Ben Folds plays the piano. A baby grand piano. He plays it in a rock band. Ben Folds is not a wimp.
"We're actually a pretty loud band," Folds says of his North Carolina trio, Ben Folds Five. "I play the piano much more like a guitar player than a piano player. Right now I tend to bash it and play through a Marshall stack."
Yes, you read that right, a Marshall stack. A bank of amplifiers more often associated with men with volume controls set to 11, large hair and small... imaginations. Not what you get when you spy a group with bass, drums and baby grand piano on the stage.
"An enormous amount of sound comes out of those things that make guitar players cringe," Folds says with undisguised glee. "It's like they get into this `holy shit, this is loud'.
"It's good for shock value, too. If we blow into a town we haven't played before and people maybe have sort of heard of us, we will pull the first number out and have it just so fucking loud it just scares them. I get a kick out of watching people then."
At whatever volume level, the Ben Folds Five debut album is one of the most vibrant pop albums of the year, an album which isn't afraid to sing along and don't leave your brain behind. This is what Elton John might have soounded like in 1975 if he'd had Todd Rundgren in his band. Or what Joe Jackson could have done in 1979 with Carole King and Paul McCartney alongside him.
Apart from a level of songcraft normally bypassed in the interest of sounding and looking as now as possible, what separates them from the pack is the line-up: basss, drum and that baby grand.
Folds plays tinkling piano runs, thumping chords, Dixie rolls and occasional Jazz progressions (and he even slips in some Gershwin). The mere thought of what Folds, a former drummer, does to this instrument would probably kill Joshua Kadison - hmm, not an idea to dismiss lightly.
Bass player Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee swimg and stamp at will. And the band's harmonies would leave CSN&Y and the Turtles smiling.
While this is working pretty darn well now, what could have posessed Folds first to lug a baby grand piano onto a rock stage? "We started off with the baby grand," he says. "I did play an electric piano one time and pretty much fucked up the stand and the piano the way I bang it.
"When I look back at it now, the truth of it is I made payments on the grand which was an absurd thing to do as I didn't even know if I could move it. We would rent a rental truck for $30 and throw the thing in the truck and figure it out when we got to the club.
"We never played places upstairs."