession" is a message Folds's father left on his son's answering machine, a philosophical musing on space travel, played over a laid-back lounge-funk groove the band had recorded as a studio session warm-up.

Introspective, yes. Spiritual? "Maybe not literally spiritual," says Sledge. "We're not talking about religious beliefs or going to the mountain. But there are some things about it that are really relaxed. There are some things where you're not forcing your opinion down somebody's throat musically or playing really fast. Some of the stuff is really hypnotic. The song 'Regrets' has a mantra in it. Just little things like that."

"We discovered yoga," says Folds. "I can get my ankle around the side of my head."

"We're just looking for ways to relax," says Sledge. "It rubs off on the music. We did that one track, 'Your Redneck Past,' with Ben lying on his back." ("Just for the vocals, not the piano," notes Folds.)

"The problem with talking about music like this is it makes it look like you go in with a policy," Folds clarifies. "The only policy we had when we went in was, we wanted to make a pretty record. That's probably the only thing that ever came out of our mouths that would make sense to normal people. The rest of what we talked about had to do with little things [meaningful only to the trio]. So we went in to make it pretty. We didn't say, 'Let's make an album that does these things.' You have to create it first and then find out what it is later."

The album is indeed pretty, in a Paul-McCartney-meets-Elvis-Costello-and-Joe-Jackson way, with graceful melodies played over tricky harmonies, with Folds's delicate arpeggios and majestic octaves racing against Sledge's fuzz-toned bass and Jessee's sonic boom. Some arrangements are augmented by strings ("Magic"), chimes ("Don't Change Your Plans"), and brass ("Army"); but mostly, that gorgeous racket comes from just the threesome.

In their ability to coax a full, richly textured palette from an unconventional (for rock) guitar-less, three-piece line-up, BF5 bear a superficial resemblance to Boston's Morphine, with whom BF5 once toured. How do they do it? "Dana [Colley of Morphine] uses two saxophones at once," Folds observes, then deadpans, "I thought of using two pianos at once, but I couldn't fit them both in my mouth." "He does have a big mouth," adds Sledge.

But seriously, folks, the difficulty of translating the multi-layered sounds in Ben Folds's head onto plastic has been formidable. Hence last year's Fear of Pop, in which Folds was finally able to get some of that experimental noise out of his system. "Well, I don't know if 'out of my system' is right. I liked doing it. It was cool. Piano, bass, and drums -- if you play it long enough, you start to get really conventional about it. We've had piano, bass, and drums in our lives for so long that it was good for all of us to get away from that, on the side. Robert's got a studio in his house. Darren records on a four-track and plays acoustic guitar. That kind of shit is really good for giving you perspective on what you do. Like, playing the piano, I'm frustrated sometimes because it doesn't sound like five different instruments. So I try to imitate those instruments on the piano. It gives me a fresher perspective."

Folds vents his other frustrations in his lyrics. "Brick" was famously a recounting of the helplessness he felt as a high-school senior taking his girlfriend to get an abortion. Here, his autobiographical tunes are a lot funnier, notably "Army," a rousing stomper that opens with "Well, I thought about the Army/Dad said, 'Son, you're fucking high!' " and moves through his years of crappy jobs, broken-up bands, and two ill-fated marriages (Folds is 32), and "Your Redneck Past," in which he satirizes the self-loathing bred by media stereotypes about Southerners' lack of sophistication. "Well, I usually write lyrics from things that happened. But something feels funny to say they're autobiographical, because they're songs. I think a song would have to be pretty fucking literal. It's easier to write from life than to make up shit. But sometimes something happens and you feel it one way even though it happened another way. You write it the way you felt, but it's not what happened."

That Folds is still writing personal, idiosyncratic songs should reassure fans who might worry that success has softened him. "If you just do your thing and you're honest about it, it should work out. Fans are a funny group of people. They see you wearing a suit and they say, 'You're wearing a suit! You've sold out!' It's a strange thing. I've been in musical positions before that I wasn't that proud of. They probably didn't notice then."

Does he worry that things like the Levi's spread will distract listeners from the music? "Whether it takes people's attention away from the music doesn't matter so much. If it takes you away from the music, it sucks, man. Promotion in general, the time we spend in interviews and that stuff, is time that it sure would be nice if we could spend it on the people around us. That would be best. It doesn't really work that way."

Says Sledge, "It depends on how comfortable you are with what you've got on tape. I would have to do a hell of a lot of Levi's ads to compete with how good I feel musically. I don't think it distracts."

Success has, however, finally gotten Ben Folds Five out of the basement. Sledge notes, "We recorded half the record in LA and half in New York. So we're a real rock band now that we've actually done it in a studio. We never felt comfortable enough to do that before. We did the last record in our house. Now we've become the same kind of band everybody else is. It just took us a little longer."


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