Ben Folds Five: Wonder Bread Alternative To Alternative
Heavy skies are falling onto gray concrete outside as members of Ben Folds Five loiter unnoticed in their Midtown Manhattan hotel lobby. Though tired and haggered from their sold-out, industry-packed Irving Plaza performance the previous evening, the Chapel Hill-based trio is heavily caffinated and anxious to move onto their next gig in Philadelphia.
Since forming nearly two years ago when singer/pianist Ben Folds recruited punk bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse to slesh out his “piano band idea,” BF5’s Squeeze-meets-Joe jackson sound has converted critics and invaded airwaves. The bands’ self-titled debut release whips the groove of Ray Charles into a Jackson Five/They Might Be Giants Jello mold, with obligatory nods to Elvis (Costello, that is) and post-Norvana jabs at the underground. With nary a guitar in sight, BF5 are a Wonder Bread alternative to, well, alternative.
A chorus of drunken tourists idle out the soggy afternoon as the band attacks a pot of coffee at the crowded, well-upholstered bar. Draped in mismatched plaids, baggy cords and leather jackets, BF5 almost look their alterna-rock parts. Still, Folds’ geeky, outgrown fisherman’s sweater and Mr. Rogers-style sneakers remain remarkably square.
Rolling Stone Online: If you could be any superhero in the Hall of Justice, who would you be?
Robert Sledge: I’d be Aquaman, for sure. He’s cool and he had the best sound affects. Plus, he could talk to dolphins.
Darren Jesse: What about the Wonder Twins? There are two, right? A girl and a guy.
Ben Folds: Darren would be the girl.
DJ: Because she’s shapely.
RSO: What’s your greatest vice?
RS: Greatest advice?
DJ: I like to go into an Exxon and lick the rim of the toilet seats.
RS: It sounds kind of sick but I scope them out for him to make sure they’re allright. It’s the buddy system.
DJ: At this point I’d say it’d be coffee for me.
RS: Chocolate bars.
DJ: Mountain Dew! Mountain Dew, definately.
RS: And we have a Hootie listening station set up at our shows.
BF: Darren has this sick thing. He inherited a lot of money. So he’ll offer, like, $5000 if you’ll either take the meat or listen to Hootie in the headphones. Most people take the meat.
RS: Darius is gonna’ kick our asses now.
DJ: Not to discount what they’ve done, but he has a really big family.
RSO: What’s the story behind your single ‘Jackson Cannery”? Old job?
BF: It should have been Hane’s Hosiery, but that didn’t sound good. Actually, I never worked at Hane’s Hosiery, I worked at Westin Printing. But I changed it to Hane’s Hosiery when I thought about what the place looked like and then to Jackson Cannery when I wanted to change the name. So, really, it’s based on onthing.
RSO: Most songwriters say that.
BF: Well, it’s definately based on lots of things, but like other songs, if you wrote an essay about it or explained it, it wouldn’t end up being a song. It’s just a bunch of impressions and shit that sounds good.
RSO: How long have you been playing piano?
BF: Since I was nine-years-old. I had one year of formal playing and then I stopped and started just banging the shit out of it.
RSO: I noticed you were banging on it pretty hard last night. How’s your forearm?
BF: [Pulls up sleave] It’s a little bruised, and I don’t bruise too easily.
RSO: Just so long as you take it in the meat, not the bone.
RS: Take it in the meat [snickers].
DJ: He’s trying to keep up with Elton.
RSO: LUgging that piano around seems to be a pretty non-rock-n-roll type hassle.
BF: It’s pretty liberating, actually. We really know how to move it. So when a bunch of ape-type guys show up and say, ‘Oh my God, we have to move this piano!’ we just pick the back up and put it on a dolly and start moving it without their help at all.
RSO: What’s the story with those tow Marshall’s next to your piano, Ben? Monitors?
BF: I’ve tried them out twice, in L.A., and here, because you can rent stuff in big cities. I wanted to check them out before buying them, because it’s a pretty big investment. I like them a lot. It got the sound I want to hear out of piano because we really want the piano to function like a guitar as much as possible. It’s kind of corny that Marshall stacks would make it work more that way, but it just blasts my ear drums out. It’s great.
RSO: Do techies get pissed when you play piano with their microphones? Or when you stand on the piano?
BF: It depends on the club. I remeber standing on a piano one — I don’t remember where it was, but it was a Steinway — and the guy backstage starts running up like he’s gonna’ yank my skinny ass off of there. But pianos are tough. Mine’s been dropped off off the truck, dropped on the truck, dropped in my house. It’ll be on it’s side, fall over and hit the ground. Strings rattle and stuff. Think of it as a big guitar; if you dropped aguitar, it might be ok.
RSO: Harmonies are a BF5 strength. How do you work them out?
RSO: They’re Jackson Five-ish.
RS: That’s the best thing you could probably say.
DJ: Did you see the MTV Music Awards last year? We actually sang for TLC. They
just danced. I did the rapping.
BF: Give ’em a low note, Darren.
[DJ belts out TLC’s “Waterfalls”]
RSO: Are you guys as square as your press release would have us believe?
BF: I think the tendency for the network that generates press is to take what we do and say, ‘These guys are fucking geeks!’ We thought it was kinda’ funny.
RS: I just tell my friends we’re soft rock. I mean, there aren’t many soft rock bands out there.
BF: There’s definately some truth to that. I’m not very rock-n-roll.
RSO: What’s the story with all those cameras on stage last night?
DJ: We’re doing a video for “Underground,” so the cameramen were there to catch some live footage of the magic that goes into that song. It was definately a vibe buster.
RS: He was right up my ass.
BF: We’re going to fuck the piano up in the video.
RSO: To what degree?
BF: To bits.
RSO: With what?
BF: Just my bare fucking hands.
This interview first appeared on Rolling Stone Online