Before he was “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” judging on the NBC talent show “The Sing-Off” or writing poetry with William Shatner, Ben Folds was just another piano player fronting a rock band.
When the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based trio Ben Folds Five burst into the national consciousness in 1997 with the song “Brick,” a painfully honest recounting of Folds’ abortion experience with a high school girlfriend, grunge music still dominated the mainstream.
With his nerdy look and nasally vocals, Folds hardly seemed appealing to youths wearing flannel and rocking out to Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Nevertheless, the album that song was on, “Whatever and Ever Amen,” became a hit and gave the band staying power, drawing new attention to its 1995 eponymous debut, as well.
Even with a piano and upright bass driving the band, Ben Folds Five knew how to rock. Most importantly, Folds’ cynical, anxiety-tinged lyrics instantly connected with its audience.
In 1999, the band released what proved to be its final album for more than a decade, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.” Although the effort drew critical acclaim for its artistry and a minor hit in the song “Army,” it failed to generate the same popular success of its predecessor.
After three years of heavy touring and frequent infighting, the Five split up in 2000, just five years into its career.
Folds didn’t slow down for a minute.
In 2001, he released “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” cementing his celebrity as a solo artist. Featuring Folds on every instrument in the recording and the “Weird Al” Yankovic-directed video, the song quickly proved that Folds’ savvy pop songwriting could persevere on its own without his old band.
“I wasn’t upset by it. I thought the song was funny,” said Robert Sledge, bassist for Ben Folds Five.
After the band split up, Folds went on to greater levels of stardom, including releasing numerous solo albums, recording songs for movies such as “Hoodwinked!” and “Over the Hedge” and acting as a judge on the TV competition “The Sing-Off.” He also went on to marry his third wife and moved to Australia (he’s since wedded his fourth and moved to Nashville, Tenn.).
Sledge, on the other hand, settled into home life in Chapel Hill, producing records with friends from the Squirrel Nut Zipper and Hobex and playing as a session player and the leader of the Bob Sledge Band.
Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee formed the band Hotel Lights, touring consistently but never achieving the popularity of Ben Folds Five.
By 2008, the Five reunited for the first time in eight years, playing a one-off show in Chapel Hill as part of a tour series hosted by MySpace.
“That happened at the perfect time,” Sledge said. “I was ready to play with the band again, and we’ve been scheming to get something done ever since.”
It took another four years to get Ben Folds Five back on stage, beginning at this summer’s Mountain Jam festival in Hunter, N.Y. In June, the group played four shows together, including a headlining appearance at the marquee summer festival Bonnaroo.
“It was invigorating to play those old songs and know that they still worked and had some longevity,” Sledge said.
Before that run, Ben Folds Five returned to the studio during the spring, laying down tracks for “The Sound of the Life of the Mind.” The band’s fourth studio record and the first in 13 years, it’s due for release Tuesday, the day before the group takes the stage in North Charleston.
“I think this album is as different from ‘Reinhold Messner’ as that album was from ‘Whatever and Ever,’ ” Sledge said. “Working the new songs in is going to be interesting.”
For the new release, the band returned to its roots in more ways than one. Rather than seeking out major label support, the members chose to record and produce the album on their own using the fan-funded site PledgeMusic. The campaign was a resounding success, reaching 366 percent of its target funds by press time.
“It started with us making the record at Ben’s studio, doing independent promotion and social media stuff to pay for it,” Sledge said.
Late in the game, they accepted an offer from Sony to distribute the album, but the album’s official label is ImaVeePee Records, a label they created with supporters from the fundraising campaign.
Kicking off with the quirky art track “Erase Me,” the album continues Folds’ tradition of drawing on real characters and experiences in his life, including a story that references the songwriter and the sound engineer fantasizing as children about “kicking the church down” called “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later.”
“Hold That Thought” begins with the line, “She broke down and cried at the strip mall acupuncturist, while the world went on outside.”
Throughout the disc, Folds drops little reminders that he’s held on to his everyman nature and realist humanity.
“Ben’s art is pop songwriting, to me anyway, and it comes out in weird ways,” Sledge said. “Sometimes it’s a pop song with a potty mouth or in an art-rock way, and sometimes it’s more accessible.”
Although “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” contains several radio-friendly songs, Sledge claims that the band wasn’t under any pressure to produce another “Brick” or a band version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” But that doesn’t mean they won’t be playing those songs on tour.
“We play ‘Brick’ because we like it. People project a lot of things onto you when you have a hit. I’ve had people say funny things to me, like, ‘You play that stupid “Brick” song, don’t you?’ But then they’re actually being nice to you, and I’m like, ‘Well, that was a little bit of an insult, but you didn’t see it that way,’ ” Sledge said.
“People might think that we’re going to anchor the set with ‘Brick,’ because that’s our hit. I would consider this band a little bit of a cult band, and just because we happened to have a hit that helped get us along, it’s still our choice to put the song in because we like playing it. And it’s kind of challenging actually, musically, to play something that delicate and make it dynamic and really let the song speak. That’s our craft, and we like doing it.”
Even after 12 years away, Sledge said that the band’s dynamics are still very much the same on stage.
During their hiatus, Folds stayed busy with his solo projects. He’s partnered and toured with John Mayer and with Ben Kweller and Ben Lee as The Bens. Folds even found a frequent collaborator in Shatner, producing the former “Star Trek” star’s album, “Has Been,” and calling on his vocal talents for his own “Fear of Pop” project.
Despite Folds’ still-growing star presence, Sledge said that fame has had no effect on the inner workings of the reunited band.
“If feels the same as it did in the ’90s,” he said. “We have a musical relationship, and when we’re on stage, we all push each other and are sensitive to the ways that each other plays. It’s still the same awareness and musical accountability to one another, and I don’t think any external pressure is going to tamper with that. We have a really strong respect for each other. The ideas in this band come from the three of us playing together as a core unit.”
Sledge points out that Ben Folds Five is hardly an “imaged band,” attributing any star power that the band or its namesake has to the music that it produces. That mind-set boils down to decisions like the PledgeMusic campaign, maintaining artistic control over the music.
“Everything comes from the band. We run the show,” Sledge said. “There’s never somebody else telling us what to do. We’re not very good with that.”
For the first single from “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” the group released the song “Do It Anyway,” which has garnered heavy airplay in Australia. During the fundraising campaign, the group offered fans that pledged $2,500 or more a personalized recording that includes a verse about them or the person of their choosing.
The catchiest song on the album, however, might be “Draw a Crowd,” with its sing-along chorus. Although the track might not be destined to be a hit (some parts are not newspaper or radio friendly), it underlies the songwriters’ continued reliance on self-deprecating humor and cynical realism. It’s that level-headedness that helps Folds avoid the “sellout” tag and garner his band major gigs 12 years after its last tour.