In March 2001, Ben Folds seemed to have everything a 33-year-old piano player could want. Ben Folds Five — his oddly named trio — had recently finished a successful tour in support of its third full-length album, the critically acclaimed (but publicly unnoticed) Unauthorized Biography of Reinold Messner. His name was familiar on college campuses across America, thanks to an unlikely hit with the pro-choice pondering "Brick," and the platinum success of his group's 1997 album, Whatever and Ever Amen.
Armed with a loyal fan base and the kind of indie cred that so many acts craved in the wake of the early ’90s grunge revolution, it seemed the Chapel Hill, N.C., native could have coasted forever on his reputation, releasing a string of profitable, perfunctory albums until his college audience went gray.
Instead, Folds called it quits.
"We decided to go our separate ways," Folds says, referring to Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge, his two band mates. "We'd lost some of our passion for the band, and we hadn't written songs for the next album, so it was very much a mutual, amicable decision. I think we'd seen it coming for a while. Also, I'm living in Australia now, so that made it hard to get together."
And just like that, Ben Folds Five became Ben Folds One. The solo recording sessions that ultimately blossomed into the piano man’s first solo album, 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs, began. Folds teamed up with notable alt-rock producer Ben Grosse (Fuel and Filter), to put his white-boy angst into perspective. "Filter was the selling point for me," Folds admits. "I got the quintessential suburb-rocking producer to work for me."
Together, the duo produced a collection of unabashed pop that traded in the darker, more complex mantra of Reinhold for the simple, irresistible, hook-laden melodies of Ben Folds Five's eponymous debut. "It was nice to be able to play pop music without having to apologize," Folds says. "For a while it was considered uncool to play songs that were too catchy or upbeat."
And though Folds jokingly describes his latest material as "a lot of sad old man songs," Rockin' the Suburbs does show a sobriety in its chosen subject matter. It’s about the indignities of old age, bad breakups and the pangs of parenthood. Yet Folds' scathing sense of humor is still as youthful and biting as it was during his days on the Chapel Hill bar circuit. Though critics have cited Suburbs as proof of maturity, Folds, at 34, is hardly joining the ranks of rock's elder statesmen.
"A lot of people ask if I'm feeling old," he says. "That seems to be the theme that most people have drawn from the new album, and it's always been a myth that's surrounded my music, probably because it involves the piano, and people associate the piano with older artists like Billy Joel and Elton John. Record industry executives are usually under the impression that my audience is comprised of people between the ages of 15 and 50, and they're always confused when they attend my shows and see a bunch of young kids."
Now, after a brief hiatus at home in Adelaide, Australia, with his wife and children, Folds has returned for his first tour without the Five. "It's just me and the piano," he says. "Every night is different. During the last tour, I had a band and a very defined set list. Now it's just me, and I do whatever I'm in the mood for. Sometimes I'll stick to the game plan, playing an hour-and-a-half set. But last week in Dallas I played for two hours and 45 minutes. I let the audience dictate to some extent, where they shout out requests and I play them. It hasn't led to anything outlandish, but it's been interesting, because most of the cover songs I perform weren't written for piano, like the Flaming Lips song I tried a little while back."
But when the topic of his current tour is on the table, the last thing Folds wants to talk about is himself. When he speaks on the highlight of his live shows, the man who once penned the memorably snide chorus to Whatever and Ever Amen’s “Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” (“If you really want to see me/Check the papers and the TV/Look who’s telling who what to do/Kiss my ass”) becomes surprisingly humble.
“Show up early,” he warns, talking about his support act, the Irish-based singer-songwriter Neil Hannon who performs under the moniker of Divine Comedy. “The opening act is one of the most terrific parts of my night, and it’s kind of weird that he’s opening for me. He’s a real star in other parts of the world, and the United States hasn’t really caught on. It’s not that I’m afraid he’s going to blow me off the stage or anything. I’ve been playing music for a while now and I think I’m pretty good at it.”
Ben Folds will play at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at Clutch Cargo’s, 65 E. Huron, Pontiac. Tickets are available at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 248-645-6666. E-mail Rossiter Drake at firstname.lastname@example.org