Ben Folds / Ben Folds Five

Born September 12, 1966
Ben Folds Five formed 1994

A guitarless band may seem strange at first, but the piano, bass and drums trio Ben Folds Five have dispelled any misgivings about their ability to rock as loud and hard as the next band. Calling themselves "punk rock for sissys," the band have been grouped with the nerd rock movement of the mid-90s with one exception, Folds know how to write catchy and clever pop songs that hold up after repeated listens.
The group's story is, in many ways, the story of its de facto leader and namesake, Ben Folds. The son of a carpenter, Folds was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Upon graduating high school in the mid-80s, the young songwriter drifted from place to place in hopes of discovering a good scene to sow his brainchild. Throughout the decade when hair bands ruled the airwaves Folds spent frustrating stints in Miami, Chapel Hill, New York and Europe before landing in Nashville in the early 90s. To spite the fact that Nashville was a songwriter's mecca, or because of it, Folds found the city's approach to songwriting frustrating and exclusive. While producers and managers wanted obvious hits, Folds wanted, instead, to follow his own muse, a notoriously eccentric one at that.

When Folds finally drifted back to Chapel Hill in 1994 he formed a piano-based trio with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee and within weeks the band cut an indie single that attracted the attention of Caroline. Their 1995 self-titled debut sold strong enough to warrant the kind of major label bidding war that young bands fantasize about. Eventually signing with Sony, the group released Whatever and Ever Amen and continued the strenuous touring schedule that the band had become known for. Releasing the singles "Battle of Who Could Care Less" and "Brick" into a climate awash with sound-alike guitar bands, Ben Folds Five and their witty, off-beat piano-based music was a welcome difference and the group became critical and commercial darlings.

Inevitable comparisons to piano composers of yore, such as Todd Rundgren, Billy Joel and Joe Jackson, followed but the group fought hard to maintain their individuality. Over the next two years Ben Folds Five kept their name in the press by releasing songs on soundtracks, as well as an album of outtakes, b-sides and early live appearances called Naked Baby Photos. In early 1999 they released their third full-length album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. In November 2000, Ben Folds Five abruptly announced their split, shocking fans and media. However, the trio quickly announced that all would be pursuing individual projects. Bassist Robert Sledge was going to put his own group together while balancing his tour efforts with former Squirrel Nut Zippers multi-instrumentalist Tom Maxwell's group the Minor Drag. Drummer Darren Jessee also went after similar opportunities, playing club shows around New York City. Ben Folds didn't stop either, for the singer/pianist contributed "Lonely Christmas Eve" for the How the Grinch Stole Christmas soundtrack as well as the cut called "Wandering" for the 2000 independent comedy 100 Girls."

Singer/pianist Ben Folds (born September 12, 1966, in Winston-Salem, NC) is best-known as the leader of the power pop trio Ben Folds Five, but has also struck out on his own as a solo artist. Despite playing in bands in high school, his musical career didn't really get off the ground until the late '80s, as a bassist for Majsha (the outfit issued such obscure releases as Party Night: Five Songs About Jesus and Shut Up and Listen to Majsha). Proving his multi-instrumental talents, Folds also played drums in as a session musician in Nashville. After relocating to New York, Folds started acting again (he'd done some theatre in high school previously), and signed a publishing deal with Sony Music. Moving back to North Carolina, Folds formed Ben Folds Five in 1994. Whereas most alternative bands of the '90s specialized in distorted teen angst rock, the guitarless trio was a refreshing break from the norm. In addition to Folds, the trio also included bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse, as their sound was more a kin to such past power popsters as Todd Rundgren, Jellyfish, early Joe Jackson, and such piano-driven artists as Billy Joel and early Elton John. But like punk bands, Ben Folds Five put on a high energy, blistering live show - which has turned them into a must-see live act. The band was signed to the independent Caroline Records shortly afterward, resulting in their self-titled debut one year later. Due to airings of their humorous anthem, "Underground" (which poked fun at the politics of the punk/alternative scene) on MTV's 120 Minutes and constant touring, quite a buzz was stirring for the band by the time of their second album - which was issued through Epic. Released in 1997, Whatever and Ever Amen was pure pop perfection easily one of the year's best releases (and perhaps the best power pop release of the '90s). The band's songwriting and sound had improved even further, as evidenced by such gems as "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," "Fair," "Kate," and "Battle of Who Could Care Less," plus their whimsical tribute to breakups, "Song for the Dumped." But it was the ballad "Brick" that broke the band commercially - unlike the majority of their material that was upbeat, the song contained melancholic music and vocals, as the lyrics told the story of a teenaged couple who decides to get an abortion (it has been speculated that the tale was autobiographical for Folds). The single didn't hit until several months after the album was released, which meant that the band stayed on the road for well over a year, playing with such notables as Dave Matthews, Beck, and as part of the H.O.R.D.E. 1997 festival - earning W.A.E.A. platinum status. While 1998 didn't see a new studio album by the band, BF5's former label issued a 16-track rarities collection (Naked Baby Photos), as Folds released his first solo album, Volume 1, under the pseudonym Fear of Pop. Although the album went largely unnoticed, it included the song "In Love," which included overly dramatic vocals from none other than Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner (comparable in approach to Shatner's must-hear 1968 album, Transformed Man) - which was performed on the Conan O'Brien show shortly after the album's release. Ben Folds Five regrouped with 1999' s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, which was a more mature work than its predecessors, although the energetic lead-off single, "Army," showed that Folds' humorous approach hadn't dulled at all.