Billy’s kids

Ben Folds Five and Amateur Lovers prove that Billy Joel can be cool

When Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” comes on the radio, you immediately stop what you’re doing to listen, if only because it sounds so different from the usual alt-rock suspects. Think pre Christie Brinkley Billy Joel minus the guitar, plus playfulness and Southern charm. The piano hasn’t sounded so subversive since Jerry Lee Lewis’ forelock first came loose from its pomade.

“It’s unique that America produces something powerful that doesn’t come through Marshall amps,” BF5 bass player Robert Sledge points out. “When we first started, we thought, if we can pull this off, people will think we’re the greatest band in the world—like a Broadway show on the road.”

Ben Folds Five

DV8, Thursday, 2/5

Amateur Lovers

OK Hotel, Monday, 2/2

To fill the opening slot on its tour of Australia last summer, piano man Ben Folds and his Chapel Hill trio (they value alliteration more than reality) recruited Seattle’s Amateur Lovers, another band that wears its Billy Joel jones on its sleeve. The Lovers’ first full-length, Virgin White Lies (Loosegroove), melds wry observations and ultramagnetic music (including a guitar) into charming pop songs like “Consolation Prize,” a tribute to masturbation that somehow avoids any hint of creepiness.

BF5 is currently touring behind its new record, Naked Baby Photos (Caroline), a compilation that ranges from an early live recording of the band’s first single, “Underground,” to ephemera like a hilarious sound-check tape christened “For Those of Y’all Who Wear Fannie Packs.” While Folds rested up for the road, SW set up a discussion between Lovers front man Sean Boots and BF5 drummer Darren Jessee; Sledge added his comments later via a mall pay phone.

Seattle Weekly: Both Seattle and Chapel Hill have kind of “trademark” sounds that differ from the type of music you play—did you ever feel overshadowed by the music scene in your hometowns?

Darren Jessee: Maybe not overshadowed, but there was definitely some time when I felt like an outsider—the whole scene with Archers of Loaf, Picasso Trigger and those bands getting all this attention. They all respect us, and we respect them. I just don’t think they understood why you’d want to bring a grand piano into a club . . . but it was never like we felt ostracized or anything. . . . Now things have changed with the success of Squirrel Nut Zippers and Southern Culture on the Skids.

Sean Boots: Seattle seems to be the opposite—Seattle wants to find something that is its own, and because grunge was such a big thing, now people are trying to do anything but that… which leads to a lot of really bad pop bands, just because they want to avoid the grunge thing.

DJ: Any scene that gets defined by one or two bands—people are gonna revolt. Because Seattle is such a music town, it makes sense that people would rebel against being defined so narrowly.

Robert Sledge: There was a lot of hype about Chapel Hill that came early—we came at the end of it. . . . People appreciate that we’re from Chapel Hill, because we sound so different—it’s worked somewhat to our advantage.

SB: Maybe Ben was kidding, but once at a show he said something about how difficult it was to win over hometown crowds . . .

DJ: It’s true. When you’re in a different country or place, you’re kind of an ambassador, and it’s always easier. You’re treated nicer. Back home they’ll always remind you of the time you peed in your girlfriend’s chest of drawers at 3am.

SB: How did you start playing music?

RS: I fall into the Eddie Van Halen category. In 1979, I was 11 years old, and I heard Van Halen, and I couldn’t believe it, so I started playing bass. There’s a big bluegrass scene in Greensboro, and when I was growing up it was like, either you play folk music, which seemed trendy to me at the time—y’know, go to the rec center and learn to play “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane”—or you went and learned from the guys who were real musicians. So you could play to impress your girlfriend, or you could really learn music.

SB: In Australia, you’ve got this crazy fan base… Why do you think you’ve struck such a chord there and in Japan?

RS: I think the Japanese first thought we were English—we seemed to get lumped in with Blur, Menswear, and those bands. Australia just happened the way America happened. They have a real woodsy attitude… y’know, blues from Australia sound more authentic than from England.

SB: Name your top desert-island discs.

DJ: It changes… maybe Joni Mitchell, Blue . . . maybe Van Morrison, Moondance. If I’m on a desert island, I want to listen to weepy folk music, so I can stare up at the moon and wish I was in a Toronto cafe with Neil Young—whereas some people might want to go to a desert island and rock.

SB: Yeah, that’d be me. Especially if I were alone—I’d be depressed enough that I wouldn’t want to listen to sad music. Lately, I’d take Blur, Park Life, and Jellyfish, Spilt Milk—that’s my no. 1—and Billy Joel, The Stranger…

SB: What’s your goal as a band?

DJ: Endorsements. I want to get a lot of endorsements, and then give them to all my friends.

SB: Ben has a Steinway one, right?

DJ: Yeah, Ben has Steinway, Robert has a Peavey and a Gibson—he’s good for endorsements. He looks good with your equipment in his hands.

Related Links:

Ben Folds Five homepage

Listen to the band

The Ben Folds Five Trading Station for bootlegs