Citing artistic differences the band broke up in May,
And in June reformed without me, and they got a different name.
— “Army,” by Ben Folds Five, 1999
It’s taken as gospel truth in these parts, spelled out plainly in the lyrics from Ben Folds’ “Army,” which he recorded in 1999.
The story — as it’s told in bars and rock clubs and anywhere else in the Triad where they strum guitars and hold vague recollections of what it was like Back in the Day — harkens back to Majosha, a super group of sorts whose members at times included local musicians Evan Olson, Eddie Walker and Millard Powers.
And if you believe the story — and the song — you assume that the guys from Majosha kicked Ben Folds out of his own band, only to regret it as Folds’ star began its brilliant ascendance.
But that’s not what happened.
To fully understand what went down in those years between 1988 and 1993 in the local music microverse, you’d need to look at the timeline, talk to the people involved and have some experience with the lifestyles and creative impulses of young guys who play in rock bands.
“We were like 19, 20 years old,” Folds said in a telephone interview. “I think we rebranded that [Majosha] record as Pots & Pans, but it didn’t really make sense because it was a different band, and that’s the kind of sh*t you do when you’re 20 years old.
“It was typical band stuff,” he continued. “We had so many incarnations of so many bands….”
A remarkable creative stew was brewing in the Triad in the days of Majosha and what came after, a story that’s still being written.
In the spring of 1988, Folds was back in his hometown of Winston-Salem after a couple false starts in his educational track and studying at UNCG. He threw in with Millard Powers, from Greensboro, to form Majosha (pronounced ma-JOSH-a), purveying the sort of white-boy funk perpetrated by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers fused with the power-pop of groups like XTC. They won a battle of the bands at Duke University that year, giving them entry into the frat-party circuit along the Mid-Atlantic.
[pullquote]Ben Folds plays a command performance Thursday night at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro. Tickets are still available at carolinatheatre.com.[/pullquote]
A drummer at the time, Folds played slap bass in Majosha, largely as a result of marketing savvy and his penchant for multi-instrumentation.
“I was trying to pick up paying gigs while I was in college, and there was a real need [with] these cheesy, Top 40 bands for a bass player who could slap,” Folds said. “So I just learned it really fast, and got a whole bunch of gigs.
“It was really terrible bass playing,” he continued. “I’m not politically opposed to slap-bass playing — I think it’s kind of fun — and Flea with the Chili Peppers was doing it, Fishbone.
“So I just let that sh*t rip.”
Evan Olson, who joined the band later that year, says, “Bass was just something he picked up. He could just pick up any instrument and within an hour he’d know what to do.”
“Every instrument he plays,” says Eddie Walker, who also joined Majosha that year, “you’d think it was his main instrument.”
Walker and Olson met Folds at UNCG, where they were also students. Walker remembers that Folds wrote a review for the Carolinian — the student paper — about their band, Notes from a Strange Mailbag.
“I remember thinking that he was just funny as hell,” Walker remembers.
Folds approached Olson first.
“I think he’s the consummate front man,” Folds says now. “He’s that guy that if you don’t have him in the band, you don’t have a band.”
“I guess Ben liked my voice,” Olson remembers. “He saw something in my stage performance. I don’t know.”
“He’s less about a sort of indie-rock guy and more about being an incredible soul singer and performer,” he says. “I’m sure you’ve seen him live, but to see him when he was 19, just dropping into a split at like 6-foot-2 and singing his ass off. It’s pretty crazy.”
Olson shared a writing credit on Majosha’s seminal work, Shut Up and Listen to Majosha!, released on cassette and vinyl in 1989.
“We were probably most into the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, XTC, the Replacements,” Folds says. “I would say that pretty much sums it up. And then Evan had sort of a more contemporary, international almost, appeal.”
The work, which survives on YouTube, was fun, with tight musicianship and a pop sensibility. The album never really went anywhere — it was never released on CD — but a couple of cuts, “Video” and “Emmaline,” co-written with Olson, survived to be featured on later Ben Folds Five albums. After a rotating cast of drummers, Walker came on board for the touring band.
“Eddie had incredible chops,” Folds says. “It hadn’t occurred to me that you could be that good at something. He was more proficient as a musician than I was, so I needed to step it up.”
Walker says Folds taught him something important, too.
“He taught me to really service the song and not get caught up on what you can do on the drums,” Walker says. “Play what supports the song best.”
Eventually, Powers left the band to pursue his own muse — in Nashville in 1991, he helped form the Semantics with Will Owsley and Folds on drums, though Ringo Starr’s son Zak later replaced Folds in the band. Later, Powers would earn a Grammy nomination in 1999 for his engineering work on Owsley’s solo album, and became the bassist for the Counting Crows in 2005.
In the Triad around 1990, Majosha collapsed, to be replaced by Pots & Pans, featuring Olson on bass, Folds on drums and Britt Uzell, known in band circles as Snüzz, on guitar.
The idea for the name, Olson remembers, came from something Folds said a lot: “If a song is any good, you should be able to play it on pots and pans and people should be able to get something out of it.”
“He used to say that all the time,” Walker remembers.
“It’s true,” Folds says. “I mean, you can base a whole lot of what you do on arrangement, orchestration and production — there’s nothing evil about that at all. But at the end of the day, something about it has to be explainable, quickly, like the metaphor that they’re giving about pots and pans, yeah. Even Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, you could go dink dink dink DONK on pots and pans.”
Pots & Pans slapped a sticker with their name on it atop copies of Shut Up and Listen to Majosha!, and resumed touring with the songs. The band was short-lived, but had an effect on all the players.
“Snüzz was a big influence on my songwriting,” Folds says, “because he made sure he was actually singing about something. It was like, ‘Oh, sh*t, this guy’s got a point! Let’s do that!’ Snüzz put the soul of his songs always right up in your face.
“I saw him in a show at a laundromat — a laundromat! — singing a song about how he and his girlfriend broke up because he wouldn’t stop smoking pot, and the message was like, ‘Of course you know I’m not going to stop smoking pot,’” Folds continues. “It was a really sad breakup song, if you thought about it.”
Folds has continued to perform with Snüzz occasionally. And in 2002 after Snüzz was diagnosed with cancer, Folds played a solo show at Brandeis University and donated all the proceeds, more than $12,000.
“It was a pretty big helping hand at the time,” says Snüzz — who is currently bedridden with health issues — via text message. “He helped inspire and push the rest of us to become what we are: songwriters dedicated to the craft. He was such a great example to have around Greensboro during the late ’80s.”
Olson says that Folds probably sensed the demise of Pots & Pans before any of them.
“He was always looking ahead,” he says. “He knew that Majosha was an ephemeral project. I got the feeling it was just something he wanted to do. It was a lot of fun, it was a great record, now it was time to move on.”
Walker adds, “I think he’s a songwriter at heart, and the theatrics and showiness that Majosha had… his songs weren’t coming across the way he would have liked them to come across.”
“All these guys,” Folds says. “It was a good class to have come up with. They kept you on your toes.”
After the band broke up, the guys still played gigs together.
Walker remembers a showcase in Raleigh that Folds had arranged, featuring a “Prince-style” performer — he doesn’t remember the name — for whom Folds had been hired to produce a set.
Folds set himself as the opener, with Olson on bass and Walker on drums.
“Ben basically stole the show,” Walker remembers. “Next thing you know, he’s got his own showcase.”
Folds moved to Nashville shortly afterwards to play with Owsley and Powers in the Semantics, only to be replaced by Ringo Starr’s son, and also found work as a session musician and songwriter.
WHAT CAME NEXT
The band-member shuffle continued in the Triad through the 1990s. Snüzz and Olson recruited Walker and Folds’ brother Chuck to form Straight Ahead, which for legal reasons changed its name to Bus Stop. When the band placed second on a television reality show — “Dick Clark’s USA Music Challenge” — in 1992, another chapter in our local music history was born.
Ben Folds didn’t return to North Carolina until 1993, forsaking the Triad for Chapel Hill, where he eventually filled in the ranks of the trio that would become Ben Folds Five.
“It was so cool,” Olson remembers. “For so many years I saw him honing this sound. He would send us demos and we’d listen to them in the Bus Stop van. One of those demos became Ben Folds Five’s first album.”
The new band — with Folds on piano, Robert Sledge on bass and percussionist Darren Jessee — made their eponymous debut in 1995 after two years on the road together. But their biggest success came on 1997’s Whatever and Ever, Amen, which included the lush piano ballad “Brick,” that would become Folds’ biggest hit to date.
They made three albums between 1995 and 1999, broke up in 2000 and then Folds went on to a storied solo career which included a few albums and collaborations with artists as varied as the novelist Nick Hornby, actor William Shatner, college a capella groups and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
He’s been a producer, a television personality, a voice-over actor and a sideman. And he has occasionally conscripted some of his old bandmates into service.
Snüzz and Powers joined Folds in 2001 for the Rockin’ the Suburbs tour. He used Eddie Walker for a spot on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 2000.
“He had that aggressive mode,” Walker says, “a go-getter spirit. Like a shark. He always had a good sense of where to be.
“I wouldn’t call him a genius,” Walker says, “but with him I throw that word around.”
Folds sees it a little differently.
“What I had was a good bit of luck,” he says, “and proximity to some of the best musicians in the business.”
Both Walker and Olson hope to be in the audience when Folds plays the Carolina on Thursday night.
“I feel very fortunate to have been in that band,” Olson says. “I’m still learning things from watching him play.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Chuck Folds: Chuck lives in Charlotte, tours with his band Big Bang Boom and plays in various other projects. Find out more a tbigbangboomband.com.
Evan Olson: Evan performs locally several times a week with various projects, including AM Rodeo and a duo with Dana Bearror. He composes commercial jingles and soundtracks for film and television, as well as original music. His website is evanolson.com.
Eddie Walker: Eddie plays with more local outfits than can be listed here, and is a sought-after sideman in the studio and on the road.
Millard Powers: After his Grammy nod in 1999, Millard played in the backing band for Ben Folds’ Rocking the Suburbs tour. He is currently the bassist for Counting Crows.
Britt “Snüzz” Uzzell: Snüzz remains one of the most seasoned guitarists and songwriters in the state; his band Snüzz has survived a couple decades and a few different lineups. He is currently recovering from a serious immunity-deficiency disorder, but hopes to be back on stage and in the studio soon.
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