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After A Dozen-Year Disappearance, Ben Folds Five Is Back

Ben Folds Five (from left): Robert Sledge, Darren Jessee and Ben Folds. (Courtesy of the artist)

In the early '90s, Ben Folds Five achieved underground success by playing the college circuit, selling out small clubs all across the country.

That all changed with the success of its 1997 album Whatever and Ever Amen. Its hit single "Brick" went to No. 6 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks list, only the second single in the band's history to chart.

But after the success of "Brick," the band's next album — The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner — was considered a failure. Lead singer Ben Folds says that while promoting that record, he and his bandmates found themselves rundown, tired after a year of nonstop touring and disappointing record sales.

"The people who came for the hit go away on your next record," Folds says.

Ben Folds Five broke up amicably in 2000. Each of the band's members — Folds, drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge — pursued his own solo projects.

"If we weren't enjoying it, I don't really know how we expected to make great music," Folds says. "And if it doesn't seem inspired for any reason, it's time to move on. There was no real discussion."

The band didn't play together again until 2008, when it reunited to play the entire Reinhold Messner album before a hometown audience in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"Within 30 minutes of rehearsing for that concert, I personally felt like we had never broken up," Sledge says. "The band played so well together. ... It really formed in my mind like, 'Oh, we could probably do another record. We could probably go out on tour, we could probably do a lot of things, because musically, we're in the right head space.' "

That new album is now a reality. Here, Sledge and Folds join weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz to talk about The Sound of the Life of the Mind and the band's future together.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just tuning in, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Back in the late 1990s, the band Ben Folds Five started getting a lot of national attention for their quirky lyrics and piano-driven power pop. Until that point, they'd been a local favorite in their hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. But their 1997 record, "Whatever and Ever Amen," made them and front man Ben Folds stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: After the success of that album, their follow-up, called "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner," fell flat. Critics loved it, but the fans, well, they wanted more of the same. And the new album was somewhat complicated.

BEN FOLDS: The people who came for the hit go away on your next record.

RAZ: That's front man Ben Folds. The band went on tour for a year to promote that record. And when it was all done, the members of Ben Folds Five were done as well - exhausted.

FOLDS: We weren't enjoying it. I don't really know how we expected to make great music. And if it doesn't seem inspired for any reason, it's time to move on. There was no real discussion.

RAZ: And so in 2000, Ben Folds Five split up. Now, Ben Folds Five is actually not five but three. There's singer Ben Folds, drummer Darren Jesse and bassist Robert Sledge. They spent most of the past dozen years doing their own things. But now, they reunited with a new record called "The Sound of the Life of the Mind." And bassist Robert Sledge says that process began back in 2008, when for just one night in Chapel Hill, they got back together again on stage.

ROBERT SLEDGE: Within 30 minutes of rehearsing, I personally felt like we had never broken up. The band played so well together. And I thought it was going to be much harder. I thought it was going to be maybe a little bit more uncomfortable between the members. I thought it would be a little bit more of a struggle musically. And it was just super easy. And so it really formed in my mind, like, oh, we could probably do another record. We could probably go out and tour. We could probably do a lot of things because musically, we're in the right headspace.

RAZ: You guys have this style on your records - and, Ben, on your solo records - where you tell these stories these kind of narratives, and they seem to refer to true things. You had a song on one of your records called "Steven's Last Night in Town." It was very sort of visual. You were thinking about this party, and there was this sort of irritating guy at the party singing about, you know, telling Linda McCartney stories, just weird stories. And there's a song on this record about somebody named Michael Praytor five years later.

FOLDS: Yeah.

RAZ: Who's Michael Praytor?

FOLDS: Well, literally, Michael Praytor is our monitor man.

RAZ: He runs the monitor for shows?

FOLDS: Yeah. And I make up a song on stage nearly every night.

RAZ: I've seen you in concert, by the way, and you do this. You just - it's like improv.

FOLDS: Yeah, yeah.

RAZ: Like improv comedy. Someone throws something out, and you'll write a song.

FOLDS: I'm a really slow and fearful writer. Like, I really have a hard time finishing songs. But what I do love is that the other side of my brain can complete a song, three-minute song, with a chorus and verses and everything. You know, they're not classics, but a lot of times, they're very classic melodies or very classic ideas.

What the song ended up being about, rather than my monitor man, was just - ends up being his name in it - is just about the kind of person that you run into over and over again in your life, and you just don't know why. And at some point in your life, I think you start to realize that you walk life's path with random people, and you have to sort of embrace that to some extent.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MICHAEL PRAYTOR FIVE YEARS LATER)

BEN FOLDS FIVE: (Singing) I never thought I'd see this guy again. But I was wrong. Oh, every five years since 1972, when we said he recruited me to try to kick the church ground. Michael Praytor...

RAZ: I'm speaking with Ben Folds and Robert Sledge, two members of the trio better known as Ben Folds Five. Their new record is called "The Sound of the Life of the Mind." How would you sort of describe what this record's about?

FOLDS: Well, at some point, I felt this record was about the losing of the ego. That was the most obvious thing to me. And, I guess, it was something that I'd been thinking about. So a lot of the characters and moments all lead to that. "On Being Frank" is one example. There's a tour manager who's been working for Frank Sinatra for 30 years. And Frank Sinatra died, then suddenly his life has been, I am Frank Sinatra's tour manager. His identity is completely tied up with Sinatra. So the song is about being lost in that kind of way. And there's a lot of that in the album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON BEING FRANK")

FIVE: (Singing) I had a dream, but dreams had other plans for me. For 30 years, I set the thermostat where Frank Sinatra liked it for his girlfriend at his house. I never knew which ones were mine. Now he's gone. I'm alone.

FOLDS: My tour manager said a lot of these things, and I thought about it. And I kind of liked using Sinatra instead.

RAZ: Oh, he was saying that his whole life was sort of tied up - his identity was tied up with you, with being...

FOLDS: Not really me so much as - because he hadn't worked - I mean, he's worked in the business a long time and not for me for as long. But his point was, you know, at my age - and he's 60-something - and he's like, at my age, I don't even know where to set this thermostat. I always do these things for other people. And I thought, wow, that's interesting. I thought it was compelling for a song. I don't know if Frank Sinatra had a tour manager for 30 years straight. I think he probably did.

RAZ: The title of this record, "The Sound of the Life of the Mind," is inspired, I believe, by a collaboration, Ben, that you did a few years ago with the writer Nick Hornby.

FOLDS: Yes.

RAZ: And you have a song on the record with that title.

FOLDS: Yeah.

RAZ: And I really - I wanted to ask you about this song, because it is full of all kinds of references to Copernicus, to fortune's wheel, to Plato, the New Deal. What's this about?

FOLDS: Yeah. Those are Nick's lyrics. It's about a friend of his Sarah Vowell and just about growing up, you know, inside books, inside history and literature. And that's how she survived and triumphed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND")

FIVE: (Singing) Sarah Vowell, she just can't bear, the stupidity, the boredom, the grind. She stays at school so that she can hear the sound of the life of the mind. And it's noisy up there she rocks like a mother. Rosa Parks and DNA, Joan of Arc and JFK. But it's noisy up there...

RAZ: How are you guys going to figure out what's next for Ben Folds Five? Are you not even thinking about that? You're just going to focus on this record and this tour, and maybe you'll do something else, maybe you won't?

SLEDGE: Yeah, that's right. We're going to get through the year and a half touring that we got going on and see what happens next. There's so many ideas and so many other things that people - relationships that people in this band have going on outside of the band that, you know, it'd be a shame to sort of limit that. So I think Ben's going to do some more symphony work in 14, and I'm going to watch my son go from 8 to 9 years old, probably.

RAZ: That sounds like a pretty good plan. That's Robert Sledge and Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five. The band's new record is called "The Sound of the Life of the Mind." Ben Folds, Robert Sledge, thank you so much for being with us.

SLEDGE: Thanks for having us.

FOLDS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO IT ANYWAY")

FIVE: (Singing) Tell me what I said I'd never do. Tell me what I said I'd never say. Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are okay.

RAZ: And for Saturday, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Be sure to check out our podcast. You can find it on the NPR smartphone app. Click on programs and look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. We post a new episode every Sunday night. Tomorrow on the program, the future of higher education. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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