⇒ Read also: "A second look at Ben Folds Five's Reinhold Messner"
Ben Folds walks into the Nashville city streets and starts talking about the exciting things afoot in the room he just left: Eighteen people are in his studio preparing the stage show—wiring snare drums, programming projections, building keytars and frown masks—to support Way to Normal, his third solo album since 2001. These sets will be spectacles, the biggest production he's ever launched. The 32-date tour stretched over four months and at least four countries begins in two weeks, and he seems anxiously optimistic.
"It's a huge operation," he says, the breeze causing his cell phone to crackle. "It's just meant to be fun and freely enhance all the songs and just be a contrast to the sort of bare-boned, intimate approach I've always taken live. You know, that's a lot of bullshit for saying that we're just having a good time with it."
That approach Folds has relied on for the better part of the decade dates to Ben Folds Five, the Chapel Hill piano-rock trio he led for seven years. Ben Folds Five, which became North Carolina's best-selling pop group of all time before breaking up almost eight years ago, will reunite Thursday to play its final album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, in its entirety, followed by a set of hits from the two albums and collection of outtakes that preceded it.
Though Messner sold less than a third of the band's 1997 album, Whatever and Ever Amen, people are clamoring to see the band play it: The 500 tickets available to the public sold out in less than five minutes. The remaining 700, reserved for UNC students, sold out in less than three hours. Fans who missed out have been flooding sites like Craigslist looking for help, offering $500 or a front-row Nine Inch Nails ticket for one seat.
"You know, when it came out, people called it like the Muppets trying to be Radiohead," says Folds of Reinhold Messner, laughing. "It was probably dumped on much more than it was hailed as a masterpiece."
Oh, how things change.
In 1993, Ben Folds returned to Chapel Hill after unsuccessfully trying to form a band to play his songs in New York City. He'd already led a successful band around his hometown of Winston-Salem, and landed a music publishing deal in Nashville, where he briefly lived before attending the University of Miami, where he enrolled in the percussion program. In New York, he was playing drums in the pit band for the play The Buddy Holly Story, but he couldn't find consistent musicians to play his own material.
So he came back to North Carolina. Robert Sledge knew of Folds through his brother, Chuck Folds, who led Bus Stop, a Triad peer of Sledge's longtime band Toxic Popsicle. Chuck hooked him up with his brother, but he was hesitant at first.
"He called me up, and I was initially like, 'Man, you're too good for me to play with. You can sing in tune and write all these high concept songs, and it sounds like Broadway and shit. I don't understand that stuff'," remembers Sledge, the only member of Ben Folds Five who still lives in North Carolina. "He was like, 'Yes. You can too do that.'"
Folds knew Darren Jessee from his time in Nashville. They randomly reconnected on the street in Chapel Hill. Jessee signed on and, by the end of the next year, they'd logged dozens of tour dates, including headlining dates at The Brewery in Raleigh and at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.
"For people who could play their instruments so well and understood songwriting in a disciplined fashion, they had a really fun attitude, like a lot of the indie rock bands I was working with at the time," says Caleb Southern, the longtime Cat's Cradle sound engineer who had worked on albums by Chapel Hill bands like Zen Frisbee and Archers of Loaf. "But they were taking that to a different level with songwriting and arranging and proficiency. They had a chemistry that was unique from the beginning."
According to Folds, no one was in the band to make money, but Sledge remembers that they always had aims to get in front of lots of people—sooner rather than later: "Everything was always secondary to the goal in the first place in this group. ... Ben came down looking for a band, so it was always very goal-oriented. Ben had a group of songs. We were going to make those songs kick ass. Then we got signed."
From there, it didn't take too long: Southern recorded the first album in Hillsborough, but the second album, Whatever and Ever Amen, recorded in Folds and Sledge's shared house on Isley Street, flung the Five into the national spotlight. Much of that was due to the success of its somber piano single "Brick," which climbed to No. 17 on Billboard's Top 40 chart a year after it was released. The album was certified platinum in July 1998, meaning it had sold a million copies in a year's time.
The opportunities for and demands on the band hit a new high, and they didn't have the willpower to say no to anything—radio interviews, international tours, television appearances, soundtrack contributions.
"During that time, I think the three of us were suffering from probably fatigue-induced quasi-depression. We were just so unbelievably tired," remembers Folds, ending each sentence with a nostalgic laugh. "If you see pictures from that era, we were all skinny as a fucking rail. That wasn't from a weight-loss program. Man, that was from not getting a chance to eat."
Sledge grins when he says he didn't sleep for more than five hours a night for the seven years of the band's rise and ultimate demise. Jessee mostly remembers the constant motion and the drain that came from being shuffled from airplanes to vans, from hotels to stages.
"I definitely remember a few times just feeling like ... I was going to get sick if I got into another van or another airplane or moved anywhere," Jessee says. "I just felt like, 'I'm going to throw up now, if I have to move again.'"
But, motion sickness and all, they didn't feel the need to stop. With its popular momentum on the rise, Ben Folds Five started planning to record its third album with Southern. They'd leave Chapel Hill to make this record, splitting their time between Sound City in Los Angeles and RPM in New York—that is, a big band in big studios with a big budget. They hired horns, a string arranger and a string section. It was their record to ruin.
The pressure was high, expectations, huge: Whatever and Ever Amen was threatening to push to double-platinum status, and, after the fact, Southern learned that Sony BMG's 550 Music—the major label that had signed the band after moderate success with its self-titled independent debut—hoped to sell 4 million copies of Reinhold Messner. To date, it's sold just over 291,000 copies—40,000 more than that first independent album, 800,000 less than Whatever.
It was difficult from the start. A few of the songs that made it onto Reinhold Messner had been in the works for some time. The band recorded early versions of "Army" and "Don't Change Your Plans" in the summer of 1997 for a public television series called Sessions on West 54th, but the road hadn't give the band much time to write.
"It's extremely hard to tour and be introspective enough about yourself to come up with something honest and qualitative," remembers Sledge, the Five member known best for his big, distorted bass tone. "When you do get a minute off, you don't really want to go back and work and record. That's just the way it happens, or did happen, in that system."
Though now Folds calls Southern the band's fourth member, even he hadn't heard any of the material until they convened in Los Angeles to begin recording. To finish the record, Folds was writing on the spot, in the studio, rather feverishly, as he remembers.
"The album had a really unusual process," says Folds. "So the things that I wrote for the album in the studio, I was writing them all to be one long song, kind of like Journey to the Center of the Earth or something ... because my mind was on certain things."
Folds wasn't just tired from his own post-"Brick" schedule. He was tired of outsider expectations of him as the new piano pop balladeer. "Brick," written by Folds and Jessee, was an anomaly, a tender moment from a boisterous band with the gumption to call an ex-girlfriend a bitch on tape, to throw a stool at a piano onstage, and to flip pop trio expectations with a fuzzy bass signal. Folds didn't want to replicate the last album. He wanted something grand and cinematic. The band's influences had grown, Sledge says, and they wanted the record to reflect that. But Folds had trouble reining himself in enough to turn his one-song idea into a recordable, listenable, sellable album.
"I felt like I was, you know, 30 years old and had spent most of my life writing three-and-a-half minute pop songs," Folds says. "I was well aware of what you need to write a song. Crafting a song was really not exciting to me."
One of the most infamous examples was "Don't Change Your Plans," which Folds remembers as being an eight-and-a-half minute mess that badly needed editing. One day he arrived in the studio, and Southern was deep in a mess of tape, trying to pare the song down to something that resembled the final five-minute take included on Reinhold Messner.
"I was looking for a chorus in that song, and—depending on your perspective—it didn't either want to have a chorus or it wanted to have a bunch of different choruses. I was trying to push it back into a more traditional song form," says Southern.
Indeed, many of the songs—"Regrets," "Hospital Song," and the single "Army," which remains one of the most popular songs in Folds' solo sets now, despite never breaking the Top 10 of any Billboard chart—don't include a chorus, a product of that early one-song approach.
Folds regrets that decision slightly, even though he thinks the record, which he hasn't heard since 2001, is "beautiful." Jessee calls it a great album, too, and, a day after listening to the album for the first time in three years, Sledge agrees. He hears details in Folds' writing that he didn't hear then. The band did, he thinks, what it set out to do: Make a big record that rose above its past.
"We were trying to make a record that sounded good. ... I felt like our records were busy and small-sounding. We wanted them to be energetic and honest, so that was the result," says Sledge. "This sounds so much better than anything else."
Aside from Folds, Jessee and Sledge, one other person receives vocal credits on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. That's Ben's father, Dean Folds. The album's eighth track, "Your Most Valuable Possession," uses a two-minute-long, pre-dawn voicemail from Dean as the setting for light lounge jazz. In the same thick Southern accent of which his son still carries a trace, he says, "They say that when you're in space, you lose muscle mass and body mass. And I wondered if there was any way to end it, or whether if you didn't exercise in space, how long would it be before you were just a head or a mind and have no body or arms."
Today, shortly before his son comes back to North Carolina to play with his old bandmates, Dean laughs at that message, which he doesn't remember, aside from being half-asleep when he left it. He hasn't seen Sledge or Jessee, who now lives in New York and records as Hotel Lights, in years. But when he talks about the reunion, at which he'll likely read a transcript of that old message, he sounds proud. He's glad that the band—still "the boys" to him—was willing to do the show for Operation Smile, a charity that repairs the cleft palates and lips of children. Dean's brother, Jim, worked for the organization for a decade.
Much like the members of Ben Folds Five, Dean doesn't remember specifically why the boys broke up. Sledge is pretty sure Jessee was the first one to suggest moving on, but he only spoke for all of them: They were all tired. The marathon schedule that had begun years before had continued. They'd already recorded a batch of new songs in Durham, and, as musicians, they'd grown interconnected. According to Southern, who lives in Manhattan now, even in the expensive studios used for Messner, they wanted to record in one room, as a unit, contrary to the advice of every engineer. It was the work of a band that was capable of taking chances and making them work, even if that meant selling less records. But it was just time to stop.
"The machine wore us the fuck out," admits Folds. "We never really had control of this. At the same time, the thing about it is that records, like Reinhold Messner, came out of it. But we burned out. We totally did."
Now, at least for one night, they'll see if they can start again.