Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five
Alternative rock band
Tori Amos aside, the piano has been a largely neglect ed instrument in the 1990s world of alternative rock, where guitars-bass-drums have reigned supreme. Hence, the emergence—and success—of Ben Folds Five is something that took many observers by surprise.
Led by pianist/vocalist Ben Folds, the North Carolina-based trio (rounded out by drummer Darren Jessee and bass player Robert Sledge) made a splash on the college rock scene with a self-titled 1995 debut album that flew in the face of conventional industry wisdom and rocked (like fellow alternative trio Morphine) sans guitar. While the band’s sound and fury were reminiscent of 1970s punk, their songwriting demonstrated a fervent passion for 1970s soft rock. And a fervent passion for the baby grand. As Folds was quoted as saying in a 1997 New York Times article, “One of my ambitions is to make the piano feel like a rock instrument again. I want the challenge of taking the format we use—piano, bass, and drums—into rock arena territory.”
As the band’s name suggests, chief songwriter Folds is the focal point of the group. That the North Carolina native would end up leading his own band is probably not a surprise to those who know him, as Folds grew up with music. The son of a carpenter father and a painter mother, he was raised in Winston-Salem, where he learned to play bass, drums, guitar, and piano.
That early musical education helped Folds earn a scholarship to the well-regarded University of Miami jazz program, but the classically trained orchestral percussionist soon became dissatisfied and dropped out of the program.
Before heading home to North Carolina, Folds tested the musical waters elsewhere, including an unrewarding stint as a songwriter in Nashville. As Folds told Richard Cromelin in a 1996 interview in the Los Angeles Times, “I had been railroaded into a lot of stuff that was not allowing me to play music the way I wanted to. I was, in New York and I got a part in an off-Broadway show, and I enjoyed that so much more. So I decided I was gonna quit.” Folds also admitted that he stopped playing music altogether for a year. “And during that [time] I gained the freedom to come back and do what I’m doing now,” he continued.
Eager to escape from what he characterized as the “jaded” professionalism of the musicians he encountered in Nashville and New York, Folds returned to North Carolina. There, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he traded the drums for piano. Although Folds flunked out of the music program (resulting in a switch to English), he didn’t give up his
Members include Ben Folds (born c1967 in North Carolina), vocals, piano; Darren Jessee, drums; and Robert Sledge, bass.
Formed c. 1993 in Chapel Hill, NC; released debut album Ben Folds Five on independent label Caroline, 1995; played second stage of 1996 Lollapalooza tour; played Reading Festival in England; signed with major label Sony/550 Music and released second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, 1997.
craft. Instead, he continued outside of the classroom, playing local clubs with the bandmates he teamed with in 1993. Ben Fold Five played its debut show at Local 605. Despite the band’s refusal to record a demo tape—which Sledge told Musician magazine “makes no sense … if you don’t have much money”—they began generating label interest just before Folds was set to graduate.
Ben Folds Five (so named because Folds felt it sounded better than “Ben Folds Three”) signed with the independent label Caroline Records for their self-titled debut album, released in 1995. That record earned the band a nod from Rolling Stone, which listed Ben Folds Five among what it called “12 artists on the edge” in 1995. The album went gold in Japan and enabled the band to open for artists like Neil Young (and later, the Counting Crows), perform at England’s praised Reading Festival, and headline a club tour of its own.
Praised in a 1995 Entertainment Weekly review for its “energy and earnest charm,” Ben Folds Five also sparked a furious label bidding war, with Sony/550 emerging victorious only after inking a deal that Details indicated was “rumored to have cost $500, 000 cash, plus the same fee per record, and the same again to Caroline.”
Fresh from a stint on the second stage of the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, the band spent September and October of 1996 recording Whatever and Ever Amen in the small living room of Folds’s Chapel Hill home with producer and band pal Caleb Southern, who worked on the band’s debut album. “Doing vocals in the same room where I sit up at night and worry about my taxes—that’s cool in a way, it makes it a little more real,” Folds told reporter Wendy Mitchell in a 1997 interview.
Full of sass and cynicism, Whatever and Ever Amen proved that the success of their first album was no fluke. Dubbed “an elegant slice of pop rock” by People magazine reviewer Craig Tomashoff, the band’s second album (its first for Sony) quickly won over new fans and continued to wow the critics. As Spin magazine critic Jeffrey Rotter (who gave the album a score of nine out of a possible 10) wrote, “This is the rebirth of the big-label production, the gatefold record, the second album with horns, but these guys have the chops to make over-the-top arrangements click.”
The success of the album coincided with Folds’s romantic success: Shortly before Whatever and Ever Amen was released, he wed Kate Rosen of Los Angeles, daughter of movie director and producer Martin Rosen. And in 1997, a live version of an earlier song, “Alice Childress,” was included on KCRW Rare on Air, Volume 3, a compilation of tracks recorded live for listeners of Los Angeles’ Morning Becomes Electric radio program. That album, released on Mammoth Records, also included songs from Fiona Apple and Patti Smith.
Likened to artists from Joe Jackson to Billy Joel to George Gershwin, Folds has been lauded not only for his songwriting skills but also for his hard-driving live piano playing; as Matt Diehl noted in a 1997 article in Entertainment Weekly, Folds “has been known to bang out chords with his feet and dive headfirst into his keyboard.”
Although the band members have acknowledged that touring with a piano is no easy feat, they’ve also said that it has been worth the effort. As Folds told Greg Kot in a 1996 interview in the Chicago Tribune, “It started out that we enjoyed hauling the piano on stage and scaring everyone. It was our way of sticking our tongue out at the indie rockers, and then kicking their butts by playing with all of this garage-band energy.”
Ben Folds Five, Caroline, 1995.
Whatever and Ever Amen, Sony/550 Music, 1997.
(With others) KCRW Rare on Air, Volume 3, Mammoth, 1997.
Bikini, April 1997.
Chicago Tribune, January 26, 1996.
CMJ New Music Monthly, March 1997.
Details, April 1997.
Entertainment Weekly, July 28, 1995; March 21, 1997; March 28, 1997; May 5, 1997.
Live!, April 1997.
Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1996; March 16, 1997.
Musician, May 1997.
New York Times, April 23, 1997.
Paper, April 1997.
People, May 5, 1997.
Rolling Stone, November 16, 1995; April 17, 1997.
Spin, May 1997.
Washington Post, May 15, 1997.
Additional information was provided by Sony/550 Music publicity materials.
—K. Michelle Moran
Singer, songwriter, pianist
Ben Folds was one of the first commercially successful artists to give the piano its rock credibility in the 1990s. The son of a carpenter father and a painter mother, Ben Folds formed a trio consisting of a piano, bass, and drums that he playfully named the Ben Folds Five (he claimed the name would maintain "alliteration"). Formed in 1993 in Folds's native state of North Carolina, Ben Folds Five was a fun, piano-driven pop/alternative rock group that was playfully dubbed a "nerd rock" group by the media, and garnered a substantial fan base and a cult following on college campuses and radio stations across the country.
Folds was born on September 12, 1967, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He learned to play bass, drums, guitar, and piano at a young age. "Since I was real little I've been kind of directed, and when everyone else was out playing Army, or whatever, I was at home playing piano or drums or bass or guitar, or something," Folds told National Public Radio (NPR) in a interview. He took a year of formal piano training and then, "After that it was Little Richard kind of, beating the hell out of the piano," he recalled.
After flunking out of the music program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (where he quickly traded the drums for piano), Folds moved around the United States, trying his hand as a songwriter in Nashville, starring in the off-Broadway show The Buddy Holly Story, and playing gigs in Miami, before returning home to North Carolina. There Folds developed the concept for Ben Folds Five, which would consist of himself on piano and as singer/songwriter, with Darren Jesse on drums and Robert Sledge on bass.
"Playing piano pop sounded like a kick to me," Folds told the San Antonio Express-News. The absence of a guitar did not frighten the rock group. "One of my ambitions is to make the piano feel like a rock instrument again. I want the challenge of taking the format we use—piano, bass and drums—into rock arena territory," Folds told the New York Times. When the NPR interviewer asked Folds why he never signed on a guitarist, he replied, "It really didn't occur to us at first. Now it's become a challenge to see what we can do with the piano to bring it up to guitar energy…. We have to put out a lot more to get that much out if it."
After playing the local circuit, Ben Folds Five released their indie debut album in 1995. Ben Folds Five went gold in Japan and sold more than 195,000 copies, and the song "Underground" from the album became a major hit. That same year Rolling Stone magazine named Ben Folds Five as one of their "12 Artists on the Edge." The group played the second stage at Lollapalooza in 1996 and appeared on the bill for the H.O.R.D.E. festival and the Reading Festival in England, quickly developing a celebrity following. The alternative rock group The Counting Crows referred to the group in their song "A Long December" with their lyric, "listening to Ben Folds on the radio." Author Nick Hornby dedicated a chapter of his book Songbook to the group's song "Smoke."
In 1996 Ben Folds Five signed a deal with Sony's 550 Music/Epic Records label and released Whatever and Ever Amen in 1997, a project they recorded in Folds's living room. The critically acclaimed album went on to sell more than 946,000 copies. In 1999 they released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Folds believed that the character of Messner was fictional, but later discovered that Messner had been the first man to climb Mt. Everest without using oxygen. That same year Folds married Kate Rosen, the daughter of film director/producer Martin Rosen (and subject of the song "Kate" on the group's first album). The couple had twins, and the family later relocated to Australia, his wife's home.
The Ben Folds Five had several career hits, including "Army," "Battle of Who Could Care Less," and "Fair." They scored a substantially commercial hit with "Brick," a song Folds wrote about a young girl's abortion. "Brick" received heavy rotation on MTV and on Top 40 radio. In 1998 the group released Naked Baby Photos, a compilation of live tracks and previously unreleased songs.
Ever the professional jokester, Folds has called the group's sound "punk rock for sissies." Folds himself has earned comparisons to Elton John and Billy Joel, the latter of whom Folds cites as a musical influence. Other musical influences include Cole Porter, the Clash, Joe Jackson, and Queen. But Folds's stage presence, on-stage antics and playing style are all his own. He plays the piano wildly and has been known to play with his feet or bang the keys with his head.
Ready for a professional change, Folds amicably split from his band mates in 2001 to pursue a solo career. He began releasing his solo work through his website, including the EPs Sunny 16 and Speed Graphic. According to the Argus Ledger, Folds posted a statement on his website: "Quietly releasing my music as EPs allows me to get it out there as I finish it. With minimum hype. It won't be sold in the big chains, because that puts the price up and starts the big machinery—press, radio, etc."
Folds has remained in contact with his former band mates, but he's happy to be captain of his own ship. "It was good to record with a band, but we were together 24 hours a day for six years. We just couldn't do it anymore," Folds told Billboard in August of 2001. He released his first solo album, Rockin' the Suburbs, in 2001, playing all the instruments on the record himself. Weird Al Yankovic directed the video for the title track on the album, and Folds described the album to the New York Times as "a lot of sad old man songs." The well-known ballad on the album, "The Luckiest," was written as a valentine to his wife. Folds toured in support of the album with just a piano, saying that he did it because he didn't feel right playing Ben Folds Five songs with a different band.
Folds seemed to find what he was looking for in his solo outing. "I'm actually finding myself in the most successful position that I've ever been in," he told the Herald Sun. "Right when I quit the band and did Rockin' the Suburbs, that was a miserable period for me, because I'm very stubborn and I decided it was going to make a very slick album. I should have just done what I was doing naturally—my demos were just done literally in the garage and they sounded amazing."
Folds's solo tour was so successful that it prompted the release of a live album, Ben Folds Live, in 2002. Folds delayed the release date of his sophomore solo album in order to produce a music collection by William Shatner called Has Been. In 2004 he formed a super group with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller called The Bens. The trio released a four-song EP to sell at their shows, writing and recording the songs together in just four days. The group has toured extensively in the United States.
For the Record …
Born on September 12, 1967; son of a painter and a carpenter; married Kate Rosen, 1999; children: two. Education: Graduated from University of North Carolina.
Formed group Ben Folds Five in North Carolina, 1993; released self-titled debut album, 1995; signed to Sony 500/Epic Rrecords and released Whatever and Ever Amen, 1997; released The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, 1999; Folds went solo, released Rockin' the Suburbs on Epic, 2001; released Ben Folds Live, 2002; produced album for actor Williim Shatner, 2004; released several EPs on his own website.
Awards: Pop Awards, BMI Citation of Achievement for Brick, 1999.
Addresses: Record company—Sony Records, 20 West 55th St., New York, NY 10019, website: http://www. sonymusic.com. Website—Ben Folds Official Website: http://www.benfolds.com.
Fans of Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five have embraced the group as much for their energetic live performances as for the personal truths in their music and lyrics. Many of Folds's songs are tiny tales of personal loss and longing or comical anecdotes. "When I write, I kind of take a part of my character that I can exaggerate," he told NPR.
(As Fear of Pop) Volume 1, 550 Records, 1998. Rockin' the Suburbs, Epic, 2001.
Ben Folds Live, Sony, 2002.
With Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five, Passenger, 1995.
Whatever and Ever Amen, 550 Records, 1997.
Naked Baby Photos (compilation), Caroline, 1998.
The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Sony, 1999.
Argus Ledger, April 16, 2004.
Billboard, December 11, 1999; August 11, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, March 21, 1997.
Herald Sun, March 6, 2003.
New York Times, November 26, 2001.
Newsday, November 6, 1997.
Newsweek, January 9, 2003.
Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 25, 1997.
San Antonio Express-News, April 11, 1997.
San Diego Union-Tribune, August 1, 2003.
Washington Post, May 15, 1997; February 20, 1998; March 15, 1998; April 13, 2000; September 23, 2001.
"Ben Folds," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (April 13, 2004).
"Ben Folds, doing his own thing," CNN, http://www.cnn.com (April 12, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from an interview on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, January 28, 1996.
—Kerry L. Smith
Born: Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 12 September 1966
Best-selling album since 1990: Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
Hit songs since 1990: "Underground," "Brick," "Army"
Piano player Ben Folds surfaced in the mid-1990s with his trio, the curiously named Ben Folds Five. Folds, the group's singer and primary songwriter, backed by Darren Jesse on drums and Robert Sledge on bass, took the idea of a traditional trio and turned it on its head—a pop band with no guitar—with the group's energetic, humorous, self-titled debut on Caroline Records (1995). Their debut album found a home with college-aged Generation Xers, thanks largely to the song "Underground," a tongue-in-cheek skewering of youth culture, specifically nose rings and mosh pits.
Folds, whose initial dabbling with music came through drums and not piano, draws comparisons to Billy Joel, Elton John, and Todd Rundgren. Folds writes pop songs about being a geek, getting picked on growing up, and the pains of adolescence and relationships. Folds and his band were expert live entertainers who thrilled the audience with their dazzling improvisational skills and smart-aleck commentary. Folds often plunked away on the piano with his feet, his head, and other extremities.
Their self-titled debut was a welcome antidote to the guitar-oriented, grunge rock bands popular at the time. The follow-up, Whatever and Ever Amen (1997), was no sophomore slump; it went platinum just over a year after its release. A piano/pop masterpiece from start to finish, it runs the gamut sonically and thematically, including three-part vocal harmonies that recall both the British band Queen and the Doobie Brothers. Emotionally, it ranges from a raucous piano on the humorous but angry "Song for the Dumped" to the solemn, poignant "Brick," the unexpected successful single about a lover's abortion. Whatever and Ever Amen sets itself up immediately, with the thunderous playing of Folds on the leadoff track, "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," a sarcasm-fueled, revenge fantasy on being the short guy in gym class who gets picked on. Folds sings, "Now I'm big and important / One angry dwarf and 200 solemn faces are you."
After the disappointing sales of their third release, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (1999), the group split up. Folds went solo, and his debut, Rockin' the Suburbs (2001), focused on the humility of growing older, perhaps as a result of remarrying for the third time and moving to Australia with his wife Frally Hynes and their twins. Replete with his signature piano bravado and song titles such as "Zak and Sara" and "Annie Waits," Rockin' the Suburbs is consistently upbeat. In the fall of 2002, after a year and a half long solo piano tour, Folds released a live album, Ben Folds Live.
Rockin' the Suburb s (Epic, 2001); Ben Folds Live (Epic, 2002). With Ben Folds Five: Ben Folds Five (Caroline Records, 1995); Whatever and Ever Amen (550 Music/Sony, 1997); The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (550 Music/Sony 1999).