Ben Folds insists he's the last one to heap praise upon his own work. But as the singer tells Rolling Stone, after listening to the new Ben Folds Five album, he couldn’t help but swell with pride.
"I realized it's a really good record," he says of The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the first album of new material in over a decade from the recently reunited band, which includes multi-instrumentalist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee.
Following an amicable split in 2000, after which Folds launched a successful solo career, the band reunited for a one-off concert in 2008. Despite enjoying himself, the pianist says he still needed assurance that his old crew could jell again in the studio. To be sure, the three musicians convened in an L.A. studio to re-record vintage tracks for the singer’s retrospective album, The Best Imitation of Myself.
"The whole idea was, this gives us a chance to see what it feels like in the studio," Folds remembers of the sessions, adding that the connection between himself, Sledge and Jessee, reoccurred immediately. "We have something that you couldn't imitate or repeat. That's what a great jazz band or an old-school rock band is all about – the sound being just in the chemistry and in your hands. It's not about anything else, really. It's just what happens. If we all played together on pots and pans on the floor it would have that same affect."
Reinvigorated, Ben Folds Five soon returned to the studio to cut their first album since 1999's The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Folds admits the new album, recorded over six weeks this past January and February, presented a daunting task.
"We did feel a bit of pressure to make the record mean something and to make it really good," he says. "You don't want to be dormant for over a decade and then come back and offer up a piece of shit, you know?" The band’s principal songwriter, Folds wrote all but two of the songs on the album; Jessee penned the lyrics to the winsome "Sky High," and unused lyrics from Folds' 2011 collaboration with author Nick Hornby were given new life on the title track.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind reflects Folds’ evolution as an introspective songwriter, while still retaining his typically humorous spin on life. On opening track "Erase Me," the 45-year old contemplates a "disingenuous offer from one person to another in a dead relationship" over minor-chord mayhem; "Do It Anyway" puts forth his belief that although you may be "fucking up on Earth, [that] doesn't mean that someone who's just a few years behind won't understand it;" "Draw Something" a gurgling disco-funk number, finds Folds crooning about drawing "dicks on the wall" when all else fails.
Folds, who will be appearing at New York Comic Con next month, says he and his band "could go in the studio and start making our next record easily." Yet he believes he could not have made The Sound of the Life a decade earlier. "I think it's psychological development, really," he explains of his progress as a songwriter. "Which is another way of saying maturing."
Onstage, Folds says he often finds himself playing the role of life coach. "Not that I communicate better with 25-year-olds than I do with people my age," he contends. "It's just that people my age don't have time for this shit. They're doing other things. What I feel like I've always done is say, 'Here's where I am in my life. I've climbed up to this plateau or this precipice at the moment, and I'm looking down and telling you kids, 'Here's what it feels like where I am.' I think that's good information."