NEW YORK — Ben Folds, the lead singer and pianist for the fast-rising rock group Ben Folds Five, is described by bandmate Robert Sledge as "the squarest guy I've ever met."
Arriving for lunch at a midtown Manhattan restaurant--accompanied by the cherubic, wisecracking Sledge, who plays bass, and the band's drummer, Darren Jessee--the 31-year-old Folds does little to challenge this assessment.
Wearing a collared shirt under a jeans jacket, his close-cut hair neatly combed and his manner shy and polite, he looks more like a computer technician than an aspiring pop star. In fact, for most of his life, Folds never considered such stardom an option.
As a youngster, he was too embarrassed to tell friends of his songwriting endeavors. Even when he summoned the courage to join bands in his teens and early 20s, Folds preferred to stay in the background, playing drums and bass while other vocalists sang his tunes.
"For me, the idea of singing seemed a little scary," Folds reveals, while negotiating a fussy salad. "The first time I sang and played piano before a live audience, I thought I was gonna throw up all over the piano. I thought, 'I gotta get off this stage!' But there was no way out. I mean, my parents were sitting in the front row! What could I do?"
Fortunately, all that suffering seems to have paid off. Last March, Ben Folds Five--actually a trio ("Alliteration just sounds better," Folds says)--released its major-label debut album, "Whatever and Ever Amen."
Supported by a loyal cult following that the band expanded on by touring, the album sold about 150,000 copies even before it spawned a hit on radio stations with a modern rock format, the gently disturbing ballad "Brick," in December.
Fueled by the success of that single, and by appearances the band has since given on "Saturday Night Live" and "Late Night With David Letterman," the album was recently certified gold (sales of 500,000).
And that's to say nothing of the drooling reviews that "Whatever" has garnered. "This is about as close to bliss as radio gets," raved Rolling Stone.
Numerous critics are impressed by Folds' wry sensibility as a lyricist, reflected in song titles such as "Battle of Who Could Care Less" and "One Angry Dwarf and Two Hundred Solemn Faces"--as well as his sharp, sophisticated melodies and the band's lean but richly textured arrangements. The latter have evoked comparisons to pop savants ranging from the Beatles and Elton John to Todd Rundgren and Randy Newman.
"I always say that influence and inspiration are two different things," says Folds. "I mean, we probably listen to Rage Against the Machine more than any of the people who are tagged as our influences. As a songwriter, I'm inspired by things that sound different."
Granted, there are those who find Folds' cleverness a bit glib or self-conscious, though his songs also deal earnestly with issues ranging from romantic alienation to a woman's abortion (the subject of "Brick"). With his penchant for melodramatic piano chords and sometimes esoteric word play, he has been likened more than a few times to Billy Joel--never a critic's darling.
A recent article in Details called "Whatever and Ever Amen" a musical version of "St. Elmo's Fire" . . . "a full portrait of post-college confusion, complete with breakups that drag on, unspoken crushes on cool girls . . . , high school geeks avenging their unpopularity, and jaded hipsters who used to like the Cure."
"I don't mind the term 'pop,' if it means being popular," Folds observes. "But when it's applied to us, sometimes it's like, 'Middle-class white guys go into the studio with nothing to sing about and make a bunch of pretty chords.' But to me the lyrics always come out of the melodies. You just try to get your point across using whatever tools you can find."
None of the success of Ben Folds Five comes as a surprise to Polly Anthony, the president of Epic Records and 550 Records, which signed the band in 1996.
"I heard their tape and liked it," says Anthony. "Then I flew down to North Carolina to see them play live, and the show was an epiphany. They struck every responsive chord in my body. And then the chase began, because every major label in the business wanted to sign them, and at the time, [550 Music] was this embryonic little record company. I've never felt so insecure yet so passionate during a chase for a band in my life."
Among the many things that impressed Anthony about Ben Folds Five is that its members were all "obsessive about their craft."
On the other hand, she points out, "they have their zany, crazy side." Indeed, for all the acclaim they've received for their clever artistry, these three young men resist the notion that they're calculated perfectionists.
"The stereotype about pop musicians," says the band's Jessee, 32, "is that they're all really anal . . . really concerned about producing these perfect-sounding records. That's not us."