By Alex HudsonIn the 13 years since Ben Folds Five released an album, the band's namesake has released a flurry of solo albums, co-hosted a televised singing competition (NBC's The Sing-Off), and worked with a string of unconventional collaborative partners including actor William Shatner and author Nick Hornby. After so long on his own, Folds' return to his '90s band comes as an unexpected and wholly welcome treat. Making the whole thing that much better is the fact that The Sound of the Life of the Mind sounds more or less like the classic Five. The frontman's wit is as sharp as ever on humorous tracks like "Draw a Crowd" and "Do It Anyway," while "Erase Me" and "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later" brim with aggressively pounding piano and fuzzed-out bass. Throw in a few mellow numbers and you've got what just might be the band's most energetic and diverse album to date. Considering the mixed response that some of Folds' solo endeavours garnered, it's good to know that his classic (and ironically-named) trio still haven't lost their spark.
Have you and the Five had much contact over the years? We had a little bit. I was really, really busy up until 2008. We did a show together in 2008. MySpace were doing really good live productions ― I don't know if you ever saw any of those, but they were really well shot. They wanted me to do one, and I just called the guys and asked if they wanted to do it. [It was] sort of a random, spontaneous thing, and then we went and played this thing and it was great. At the end of that I believed that we would probably make a record, but was sort of looking for time in the schedule.
So it wasn't something that you always planned? If you'd asked me when we split up, "What do I think about the idea of getting back together and playing in 13 years?" I would have thought that sounded absolutely ludicrous. In the first place, it would have seemed to me, from that perspective, a bit like, "Certainly I will have retired by then." Your perspective is different at that age, and I had so much stuff to do. I think everyone did. [Drummer] Darren [Jessee]'s made some great records.
Did it feel like a natural fit once you guys got back together? It was completely natural. There really wasn't any discussion necessary, or practice in order to bring it together. It just happened.
How much difference is there in the making of a Ben Folds Five record and a solo record? There are some things that are very similar, and some of the recording I did over the solo time was a lot closer to the way we would have recorded, while some of it was really different. The solo career provided me with a lot more choices. The Rockin' the Suburbs record was radically different in the way it was made. It was doing everything that the band didn't do. There was a lot of guitar in it. I played all the instruments, that's different. It was heavily produced, that's different. It was the anti-Ben Folds Five record. And, oddly, when it came out, one of the common comments about it was, "This still sounds like the same thing." I think if you look at it back in retrospect, it sounds quite different now. At the time, for some reason, that was common; people were like, "This is just a version of Ben Folds Five." I think it's real obvious now that that's not the case. With it being in the past, with perspective, we all appreciate the chemistry of a band. If you go back and hear the right Jimi Hendrix, or your favourite Neil Young records, [it's] based on how you feel the chemistry is, usually. For some people, they just hear songs, and they don't really care about the interplay between the band and how it feels.
Were the new songs written specifically for the band, or were they ones that you already had kicking around? I always come in with lots of fragments. I complete the songs in the studio. I like to play them with the band and see which ones are happening with us, what's inspiring. There's an unspoken editorial process that goes on there, where it's either a good vibe or it's not. And then I can start chucking a lot of those ideas, and then they'll be for something else, but they're not for the band. But I don't really know that until we start playing it. You never know what they're going to do, and then I'm a horrible procrastinator. Really, I'm very dramatic about, up to the very last minute [I'll] be finishing lyrics and forms and things. I'm really grateful that the guys understand my process at this point, because it is a little more expensive to be fuckin' around the studio while Folds is dotting his T's. They just have to go do something else and then I'm just sitting there at the piano, just thinking about it. And that's why, once, we wanted the kind of producer we wanted, and we weren't even able to consider having him produce us years ago because I never walked into the studio with songs. They wanted to hear demos. I was like, "Well, we don't do those." He's like, "Well I don't work with bands that don't walk in with songs." Fuck it, that's not the way we do it.
I think that Whatever and Ever Amen was recorded at home? Oh yeah, that was recorded at home, that's right. That was recorded at my house. Really small house, really no room in there.
Well it sounds good. Thank you. I mean, I think Andy Wallace mixed what we recorded really well, and I think that Caleb Southern did a really good job of being realistic about what kind of space we were recording in, but it really did sound like ass on a stick in that house. It really sounded so bad. I can hear the shortcomings. It's digital, too. It's recorded on a really, really antiquated digital format called DA-88. We only had one machine, so we had to bounce tracks and bounce tracks. We're lucky it sounds good. It shouldn't.
The new record has some ballads, but it also has some of the heaviest moments in your career. Yeah, I think so too. We can do that easier now. Some of it's just technique. [Bassist] Robert [Sledge]'s tone has improved just enough and my left hand technique has improved just enough. It's just technique. Back in the day, we would do those things on pure muscle, and now it's kind of like we relax a bit and it happens.
"Erase Me" sounds like a mission statement, being such a heavy first song. I just felt like that was a really good in to the record. It has a fairly opinionated open, which I don't think that I would mistake for anyone else. But then the first verse could be a ballad. Some people will probably end up put off based on it, and I'm happy about putting people off. I realize that some of my best music has put some people off a lot. I have artists that I love, and I know people who go, "I can't stand that shit." I think that song has that quality to it ― love it or hate it, maybe.
What's next for Ben Folds Five? I think we should make some more music. There's kind of a two-pronged thing with touring at the moment. There's satiating the demand where we haven't played for 12 years, and playing in places for the first time. Every place we go into, it's the first time they've seen us in 12 or 15 years. Doing that is nice, and important. And there's the promotion of the album, and we don't know how long albums last these days ― I don't think anyone does ― so it's hard to know when to get off tour and make the record. I think we have another record in the back of our head, and I would like to be doing that now, but I think we owe it to everyone to go out and do it a little bit, since we have an album out. And then we're selling an album ― I mean, how long can we do that? We don't really know. I would anticipate that, if we were talking about going into the studio, it probably wouldn't be any earlier than spring.
Do you have any idea what the next record might sound like, or is that something you won't know until you're in front of your piano? I think we'll know when we get there, but if we're going to follow the pattern, I'd say we'd be on something else. The albums we've made, they're not radically different, but they're radically different when it comes to a fan base. There's a reason that someone gets into an album. Often what happens [is] a real artist tends to shed the skin and do something else. The style might sound the same, but the connections that the audience had with the album before will be lost. It's a wavelength, and we've changed wavelengths between our records. It was radical in that way. In the way that, the kind of fan that loved Whatever and Ever Amen was going to have a hard time liking the next one right off the bat. We heard that a lot. But then you might get new fans. So I would say, if I would look at our pattern, if I'm going to be a statistician about it, I'd say yeah, it's got to be different. [The Sound of the Life of the Mind] is a fairly dynamic record. It think we're interested, at the moment, in maybe [something] slower, more ambient ― not dance ambience, but ambient. There's something we're gravitating to in the best moments live right now that I keep thinking, "When we get into the studio, I think this is going to be a thing." But that's all I really know.