3 Men and A Baby Grand

How Ben Folds Five built their empire, brick by brick

Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five circa 1999. Credit: Patrick Ford/Redferns/Getty

To pianist ben Folds, drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge, telling little white lies is not a character flaw; it is a form of sanity maintenance. The three members of Ben Folds Five have spent so much of their four years together answering the same two bozo questions – "Why aren't there two more guys in the group?" and "Why no guitar player?" – that Folds, Jessee and Sledge have resorted to giving better than they get.

The band has told ridiculous fibs about how the three of them met in a gay disco on karaoke night; how they started as a Christian-rock outfit; how they got dumped from one record label for writing a song called "Fuck With a Knife." They recently suckered one credulous soul with an elaborate yarn about how Steve Smith, the drummer from seventies arena-rock heavies Journey, climbed up to Jessee's hotel-room window in New York and banged on the glass, yelling that he could out-drum Jessee and demanding to join Ben Folds Five. Sledge gleefully admits that the last time Ben Folds Five played meet-the-press in Japan, "We negated ourselves completely. We lied so much that it was almost like we weren't even there."

But there is nothing except hard truth in "Brick," the mesmeric ballad about teenage abortion that has become the breakout radio and MTV hit from Ben Folds Five's 1997 album, Whatever and Ever Amen. The word abortion appears nowhere in the song, and the clues are elliptical: the early-morning appointment, the pawning of Christmas gifts to raise the money. But the emotional weight of "Brick" – artfully suspended over bowed bass, lightly brushed drums and Folds' feathery piano – is the unmistakable product of autobiography. It was Folds, then a senior in high school, who drove his girlfriend to a clinic, paced helplessly in the parking lot and groped for the right words – any words – to relieve the deep, gnawing quiet of the days that followed.

Folds, the trio's lead singer and main songwriter, credits the sweet, sad chorus of the song – actually written by Jessee – with freeing him to write, without shame or embarrassment, about that period of his life. "It was kind of a feeling – 'She's a brick, and I'm drowning slowly' – and it reminded me of something," Folds says over java, soup and sandwiches with Sledge and Jessee at a coffeehouse in New York's Greenwich Village. "And I realized it was my senior year of high school. I just filled in the verses.

"It was the deadline," he figures. "Brick" was the last song written for Whatever, and the band nailed it, live, in Folds' home studio, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in one take. "If I'd had enough time to think about what I was putting out there, maybe I still would have done it," says Folds. "But it would have been a little scarier."

This way, he adds, "you put it down, and little by little friends hear the record and go, 'What was that?'"

"Brick" is, in fact, an inspired anomaly in the Ben Folds Five catalog. Often compared to seventies sentimentalists like Elton John and Billy Joel because of the piano connection, Ben Folds Five are really a power-ivories trio: Sledge's fuzz bass and the flying harmonics created by Folds' exuberant attack compensate for any holes left by the lack of a guitar. And as a lyricist, Folds deploys parody, barbed irony and sleight of pun to tell his stories and skewer characters who are often pulled from personal experience, like the vengeful tycoon in "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces" and the boorish house guest in "Steven's Last Night in Town."

"This band has a knack," says Jessee, "of taking a lyric that's probably not happy and putting it with a melody that's a bit joyous. It gives the song much more depth than if you were just complaining along in a minor key."

"A lot of Ben's stuff has a third-person edge to it – there's a distance to it, like you're looking at it from behind a plate of glass," says producer Caleb Southern, who worked on both Whatever and the band's 1995 debut album, Ben Folds Five. "Brick" has touched a mainstream nerve, Southern notes, because it is "much more first-person. People can relate to it on a more intimate level."

Folds agrees – with evident pleasure. "It gives us so much more credit than if we'd broken with some other song," he says. "It's the opposite of Randy Newman's history, where he had to become famous because of a song like 'Short People.' That sucks."

BEN FOLDS FIVE'S SALES figures and chart stats do not suck. Whatever and Ever Amen has sold more than 350,000 copies in the U.S. and recently bounded from Number 126 to Number 42 on Billboard's Top 200 in just three weeks. Whatever, Ben Folds Five and their new odd 'n' sods compilation, Naked Baby Photos, are above the 800,000 mark in combined worldwide sales. But those numbers are not all down to "Brick." The success of that single is actually the well-deserved, arguably inevitable culmination of Ben Folds Five's four nonstop years of traditional rock & roll labor, selling their sound and songs on the road, one gig at a time. Formed in Chapel Hill in January 1994, Ben Folds Five have toured more than most bulldog punk and metal bands, playing 139 shows in 1997 alone. Sledge says that when the band started, he figured the pace would be less hectic, "the way a jazz band might tour. But it's turned into 'Welcome to alternative radio!' Now we have to tour as much as No Doubt."

For Folds, 31, the accelerating good fortune of Ben Folds Five represents the vindication of his lifelong faith in his talent and vision as a songwriter. "My songwriting is my one sacred point," he declares. "Maybe I've been influenced on the piano, or in my live presentation. But I can't stomach singing a song that I didn't write, the way I wanted it to come out."

For example, during a frustrating two-year spell of writing songs in Nashville in the early nineties, Folds was asked by a music-biz lawyer, "Look, why don't you write some stuff that we can get a deal with – pop stuff?" Folds came up with a bittersweet waltz-time gem called "Boxing" – the reflections of an aging, ailing Muhammad Ali as addressed to sportscaster Howard Cosell.

"I was serious; I wasn't joking," Folds insists. "They put it in the tape recorder. I was, like, 'You'll love this, this is gonna be a hit.' I just sat back and watched their faces drop." The song later became the closer of Ben Folds Five, but at the time, Folds acknowledges, "I was sick. I knew I was in the wrong place."

As soon as he got out of high school, Folds – born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the son of a carpenter – dedicated himself to finding the right place. He did time at the University of Miami and at Duke University. He lived in Michigan, traveled in Europe, played bass, recorded an album with a North Carolina-based band called Majosha and, up in New York, understudied the role of bassist Joe B. Mauldin in what Folds calls a "very off-Broadway" production of The Buddy Holly Story.

Folds was also playing New York clubs when Alan Wolmark, who now co-manages Ben Folds Five, caught Folds at the Bitter End in late 1993. "The songs were incredible, and his focus and commitment to what he does showed right through," says Wolmark. Two nights later, Wolmark saw Folds at another club. But as there was no room for a proper piano, Folds had to use a Wurlitzer electric keyboard. Wolmark's exact words together, you absolutely have to promise me that you'll never do this again – that you'll always carry a real piano."

For Ben Folds Five, Folds' piano – a five-foot-two-inch-long Baldwin baby grand (which he has since replaced with a Steinway) – became a hot calling card, a distinguishing mark against pop's prevailing gray wall of alterna-rock guitar bands. Within weeks of the band's forming, Folds, Sledge and Jessee played their first show and cut an indie single, "Jackson Cannery." They signed their first record deal, with the Caroline label, on Jessee's lunch break at the restaurant where he worked flipping burgers. But the Baldwin, which the group carted around the country in a yellow Ryder van along with the rest of its gear, also became an unhealthy fixation.

"The premise of the band was how to move Ben's piano," says Sledge, 29, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina. "We'd rest part of the piano on a chair and the end on the drum riser. We were like, 'Yeah, we win!' because we got the thing onstage."

"It became too much," reflects Jessee, 26, who was born in Texas but grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. "We became so obsessed with proving that point, that we could do it with the piano. Because there were so many people who would walk in and go, 'You guys are fools. Have you ever heard of the synthesizer?'"

Folds cites the live Elton John album 11-17-70 as "the inspiration for forming a piano, bass and drums trio. That totally did it. The one difference between us and that record is, when that band plays together, there is a lot of clarity between the instruments. We rock out; the instruments blur. And I think that's a generational thing. It's OK to be a little lower-fi because of what we heard when we were growing up."

But "Brick" is not low-fi, and neither are the ideas that Ben Folds Five are throwing around for their next studio album. "They were talking about doing a record with really long songs," says Southern, "with lots of parts and movements in them." Like going from Elton John to "Bohemian Rhapsody"? "Or Radiohead's new album," Southern suggests.

What about guitars – now or ever? Folds pretends to meditate seriously for a minute, then grins. "If we can think of a use for them," he says with a playful sneer. "I don't know. Maybe some feedback."