Lugging a baby grand piano onto a punk club stage in the ’90s was about conspicuous as bringing a baby elephant—and twice as inconvenient. But any patrons who feared that they were about to endure a Gershwin recital were soon set straight by Ben Folds, frontman and primary songwriter of Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Ben Folds Five.
Flanked by an explosive rhythm section in the form of stickman Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge (PSA: the Five are actually three), Folds earned a reputation as the Jimi Hendrix of the piano—a violent virtuoso who punished all 88 keys like they stole his girlfriend and his favorite black t-shirt. After unleashing an onslaught of energetically-uptempo-yet-unerringly-tuneful numbers, he’d throw in a tricky riff from “Rhapsody in Blue” just to show you that he could.
Folds, with a mix of trademark self-deprecation and accuracy, later dubbed the act “punk rock for sissies,” yet the melodies were far more sophisticated, the harmonies tighter, and the wise-ass lyrics way more cutting than your average three-chord jam. Ben Folds Five’s 1995 self-titled debut allowed them to broaden their sonic range, but their follow up, 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, would be their breakthrough.
Ironically, the song that took them out of the clubs and into the global charts was not one of their hard driving, ivory bashing anthems or skewered caricatures of whatever sap managed to get on Folds’ bad side. Instead it was “Brick,” a mournful, deeply personal ballad stemming from his experience accompanying a high school girlfriend to have an abortion. Hinting at Folds’ vulnerability, the song resonated with millions and became a Top 20 hit around the world.
The reputation of “Brick” ran the risk of overshadowing the rest of the songs on the exceedingly strong album, which threw in unusual jazz time signatures, heavy metal distortion, vocal arrangements worthy of Brian Wilson, and a rowdy eastern European Klezmer section—and make it look easy. Even 20 years later, it represents pop music craftsmanship at its finest.
Folds, a passionate photographer—he recently served as a guest editor for National Geographic‘s Your Shots web community—is similarly adept with his lyrics, creating portraits of friends (and enemies), and evocative scenes drawn from his life, the lives of others, or his imagination. In honor of Whatever and Ever Amen‘s 20th anniversary, the maestro offered PEOPLE verbal snapshots detailing the production of each track on Ben Folds Five’s beloved classic.
1. “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces”
“I had a scenario in mind, and the scenario was a guy had made a s— ton of money, become famous and successful in some way, and used that to summon all of his enemies to his basement. He’s got his enemies in the basement and he’s going past them one at a time. I imagined him sort of pacing and they’re all tied up like a gimp.
That’s what I had in mind, and I realized how ambitious that was. I had only written a couple hundred songs in my life at that point and was still trying to rein in certain things. I remember playing it for a friend and my friend saying, ‘You told me that song was this, and I don’t get that from what you’re saying.’ I remember the frustration of that and I worked on it ‘til I got closer.”
“That came from a newspaper article, note for note pretty much. It was a domestic dispute in a yard: a guy runs after his wife, she hops in the car to take off and runs over his ass.”
“‘Brick’ was one of the last things—maybe the last thing—I wrote for the album. I’d just suddenly remembered that I had a pretty big story to tell from high school and it correlated to the music that Darren, the drummer, had. He’d carried that chorus with him for quite a while. That was his chorus—one line. And obviously an important line.”
4. “Song for the Dumped”
“I was writing ‘One Angry Dwarf…’ and it seemed a little complicated to Darren. And Darren, as a joke—and I guess to make a point—wrote the lyrics to ‘Song for the Dumped’ (without any music or anything) in my notebook next to ‘Dwarf.’ Like, ‘Here’s the way you should write a song. It shouldn’t be that complicated. It should be this simple.’ And I took that one day and made some music to it and showed it to him and we started playing it on tour. I don’t think we ever actually thought that would make the album, but it made the album.”
5. “Selfless, Cold, and Composed”
“That was towards the end of the writing process, too. I think I was starting to discover my inner ballads, or more slow and serious songwriter stuff. I think a lot of our stuff as a band before that had been much more uptempo. The thing I remember about that one was bringing in something that wasn’t typical for us.
I do remember that there was a lot of criticism of that song when it came out; that I had grown up too much. It was kind of sissy’d out, it sounded like I maybe controlled the band too much. I remember that song drawing a lot of criticism. Part of you knows that that ain’t gonna last. Part of me knew that that song had some really long-living moments in it. When we were mixing, my favorite moments on the album were occurring in that song. So when a lot of people said that, especially fans, then I was like, ‘I feel like standing up for this a little bit.’”
“That’s a song for my ex. She said, ‘I don’t have a name that a song can be written for. Michelle, there’s a name that works well for a song. There’s all kinds of names—Jolene. Not Kate.’ I said, ‘Nope, I can do that.’ She said, ‘What would the melody be?’ And I just said, ‘Kate! Kate! Kate!’”
“That came to me in the form of a letter [from] Anna Goodman. I gave her the lyric credit on that because really all I had to do was adjust a little bit and make it rhyme. But the letter was so much of a piece of art in itself. She’s been my friend since I was 5 years old, and she writes the best letters. She’s one of the best writers I know. She doesn’t write professionally, but that’s often the case.”
“That song was word for word from a newspaper, the first line of a piece about a divorce. A guy was trying to get a marriage nullified immediately because his wife had a developing brain disease and was becoming a different person. He was like, ‘I didn’t marry that person.’ So it caught my attention because of that—and because it’s an incredible run-on sentence.”
9. “Steven’s Last Night in Town”
“A lot of people ask about that one. I remember I was at the after-party for Saturday Night Live. I didn’t play SNL but I was there watching. I was sitting with a table of their writers, and every new writer that would come and bring a beer to the table would say, ‘Hey, “Steven’s Last Night in Town”—is the telephone in that real?’ I don’t know why they were all asking that. I was thrilled that they knew the song, and very interested that a group of writers were the most interested in whether or not the telephone was real.
And it was. I was doing my vocal and the telephone rang in the other room—we were recording in a house. It got on the recording and I just said ‘F— it, let’s leave it.’”
10. “Battle of Who Could Care Less”
“I woke up, as I often do, with songs and ideas for songs in my head. I woke up with this sort of ad selling this chess kit—one of those Franklin Mint series commercials where it was like, ‘We have these fine pewter Battle of Who Could Care Less chess kits with General Apathy versus Major Boredom.’ I was just making myself laugh laying in bed. I woke up with this scenario and I turned it into a song.”
11. “Missing the War”
“In the movie Patton with George C. Scott, he has a moment where he’s horrified that they have basically grounded him during the exciting part of the war for him. He was missing the war. And I thought, ‘How bizarre! Who the f— wants to be in a war in the first place. I’d be thrilled to be missing the war!’ But it made me think, ‘Oh, “missing the war.” There’s a phrase that means something very different to a soldier than it would to your average punter.'”
“‘Evaporated’ had been recorded a few times before. We had one shot at making our debut album—we had spent our entire budget and didn’t like the result. One of the songs on that version was ‘Evaporated.’ I think it was understood that that song would perish with that album. We were playing punk rock clubs, and everyone felt we were a band that played fast, happy music, and this was a song for old people.
I won’t say there was a conversation where everyone said, ‘Cut it off,’ but I know that if I just finally came to my senses and said, ‘This song does not belong on our album, we’re too cool for this song,’ everyone would have said, ‘Thank God!’ and left it off. But I really felt like it was a song that I wanted to have on the album. And the band always really felt it. I don’t think we toured that song ever. I think that song didn’t get played very much live.”