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Members include Ben Folds (born c. 1967 in North Carolina), vocals, piano; Darren Jessee, drums; and Robert Sledge, bass. Addresses: Record company--Sony/550 Music, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022-3211. Efirstname.lastname@example.org. Phone--1-888-BENFOLDS5 (toll- free).
Tori Amos aside, the piano has been a largely neglected 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 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' 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 (and 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' 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."
by K. Michelle Moran
Ben Folds Five's Career
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.
- Selective Works
- Ben Folds Five, Caroline, 1995.
- Whatever and Ever Amen, Sony/550 Music, 1997.
- Also included on compilation 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.
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