NORTHAMPTON — Ben Folds has a great deadpan.
The singer-songwriter-pianist is having lunch at Paul and Elizabeth’s with his fellow members of the recently reunited Ben Folds Five, bassist-vocalist Robert Sledge and drummer-vocalist Darren Jessee.
The affable and soft-spoken trio played a few of the summer festivals, but tonight’s show at nearby Mountain Park in Holyoke marks the first gig of the Ben Folds Five’s first official tour in over a decade, which comes to the House of Blues for a sold-out show Saturday. When asked about the nature of the band’s breakup, Folds leans over and says conspiratorially, “It was [expletive] up. It was bad. It was abusive and dysfunctional and we hated each other.”
He cracks up and adds, “No, that’s not true at all.”
In fact, the answer is much less dramatic than that. The North Carolina-spawned band, who earned a modest but rabid following during the alt-rock revolution of the ’90s thanks to its tuneful piano pop songs — ranging from antic tracks like “Underground” to wistful ballads like the breakout hit “Brick” — and manic live shows, was simply tuckered out.
“I don’t think we really actually had all that much of a conversation about it. There was an e-mail thread. We were all tired, that was the main thing,” says Folds. “It just dissolved more than anything else,” adds Jessee.
It was a classic case of burnout.
The trio went their separate ways in 2000. Each kept making music, with Folds releasing solo albums and appearing as a judge on NBC’s “The Sing Off,” Jessee operating under the Hotel Lights moniker, and Sledge working as a session player and producer
In 2008, when MySpace asked Folds to perform the band’s final album, “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,” for a webcast, he felt he needed to call his bandmates, and they agreed. “We were all in a good place at that point,” says Folds. It went well, they began to see each other a little more frequently, and decided it was time to reconvene.
They joined forces earlier this year in Nashville with coproducer Joe Pisapia, formerly of Guster, helping to ensure that they didn’t just sound like the best imitation of themselves. The result is the recently released “The Sound of the Life of the Mind.”
The album, which gave the group its best-ever Billboard chart debut at No. 10, combines many of the elements that fans of their earlier work loved with strains of Tin Pan Alley pop, clangorous rock energy, and jazzy tangents gracefully woven together.
From the moody heartbreaker “Sky High” to the raucous “Do It Anyway” — recently filmed as a video with the gang from “Fraggle Rock” — to the dreamy harmony stacks on “Thank You for Breaking My Heart” to the angular rhythmic slashes of “Erase Me,” the album is of a piece with the group’s catalog, but never mere regurgitation.
“One of the things I was so pleased about with those guys was even though they had matured, the way they play with reckless abandon and joy and unbridled enthusiasm was brought back,” says Pisapia. “They didn’t become old and stodgy or fearful. Robert, he’s playing the bass like Jimi Hendrix. He’s attacking it, more than most rock guitar players, and that’s part of their gestalt. And then you get Darren and his crazy beatnik jazz-meets-Keith Moon thing and you put all those ingredients together and you get this bombastic unit. It’s really something to watch come into focus.”
New music, say the members, was essential to the band’s reunion plan.
‘The business has changed so much that now you’re just trying to do something really artful and reach your crowd, and hopefully some other people, too.’
“We wouldn’t have gone out and just been a nostalgia act,” says Sledge. “One of our favorite things is to be in the studio and come up with new stuff. It wasn’t an option for us to just tour.”
The band was grateful that there was a hunger for fresh material. They chose to subsidize the recording through PledgeMusic, a crowdfunding resource, and the response was decisive, with payment for the album achieved within 24 hours. (Some of the proceeds from the campaign are also earmarked for music-related charities.)
All of which made the process easier, says Folds. “We didn’t first have to spend six months negotiating a record deal establishing a budget and having endless talks that were going to put the wrong kind of artistic pressure on the record.” And it created a direct relationship with their fans which was heartening, says Sledge. “I think they wanted the kind of record I actually wanted to make.”
Now that they are touring, the musicians are relying on a little bit of rehearsal and a lot of muscle memory to help carry them through shows — which, judging by the energetic first night in Holyoke, should be up to their earlier practiced-but-footloose standards by the time they reach the House of Blues.
“It keeps it a little scary and a little reckless and the audience likes that, too,” Jessee says of their occasional improvs and tangents and reworkings of older material.
All three report, and display, contentment with how the reunion has panned out so far.
“The business has changed so much that now you’re just trying to do something really artful and reach your crowd, and hopefully some other people, too,” says Jessee. “But you’re not in this conversation anymore about, ‘It’s all or nothing.’ You can be a little more selective and the pace is a little slower. It’s a different game, but in some ways it’s more enjoyable.”Sarah Rodman can be reached at
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