Sing us a song, Piano Man

If singer and multi-talented instrumentalist Ben Folds was driven by money, selling a series of EPs over the Internet wouldn't have been on his list of potential career moves.

But in 2003, the former piano-attacking frontman of Ben Folds Five began releasing a series of three EPs exclusively through and Internet downloads. Folds said the Internet-release process couldn't have gone better.

"It's been really cool," he said. "For what they are, for what the whole thing was intended to be, it's been a great success."

However, the 38-year-old Folds — whose former band had its biggest hit with the despair-riddled "Brick" in 1997 — defines success differently than most music industry insiders. His first two EPs, Speed Graphic and Sunny 16, peaked at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on Billboard's Top Internet album charts. Sales totaled nearly 50,000 copies — not a strong showing compared to CDs sold by conventional means.

But Folds, who plays Marquette's Varsity Theatre Tuesday, said he wasn't concerned with sales figures because the EPs weren't intended for the masses. They were intended for his diehard fans.

"It didn't matter because it really wasn't about (sales)," he said. "It was just to get my instant performances and songs out to the closest fans quickly. It was like postcards. It was just fun. It's not something you make a living on."

Super D, the latest EP, finds Folds — known for crafting catchy, piano-driven pop songs — branching out into several stylistic directions with three covers and two originals. Folds' wistful singing gives "Kalamazoo" a despondent air before an explosion of lush string arrangements and entrancing piano runs. He also shrieks his way through the EP's most breakneck-paced and heavy tune — a cover of The Darkness' "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" from Permission to Land that Folds said even he doesn't take seriously.

"The first time I heard (Permission to Land) I was on tour and it was funny to sit down at the piano and just go 'Get your hands off of my woman!'" he said, singing the line. "I just beat the s—t out of the piano. I was screaming at the piano. It was fun."

Folds said the freedom to include such a goofy song, which includes a chorus of "Get your hands off of my woman, m—f—," was made possible by the EP format.

"That's the beauty of making an EP, because can just do s—t like that," he said. "I don't give a s—t about that song. It's funny…but if you put that song on an album it really has to mean something."

Though he enjoyed the Internet-release experiment, Folds said he's looking forward to releasing a store-sold studio album, which he hasn't done that since his solo debut, 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs.

"It's time to make a proper album," he said. "The only disservice I may have done myself (with the EPs) is to put out the idea that I couldn't get a record out in stores or I'm off of my label."

Folds forewarned the record-buying public that there will be no escaping the publicity blitz for his still-untitled album when it's released in early 2005.

"There won't be anything low-key about how this record comes out," he said. "We're going to drive it down your throat. The onslaught begins. It's going to be like a J-Lo record or something."

Folds is currently keeping busy with a string of university shows. He said he'll be joined on stage by drummer Lindsay Jamieson and bassist Jared Reynolds — the musicians with which he's recording the new album.

"We're kind of a band at the moment," he said. "We've played one show and just been rehearsing, so this college tour will represent our first official tour. We play really well together. They're characters. They play like freaks. It's really good and I'm really happy with it."

Ben Folds plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Varsity Theatre. The show is sold out.