"It's the most dramatic sport I can imagine," says Ben Folds, he of the Ben Folds Five whose self-titled album just happens to be one of the coolest, most impressive albums that have come my way this year. Folds and I are chatting about a mutual interest in what was once dubbed 'the sweet science', a topic that's prompted by the waltz-like track "Boxing" which is based around an imagined conversation between Muhammed Ali and Howard Cosell.
"Boxing is the the most human, dramatic, completely right-out-there sport I can think of," Folds continues. "My father was a total boxing fan and I have a romantic notion about it. When I was little I was taken down to what was called the Gladiators Club which was a boxing club for kids to learn to box but I didn't really enjoy getting my arse kicked all that much. It's not fun to come home with a bloody nose.
"Howard Cosell has the closest sounding voice to an Australian American I can possibly imagine," he says. "He's got a very American accent but his cadencing to me is very non-American. He was a sports commentator and kind of followed the life of Muhammed Ali pretty closely. He was always commentating and always interviewing Muhammed Ali and they always had a certain kind of dialogue that went between them.
"Both their lives ended tragically in a way. Howard Cosell basically made a couple of remarks that people misconstrued as rascist and he was out, totally fired from the American Broadcasting Commisssion. He has been the top commentator for 20 years and he was out of there on just one mistake. He was also really controversial and you could tell that he was pretty much a rebel. He's dead now but he sounded very much like Snoop Doggy Dog too."
The Ben Folds Five's album is an astonishing juxtaposition of styles that just somehow, often bt the skin of its proverbial teeth, manages to hang together as a cohesive statement.
The broad scope of their musical ranges from "Underground", a snide look at the bastardisation of the alternative rock scene, to the full-frontal rock 'n' roll of "Julianne" ("a girl who looks like Axl Rose") to the aforementioned waltz of boxing. Folds has gone on record as saying his combo make "punk rock for sissies".
And let's get one thing straight- there's just three guys in Ben Folds Five, something I stoopidly forgot to ask Folds to justify. Added to this there's not a guitar in sight, the Ben Folds Five performing with just a piano, bass and drums.
That factor prompts Folds to be asked, for what must be the millionth time, why there's no guitar.
"I'm wanting to do the most musical thing for me, not pull some party-line bullshit like 'I'm against guitars therefore I'll have none'. If a guitar worked better I would have a guitar in there but I haven't seen yet that we couldn't do as well...we can't do as well without one. It gives me more freedom.
"I don't like guitar players for the most part, unless you're talking about a Jimi Hendrix type of player or Pete Townshend. They're generally not very free. They're noodly. I've never played with a good guitar player. I think if I'd played with a good guitar player just maybe I would want to but it just never happened. I've played with great bass players and drummers before, and violinists and oboe players and all kinds of shit but a guitar player that made sense to me has never really happened.
Q: So what did Folds grow up listening to which influenced the rather disparate music that the BFF make?
"Mostly guitar music," he laughs. "Actually, when I think about being little and listening to music, I think about Joni Mitchell and Neil Sedaka and a lot of Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Ottis Redding, James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone- a real lot of black stuff. My parents pretty much listened to black music non-stop.
"That was just what they liked. They liked a good groove. I think the joy element in black music is generally more candid, much more up front and a little less masked in anythingthat might be pretentious. It's just there and I think that was a big part of my upbringing. Most of my friends' parents were listening to Simon & Garfunkle and James Taylor and shit like that when they were growing up, and that was a different experience from having the stereo blasting and it sounding like a black church in my house. I think it gave me a different slant on why I make music."
The Ben Folds Five debut was actually released in the States last August and since then the combo has been touring pretty consistently and, as you'd expect after hearing the album, finding vastly different audiences from city to city. The major reason for this is that the trio are a hard band to pigeonhole and radio reactions ahve been anything but predictable.
"It's just a weird combination of everything." Folds says. "It hasn't taken any one radio format by storm. It just depends on where we are and it's different from town to town. You know how big the United States is and, for instance, if we play in Philadelphia and I look out at the crowd they're all people who are 30 years or older. When I see that I know that the Adult Alternative station is playing the record and that's why those people are there and they'll respond to the ballads.
"Then the next town we go to it'll be all 16 year olds and I'll know that the record must be on the College station or Commercial Alternative station. It seems to be a little bit of everything but not a whole bunch of any one thing because I think we straddle so many things and it's not going to put us on top in any way but it'll keep us going."
The Ben Folds Five make music that seems to come from another time and place, yet it is completely contemporary. Trust me, if there's any justice and a bunch of people with open ears they could be the next hip phenomenon along the lines of what we've witnessed over the past year with the likes of Jeff Buckley and Ben Harper.