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Ben Folds One 

Rockin' the Southern Hemisphere

To Ben Folds, rocking the suburbs isn't anything to scoff at. The Winston-Salem native, best known as the leader of the now-defunct power pop trio Ben Folds Five, recently struck out on his own as a solo artist with the album Rockin' the Suburbs, recorded mostly in his new adopted home of Adelaide, Australia. A confirmed Burt Bacharach fan, Folds doesn't believe that radio play should necessarily be anathema to an artist, especially if said artist is being true to the songs. If the songs suck, well, that's a different story. Folds formed Ben Folds Five in 1994. Whereas most alternative bands of the 90s mined the grunge rock vein until it was bone-dry, the guitar-less trio garnered many fans interested in a nice stiff pop cocktail in the midst of a tasteless, lite-beer alternative music climate. Along with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, the band was equal parts Joe Jackson and punk rock, all tied up with a dry, fifth-year senior brand of indie rock humor. Signed to Epic in 1997, their major label debut Whatever And Ever Amen showcased Folds' oeuvre nicely, featuring the tongue-in-cheek "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," the sentimental "Kate," and "Battle of Who Could Care Less," a nice crystallization of fashionable 90s ennui. Frat boys cussed along with the anthemic "Song For the Dumped." The ballad "Brick," an honest, warts-and-all look at a young couple in crisis, helped the band cross over to a wider audience, though many probably missed the fact that the song was a parable about abortion.

After touring endlessly, Folds and Co. released Naked Baby Photos, a rarities collection, and Folds completed his first solo record (under the nom de rock Fear of Pop). In 1999, the band released the masterpiece The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, a largely un-radio-ready look at Folds' self-proclaimed "redneck past." It was also the last album the band would record, as personality conflicts and musical goals sent the trio packing, and Folds finding his own (yellow brick) road.

Creative Loafing recently chatted with Folds about his new solo work, radio success (or lack thereof), and the perils of being funny. Following is an excerpt.

Creative Loafing: You've said before that most of your audience seems familiar to you ­ that you can see yourself in their spot 10 years ago, that mostly they're there for the right reasons. Do you still feel that now, even as your audience has grown?

Ben Folds: Yeah. I think so. I mean. you've got your occasional dickhead that you can't understand why he's there. (laughs) But yeah, definitely. I think you have to feel like you can be on both sides of it to make any sense, really.

You now live in Adelaide, Australia with your life and kids. How much of a culture shock, musical or otherwise, is that from Chapel Hill?

Basically, Chapel Hill is musically kind of my home, and anywhere else is anywhere else. Anywhere else is me in a vacuum, basically. Australia is not that different, really. It's just that it's not my normal pattern, so it just makes me kind of go off in a cave by myself and write the kind of songs that are coming out of me anyway.

You made it a point to hire a "radio" producer on Rockin' the Suburbs, Ben Grosse, in part because he worked on the Filter record, to quote your bio. How much did the tug-of-war between you and him have to do with how the record sounded?

There was kind of a revealing comment that he made to somebody at the record company about something I wanted. And he made this joke that, "Well, Ben has this funny way of getting whatever it is he wants." And I never thought of that because I'm not an aggressive person, but I guess I don't really settle for anything until it's what I want. So I suppose in his eyes he probably figures that lots of things he didn't want to see happen that I wanted to see happen actually did happen. But it is my record I guess, huh? (laughs) At the same time, it wasn't that much of a tug of war personally, it was just that we come from such different places. And I think for that reason it has to be a complete hybrid of those two worlds. Which is what I wanted, I always wanted to pull those two worlds together more. The organic world and the computer world. The indie rock world and the pop world. I've always wanted to see the mainstream be able to enjoy the kind of music that I like. And most people who come from indie rock don't want to see it the other way. I started off on an indie label and we played punk clubs. And that we weren't really that kind of band I guess was what made the whole thing strange. I think most people that come from that angle don't want to see the mainstream get hold of their music, you know? But I always have. I always thought the Flaming Lips should have a Top 10 record.

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