Ben Folds Five
Sad Clowns and Disgruntled Journalists
I got started on Ben Folds Five by what truly is the definition of motivated salesmanship. Taken back a few years ago, I’m currently sitting on a strangely brown-tinted couch next to a friend of mine, surrounded by more posters, action figures, Dr. Pepper cans, and multi-colored puddles of magazines, CDs, and errant laundry than I could possibly hope to collect myself. We’re in my friend Brian’s house, and he’s just put Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut into his boom box, set it to “random,” pointed at my friend, and said “This one goes out to you!” Track eight, “Uncle Walter,” comes out of the speakers, and Brian takes off. He bounces off the walls, sings into an imaginary microphone doubling as an old Pee-Wee Herman doll, does some quasi-acrobatics, spins around, and finishes it all of by strolling over to his grandfather’s old piano, opening it up, and crashing his hand down upon the keys. He did this… for nearly every song on the album.
When I left his house, I had associated Ben Folds Five with pure fun and energy. And as four years and three albums have passed, that first impression has never left me.
Ben Folds Five are, if you haven’t heard by now, three guys without a guitar in sight. Playing a medley of piano-based upbeat pop and heartfelt mini-ballads, the small but loyal family of fans has grown into a blazing love affair that sweeps up just about anyone who has ever heard these guys. As the saying goes, they’ll make you laugh, and they’ll make you cry. The irony and personality of their lyrics, their charisma on stage, and pure musical talent has built this trio an army of worldwide adoration. And after lugging around a baby grand piano show after show for years, damn, do they deserve it.
This is one of those bands that you could practically watch evolve, starting as a goofy pop band with the occasional touchdown into reality, and culminating thus far with their new and stunningly beautiful album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner . Listening to the group travel their path has been a pleasure I couldn’t have enjoyed more, as each step of the way just proved again and again how absolutely brilliant they are. They’ve made me laugh. They’ve made me cry. Really.
Adding a little funk and a little fuzz to the band is their bassist, Robert Sledge, who can play the keyboard and the bass at the same time, harmonize lyrics, occasionally switches off to double-bass, and will flash you the rock-n-roll symbol if you flash it to him first. He plays with a pick, he plays with his fingers, and he plays with a bow. He’s also a super-nice guy.
First and foremost: the band just did a Levi’s ad shoot… did they let you keep the pants?
Robert Sledge : Those were my pants.
So you’re a Levi’s wearer?
Well, I mean, everyone owns a pair, I think. That should be a slogan. “Everyone owns a pair.”
Everyone has basically labeled Reinhold Messner as the “different” album. How different do you think it really is?
It’s pretty different. I think it’s pretty broad. I think it’s a real record, instead of making a pop record. I think it’s a real attempt at making an honest record. I guess it’s more of an English kind of record instead of an American record, in a way.
Well, in that… it’s kind of an attempt at painting a large picture of where the band is instead of encapsulating that within 12 songs that are very pop-friendly and any of them could be singles. You know what I mean? A couple of them are failed attempts at singles, and they end up being filler. And this record was like, well, it’s not gonna to be a failed attempt at a single, it’s just not going to be a single. It’s going to be a different type of song.
How do you think the reception has been to it?
Umm… people really like it. People are not like… let me see how to state this right. People are really enjoying the record, and they’re not like, they’re not bouncing up and down and saying, “This is the greatest moment of my life!” But instead, they’re just sort of slowly walking through it and sticking with it and enjoying it, instead of it being sort of a piece of pop art that loses its appeal. And it feels like it’s got a subtle belonging.
So you’d consider this your best album?
Well, I think it’s the strongest album. I don’t necessarily think it’s the best collection of songs. Don’t misquote me on that. I think the songs on this record are as good as the songs on the other records. But it wasn’t… we didn’t make a point at making 12 pop songs. So I think it’s the better record. It’s got better flow; it’s better recorded. We kinda let you relax in the middle of it. Stuff like that.
Has the real Reinhold Messner heard the album?
Uh… I don’t know if he’s heard it! I think he has. I just know that he and my manager had a heated conversation and Reinhold finally agreed that we weren’t trying to exploit his name in a bad way, and it’s just chance that his name ended up on the record.
I’ve heard you’re playing with a band called Morris…
It’s a friend of mine’s band. His name’s Angus Antley. This guy, Angus, and Eric, have a really good pop band called Morris. And every now and then they’re short a bass player. So whenever I come back down and they’re short a bass player, I play a show with them. And they have really, really good songs. Angus writes really funny songs, and he’s a great personality. He’s like a cross between… god… what’s his name? The guy from Modern Lovers? But anyway… it’s a cross between David Byrne and… I was going to force the name out, but I can’t remember it. [It’s Jonathan Richman, for those wondering]
“Breakup at Foodcourt” was a song originally said to be on the new album. What happened to it?
I guess it wasn’t ugly enough.
So it’ll be on the next album? Moreover, to answer break-up rumors, will there BE a next album?
Yeah. There’ll be a next record.
My friend said your shoes were nuts…
My shoes are nuts? First off, I have about thirty-five pairs of shoes.
In the liner notes of Naked Baby Photos , Ben makes reference to your metal background. What is your metal background?
I used to play in a band called Lex Luther. We played songs like “Wake Up Dead” and “You’re a Slut” and “Slave to my Dick.”
Wow. A true metal band! Is that your forte?
No… I’d say my forte would be, shamefully, like, fusion. Electric fusion.
Weather Report kind of stuff?
Yeah. But it made playing metal really easy. More like Dixie Dregs, actually.
Some people have said that there’s a definite Steely Dan influence in “Jane.” Does anybody in the band really care about Steely Dan?
Yeah! I think all of us really care. I mean, Can’t Buy a Thrill and Pretzel Logic are probably in me and Ben’s top ten. When we first started touring, I remember we were talking to the guys in Cake, and one of the guys said something like “Yeah, we heard you guys are like the new Steely Dan or something” and they were all impressed by it. And we were like, we’re not trying to be Steely Dan. Cuz, I mean, I love Steely Dan, god bless them, but there’s no Nirvana in Steely Dan. I mean, they didn’t know who the Butthole Surfers were, and we kinda do. Ya know? There’s no the Who in Steely Dan either.
I know you were approached to do a Disney’s bad guys soundtrack. Anything happening with that?
Uhh… I dunno! No comment. I don’t think… I dunno. I’m not sure what happened with that. It got thrown in our lap a while back and they were like “you should do it!” I mean, we just haven’t gotten around to it yet.
You have a bit of an odd fan base, including names such as “Weird Al” Yankovic and Bob Saget. Have they approached you?
Yeah! They have approached us. Al comes out to shows in LA and he hangs around. He’s pretty cool. He looks like my old friend Michael Evans… he’s a pretty cool guy. Him and Ben hit it off pretty well. We met Bob in LA as well, right after we did Garry Shandling. It was kind of like… who’s who comedians at our show. Really, I think, Ben’s lyrics attract the sad clowns. I don’t think any comedian is really fulfilled as a person, so they’re a bit sad when you meet ’em.
So you’d say the portrait of clowns being depressed under the funny facade is accurate?
It’s totally true. I’m not going to name exact names, but… I mean, we played Saturday Night Live and stuff, and met a few of these people, and it was like, “Damn! I thought you were gonna be like hell on wheels, but you’re just… sad.” Or maybe they were intimidated or something, because musicians throw this strange vibe on people. So we tend to psychoanalyze everyone and think we know everything, and sometimes it works and you can kind of intimidate people and maybe they were just trying to be really nice and not be too pushy.
…and you took it the wrong way?
No, I thought they were genuinely sad! Not the whole cast, you know? Just… the best ones.
There are two references to going to LA in the new album. Is anyone in the band thinking of going to LA?
Well, Ben thought he was gonna move to LA and he didn’t. It was fairly literal. He had rented an apartment in LA for his girlfriend and he was gonna live there, and also have an apartment in Chapel Hill. And I was just like, okay, whatever. When it happens, it happens. And then, I think, right towards the end of the record, he decided not to move to LA. And I found out when he sang the lyric. I was like watching him singing “I won’t move to LA” and I thought, well, he’s not moving to LA! …[beep] Hey Jason… I think that’s another disgruntled journalist on the other line. Can you hold on?
[on hold for a moment or two]
Hey. That was somebody, and they’re pissed, boy.
Yeah. Fuck yeah. I was like “can you call back?” and they were like “It’s not what I want. But okay.”
What was going on in the beginning of “For All the Pretty People”?
Ben was playing bass, and when you play bass really loud in a room and the mic volume is really low because the amp volume is so high, and you’re trying to get a word in on the arrangement, you can’t. I mean, me and Darren can freely have a conversation because there are all these open mics in our rooms, and we can talk to each other on headphones like an intercom. But the bass player always has to scream to get a word in. So Ben’s in there screaming “Alright you motherfuckers! I’m 7 inches tall now! I wanna rock! I wanna rock!” and me and Darren are totally winding him up… we kept starting and stopping and starting and stopping. “I’m not kidding this time! I wanna rock!”
So that was payback for all the times you’ve been stuck in the bass booth?
I’ve gotten pretty good at being in the bass booth. I’ve gotten into that “I really respect your work thing,” which kinda makes him think, “Is he kidding?” So you have to choose your words wisely.
The age-old bass player question: pick versus no pick?
Uhh… right now, pick. It works better with a piano.
“Evaporated” seems to be a big hit with just about everybody. Why don’t you pull it out live more?
It’s just too low down. We were playing it for a while. Like, spring of last year we were playing it, and I was on double bass and then I’d bow the cello parts. But it just doesn’t really get that impact the way it did. That song’s a funny song. I mean, I’ve always been an advocate of it. But we recorded it and it was SO painful to record the first time we did it.
Well, we recorded it for the first record, and it didn’t make it. But it was so good… the ritards in that song were so good. Like, the best ritards you’ve ever heard in your life were in that song. You can hear my heart beating almost. I mean, I almost had a heart attack. So, anything else after that is anti-climatic. The song is what it is, and we tried to do it as well as we could. It’s not as emotional for us as something like “Selfless,” because we kicked that song’s ass in the studio.
You’re all from the south, you have the song “Redneck Past.” Have any of you, at any time, had a mullet?
No? Stay away from the mullets?
Oh, hold on… I think Darren had a mullet! [laughs] I think he did! For about a week. He had it for about a week.
Well, I’m about out of questions… thanks for your time…
Oh, no problem. This Bob guy’s gonna call back, he’s gonna be so pissed.
Just tell him to chill out.
I think I’m just gonna sit there and jam in the background. Sit there and play guitar and say… “what?”
If you know another language, you could always just answer his questions not in English…
I knew it was gonna be some disgruntled motherfucker, so I answered the phone “Lee’s Chinese Takeout” and he said, totally unphased, “I need to speak to Robert.” I was like… okay… this is me. Sorry!