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Carolina Dreaming

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"He was moving back to Chapel Hill, and we just kind of ran into each other in a coffee shop," Jessee says. "He wanted to know what I was doing, and would I be interested in playing, and I said I would, and we just kind of went from there. It was real easy and organic and nothing difficult.

"We knew of each other because it's such a small place. He knew me because there aren't a lot of drummers who can sing and do all the things that this band does, and I knew Ben was a good songwriter. We knew each other, but we weren't friends or anything."

The nerdy, professorial Folds and bloke-next-door Jessee hooked up with bassist Robert Sledge, whose long hair and Robin Zander-ish visage make him the only band member with anything remotely resembling rock-star appeal. Sledge and Jessee seem to possess a near-telepathic understanding of Folds' musical agenda, and, as Naked Baby Photos proves, the band can take a slice of sound-check whimsy and turn it into a full-blown jam. Jessee says the band thrives on spontaneity.

"The thing about it is not that the ideas come to us that quickly, it's just that that's how we generally try and approach and record stuff. There seems to be something very inspired when we just sit down and do something, and we're all put on the spot and we have to just do it. If we sit around and we work on stuff and really obsess over certain things, then it generally loses its charm. It just says to me that it's a very good way for us to work, to do things very quickly, and let it go. It's a little scary that way, but it captures something special."

If the band members are comfortable with the first-take recording ethic, they tend to be more protective of their time for writing. Despite the unexpected success of Whatever and Ever, which was recently certified gold, Jessee says that the tight deadlines faced by the band didn't allow time to develop enough strong material.

"The last album we wrote and recorded all the music in about a month," he says. "It was different, 'cause we didn't really have a lot of time. We didn't play out some of the songs before we recorded them. But because of our success, we've bought ourselves a little bit more time to work it out.

"There are things on Whatever and Ever Amen that none of us are too comfortable with, because we had to do it quickly. Making your second record is not an easy thing to do. So, we feel like the third album will be better, and when the third album's out, the first two albums will make a lot of sense."

At this stage, that third album is merely a vague concept, because, as Jessee concedes, the band has written very little material during the past year, a period of relentless touring that included a somewhat incongruous summer guest spot on the tie-dye-friendly, hippie-jam-oriented H.O.R.D.E. Festival.

"We don't have much [material] right now, so we have to start working on that soon," Jessee says. "We don't write on the road, because you end up writing about buses and truck stops. I wait 'til I get home so I can write about burritos and dogs."

Although Folds is generally seen as the songwriter of the band, both Jessee and Sledge help him shape his ideas, and occasionally bring in songs of their own. The notorious "Song for the Dumped," with its memorably mean chorus, "Give me my money back, you bitch," is actually a Jessee lyric that the drummer jotted down "in about 30 seconds," in response to a bitter breakup three or four years ago. Since much of the Ben Folds Five catalogue--primarily tracks from the debut album--consists of songs that Folds wrote by himself, well before the band existed, Jessee looks forward to future recordings which will tip the balance more toward material that the band developed together.

This month the band finally closes out its tour, and its upcoming Tempe show will actually be the fourth time it's visited the Valley behind Whatever and Ever, counting the H.O.R.D.E. appearance. It's enough to make you wonder if this trio isn't getting just a wee bit sick of saguaro.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia