In conversation with Ben Folds, there are certain phrases that hit him the wrong way. For example, when he is asked whether his shows with the NC Symphony in Raleigh this weekend will be his “standard pops program,” his wince is almost audible over the phone.
“Man, I cringe a little at the ‘pops’ label and don’t like calling it that, because it just sounds bad to me,” he said. “I work hard at it, and it’s with a proper orchestra, no rock band onstage. So, yeah, it’s my standard pops show, but I’ve worked hard all of my adulthood to steer toward a little higher ground than that.”
Folds is an old hand at working with orchestras by now, but the Winston-Salem native has a pretty glorious past as one of the Triangle’s biggest claims to nationwide fame. In the mid-1990s, he lived in Chapel Hill and led Ben Folds Five, a trio that played smart-alecky pop songs with equal parts punky bravado and whiz-kid virtuosity.
At a time when guitar-based alternative rock ruled the scene, Ben Folds Five was always something of an anomaly. But they resonated far beyond the Triangle.
In 1997-98, both Folds and Squirrel Nut Zippers broke through with million-selling albums. Folds’ hit single “Brick” was omnipresent enough to land them on “Saturday Night Live” in January 1998, the first local band to land that coveted spot. And while Folds hasn’t lived in Chapel Hill for close to 20 years, he still identifies with the music of his native state.
“We were definitely very lucky to have a lot of examples of troops washing up on the beach,” Folds said. “We just kept invading little by little until bands in my era started getting some traction. With Squirrel Nut Zippers and me, it was because we had the example of courageous soldiers before us who had broken down barriers.”