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Ben Folds Five: Voyages to Fraggle Rock, Colbert and The Sound of the Life of the Mind

After a 12 year hiatus, the reunited Ben Folds Five have found a changed music world that includes music festivals, album pre-order campaigns and digital promotions.

Members Ben Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee got a taste of the influence of the internet four years ago when the trio performed 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner in its entirety as a Myspace special event. Several years later, the recording of three new tracks for a Folds box set eventually paved the way for appearances at Mountain Jam, Bonnaroo and Summerfest last summer.

Fans that enthusiastically responded to the group’s sets at those festivals were greeted with even better news – a brand new studio album and an international slate of tourdates.

Released last September, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is everything one expects from the alt-pop act – melodic hooks, harmonies and a musically adventurous spirit. Despite the passing of 13 years since BFF’s last studio release the new album offers a connection to the groundbreaking past while displaying the maturity of the present.

Coming out of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina music scene in 1994, a piano-based trio that could mix pop smarts with jazz complexity became a welcome antithesis to the barrage of loud-quiet-loud guitar acts that arrived after alternative rock became a part of the mainstream. A hit single, “Brick,” on the band’s second effort, “Whatever and Ever Amen,” confirmed that more than just college kids searching for something different could handle this musical concoction. “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” continues to balance an individualistic approach with a willingness to be inclusive.

The band received an internet boost when the video for the album’s first single, “Do It Anyway,” was produced by Nerdist Industries and world premiered on its channel. The clip featured the Fraggles, stars of the Jim Henson Company’s “Fraggle Rock.”

This was followed by an opening night concert at New York Comic Con and, later, a special Guitar Center Sessions that featured an interview and a seven-song performance. Broadcast on Direct TV, the session should be available on the internet.

Catching up with bassist Sledge we discussed the band’s 12 year break, starts and stops to a full-fledged reunion, his distinctive contribution to the Ben Folds Five sound as well as the recording of the new album and musical relationships within the band.

JPG: Since we’re going back in your history, let’s go back to 2000. Why did you stop and what kind of happened to start things up again?

RS: In 2000, man, we were so burned out. We were doing like over 200 shows a year. I guess that’s common for a lot of people but we were doing over 200 shows a year and constant press and constant videoing. We were just totally burnt out. Personally, I was ready to take a long break because I had no quality of life. I felt like I didn’t have any friends anymore.

I think Darren wanted to go pursue some other things. He wanted to work on his songwriting and maybe release a record. I can’t really say where Ben’s head was at. He, of course, made a solo record right after that. I think that all of us had plans but not with each other. It was very amicable. Nobody screamed at each other. I think Darren just called me and said, “Look man. I’m tired and I just want to do my own thing.” He was the first one to split. Although he doesn’t remember that, I remember it very well.

It was all very amicable and we were just so burned out on the band and just so burned out from traveling that it didn’t seem like that big of a deal until we started talking to people we worked with and they’re like, “What?!?!?? What the hell? This is stupid.” And we were like, “We can’t do it. We’re tired.” In retrospect, I wish that we would have just said, “Everybody’s going their separate ways for awhile but the band’s not broken up.” That would have been cool. But, it was a good, clean break and it was a good launching point for everybody to go on and do something else.

The funny thing is that in ’07 I was still burned out on the band. I didn’t want to go back (slight laugh) and do the band again. But around ’08 I started thinking, “Well, you know, it might be kind of fun to play a show again.” And then, boom, Ben called and said he wanted to do the Reinhold Messner album front to back for MySpace. And I’d really gotten to the point where I was ready to do it again. I guess Darren was, too.

And that show went fantastic. Everybody played really well together. We only probably needed to rehearse for a half an hour to do that show. We had the luxury of having that hall for two days while they set up cameras and stuff, so we really got to play with each other a lot for a couple of days and it was just really magic. We rediscovered that the three of us playing together is effortless. There’s so much energy between us.

JPG: Going back to the hiatus. Do you think one of the hardest things for musicians is saying, “No?” If you guys would have said, “No” and cut down from 200 dates to even say 150 and not do this and that, then you would deal with things at a better pace.

RS: That’s so hard. It just depends on who you’re working with. But yes, you’re right. It’s really difficult for a musician to say, “No.” You say, “Yes” for most of your life trying to get anywhere and establish yourself or just get your head above water and feel comfortable, and then when you start drowning emotionally (slight laugh). It’s hard. It’s really hard to say, “No.” It really is. It becomes almost impossible without doing something dramatic, like having a nervous breakdown and end up on the cover of the magazine rack in the grocery store. Really. I think that some of that stuff might even be staged just to get a break.

JPG: Looking at bands that are considered in the jamband or punk genres that tour regularly throughout the year, does it blow your mind? Make you think, “How do these guys do it?” or have you talked to them and they’ve figured something out that you didn’t.

RS: Ummmm…I would like to talk to them. I’ll tell you what, at the time that we were touring, I didn’t know anybody on the road who toured harder than us. It was well over 200 dates a year. I’m in awe of those people who can do it, but I guess that they just figured it out. They’ve got some kind of routine that keeps them sane. Maybe they can afford enough people around them to buffer themselves from each other a little bit so that they can still work together and not take things too personal or have too much interpersonal stuff with the band or maybe some of them are brothers…

JPG: Moving forward. When you did the MySpace show was there talk of getting together and record and tour or was it just, “Okay. Well, see you. I still need a breather.” When did it firm up?

RS: I think being called six months later and I was wondering why it took him so long. We were making more phone calls with each other at that point, just talking casually about a whole lot of personal stuff. It wasn’t a lot of work stuff. Ben called me when he had the Nick Hornby record in the can and said that he wanted to make a record. I think that that was the timeline, and it took two years of talking to get the band in the studio because of schedules, mostly Ben.

JPG: Then, you got a taste of working together again when you did the three songs for the box set in 2011.

RS: We’d been talking about making a record but it was kind of obvious that it wasn’t a good time to do that. Sony wanted to do the box set, which is good for the band, good for Ben. It reintroduced the notion of the band doing something together and also got us working together again. We went into the studio and did that. I wish that we had more time. I was really glad that we did it and it was great to play with them again and great to work in the environment that we ultimately put the record in.

Personally, I was a little frustrated because it sounded so good that I wanted to keep going. I could tell that there was a lot of potential there. It felt, like I said before when we got together and played, it felt right. I don’t ever have that feeling. I played with a lot of fantastic musicians but I’ve never had quite that same feeling with a band. They’re sort of like my bros. We just had to clear some schedules after the retrospective. It was like six months later when we went in the studio.

JPG: At that time you were living in Chapel Hill. Does it still have a vital music scene?

RS: Yeah, there’s a lot of really good bands here. And I’m always surprised. There’s a lot of good stuff. Raleigh had a really good scene over the last 10 years. Bands like Avetts and Megafaun and groups like that are doing real well. Chapel Hill is part of that. Everybody is sort of intermarried. The folk and bluegrass scenes and the Americana stuff’s been really strong in Chapel Hill for a long time; since the last 12 years, at least.

JPG: Were you producing or playing on those types of records? If not, what kind of studio work were you doing?

RS: I had a studio at my house for about four years and I did a few records for people. I probably did five records. I did a couple records for a band called Hobex with Greg Humphreys. I did “U Ready Man?” and part of “Wisteria” album before that.

I did a bunch of local stuff that nobody would know. I played session bass for a lot of country-tinged folk stuff around here. I played with a band called Mandolin Orange, a fantastic band. Mostly duos. Sometimes bigger bands.

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