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.