by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, 1997
Ben Folds Five
Within alternative rock, the piano is nearly taboo. You can point to a few gloomy balladeers (Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas, Epic Soundtracks) and some arty pre-punk veterans (Kate Bush, Bryan Ferry, Robert Wyatt), but beyond that, it's mostly organs and synthesizers. As for piano players who made a name for themselves with technical skill and an ability to swing, you're basically down to Jools Holland and Steve Nieve. It's a depressingly tiny list.
Of course, this was before Ben Folds Five burst out of Chapel Hill, NC with an irresistible, hook-filled debut that sent thousands of indie-rockers back to practicing their scales and arpeggios. Not only did this trio feature Ben Folds' piano as a lead instrument, but there was no guitar at all. Bassist Robert Sledge is well aware of the band's unique concept, but dismisses notions that they're on a crusade to make the piano hip again.
"We're on a crusade to play our songs," he says, "and the residual of that is the more popular we get, the more people agree that it's a good idea. But it was never a crusade to be anti-guitar or to be more musical than the next guy, or to try make everyone else more musical. We're not bullies in that sense. But I'm pleased, because in the last few years we've suffered from a lack of happy chords in music, and you can definitely see the backlash of that: There's a lot of really upbeat, major-chord, cheery songs and a lot more musicianship right now. I guess it's a knee-jerk reaction to what happened with grunge and commercial-alternative."
Was he surprised at the debut's success, especially considering it was released through just a small imprint label of Caroline Records? Not so much, actually. "Well, I figured it would do good right out of the box, because there would be a certain degree of promotion that's pervasive. But our whole philosophy on this thing is to grow kinda steadily, instead of bombarding the market with our faces. It has always grossed me out the way some good things just get shoved down your throat. We want it to be on the strength of the songs and touring and stuff like that, so we don't have to put our pictures in every trade publication to get played on the radio. We're not being desperate about it. We're trying to let it happen naturally."
Naturally, the debut's rich promise earned some equally rich major-label offers, resulting in the band signing with 550 Music/Epic. Their second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, sacrifices some of the debut's upbeat pizzazz but adds nuance and variety. "Evaporated" and "Selfless, Cold and Composed" include polished string parts, while "Steven's Last Night in Town" slips in three klezmer players. Sledge even puts down his trademark fuzz bass for a track or two, and grabs an upright bass. Meanwhile, Folds' ballad style can be stunningly evocative ("Cigarette," "Missing the War"), while brighter tunes like "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," "Kate" and "Battle of Who Could Care Less" crackle with typical virtuosic gusto.
Those who feared that a major label might turn Ben Folds Five into a slick Billy Joel clone needn't worry -- this was a homespun effort all the way. Rather than use a high-tech recording facility, Folds, Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee spent most of their budget converting Folds' Chapel Hill house into an ad hoc studio. Sure, the string players and superstar mixer Andy Wallace cost some extra bucks, but you can still see the tubes and wires peeking out of the songs.
"For all practical purposes, the second record was recorded more shabbily than the first," Sledge smiles. "We kinda sabotaged ourselves from becoming too polished by doing it ourselves. I mean, there's good playing, but it's recorded really bad, honestly. It's decent, but it's not like the stuff that Billy Joel records on. We could've done that, but for our own convenience and sanity, we just used stuff that we could work with. We didn't have to hire a 40-dollar-a-hour tape operator. We'd just push 'Play' on these new digital machines, and they did the work."
"The first record, we cut very live," he says. "To me, every song on the first record has the same kind of sound. On this record, we took greater lengths to make every song its own single, its own little space of time. Some songs weren't finished completely when we got in the studio, and we worked on them a whole lot while we were playing. We worked on everything as much as we possibly could. We finished a lot of tracks really late, because we kinda just left the box open the whole time we were recording and then wrapped it up quickly at the end. It was a lot different from the first record. That record was recorded in sets, while we were spending days on certain songs on the second record."
"This record obviously has more ballads," he admits. "They were songs that had been kicking around for awhile, and we thought their time had come. We thought that we were good enough players at this point to play something slow without being uptight about it. The next album will probably be the ass-kick rock record which everybody expected us to do for the second record."
And the group's long-term goals? Fresh off the road with Counting Crows, the weary Sledge has a quick answer: "Two solid months off!"
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