Thirteen years since calling it quits, Ben Folds Five are back baby!
The trio from North Carolina came together in 1993, proclaiming themselves ‘‘punk rock for sissies’’ and breaking through with singles like‘Underground’, ‘Brick’ and ‘Army’ while the mass of the alt-music world was moshing to ‘90s grunge. There was seven years, three albums, and a multitude of hits which made their way from the States onto all the best triple j Hottest 100 comps – but in 2000, Ben Folds Five announced their split; an amiable hiatus with little given in the way of explanation.
When I get the chance to talk drummer Darren Jessee, in the lead-up to the hugely anticipated new Ben Folds Five album, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, and a subsequent album tour that will see them playing Harvest next month, my first question is obvious: what was the straw that broke the camel’s back, was there a straw? Was there even a camel? “That all still remains somewhat of a mystery,” he answers coyly. “The overall feeling was that we were all very tired. We were a band that during that time was touring non-stop throughout the course of our albums, and I think we were just exhausted. I think we just needed to take a break, so we called it quits. It’s much easier to reflect upon it all now, though.”
The band reunited briefly in 2008 for the ‘Front To Back’ concert series organised by a soon-to-spiral MySpace, which invited artists to perform an entire classic album live. Ben Folds Five played 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner from start to finish. “I guess the reunion did take off with that MySpace show. I think just getting back and playing together was good,” Jesse explains. After the concert Ben Folds, who by then had a burgeoning solo career, asked Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge to record a few tracks with him for his retrospective album, The Best Imitation Of Myself, which came out in 2011. “That’s when it all kind of took off.”
The material for Ben Folds Five’s new album was a collaborative effort between the three bandmembers. It took them only six weeks to write and record the bulk of it in Folds’ Nashville studio. “Since the first album came out in 1994, we had been playing and touring our songs like most bands: you write your first batch of songs, then tour them, and then you make a record, or vice versa,” Jesse explains. “But The Unauthorised Biography Of Reinhold Messner and The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind were both pretty much written on the spot in the studio.”
It helped that the bandmates had kept their music muscles toned; they’d been keeping busy during the 13-year hiatus. Jessee formed a band called Hotel Lights, who have released three independent records and to this day are still quite active: “It’s a band that hasn’t finished up, and we don’t plan to any time soon,” he says. Sledge, who now has a family in North Carolina (“he’s a very good and dedicated father”), has been working in production for small bands, teaching music, and playing in local rock group The Bob Sledge Band. Ben Folds, of course, never really stopped: he’s released six solo LPs since 2008, judged a televised a capella competition called The Sing Off, collaborated with writer Nick Hornby on the Lonely Avenue LP (Hornby on lyrics; Folds on music), and worked with Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and Damian Kulash as 8in8, writing, recording and producing eight songs in eight hours, which were available online within 24 hours.
Much like Palmer’s last album, which raked in $1.2 million through KickStarter, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind was crowd-funded, with Ben Folds Five asking fans to donate for the recording and release. Within two weeks, Ben Folds Five reached 200% of their initial goal, and they couldn’t have been more thrilled. “Everything we do with this band is done to ultimately make us happy, and we hope that this translates to the fans. Obviously we are so grateful to those people who are still excited about it,” Jessee enthuses. Grateful, sure, but were they surprised? “Ben has maintained a consistent touring schedule and fan base, and the records we made in the ‘90s were pretty big – people liked us, we felt pretty popular – so initially we expected a very small, hardcore group of fans to get excited and donate, but we were very happy that there was a lot more than that!’’
Much of that response came down to Ben Folds of course, who has maintained the rabid loyalty of BFF’s fans through his series of acclaimed records and sold-out tours. Indeed, all the official information you’ll find online about the reunited band is hosted on Folds’ solo website – a telling sign of his centrality to Ben Fold Fives success. “I don’t actually know why someone hasn’t started an independent Ben Folds Five site,” Jesse says. “I’m only to assume that because we can reach more of an audience with Ben’s followers, we’ll just run everything through him.’’
What: The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is out now through ImaVeePee Records, via Sony Music Australia
With: Beck, Grizzly Bear, Sigur Ros, Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane, Santigold, Beirut, Cake, The Dandy Warhols, Liars and more
Where: Harvest Festival @ Parramatta Park
When: Saturday November 17