In March 2001, Ben Folds seemed to have everything a 33-year-old piano player could want. His band, Ben Folds Five, had
recently finished a successful tour in support of its third full-length album, the critically acclaimed Unauthorized Biography
of Reinold Messner, and his name was familiar on campuses across America, thanks to an unlikely hit single ("Brick") and
the platinum success of his group's 1997 album, Whatever and Ever Amen.
Armed with a loyal fan base and the
kind of indie credibility that so many acts craved in the wake of the early '90s Grunge Revolution, the Chapel Hill, N.C.,
native could easily have coasted on his reputation, releasing a string of profitable, perfunctory albums.
Folds called it quits.
"We decided to go our separate ways," Folds says, referring to Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge,
his two bandmates in the quirkily titled threesome known as the Five. "We'd lost some of our passion for the band, and we
hadn't written songs for the next album, so it was very much a mutual, amicable decision. I think we'd seen it coming for
a while. Also, I'm living in Australia now, so that made it hard to get together."
Just like that, Ben Folds Five
became Ben Folds One, and the solo recording sessions that ultimately blossomed into the pianist's first solo album, 2001's
Rockin' the Suburbs, began. Folds teamed up with producer Ben Grosse, known for his work with mainstream metal acts
like Fuel and Filter, to put his white-boy angst into perspective. "Filter was the selling point for me," Folds admits. "I
got the quintessential suburb-rocking producer to work for me."
Together, the duo produced a collection of unabashed
pop songs that recall the simple, irresistible melodies of Ben Folds Five's eponymous debut, rather than the darker, more
complex material from Reinhold Messner. "It was nice to be able to play pop music without having to apologize," Folds
says. "For a while it was considered 'uncool' to play songs that were too catchy or upbeat."
Folds has jokingly described
his latest material as "a lot of sad old man songs." Rockin' the Suburbs touches on a variety of somber topics, from the indignities
of old age to bad breakups and the pangs of parenthood. Yet Folds' scathing sense of humor is still in evidence, and though
critics have cited Suburbs as proof of maturity, Folds, at 34, is hardly joining the ranks of rock's elder statesmen.
lot of people ask if I'm feeling old," he says. "That seems to be the theme that most people have drawn from the new album,
and it's always been a myth that's surrounded my music, probably because it involves the piano, and people associate the piano
with artists like Billy Joel and Elton John. Record industry executives are usually under the impression that my audience
is comprised of people between the ages of 15 and 50, and they're always confused when they attend my shows and see a bunch
of young kids."
Soon after the September release of Suburbs, Folds embarked on a quick U.S. tour with a couple of Chapel Hill chums
and ex-Dixie Chicks/Sheryl Crow drummer Jim Bogios. He also recorded his version of the Beatles "Golden Slumbers" for the
I Am Sam soundtrack.
"I didn't want to do it at first," he admits. "Everyone has a fairly clear idea of how
Beatles songs should sound, and it's risky to challenge those ideas. But I saw the movie, and it was really moving. Everybody
was feeling so messed up in September, and a lot of great artists came together to make the album, so I went in and recorded
the song in about four hours. And I'm happy with the results."
Now, after a brief hiatus at home in Adelaide, Australia,
with his wife and children, Folds has returned for his first real solo tour.
"It's just me and the piano," he says.
"Every night is different. During the last tour, I had a band and a very defined set-list. Now it's just me, and I do whatever
I'm in the mood for. Sometimes I'll stick to the game plan, playing an hour-and-a-half set. But last week in Dallas I played
for two hours and 45 minutes. I let the audience dictate to some extent. They shout out requests and I play them. It hasn't
led to anything outlandish, but it's been interesting, because most of the cover songs I perform weren't written for piano,
like the Flaming Lips song I tried a little while back."
Describing what he considers the highlight of his live shows,
the man who once penned the memorably snide chorus to Whatever and Ever Amen's "Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" ("If
you really want to see me/Check the papers and the TV/Look who's telling who what to do/Kiss my ass") is surprisingly humble.
"Show up early," he warns. "The opening act is the Divine Comedy, which is basically an Irish singer named Neil Hannon.
He's really terrific, and it's kind of weird that he's opening for me. It's not that I'm afraid he's going to blow me off
the stage or anything. I've been playing music for a while and I think I'm pretty good at it. But he's a real star in other
parts of the world, and the United States hasn't really caught on. So make sure to be on time." -- Rossiter Drake