During the late 1990s, Ben Folds Five was as omnipresent as any act in popular music. And it wasn’t just that the Chapel Hill piano-pop trio was successful, with a platinum album (1997’s “Whatever and Ever Amen”) and radio hit, “Brick.” It was that they were working almost constantly, spending every waking moment in a nonstop grind of touring and recording.
Citing burnout, the trio of Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee disbanded in 2000. They’ve regrouped sporadically in the years since, playing a spine-tinglingly awesome 2008 reunion show in Chapel Hill and recording three new songs for a 2011 retrospective. And now, a dozen years past the breakup, Ben Folds Five has become a fulltime band again, at least for a while.
The group will play Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre Sunday, date three of a tour that started Thursday night in Massachusetts. That’s just in time for Tuesday’s release of “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” (ImaVeePee Records/Sony Music), Ben Folds Five’s first new album since 1999’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.”
So how has Round Two been?
“Really great, actually,” Folds says, calling from Los Angeles. “It’s that boring, no drama. There never was. But we were in each other’s back pockets for six years, 24 hours a day. We were all just sick of it and it felt like time to move on. Now we’ve grown up enough to be able to do it better. We know enough not to say ‘yes’ to everything, first of all. And we also know that we’re not always right, which you often don’t at 27. That helps.
“We’ve made every step of this as short-term as we could,” Folds continues. “’Maybe we’ll go into the studio, maybe we’ll make an album, maybe we’ll release it, maybe play some shows, OK, maybe do a tour ...’ We’ve really tried to creep up on it to make damn sure we don’t start a train that we can’t stop, because we also want to make sure we’re living the lives we want to live. It’s been a blast. Still a lot of work, though, more than people realize. But when we started out playing way back when, we had to move the piano ourselves, in and out of places like the Brewery. We’re used to it.”
Meantime, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” marks an elegant re-entry point. Maybe it’s just coincidence that Folds is back with his old mates again, but it’s more initially accessible than his recent solo efforts – especially the dreamy piano hook of “Hold That Thought.” There’s also the title track, which Folds co-wrote with lyrics from novelist Nick Hornby (of “High Fidelity” fame). And of course, multiple songs offer up the trio’s usual mix of virtuosic flourishes and angry-guy petulance.
“Erase Me” opens the album on an angry note, a song for the dumped that is an embittered kiss-off to an ex. And “Draw a Crowd” has an off-color chorus that brings to mind old Ben Folds Five howl-along classics like 1997’s “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces.” A decade-plus of added perspective gives “Draw a Crowd” a twist, however.
“A lot of that song is actually about growing up, even if it’s not musically packaged that way,” Folds says. “The first verse is about wanting something, ordering it, forgetting about it and years later it shows up on your doorstep and you’re still responsible for it. You know, when you’re 15, being in the rock business sounds great. At 30, you’ve put in the work and it’s a done deal, but is that what you wanted? And you have to deal with it anyway, the bad with the good. So that song isn’t really from the same place as before, even if it sounds like it. I think it’s neat that when the three of us play together, we quickly sound a certain way. We’ve definitely got a thumbprint.”
If you’re wanting to re-experience that thumbprint, however, you’d best do it now. The group will tour this fall, and that will probably stretch into next year. But 2014 is when Folds says that Ben Folds Five “will turn into a pumpkin,” because he’s already set to spend that year doing orchestral shows like the one he played with the N.C. Symphony back in March. Meantime, he’s enjoying being back in a rock band.
“We’ve really become an old-school ensemble,” Folds says. “Like a band you could pull out of a pub and throw onstage. There’s no technology, just three people close together on a big stage. Back in the day, we weren’t always singing all the parts people thought we were, or even singing that well. Fortunately there was no YouTube then. So we always try to nail it, because YouTube is always watching. But we’ve also grown up and we’re all better musicians now. There are things we can’t do, but other muscles to flex that we didn’t have before. Trying to act like you’re 25 years old forever is really a mistake.”
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat