Ben Folds is trying to explain why his band, Ben Folds Five, only has three people. Folds has been asked this before.
"I'm not sick of the question yet," he says. "I'm just sick of not having a good answer."
So, what is the deal with the name?
"Well," Folds says slowly, drawing out his mild Carolina drawl like he's making something up as he goes along. "When you hear the name 'Ben Folds Five,' you expect to see five people. We kinda like the idea of not being what you expect."
Folds suddenly perks up as if he's stumbled onto something.
"I mean, you don't expect to see people lugging a grand piano into nightclubs, but we do that, too."
Indeed, Folds is currently hauling his Baldwin baby grand into clubs across the country on a nightly basis. He and bandmates Robert Sledge (bass) and Darren Jessee (drums) are introducing newcomers to a piano-based, rock 'n' pop style that's wowing critics and getting BF5's second major-label CD, Whatever and Ever Amen, plenty of attention.
As rock stars go, Ben Folds isn't much. He's an admittedly unassuming 30-year-old, a gangly guy who looks maybe a little too much like Mr. Rogers. Last year, Rolling Stone called him a geek. But Folds is an entertaining geek. He's known for accenting his pop songs by pounding the keyboards with his size 11-and-a-half Hush Puppies: "You can get a couple of octaves when you're stomping it just right," he notes. Folds also tends to jump on and off his piano with alarming regularity. As he speaks, he says he's got a bruise that runs the length of his arm, the result of a recent brouhaha with the baby grand.
Back home in North Carolina, Folds is excused his excesses. He's become an inspiration to aspiring rock acts, since he managed to start a band, to get it showcased in New York and signed to a prominent indie label (Caroline Records), and to have the subsequent debut CD slobbered over in national magazines, all in less than a year. In doing so, Folds may have set a land-speed record for national recognition, even in the combustible Chapel Hill scene.
"We all had the drive to do something different," Folds says of BF5's early days. "And we had a serious slant on what we were doing. We had to. A piano is a major pain-in-the-ass commitment for someone who's just practicing in a garage."
The band didn't stay in the garage for long. Within a month of its first practice, BF5 ventured out to play a couple of shows around Chapel Hill. Not long thereafter, it released a self-funded single, which was recorded in one night and pressed at the bargain rate of $500 for 200 copies. From there, serendipity set in. One of the singles wound up with the friend of a friend's ex-husband at Caroline. Six months later, Folds and his band were putting the finishing touches on a debut album.
BF5's music bounces with a barely controlled glee, and most of the time it works, as songs leap in and around sophisticated chord progressions and smart vocal harmonies. When he's at his best, Folds, who sings and writes all the songs, proves himself a considerable talent.
When he's not, Folds sounds too full of himself. Charm becomes an annoyance, with Folds cramming a song book of chords and melodies into every open space he can find. In those moments, his music comes off like a claustrophobic gathering of influences, most notably Joe Jackson, Squeeze and fellow Carolinians the dB's.
Even so, BF5's emphasis on light, airy melodies, when tempered with moderation, is clearly one of the band's strengths. Folds sees the rock 'n' roll cycle circling back to melody and pop, specifically keyboard-heavy pop.
"The last four or five years, there's been a fear of melody in alternative or pop music," Folds says. "People have been afraid to be too happy or too melodic. You seem to get a lot more credibility if you're pissed off and playing real grunged-out guitar. But there's a lot of bands who at once seem to be bucking that."
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Folds, for one, not only embraces the trend toward pop sophistication, he's ready to take it further, all the way to show-tune territory. He clearly has the chops to handle such a trip. He's got the experience, too. Folds spent a few of his younger years acting in off-Broadway productions, and knows his way around musical theater.
"Yeah, I can see getting into that kind of music," he says of stage soundtracks. "I don't think I'd get all campy to do it, though. That's one of my problems with modern Broadway. It's so--I shouldn't use the word 'gay'--it's so cheesy. I think the cooler stuff is more timely. I would love to work on the soundtrack or the album to a script and make it a hit on radio. I'd want to make sure the production isn't necessarily edgy, but isn't insulting to the audience, either. I'd spend years on something like that to make it right."
Ben Folds Five is scheduled to perform on Saturday, April 12, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Kolmeda. Showtime is 9 p.m. (all ages).