The music-industry buzz surrounding the Ben Folds Five started last year when critics in the United States, Europe and Japan suddenly began to wax ecstatic over _Ben Folds Five_, a small-budget, independent-label album by an unknown, wryly named pop trio from Chapel Hill.
Critics were initially intrigued by the group's unusual instrumentation: grand piano and vocals (Folds, a native of Winston-Salem), fuzz bass (Robert Sledge) and drums (Darren Jesse). But it was Fold's shrewd and sophisticated songwriting -- energetic, cleverly arranged pop with a tuneful twist that appealed to mainstream and alternative tastes -- that stimulated the avalanche of accolades.
"Unless I'm really delusional, the album seems to have gone over really well just about everywhere," Folds said. "Maybe the piano-bass-and-drums thing was the right thing at the right time for critics. I dunno.
"What I _do_ know is that the album has presented us with a near-perfect setup for building a career. We have played all over the world to a generally positive reaction that really wasn't supposed to happen."
_Ben Folds Five_ was recorded last year in Chapel Hill for $5,000. Basic tracks were recorded in three days; overdubs took another three. It was mixed in 24 hours, then released on Caroline Records, a tiny independent label in New York.
Commercial expectations were low.
"We were told by the label that we should expect to sell between 5,000 and 10,000 records," Folds said. "We did that in a month. To date we have sold more than 250,000 albums worldwide.
"We may never have charted -- we _almost_ had a modern-rock hit -- but people know who we are."
Folds has been flirting with success since 1989, when record companies reacted favorably to demo tapes by Majosha, a local band led by Folds. In 1990, he moved to Nashville, where his skills as a multi-instrumentalist enabled him to work as a session musician.
While in Nashville, Folds signed a music-publishing deal and formed a new band, Jody's Power Bill, that again attracted interest from major labels.
"In Nashville, I was running eight miles a day, hanging out with my friends, walking around eating chocolate-chip cookies and playing a lot of drums, which I enjoyed," Folds said. "Life was easy. I was never frustrated -- even though I wasn't fulfilling my contract obligations."
He laughed. "If you are failing in Nashville, at least your standard of living is nice. Nashville is a nice way to fail."
In 1993, Folds signed a new publishing deal with Sony Music and moved to New York. The good times soon ceased to roll.
"New York really sucked," Folds said. "I ended up doing some theater work, and I enjoyed that to the point where I didn't want to keep pursuing a musical career. But since Sony was paying my bills, I kept doing showcases."
One of the showcases led to his record deal with Caroline. Folds moved back to Chapel Hill, recorded _Ben Folds Five_....
"All of a sudden, I went from doing nothing to working 18 hours a day, every day," Folds said. "Success snuck up on me. To be honest, the last year is a blur. We toured constantly, and got worn down in the process."
In the past year, the Ben Folds Five crossed the United States four times and toured Europe and Japan. The band appeared on _The Conan O'Brien Show_, and performed select dates on the Lollapalooza festival.
The positive reviews that followed Folds championed the energy of the band's set -- Folds is known to climb on, pound, kick and otherwise torture his piano -- and praised the high quality and ingenuity of the band's performance.
The buzz around the band built to a roar. Major labels materialized, clutching contract offers. Meetings were held. Gigs were played. Offers were discussed.
Folds quietly signed with Sony Music. Rumors surrounding the deal had Folds signing a million-dollar contract.
"Well, um, yeah, it's a pretty big deal," Folds said. "I'm not sure of all the details, but I've been told, repeatedly, that it is breaking some kind of record somewhere.
"A couple of years ago, people were running around talking about how Helmet had signed a record million-dollar deal. If that deal is the standard, then our deal is about three times that big."
He paused, then laughed. "Cool."
Folds is not lacking talent or self-confidence. Still, he admitted that he felt fear and pressure when he signed the deal.
"I was freaked," he said, sighing. "I wondered if we should get a big name producer, go to a huge studio, and make a record. Then I realized that I had lost my a$* too many times in the studio with other people calling the shots.
"At the last minute, I got this sudden breeze of self-confidence. We used the record budget to buy some recording equipment and a Steinway grand, put it all in my house and started recording."
The band is now several weeks into the recording of its Sony debut. Folds is extremely pleased with the results.
"I'm surprised," he said, laughing. "We are doing things that I didn't know that we could do. Our bass player, Robert, is coming up with really inventive ways to make noise under the piano, which is freeing me up to explore the high-end of the piano more than I have before."
The band is scheduled to hand the album to Sony in October. It will be released overseas about the first of the year, with a domestic release to follow.
Folds knows that Sony has high expectations for the album. He understands that he is being groomed to be a star. Still, he has confidence in the record company's ability to market his music in a classy, hype-free manner.
"Sony seems to have a genuine understanding of what we do, why we do it and why it seems to work," Folds said. "They don't want to hype this to death, and they seem to appreciate my desire to build this thing through several albums.
"Alternative music is old news. We are something new -- and Sony seems to appreciate that. I have faith that Sony will not turn us into Spam. Of course, I could be talking about this next year, after the album is in the cut-out bin, and be saying, 'They screwed me up.'
"We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?"