“You know what we should do for the bio?” opines the affable, yet wisecracking Ben Folds. “My mother just sent me all the notes my teachers wrote about me when I was in school. Like this one: ‘Ben is making very strange sounds with his mouth. This has been going on for some time.’ “Here’s another one about how a teacher refused to grade a paper I wrote because it was ‘extremely inappropriate and dirty,'” Folds reminisces, reveling in the inanity of it all. “I had to write a paper on a famous composer. I made up some fictional composer and wrote that his most famous piece was called ‘Two-Time Mama’ and all this crap. For some reason, if I thought that the teacher was a dumbass, I never made it through class. I couldn’t stand the thought that someone who I thought was an idiot was teaching a class.”
Sure, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen have built careers on reflecting populist sentiment, whether it’s the plight of farmers or the travails of the factory worker. But on rockin’ the suburbs, his first Epic album since the dissolving of Ben Folds Five, the thirty-something Folds connects with more erudite commentary about real life than a Michael Moore film festival or a year’s worth of Seinfeld reruns. What do farmers, factory workers, college students, pump attendants, dot-com workers, rock journalists and self-centered bohemian types have in common? Well, at one time or another we’ve all had to suffer from people who forget to use turn signals, write checks for a pack of smokes in grocery express lanes and cuss in front of little old ladies. Oh, yeah: We’ve also fallen in love, gotten hurt, cried and gotten over ourselves. Most of the time, being a smartass isn’t about ego-flexing as much as it about coping.
“After all those years,” Folds says, “that streak is still there. I mean, you get kicked around enough and it gets watered down. I’m a nice guy. I’m not an asshole or anything. At least I don’t think I am.”
Folds came to prominence in 1995 as the leader of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based trio Ben Folds Five. Over the course of their 7-year existence, Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee pulled on heart strings, pulled off piano strings and pulled out hairs, explaining over and over again that (a) there were only three band members, (b) none of them play guitar and (c) there’s no “the” in front of their name. A 1996 self-titled debut album for Caroline Records rocked many a college frathouse and sports bar with songs about sucky jobs, lost love, one-night stands with girls who looked like Axl Rose, and pinheaded alt-rock cliques (the wondrously pointed “Underground”). A freewheeling live show, spiked with joyous contempt and dazzling musicianship, put the Five on the map of the alternative nation.
Epic/550 wooed the Five over to their fold in 1996, and soon afterwards, the trio recorded Whatever And Ever Amen, a barnburner of a disc with slice-of-life vignettes about school geeks turned shot-callers and know-it-all slackers; paeans to ex-wives and self-doubt; and “Brick,” a lush, yet sobering song about taking a lover to get an abortion. Americans responded the best way they knew how, sending the single to the top of the charts and the album to platinum status. Terms like “post-modern piano man” were bandied about as the trio headlined around the world and placed with everyone from Beck to Counting Crows to Neil Young. And finally, thanks to major label tour support, the band could hire somebody else to lift that fucking piano on and offstage every night.
In 2000, Folds got some of his Chapel Hill buddies to contribute to Fear Of Pop, Volume One, a not-quite instrumental solo album featuring four vocal tracks (two by Folds, one by actor William Shatner and one lengthy rap by Frally Hynes, the Australian Ben later married and with who he had twins). This was merely a respite for the next Five album, The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner, a disc showcasing a greater depth in songwriting, arrangements and personal reflection that retained a mere smidgen of the band’s unparalleled smarminess.
After wrapping up a lengthy tour, and en route towards the making of their fourth album, the band came to some stark realizations: They hadn’t written any songs, picked a producer, determined a studio or a starting date. They never cared about that stuff before, so why should they now? Instead, the members of Ben Folds Five decided they’d had a great run and disbanded in March 2001. “We just didn’t have the same drive,” says Folds of the breakup. “If it had still been exciting and fun, we would’ve carried on.”
Prior to touring behind the Messner album, Folds had moved to Adelaide, Australia in 1999 to be with his new family and away from the assorted evils of the music business. (Australia has the highest concentration of venomous snakes and insects than anywhere else in the world. In theory, Folds wasn’t that far away from the music business after all). He also decided it was a good place to record. rockin’ the suburbs was recorded in an old church with producer Ben Grosse at the controls, and Folds on anything he could get his hands on. Although known first and foremost as an accomplished pianist, Folds’ musical education actually began as a drummer in high school. He learned piano primarily as a composition tool, while learning bass and guitar along the way.
In much the same manner as when he was recording demos for the Five, Folds chose Ben Grosse, known for his work on records by Filter and Fuel, to capture a particular vibe the artist was looking to tap into. “Filter was the selling point for me,” says Folds about wanting to work with Grosse. “I got the quintessential suburb-rocking producer to work for me. He knows all the sliders and knobs on the board that denote the rocking of suburbs.” The recording process, on the other hand, taught Ben some new tricks. Accustomed to simply setting up some microphones in his house and letting the band just play, Folds was taken aback when Grosse came in with his extensive knowledge in Pro Tools and digital recording techniques, wondering what the hell had he gotten himself into.
“We come from two completely different directions,” he notes. “I’ve always stuck up mics everywhere, pressed ‘record’ and everybody plays. Ben Grosse, however, thinks that’s bullshit. He thinks you are making a movie, and he’ll edit every little syllable if that’s what it takes. There were times when I said to him, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing that’ and he’d go, ‘What, are the gods going to frown down upon me?’ That’s where a tug-of-war began, and it’s why I think the record sounds as good as it does.”
But church-studio clarity isn’t the only reason why the record is completely engaging from beginning to end. The characters in Folds’ songs are touching because, at one point in time, we’ve come in contact with them. We’ve all met the Eighties femme fatale in “zak and sara,” who forecasts the world of techno in her mind while enduring her dullard boyfriend’s attempts at Van Halen solos. Who hasn’t confronted a passive-aggressive employer like Lucretia in “fired?”, or the spoiled girl enabled by her family in “carrying cathy”? The demanding, suicide-threatening paramour in “losing lisa” has touched more people’s lives than rained-out scarecrows and steel mill closings. Even the acid-baked partygoer-turned God’s servant in “not the same” is based on a true story so fascinating, it makes you wonder why America has a war on drugs in the first place.
“I’ve always noticed that every collection of songs I’ve done on record makes me think, ‘Wow, I’m older,'” he explains. “I think it’s my way of keeping my chronicle updated. I think the records document a you-are-there kind of presence. You know how songwriting is; you put into it enough of yourself and cook up the rest. For some reason, a bored girl sitting on a Peavey amp moved me. She’s a character that’s being told to shut up and watch this guy carry on with his shitty ideas.”
While Folds may place himself as a slightly benign observer on most of the tracks, there are moments that are personal and touching. “still fighting it,” a vignette on watching a child grow up, replaces traditional father-and-son relationship roles with a stance closer to foxhole buddies going through the war of life. And “the luckiest” is an unashamed love song to his wife, since even annoyed wiseguys want to know what love is without the lead singer from Foreigner having to show them.
“I think about all the stuff my two-year-old son is going to have to face,” he says about “still fighting it.” “It’s still the same stuff we’ve all gone through, but it’s the same process, whether you’re 2 or 40. It was an overwhelming feeling when I saw him come out at the hospital. I looked at him and thought, ‘Oh man, that looks hard. That’s gotta suck.’ And then I realized, ‘Wait, the whole trip sucks!’ The implied message of that song is that, yes, the trip is worth it.
“I realized how uncool it is to write a song as earnest as ‘the luckiest,’ and I was wondering if I could pull it off without making myself sick. I think a lot of songwriters over 30 are trained not to write love songs because they’re fucking hard. It’s a landmine of cliches, but they are heartfelt emotions. I kept working on it until it meant something to me and didn’t press my nausea buttons.”
The tour de force on rockin’ thesSuburbs, however, is the title track, where Folds slides a psychic-skewer through the kidneys of today’s oh-so angry new-metal millionaires in the same way the Five knocked down indie-rock elitists with “Underground” a decade before. Add producer Grosse’s hardware into the equation (“Got a producer with computers fixing all my shitty tracks”), and you also realize that the singer isn’t beyond pointing the knife at himself just prior to jamming out arena-style at the song’s end.
With rockin’ the suburbs, Folds has established himself as a quadruple musical threat in his own league. In order to rock your tract of land, he’s formed a new band featuring longtime Chapel Hill buddies Snuzz (‘snooze”) and Millard (“If they were available at the time, they would have been the original Ben Folds Five”) and ex-Sheryl Crow and Dixie Chicks drummer Jim Bogios.
As for comparisons to other popular piano men, if you must, we suggest Randy Newman, the under appreciated American national treasure whose poignant songwriting and memorable characters have much in common with Folds’ ordinary heroes and victims.
“Yeah! I remember seeing him on Saturday Night Live, and he played that song ‘Pants’ muses Folds. “He kept singing, ‘I’m gonna take off my pants.’ At that point in time I said, ‘Yes! That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ And my dad got up from his chair and said, ‘I wish he’d take off his pants and shut the fuck up, already.'”
Ben Folds is destined to rock the suburbs and your world. Be careful, though: We’re not sure if he’ll be wearing a belt.