"I'd love for people to hear this record clean," says Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five's new The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. "Like they never even heard of us before. If no one knew who we were and we put this record out, I think that would be terribly interesting."
Sorry, Ben, but that ship has sailed. Ben Folds Five were among the most distinctive and inventive bands of the alternative era, beloved for their kinetic live shows and piano-powered popcraft. Now, more than a decade after the Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based trio first said farewell, Ben Folds Five are back and clichés be damned, they're better than ever. The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (ImaVeePee Records/Sony Music Entertainment) makes it plain that the years apart have only served to amplify the band's already estimable gifts. Songs like the ebullient first single, "Do It Anyway," or drummer Darren Jessee's elegiac "Sky High" illustrate an increased subtlety as well as a soulfulness born of a truly inimitable group dynamic.
Folds, Jessee, and Robert Sledge first united in 1994, drawing immediate notice for their sardonic smarts, high-energy harmonies and unstoppable melodies. In 1995, the band's self-titled debut was rightfully hailed as a guitar-free pop oasis amidst the grungy industrial wasteland that was mid-90s rock. 1997's Whatever And Ever Amen proved the trio's popular breakthrough, with the landmark single, "Brick," fueling worldwide sales in excess of 2 million. Where many bands would've happily stuck to the formula, in 1999 BFF returned with The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, an audacious and inventive collection that yielded still another milestone with the timeless "Army."
Ben Folds Five amicably parted ways shortly after the 20th Century's end, eager to explore fresh terrain after seven years of intense concentration on the band. Folds, of course, embarked on a storied solo career, replete with countless veers and variations spanning smash albums, experimental collaborations, production, philanthropy, extensive work and performances with symphony orchestras around the world and even a role as judge on the NBC a cappella singing competition, The Sing Off. An exceptional singer/songwriter in his own right, Jessee earned widespread acclaim and a fervent fan following with his eclectic pop combo, Hotel Lights. Sledge, a true master of the bass guitar, also worked producing, writing and performing regularly as a session bassist and solo artist. In 2008, MySpace reached out to Folds, wondering whether the Five might consider reuniting for their "Front To Back" concert series.
"Nobody had ever asked us if we'd do anything, because they'd made the assumption that we wouldn't," Folds says. "I called Robert and Darren and they said, 'Yeah, why not?' It went really well and it opened our minds to the possibility of recording."
The hometown performance – which saw the band playing Reinhold Messner in its entirety – reopened lines of communication and it wasn't long before they reassembled to record a trio of tracks for Ben's 2011 career-spanning anthology, The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.
"We very consciously decided to stick to the original blueprint," Folds says of the sessions, "but what we found out was that we didn't enjoy that as much as we did trying new ideas. We were so excited by the fragments that we had, we thought we should get together again and record."
A full-on new album was approached with no little caution – "just to make sure this was something we all wanted to do," says Folds – but the creative lure proved irresistible. In January 2012, Ben Folds Five assembled at Folds' own Ben's Studio (built in 1964 by Chet Atkins as the historic RCA Victor Nashville Sound Studios). They adopted a simple and classic method of recording, with piano, bass, and drums all within 10 feet of each other in the legendary studio's big room. To allow for complete focus on the music, the band enlisted co-producer Joe Pisapia (Guster, k.d. Lang), who teamed with Folds' longtime studio collaborator, engineer/mixer Joe Costa, behind the board.
"The band does a lot of talking, a lot of throwing ideas around," Jessee says, "so it was good to have someone there to keep an eye on the album, helping us pull it together. We spent weeks experimenting with chord changes and arrangements and different feels. We needed an extra set of ears to help weed it out a little."
Armed with a cache of hooks, melodies, and other intriguing ideas, Ben Folds Five embraced a loose improvisational tack, letting nature and inspiration take its course. Songs like "Hold That Thought" or the complex, keys-pounding "Erase Me" capture the synergistic give and take amongst the players, a methodology that Folds says is akin to passing "a musical peace pipe."
"In some ways, what we were experimenting with was finding our moments," Jessee says. "The way we approach a song now, there aren't strict guidelines going into it. It's just a more open environment and I think there's a lot more trust going on in the playing."
"That comes from us challenging each other a little bit," Sledge says. "Well, not just a little bit. I think we all go for this kind of virtuosity when we play with each other, because we know that these are the two other guys that can handle it. If you play something insanely hard, I'm gonna top that and play it right back to you. All three of us can do that to each other and that's really uncommon."
"I've played with really fantastic musicians over the last 12 years," Folds says, "people who are at the top of their game. What Robert and Darren are are artists. They're artists at their instruments. Plus, we grew up together, so there's a chemistry and a focus that we have that I don't think any of us have with anyone else."
Folds' lyrical acuity remains equally idiosyncratic, his trademark wisecrackery and wry character portrayals now edged with significantly more experience and insight. In the same spirit as the band's intimate instrumental interplay, songs like the mordant "On Being Frank" or the rolling title track (penned with friend and collaborator, novelist Nick Hornby) see Folds exploring myriad themes of letting go, of shattering the boundaries between identity and environment.
"I was thinking a lot about loss of ego," Folds says. "That's a big part of your 40-something-year-old psychological development."
To subsidize the project, Ben Folds Five teamed with Pledge Music for a direct-to-fans campaign, devoting a substantial portion of all funds raised to support music education and music therapy programs, a charitable cause near and dear to the band's hearts. Thanks to their loyal audience, the effort proved wildly successful.
"There was officially no commercial pressure the morning after we put the album up on PledgeMusic," Folds says. "We put it up at midnight and by morning, the album was paid for."
"It feels like we're directly connected to the fans," says Sledge, "the way we would if we were just playing clubs and building the band up from the grassroots."
A series of summer festival performances kicked off in June at upstate New York's Mountain Jam 2012, setting the stage for an epic 2012/2013 world tour. What's more, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind burst into the top 10 of the SoundScan/Billboard 200 upon its September release – the band's highest ever chart debut. All three members see Ben Folds Five carrying on for the foreseeable future, the band now part of a bigger picture and not the be-all and end-all of their youth. Jessee is currently penning a new cycle of songs, while Sledge is and remains an in-demand session player. For his part, Folds has already penciled in a 2014 symphony orchestra tour, at which point, he notes, Ben Folds Five "turns into a pumpkin."
"Like everything else, we're just gonna play it by ear, see what happens," Sledge says. "But I don't think the word 'break-up' will happen again."
Certainly among the most accomplished and enthusiastic records of their brilliant career, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind makes it crystal clear: the return of Ben Folds Five is most assuredly not an exercise in Nineties nostalgia. Rather, this dazzling collection stands as testament to a classic band's revived – and enduring – creative partnership.
"It's kind of demystified," Jessee says. "We had all that stuff happen when we were younger and now it's more about making ourselves happy with what we're doing. Hopefully that carries over to our fans who have been waiting for this record."
"For all of us, the only way it could work is if we dropped the egos," Folds says. "I believe really strongly that the record we made is not a record we could've made had we just continued as a band."