Ask keyboard-wielding singer-songwriter Ben Folds why it's taken his Ben Folds Five combo 13 ponderous years to return with their brand-new album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and he lets out a long, somber sigh.
"When I answer that question," he cautions, "it usually ends up being an hour-long answer."
The short version is that Ben Folds Five, which is actually a trio, did a one-off reunion show in 2008, got together in 2011 to record three new tracks for a greatest-hits collection (The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective), and decided to do a full album via a direct-to-fans PledgeMusic drive.
But really, he says, the reunion was a longer, more gradual process. "It was just natural and it just came along and happened. There wasn't a lot of decision making involved."
In any case, the Chapel Hill, N.C. trio is definitely returning in grand, attention-getting style. The video for the neo-vaudevillian kickoff single, "Do It Anyway," features the Ben Folds Five performing alongside actress Anna Kendrick, Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry, comedian Chris Hardwick and — best of all — the legendary puppet troupe Fraggle Rock.
"They're gearing up for a 30-year anniversary of the Fraggles, so we got the call and I was happy to do it."
So was making the video a surreal experience? "I mean, yeah, I look down and go, 'Wow! These are kind of famous puppets!' And there are people underneath them and beside them and stuff. But mostly, I was just impressed with how incredible the whole team was at what they do — they are SOOOO good!"
One reason it took so long to do the reunion recording is Folds' schedule in recent years: He's been inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, worked as a judge on the reality-TV talent competition The Sing-Off, ventured into producing artists like fellow Sing-Off judge Sara Bareilles, and opened an exhibit of some of his best photographs — titled Image Versus Verse — at Manchester, England's Richard Goodall Gallery. "We've been selling a lot of prints, and I've been spending a lot of time printing and signing them lately," he says. "I didn't realize the show was going to be so busy!"
And aside from the famous comedians popping up in the "Anyway" clip, all manner of celebrities seem drawn to the quick-witted Folds. Unlikely folks like, say, Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby, with whom he's already worked on projects. Folds is kind of mystified by it all.
"I toured with John Mayer because he had really liked my music when he was in college," says Folds. "And Katy Perry has always been really kind about mentioning how much she loved what I do when she was growing up. And there have been some people that you just wouldn't expect — it's really amazing.
"But mainly, it's just rewarding to see that someone who's really good at what they do has been inspired by what I do. Because it's not something that I thought about much when I was making the music."