A quintet of collaborations that never panned out for North Carolina's piano man | Music Feature | Indy Week
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A quintet of collaborations that never panned out for North Carolina's piano man 

Ben Folds decided to come home to launch his latest cross-curricular collaboration. Next week, the North Carolina native and former leader of Ben Folds Five will play Duke University with the ambitious, young classical ensemble, yMusic. They're launching a four-week tour as a teaser for a joint album, due later this year.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS
  • Illustration by Chris Williams

Folds teaming with a modern classical group—or, hell, anything with or without a heartbeat—should come as little surprise at this point. During the last two decades, the increasingly opportunistic piano man has released efforts with William Shatner, Fraggle Rock, a cappella groups, Amanda Palmer, Nick Hornby, a symphony, Weird Al and two other songwriters named Ben.

But have you heard about Folds' five side-projects that didn't live up to their potential?

CHORDS WITH DRE: Because the world is a truly confounding place, Folds got very into covering Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" a decade ago. And because no awful deed goes unrewarded, a version from his set Live at MySpace (ha!) actually cracked Billboard's Hot 100. In an attempt to correct this cosmic injustice, Dre invited Folds to write several piano hooks for Detox, an album fans have awaited since 1999. It was a supreme hoodwink, as everyone but Folds knows Detox will never be released. The Doctor eventually ended the ruse with a simple text: "Forget about Dre."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS
  • Illustration by Chris Williams

NO CAPPELLA: Months before becoming a judge on NBC show The Sing-Off in 2009, Sony issued Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!, a 16-track set of his tunes delivered by various collegiate ensembles. To follow up on the concept, he pursued another LP called Ben Folds Presents: Universal Silence! Folds teamed with a group of art-school performance artists tasked with convincing him to, at last, shut the fuck up. Like everyone before them, they failed.

THE TAR HOLES: In 2014, a real estate developer purchased RCA Studio A, the legendary Nashville space Folds had operated as Grand Victor Sound for a dozen years. In an effort to save the building, Folds launched a hashtag campaign to preserve the space. He also invited fellow North Carolina expats Ryan Adams and James Taylor to collaborate on a fundraising EP with him in Grand Victor as "The Tar Holes." Investors salvaged the space before the sessions could happen, saving the world from the inevitable medley "Oh My Sweet Carolina in my Mind (Brick)."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS WILLIAMS
  • Illustration by Chris Williams

THE FINAL FRONTIER: In 2004, Folds padded his nerd CV by co-writing several songs with William Shatner and producing Has Been, Captain Kirk's first studio album since 1968. They covered Brad Paisley and Pulp, sang with Aimee Mann and had, it seems, a wonderful time. After a decade without any Enterprise crewmembers, Folds reached out to Leonard Nimoy about a potential partnership. Spock's playful response—"I wouldn't be caught dead in a studio with you, Folds"—proved tragically prescient.

SHUT UP AND LISTEN TO MAJOSHA: Reunions have become big business in the modern music industry—the lifeblood of the festival economy and of a limping record business that sells nostalgia well. That said, the small-time success of The Sound of the Life of the Mind—Ben Folds Five's 2012 reunion LP, which spent only three weeks on The Billboard 200—had to sting a little. Undeterred, Folds reunited Majosha, the college band for which he played slap bass. Their sole goal was to win Duke's Battle of the Bands, which they'd conquered in 1988. They lost to a band without slap bass.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Ben's Failed Five."

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