Ben Folds Five

THE EQUATION IS SIMPLE; Ben Folds and his piano plus bassist Robert Sledge, plus drummer Darren Jessee, equal Ben Folds Five. It’s a pretty straightforward story, really. When it came to naming the band, Folds opted for alliteration over accuracy. In spite of the bad math, this band adds up just fine.

“I think we’re pretty lucky,” said Sledge. “We set ourselves up for diversity from the start, which means we can do what we want, musically. Our fans are the kind of people who come ready for anything and who appreciate the unexpected.”

“We had everything going for us right from the beginning,” said Folds, “a confusing name and big piano. Oh, and no guitar.” At least they weren’t competing with a lot of other post-modern piano bands. Even in the early days when clubs wanted to put them on keyboard night or folk night, the trio was not dissuaded. Sometimes they didn’t bother mentioning the piano. “We got some interesting reactions when we’d roll in the piano,” Jessee said. “It was like some of these club guys had never seen anything like it and these people don’t necessarily like surprises.”

Jaded concert audiences, burned out on distortion and angst, did like surprises and the melodic, sharp-witted BFF gave them a good reason to buy tickets again. The positive press and growing word-of-mouth gave the band a reason to stay on the road.

“We put the first album out on Caroline (Records),” Folds said. “It wasn’t taking over the world but we were getting extremely good reviews and we were drawing at the clubs, which was very encouraging.” The one thing that continued to elude them was a booking agent. At some point in their travels, they heard a rumor that an agent who has long championed allegedly “unmarketable” bands couldn’t stand BBF. Marsha Vlasic, however, thought otherwise.

“We had a really, really hard time finding a booking agent and Marsha was one of the first people who it really made sense to work with,” Folds said. “We really like her a lot; she’s bad-ass. We left William Morris to go with her.” He said the band has that kind of confidence in its entire team now and can’t even envision the day when they’d break up the family.

“I like the idea of sticking with the same people for the whole time.” Then in the much-ballyhooed Ben Folds voice of biting sarcasm he added, “I don’t see why 20 years later you can’t be working with the same old stupid, pitiful people [then louder, for the benefit of the near-by road crew], especially our useless joke of a tour manager, Doug Goodman, better known as The Sloth.”

Folds is so not serious, he can’t even choke back his own laughter when he’s making fun of people. It’s what makes his razor-sharp lyrics funny instead of mean. “We did some openers at the beginning of our career with bands whose tour managers and booking agents and everyone around them were just dickheads. Then we started to realize that all the crap actually came from the band, he said. “So we’re really aware of that mentality; whatever you put out there gets magnified and thrown back at you.”

All the hard work and time away from home has come back to BFF in a good way this year. The band posted very strong North American box office numbers and their second album,Whatever And Ever Amenbrought them more acclaim and an even bigger audience. They moved up from clubs to doing some theatres, toured with the H.O.R.D.E. Festival and became big in Japan. The end of 1997 finds the three-man Five very happy, a bit nostalgic and really, really tired.


“It’s beenreally cool,” said Folds. “I mean, it’s a lot of work — and I’m expected to complain about that a certain amount — but it would have been a lot of work if I was bussing tables, too. We did get a little wistful when we were looking through pictures recently. We were sitting in a room going, ‘Holy shit! All this has happened in such a short period of time,’ and then we all felt kind of weird, like, ‘Man, that was me…. I looked really young.'”

The band just finished the last leg of its final 1997 tour and is taking the month of January off. Folds will be visiting Australia sans piano for the first time, Jessee (who is positively miserable upon waking) is taking a long winter’s nap and Sledge said he’s seeking treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. They head out again in February and plan on being in the studio next spring.

“Earlier this year, I was a little nervous about the band getting bigger,” said Jessee. “We used to do everything ourselves but when things started to take off, we couldn’t do that. Now I’m enjoying it. It’s nice that someone else has to deal with moving the piano.”

“Itisnice,” said Folds, “but when you go out on tour and you call your day job from the road and say, ‘I don’t think I’ll be coming back Monday….’ And then you make another one saying, ‘I’m not going to be back next Monday,’ so they say you’re fired, but it doesn’t matter because you’re not coming back anyway. That part’s really nice.”