The Sound of the Life of the Mind
The pensive robot on the cover of The Sound of the Life of the Mind evokes Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker.” Fitting, in that despite all its youthful exuberance, this might be Folds’ most pensive record, yet.
Fresh off recording a handful of tracks with Sledge and Jessee for his retrospective album, it would be easy to confuse Folds’ mindset on the album as a trip down memory lane.
The characters, while unique and new, are not entirely unfamiliar, and themes like lost love, fitting in, and the pains of being male, middle class and white are still a staple of Folds’ writing.
What’s changed is the perspective.
“It’s about trying to look at the thing straight and sort of losing your ego in it,” Folds says. “It’s something you have to deal with when you’re over 40. ‘Why did I think I was the guy that did this? Why did I think I was the guy that did that?’”
Part of that ego shedding meant learning to put more trust in his bandmates, a practice he admits overlooking in the early days.
“I suppose because we didn’t have much experience, we all thought that when you have an idea, you just have it, and that’s it, you don’t go through the other ones,” Folds says. “We were brutal editors, and brutal to each other I think, without even realizing it Robert might get half an idea out of his mouth and I’d probably just start playing something else. And then vice-versa. We were kind of harsh, and a lot of that was probably me.”
Now, Folds says, the band embraces all ideas, even the bad ones.
“What I mean by that was we were encouraging trying new ideas, and giving things the shake,” he says. “I learned that from working with some of my favorite artists, and watching how many shitty ideas come out of them, what hackery happens.”
The band didn’t entirely write off the old way of doing things.
Like the early albums, Folds wrote many of his songs in the studio, and the recording involved the same youthful vigor as their debut.
“I think the way to sound youthful is to play completely by feel,” he says. “When we were first starting out, we decided when we made our first record to just beat the shit out of it and see what it sounded like coming out of the speakers. If it didn’t sound interesting, we’d hit it even harder.
“We didn’t know till we heard it come back what we were doing. I felt like we needed to put ourselves in the same space now.”
Folds says the band never discussed what the record should sound like and tried not to overthink it.
“I haven’t heard our band play together in so long, that when I bring an idea in and I play it’s like ‘Holy shit, that sounds like that band! Oh, that’s my band…’” Folds says.
Jessee, who didn’t even sit behind a drum kit for 10 years, says his time off actually helped him become a better drummer.
“I kind of recommend people take a break from what they’re really good at, and then go and learn something else,” he says. “When you get back to it you have a new perspective.”
Another new perspective involves the producing.
Caleb Southern, the producer of the band’s first three records, wasn’t available. Instead, the band tapped friend and Nashville-based producer Joe Pisapia (k.d. lang, Guster).
Sledge calls Pisapia a perfect fit.
“I think we could really relate to him because of his age and his experience,” Sledge says. “He’s seen and done a lot of the same things we have. But Joe can also really get inside the chord changes of a song in a way that I haven’t experienced with someone working with this band before.”
With all the pieces finally in place, one last detail needed working out: Who would pay for and release the album.
Though Folds has a contract with Sony Music Entertainment, and Jessee’s band Hotel Lights is signed to Bar/None Records, the Ben Folds Five remained an unsigned act.
The band took to PledgeMusic.com, a fan-funded music platform, to solve their economic dilemma. Their initiative, dubbed ImaVeePee Records, was a huge success, and Sony agreed to partner with them to release the album worldwide.
Jessee says the band plan to tour behind the album for a year, but they haven’t ironed out plans past that.
Folds speculates that while he will continue to produce solo records, it might not necessarily be another 13 years before he, Sledge, and Jessee embark on another tour.
“It can be more like Neil Young and Crazy Horse, if I can be so pompous as to compare myself,” he says. “He plays with Crazy Horse sometimes — sometimes he goes out in other forms. A Neil Young and Crazy Horse reunion doesn’t really need to be stated, it’s just like ‘Oh, he’s playing with them this time.’ That’s the way it really feels with the band.”
In the meantime, the band is back to doing what they’ve always done, running themselves ragged. When they’re not touring, Sledge says he is doing interviews and making decisions.
“There’s just constantly something to do,” he says.
But perhaps they’re better prepared for that lifestyle this time around. With age, experience, ego-shedding and fresh perspectives, maybe the Ben Folds Five can finally walk the line between personal and professional contentment.
“I think now, in our maturity, we’re more the friends that people would have thought that we were back then,” Folds says. ”I still don’t know if we’re going to go on camping trips and shit together. But these are the guys who when I play it fits like a glove, and I know that.