For years, Ben Folds Five has come tantalizingly close to seemingly like a present-day band. There was that one-off reunion show in 2008, and the new tracks they recorded for a 2011 best-of. And now, they're taking the leap back into fulltime existence. Sort of. The trio's first album of new material in 13 years will be out next week, and they're playing Sunday night in Cary. For more about the album and the reunion, see the story in Friday's paper.
But don't expect them to be as omnipresent as they were in the late '90s, when they played "Saturday Night Live" (the first act in local-music history to achieve that feat) and toured so much that they burned out. They talked a bit about that in the preview story before the 2008 reunion show, which I've included below since there's not a workable link for it anymore.
Ben Folds Five Reunion? Whatever
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Sept. 18, 2008
The toughest ticket in the Triangle this week is tonight's Ben Folds Five reunion show and if you're not already set, you have virtually no hope at this point.
The show at UNC-Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall will be the trio's first performance since 2000, and all 1,600 tickets disappeared almost instantly when they went on sale.
Shut-out fans took to Craigslist, leading to much online anguish as asking prices for tickets (originally priced at $50) climbed to the four-digit mark. One desperate ticket seeker threatened, "I am going to chop a limb off if I can't get BFF reunion tickets (My arm or even a leg!!!)." And another post, which has since been deleted, offered sexual favors.
Told this, Folds gives a weary chuckle.
"Bringing people together, it's what we do, " he says, deadpan, over the phone from Nashville. "But seriously, I'm moved that people care that much. I think it helps that we haven't spent ourselves cheaply with a lot of reunion-ing, so we've kept what we did special and worth something."
The fervor is all the more impressive given that it's been a decade since the trio of Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee hit their commercial peak with the single "Brick." A solemn account of an abortion, "Brick" was enough of a hit to get the band onto "Saturday Night Live." The album it came from, "Whatever and Ever Amen, " eventually sold 1 million copies.
Pretty heady stuff for a band that was playing for crowds in the low dozens at the Brewery and Local 506 not too many years before that. Yet the band lasted only one more album before breaking up.
Since 2000, Folds' solo career has continued at a pretty good clip. While he has yet to match the platinum heights of "Whatever, " Folds' albums sell well into six figures, and he draws steady sellout crowds on the road. Jessee leads a band of his own, Hotel Lights, which has had some success getting songs into films and television shows ("Baby Mama, " "Grey's Anatomy"). Sledge is the only one who still lives in Chapel Hill, where he spends most of his time teaching and working as "bassist for hire."
Nearly a decade on, the question remains: Why did they break up in the first place? The specific reasons remain somewhat murky. Asked separately, all three principals cite the same generalities: variations on burnout and fatigue.
Between 1995 and 1999, Ben Folds Five released four albums and played thousands of shows all over the world, touring almost nonstop. They worked so hard that Sledge says it was "almost a relief" when the end came.
"I have all kinds of ways of explaining it that make no sense to anybody outside the three of us, " Folds says. "The simplest way would be to say that if people know you as Captain Kirk, they have a hard time understanding why you don't want to walk around being Captain Kirk all day.
"We were having to pedal this machine and we couldn't stop it. I don't think any of us slept more than three hours a night for four years straight. So we were jetlagged and crazy all the time.
"There wasn't any big fight, it was not like that. We just didn't feel the magic, and we could see the business crumbling before us. If you had a hit in the '90s, the cards were stacked against you from then on for making any kind of artistic statement. And we got creamed for trying."
That attempted artistic statement was Ben Folds Five's 1999 swan song, "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" (a famous mountain-climber, and a name Jessee used on fake IDs as a teenager). "Reinhold" was an ambitious, lushly arranged pop album presented as one long suite of songs. Unfortunately, it didn't yield any hit singles and sold about one-quarter as many copies as "Whatever."
At the time, it seemed that perceived failure might have caused the breakup. All three members dismiss the suggestion.
"If it had been a crazy success, that might have enticed us into continuing, " says Jessee. "But I think things would have ended around the same time anyway. We were so busy touring and moving and working, I don't think we had a clear idea of our accomplishments. We didn't pace ourselves very well. But we had so many offers, it was hard not to say 'yes' to everything and keep going."
"Reinhold Messner" drew mostly positive reviews, but a few darts that stung Folds remembers one that likened it to "the Muppets trying to do Radiohead." But it will take center-stage at this reunion, because the band is playing the album in its entirety as part of MySpace's "Front to Back" series.
Folds was approached about recreating "Reinhold" onstage, and he decided to get his former bandmates together for a one-off show. It came together quickly, set up only about a month in advance. The show was announced on Sept. 2, and tickets went on sale six days later.
"Ben called to say he'd rather do this with us, " Sledge says. "No big deal, we could say no and it wouldn't hurt his feelings. But we wanted to, as long as it wasn't some crazy high-pressure thing in a stadium. I think we're finally ready to play together again."
One challenge will be reconnecting with music from the distant past. Emotionally, at least, "Reinhold" should be easier for the band to pull off than one of the earlier albums.
"It's the last thing we did, so it's a little more natural and not too much of a reach, " says Jessee. "We started Ben Folds Five when we were pretty young, and the spirit and energy of 'Whatever' would have been too young to try and recapture now. The mood of 'Reinhold' seems like something we're capable of."
Still, they'll have some cobwebs to shake off, although Sledge says he can still play those old songs note for note. Jessee hasn't seriously played drums since his Ben Folds Five days, and Folds recently claimed not to have listened to "Reinhold" since 2000.
No worries, though it will all get ironed out in rehearsals. Afterward, they'll most likely go their separate ways again.
"We were three guys moving a baby grand piano across the country in a van, " Folds says. "That's part of the reason why we stopped when we did.
"Even if nobody else thought so, we felt there was something I don't know, sacred about what we were trying to do. We took a lot of pride in it. Still do."