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With no guitars, lots of piano, and an abject refusal to use any kind of synthesiser, three-piece popsters Ben Folds Five are the last thing you'd expect from America. Couple that with their penchant for Billy Joel and respect for pop irritants Shampoo and they are, without a doubt, very odd. WILL JONES demanded some explanations.
"If you don't like Ben Folds Five you're shit."
Here at RASP!, we can normally work out if something is cool or not. Damnit, this is the media: we're supposed to set the agenda. But we're having a little trouble with this band, y'see. They're either the coolest thing out, or quite possibly as unhip as, say, Hootie and the Blowfish. Whichever way, they're mighty, mighty fine, and if nothing else bring the lie to the old cliché that those damn Yankees don't got no sense of irony. Ben Folds Five are a three-piece band (wacky, huh?) out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. They sound like Billy Joel and Superchunk playing Supergrass numbers, with Supertramp on backing vocals. They don't have any guitars. They're bloody marvellous. We met up with them prior to a recent London show at the Splash Club.
The band formed two-and-a-half years ago out of the ashes of various unheard-of North Carolina combos, and have since ploughed a resolutely alternative furrow as much in tune with smiley Seventies pop as with yer generic indie tosh. The fact that drummer Darren Jessee, bass player Robert Sledge and the man himself, pianist Ben Folds, are all fairly chirpy chappies not averse to a decent melody, not to mention three-part vocal harmonies, hasn't exactly made it plain sailing in their grunge-ridden homeland.
"The more literal people tend to react to us right off the bat because of the obvious reason that we don't have a guitar," admits Ben, "but for the most part the reaction has been really good."
C'mon, there must have been some nasty moments.
"Yeah. At first, when we were starting out, we had to take what we could get, ending up with some crazy shit opening up for bands playing cover songs. For some reason Baltimore's been a nightmare every time." "We opened up for the Smithereens [atrocious and best-forgotten eighties rawk outfit] for four nights once," offers handsome-as-hell drummer Darren Jessee (relax, girls, he's seeing someone).
"Oh that fucking SUCKED." Thanks Ben.
"Yeah, that was stupid," Darren agrees. "We were pulling the piano on and there were like fifty or a hundred people filing in going, like, 'what's that?'. We opened up for Black47 [piss-poor Irish folk-rap band] one time in the States as well, and they were walking around backstage just making fun of us with our piano right in front of our faces. I mean, we didn't say anything about their music or anything."
"Yeah, we could have mentioned all their drum-machine shit."
Woah there Ben. Bitchy.
Last month's mini-tour was their first visit to these parts. They seem to have quite enjoyed it.
"I really loved English music when I was growing up - there was a real sense of melody."
What about the current music scene over here?
"Blur are great," ponders Ben.
"I think a lot of people, if they had to choose, would know Blur is a better band than Oasis."
"Oasis kind of fit into this category of sort of supreme pop music - they don't belong in any underground scene."
Aside from professing a taste for the new album by Irish post-modernish fruitcake Neil Hannon, aka The Divine Comedy, Ben also expresses a surprising (and, presumably, tongue in cheek) admiration for one of Britain's greatest musical exports.
"Oh yeah, Shampoo are great."
"We did a little TV show with them the other day."
You can keep 'em. They're not as young as they say, you know: apparently they're really about 25.
"Yeah? Great. I thought we were going to get in trouble there for all that!" Darren's enjoying himself here, anyway.
"Most places we've been here, everyone seems really excited about the piano, whereas back in the States it sometimes seemed like they were upset. It's really tough to roll into a club and have the soundman going, like [puts on ludicrous hillbilly accent]: 'Have you ever heard of a digital keyboard?' Goddamn."
"I won't compromise - we just don't play if there's no piano, maintains Ben, who refuses point blank to use an electric keyboard or synthesiser. "Once you compromise then you're fucked. It's like walking into class on the first day, and if you're a geek, kicking someone's ass so that no one will mess with you."
So Ben. Let's cut to the chase here. What's your favourite Billy Joel album?
"Probably if you took one song off each album and made a tape of it. I'm not the sort of person who could listen to a Billy Joel album all the way through."
Hmmm. Now, now, I think it's time to own up. Some of your stuff is a little bit, well, Joely. Joely? Joelish? Whatever.
"Err, yeah, I guess I can see that." Now we're getting somewhere. "But there's probably some stuff straight out of every other piano player - there are so few of us in rock music."
Fair point. But it's more Billy Joel than, say, Tom Waits.
"Yeah, but I probably listen to more Tom Waits than Billy Joel. It's funny - what you're never influenced by is never what you really want to be influenced by. The people you really admire you don't want to copy. Like I'd never listen to Tom Waits and go 'Raughrghhh grhmaaarggh coughhh grhhmhmng' [taps two fingers on the table in passable imitation of retarded piano player]. But I like Billy Joel - he's fun."
Ben is the band's main songwriter, although occasionally lyrics come from other sources, like on their first single Song For The Dumped.
"Well, Darren got ditched by his girlfriend and scratched out some really ugly shit on a piece of paper. So we put some music to it."
And with lyrics like, "Give me my money back/I want my money back/You bitch," it's pretty safe to assume that's one less person to put on the guest list. They've got some corking new songs as well. There's this one number that...OK, Ben, you explain.
"It's about this guy who gets his ass kicked when he's in first grade, or first form, or whatever you call it over here!"
First year, mate.
"OK. Anyway, then he gets rich and famous and rounds up all these people who kicked his ass and puts 'em in his basement and, er, does nasty things to 'em."
So what's it called?
"One Angry Dwarf And Two Hundred Solemn Faces."
With all sorts of influences audible on their eponymous debut album (out now on Caroline Records), the band have had a few problems in the past getting airplay, something hopefully rectified by their prestigious slot on the upcoming Lollapalooza tour in America this summer. Ben explains. "People have really responded to what we do, but there were no radio formats suited to our songs a while ago. They would never have fucking played our music back in the United States three or four years ago, but now there's an outlet - people are getting sick of grunge and all that. We were kind of going through some punk rock channels to start with, and we're definitely not that. If it's punk rock, it's punk rock for sissies." Sissies indeed. Mr Folds: smarter than the average Ben.