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Folds plays a Baldwin Baby Grand. (and he drinks Heineken.)
Michael Leung/the Gauntlet

Waist Deep in Hookers and Coke

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"Want a beer?" asks Dad. "Man to man. We'll have a beer."

He promptly pulls a Pilsner from the fridge--supercan, no less--and pours two glasses. And then it strikes me: I'm going to see Ben Folds Five in five hours. Was it poignant that my dad offered me a Pil before I left to see a band whose self-labeled redneck roots are immortalized in song? (author's note: Pilsner is a cheap, cowboy Canadian beer, traditionally consumed by cash-strapped 16-year olds.)

Before I have time to respond, a pallid-looking, carbonated glass of beer appears in my hand. As I shoot my dad an incredulous, cock-eyed look, he's already sipping away on the couch next to me. "So who is this Ben Folds Five?" he asks from his glass.

Indeed, I wonder, who is Ben Folds Five?

In short: BFF is one of the coolest bands in the world.

High praise, you say? It's true, says I.

Hailing from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, BFF has delivered their piano-driven, guitarless rock for a number of years. Leading the trio is pianist Ben Folds, backed by bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee. In addition to each member's formidable skill, Folds writes lyrics ranging from the laughable, wise-ass and goofy to the serious, introspective and profound. The band propels these songs with catchy melodies and towering harmonies straight to the pleasure centres of listener's minds. Ben described his songwriting in a Q&A posted on a fan website.

"There must be a message," he explains. "But the best way to get the point across is to make it fun to listen to so that the point sinks in on repeated listens."

And damn fun it is. A fine example is "Narcolepsy," the first track on BFF's latest offering, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The track opens with 12 bars of piano then crashes into epic-sized sound, distorted-bass and string-backed action.

"We've been touring for four or five years," says Folds of the song. "You so look forward to sleep because you don't get it very often. The same way you check out. I mean, you can be enjoying the biggest things in your life and you can't register it, and your mind goes to sleep. Or if you're going through a break-up, or if you're happy about things, you just can't enjoy them--because you're not aware, you have no awareness."

In regards to Unauthorized's title, Reinhold Messner was the name they used on fake IDs back in their high-school days. Unbeknownst to them a real Reinhold Messner existed, and he happens to be a famous alpine climber. The result? A bunch of "suspiciously adolescent 27-year-old Reinhold Messners could be found frequenting the bars of Charlotte, NC in the late '80s."

So why are they known as "five?" Rumour has it the other two members were killed in a tragic gardening accident--at least that's what BFF told Rolling Stone. The truth is, as one interviewer put it, "apparently alliteration takes precedence over numerical accuracy." In reaction to hundreds of reporters asking the same dumb question, "Uhhh... where's the other two?" the guys apparently dream up a new fib every time. BFF's other lies include a name they considered for their second full-length release, Whatever and Ever Amen.

"Well, originally it was going to be called Waist Deep in Hookers and Coke, but that would have been too easy," jokes the band.

Something notable about BFF is their reaction to the exponential increase in popularity they've experienced not only in North America, but in the U.K. and especially Japan. Musically, BFF's outlook hasn't changed amidst a response that Unauthorized wasn't the same experience as Whatever.

One fan asked; "I found your latest album to be disappointingly 'polished.' Why the conscious musical move away from the good old distorted-bass-piano-and-harmony rock 'n' roll that your fans, at least this one, know and love? One of the things I've always loved about BFF is that they had their own sound, instantly distinguishable from any other band; with all the techno-synth stuff, you sound suspiciously 'hip' for someone with such a fear of pop."

Folds' response: "Techno? Are you joking? My mother still says 'grunge.' Do you think that this record sounds like everything else? I'd be a lot richer if it did. We're not part of a political movement, we're making music and it's put together like a brick-shit house and will hold up for years longer than it will take you to understand it."

Apparently, the fan's assertion rubbed Folds the wrong way. He took it well and explained himself.

"Relax your white male soul. Be free. Dress up in this year's clothes if it allows you to have fun. Let Elliot Smith make a rap album. Let Harry Connick Jr. make a glam-rock album. Let us use a mono-synth on three songs. Listen to music for what it is, not what it's wearing. Or buy some skate shoes and write music reviews. I don't make music to tell people who I am, or what musical chess move I've made. I'm just stating how I feel, hoping that someone else out there might feel the same way. We gotta follow our hearts. The only way you'll know we've made a 'conscious musical move' is if we repeat our first album over again, which I'm sure, would be a much more lucrative endeavour."

Furthering the topic of fame, Folds also describes how married life, fatherhood and stardom mesh into one.

"You won't recognize me now," he says. "I'm wearing sweat pants and driving a station wagon and listening to Kenny G. The live show will include a slide show of my children while we play 'You light up my life.' The opening act will be a motivational speaker selling his self-help books. All my new songs are about changing diapers and dried upchuck that you find on your shoulder over breakfast at 6:00 a.m. Other than that, I'm still the same guy."

Now that he mentions it, what about their live show?

Incredible.

In the band's early days, being a piano-led rock band meant toting a Baldwin Baby Grand in their yellow U-haul wherever they went. In those days, if a stage was four feet up, the piano would be going four feet up with only three people to move it. Now, they've got roadies and a gigantic tour bus.

Unfortunately, the Canadian leg of BFF's tour has only two dates--more of a pit stop, really. One was in Vancouver Thurs., Sept. 30; the other will be in Toronto on Oct. 12. Fortunately, I was able to catch the Vancouver show.

BFF played The Rage, a small venue with a capacity of about 1,000. Testament to their popularity in Canada, the show was around 50 tickets short of a sellout--they've yet to conquer the vastness that is the Canadian landscape. Somewhat like an upscale Republik, The Rage sported Den-like sticky-carpet and a checkered linoleum floor leading up to the stage.
A couple of concert quirks: BFF apparently doesn't mind people recording their concerts--but they dislike photographers. As I was checking out the venue, I met a Tyler Bradford of Vancouver, who had a sweet digital audio tape setup smack behind the sound booth. The tour manager allowed Tyler to prominently duct-tape two microphones to the DAT case. He caught every minute. I tried to convince him to ask the roadies to plug right into the soundboard, but I he didn't want to push his luck.

BFF is well known for their concert antics. Among the more notable include Folds climbing over his piano and substituting the seat of his stool for his hands on the piano keys. I was pondering how the band would produce many of the synthesized sounds heard on Unauthorized--would they really have fulfilled their namesake? How would they cover the flugelhorn and string parts on "Narcolepsy" and "Don't Change Your Plans?" Fortunately, my worries were for naught. Sledge played many of the sounds on a pair of nearby synths, and even sang flugelhorn parts.

Folds spent much more time hovering above his stool in a Michael Jordan-esque pose: his hands worked the keys at a frantic pace more often than not; one foot worked the pedal; the last foot stretched way out behind. Somehow, Folds stayed on his feet as his hands raked the keys in multiple glissandos.

He treats his piano like shit--no shit. During loud parts of "Narcolepsy" his right arm went above his head several times and slammed down on the lower keys of the Baldwin. Then, during "One Angry Dwarf" he flung the stool at the keys and it bounced right back into his hands. Finally, during "Song for the Dumped," he ran stage mics across the strings of the open piano, making sounds a little less enjoyable than a harp--but still cool. Ben even had the audience sing a verse from the song. BFF released a live Japanese version of "Song for the Dumped," fully translated (including harmonies), save for the "fuck you too" and "you bitch!" parts of the track.

"This band played on six shit-band bills many nights in different little crappy clubs," says Folds. "So we've kind of grown up as a band with that mentality. We strike it very hard, we hit hard. But it's not like a heavy metal band or anything. It's over the top in a way that a lot of times is not recordable. When you record it, it's like, 'Whoa, calm the fuck down.'"

Antics aside, the show was memorable for the actual experience. Their studio recordings tend to be more precise and slightly removed. The energy backing BFF's live show emanates the feeling the stage is their home. It's where they demonstrate their extraordinary talent and skill while still having an incredible time doing it.

"I've always thought that being yourself was one of the biggest challenges in people's lives," explains Folds. "Follow your heart, because it so often gets you in trouble in the short term, but it always pays off in the long term."

Special thanks goes to Scott Schneider, John J. Hauer and Frank Maynard for their indirect help. Visit www.benfoldsfive.org and http://www.oeonline.com/BFF/ for more information.

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