The Ben Folds interview

September 23rd, 2008


As regular readers of my column know, Ben Folds is my all-time favorite recording artist. As I wrote in a recent column:

“I’ve seen him 15 times in six states and the District, twice with ‘The Five,’ twice with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. I’ve got three pressings of “Whatever and Ever Amen” (original, Japanese and reissue), three rarely-worn T-shirts, a vinyl of “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messener” and just about every single, B-side, EP or compilation.”

I jumped at the opportunity to interview Folds, who heads out tonight to tour in support of his crazy-fun new album “Way To Normal.” We chatted for about 20 minutes on the phone, pretty standard for a closely-managed rock star phone interview. Obviously I could’ve gone on for at least another 20 minutes. I didn’t even touch on the big news, the recent one-off Ben Folds Five reunion in Chapel Hill, N.C. (why bother? Everyone else is asking about that, let’s go for something different). When the publicist politely interrupted our conversation and told me I had time for one more question I decided against asking the super-fan question (“Any chance we’ll ever see those last Ben Folds Five songs?”) and went for something a bit more interesting (I think… judge for yourself, below).

There was also a lot of stuff that I wanted to ask him about but didn’t get to — the upcoming Counting Crows tour, the Nick Hornby collaboration, working with Amanda Palmer, et cetera. But, for 20 minutes I think I got some good stuff. I’ll never listen to “Rockin’ the Suburbs” the same way again and got some dirt on his long-gestating musical. 

I’ve decided to run the interview as is, transcribed, warts and all. One of my coworkers said I handled myself pretty professionally, which is a big step up from the 20 minutes I spent on the phone with Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, gushing like a 14-year old girl. So, how’d I do? I’d give myself a C+ or B-. But you decide…

JOSH: You’ve got a new album out next week, “Way To Normal,” and it’s kind of a rocker. They sent me an advance copy and I was wondering, to make it more of a rock album was it more of an organic decision, or were you like “So, I made ‘Songs for Silverman,’ and now it’s time for a rock album”?

BEN: Well, that’s part of the organic decision, too. I think those things just happen. You go in and start doing it.

J: What was the time frame for recording this record?

B: I think we started in November and I think we were done with the bulk of the recording in December.

J: This was all in your studio?

B: Yeah, it was all in the studio. We did some kind of pick up work down in (Producer Dennis) Harring’s studio. And we went up to record Regina.

J: Where was that? In New York?

B: Yeah.

J: Cool… So who were the musicians you were playing with this time around?

B: Well, let’s see… there’s Jared Reynolds, the bassist, and Sam Smith, the drummer.

J: And Sam is new?

B: Yeah.

J: How did you get hooked up with him?

B: Um, Jared knew him.

J: What did they, as musicians, each bring to the table on the new album?

B: We’re just a good team. I like that I would be writing in front of their eyes and we would be recording it and Dennis insisted that things go pretty quickly, so the musicians had to know what they were doing pretty damn fast, so a lot of whip cracking.

J: Any of the songs just kind of write themselves and just happen very fast?

B: I’m sorry, what were you saying?

J: Talking specifically about the songs themselves and the writing process. Were there any that sort of happened really fast, or were there any that you really struggled with and why?

B: Yeah, they were all sort of different. Some of them were written like, I’m trying to think of one specific instance. When, okay, there was song that we had talked about my finishing by the next day. You know, usually I would start off, “hey, check this out,” we’d play a little bit and all go “wow, that’s going to be good!” And so I’d take the night and the morning to, you know, dot the i’s and cross the t’s so when they came in we’d be ready to go. And that’s exciting because it’s all new and you don’t really have time to think about it too much. A couple times I came in without having done my homework. And Dennis would say, “so you finished that song?” And I would say “Yes, I finished that song, sir.” And then he would say, “okay, well, we’re not doing that one.” “Oh, what are we going to do?” And he goes, “I don’t know, you tell me.” And I go, “well, we don’t have anything else.” And he goes “okay, we’ll be back by 2 o’clock. Have us something else and we’ll come back and play it.” So then I’d be forced to write a song in about two hours for them to record.

J: Any songs in specific?

B: “Errant Dog” was one of them. “Free Coffee” was fast like that too, I don’t know if that was exactly the mind game he used on that one song, but it was always something different, you know? “Bitch Went Nuts” was recorded and done really quickly and then we played it live a couple times and then it was obvious more exciting live than it had been in the studio so we went back in the studio and went and did a couple takes and that was that.

J: One of the things that’s always interested me about your work — well, actually, let me ask you this real quick. Where are you right now? Where am I talking to you from?

B: Oh, I’m in Nashville.

J: In your studio?

B: I’m at home.

J: Cool. And you leave for the tour really soon?

B: Yeah, tonight. 10 o’clock.

J: Excited?

B: Yeah, I am, because it’s going to be a lot different kind of tour for us.

J: How so?

B: Well, it’s a lot more involved, a lot more production, just a lot more formality, really. We usually just kinda go set up and just play. We’ll have a plan. Hey, could you hold just for two seconds?

J: Yeah.

B: Hey, I had to grab something that resembled food.

J: (laughs), what are you eating?

B: This, uh, yogurt cranberries.

J: (laughs) No worries. So, I’m sorry, you were saying it’s going to be a bit more formal?

B: Just meaning it we gotta think about it a little bit. There’s just more production, that’s all.

J: The song arrangements?

B: There’s two extra people on stage. A lighting designer, projection, 10 more instruments all total.

J: Oh, wow.

B: A French horn, glockenspiels, keytars, hammer dulcimers, synthesizers. It’s just a lot more to coordinate.

J: Is the tour going to draw heavily on the new album, is it going to be focused on your solo work or some old favorites? What should audiences expect?

B:  We are, I’m trying to think of some way to say it like I’m running for office.

J: (laughs)

B: We’re firmly focused on the future and, uh, I think we’ve got change that you can believe in. (laughs).

J: (laughs). Nice.

B: Yeah, we’re, um, there’s so much new stuff, there’s also a fake album, which just sounds awesome in rehearsal. I mean it’s really come together and it’s just so much fun instantly so a lot of the production planning went into the fake songs, too. I’ve never absolutely shunned my past songs. There will be some opportunities to play some older stuff, but you know, I always do touring where I come through and do that stuff. This is much more new stuff.

J: Maybe some stuff, between the new album and the fake album people have never even heard before?

B: It’s hard to know how many people have heard that, even if they’ve bought the album. They may be scratching their heads over what they’re hearing some of the time, not recognizing it, rather. The rehearsals have been awesome. It’s just a blast to play, it’s been sounding great and it’s really refreshing to have the extra instrumentation, too. I love piano bass and drums, it’s a really good, it’s my palate, it’s what I normally from, but this is, I wouldn’t want someone to think, “aw, well, I just want to hear his oldies” and don’t come out and see it, because I think this is good.

J: Even with the fake songs, potentially people could be hearing two different versions of “The Bitch Went Nuts” then?

B: Oh yeah.

J: That’s awesome.

B: Yeah, each with their own, completely with their own sort of visual production.

J: Uh huh. So this is going to be more of like a show-show then?

B: Oh yeah, much more. I mean, really, what’s going on is I try to put back every once in a while, and it’s very every once in a while, try to just really go out on a limb with production. I mean, with Ben Folds Five it was the “Reinhold Messener” tour where we had two pianos.

J: Yeah, I caught you guys twice on that tour. It was pretty awesome.

B: Yeah, it’s a very similar time period now in that touring business was way down in general, so it wasn’t the time to go spending all of the money that you were going to make. Somehow I think that makes more sense when people are in a crunch. I’m just looking at this time period and, you know, things are fucking weird right now, and rather than cut it all down to bare bones and have people spend money that they can’t afford, going out to see something that’s done cheaply, we’re just doing it big. It’s one of those “we’ll call it a wash” tour.

J: (laughs)

B: And just making sure that the new material is completely framed and understood and enjoyed for what it is. I have a feeling, live shows should, to a certain extent, I mean, a lot of times you hear a record and you go “That’s a great record, yeah, that’s good.” Getting the live experience then you really get it, and I think we’ve cracked the code with making that happen on this album. It’s all really working. In the informal setting the new stuff was working really well too. This just drives the point home. There are visuals for instance; you brought up “The Bitch Went Nuts.” On “The Bitch Went Nuts” I think really explains the song in a way that’s helpful. It’s like having a good video or something.

J: Awesome. So, one of the things that I’ve always found interesting about your music is you always do a lot of character sketches.

B: Yeah.

J: It’s always a big part of your work, and unless I’m missing anything here, the characters here are “Dr. Yang” and “Kylie From Connecticut.” So, who are these people and where do they come from?

B: Well, there’s a lot of story telling in it or a lot of scenario painting in the record, even when, I mean, to me those come hand in hand. I use names a lot, but even when the names aren’t being used, there are stories painted in clues, you know, like the song “Cologne,” a lot going on.

J: Sure.

B: Yeah, the two characters. Yeah, it’s funny, at the end of the day for me to like look at it and go “Who did my subconscious care enough about to be sketching like that?” Well, you know “Dr. Yang,” it’s a team of doctors. There’s four or five of them in there. We have a Dr. Jack, a Dr. Yin, a Dr. Yang, so you have Yin and Yang, and there’s Lovemaster Z.

J: (laughs).

B: So there are four doctors. That’s more about the character that’s going to the doctors.

J: How so? What is he looking for?

B: Well, I think it’s not so much what he’s looking for, but what he’s doing with his extra time.

J: I guess what I’m getting at with this and my question about “Kylie From Connecticut” is where do you come up with these characters?

B: Well, that’s what I’m telling you, it’s kind of what I’m saying, is this is the way it’s approached, from the back door like that. That’s basically getting on to it. The character here is none of the doctors; it’s the guy going to the doctor. And then why this character, I think all things reach critical mass and maybe something that’s reached critical mass has been, you know, if you can afford shelter, you’re looking for food. And as soon as you can afford food you’re looking for maybe a little healthier… maybe we’ve kind of reached critical mass in a certain sector of our population with free time. And it could be borrowed; obviously things are going a little awry in the economy. But I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about what you do when everything else is taken care of.

J: Got it.

B: What do you do? Then it’s a Yin and Yang thing to me, we’re talking about balance, so the character’s trying to find balance and it’s bookended from the beginning to the end with the two. And, actually, if you read up on Yin and Yang, there’s no real agreement over which is the black space and which is the white space (laughs).

J: (laughs)

B: It’s just a search through… also, these aren’t typical doctors, so this is the Westerner’s search for another thing that works. So it’s just someone looking, has extra time. Maybe the problem is he has extra time, which actually I kind of highlight in the artwork, which you wouldn’t know about yet, which is I’ve taken the line out of context and there’s a picture of me standing outside of a pool like I’m going to jump in the pool and kill myself. And that says “maybe I’m dying” and the next page is just black and says “maybe I’ve got too much time.” And I think it’s just about people having extra time and really trying to find some kind of balance. Even if it’s funny, I’ve made a joke out of it, because this guy’s going to Lovemaster Z and then he’s going to Dr. Jack to crack his back (laughs).

J: You sort of did it once with Fred Jones, but do you ever think about revisiting these characters, or are they just are what they are and stand alone in their songs?

B: They may all yet still come together in some glorious connect-the-dots album. I don’t know. I mean, it occurred to me when I was making, uhh, “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” I couldn’t remember the fucking album. When I was making “Rockin’ the Suburbs” that I would connect the characters like, in some kind of way throughout the record. I mean, that was an option I kind of artistically kept open as I was writing the record, and then it just became something that wasn’t necessary.

J: Yeah.

B: But that it would be around the different characters. Fred Jones would be, probably the father of Sara of “Zak and Sara.” And was, in fact, in my mind.

J: That’s interesting.

B: Was and kind of is. And I can see where the mall is, where the music store is, where his office is. But I didn’t get enough characters to really tie in. Annie would have been the older sister of Sara.

J: Sort of on that note, I heard rumors, years back that you were maybe going to do a musical at one point? Did anything ever come of it?

B: Yeah, I mean, that’s been a big, that’s something that if you read every, if you saw my schedules for the last five years, there’s time scheduled in to do this. We just end up tramping it in the dirt with touring and recording. It’s very difficult to get myself into the Broadway business while keeping one foot firmly planted in-

J: Is this something that’s eventually going to happen?

B: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I mean, it needs to happen sooner than later, I think, because it was actually Pete Townsend strongly advised me to do this while I was still a commercially viable act and not after. Do it while you’re still doing your thing.

J: Any tidbits you can share, or is it way too soon?

B: No, I mean, it’s almost as if everything is together except the actual musical. You know what I mean? It’s like the production company, book writers, producers, directors, all of those things are at our fingertips now. We’ve gotta tape (coughs) they’ve made gazillions of these shows. They’re just waiting for me to get off my ass.

J: (laughs) Awesome. Any time frame or it’s just you have no idea.

B: No, August of next year is taken, set aside to plan and to get together ideas on it. But, it’s you know, difficult.

J: Cool. Well, I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’ve got a few more questions if you’ve got time.

Leanne, Ben’s Press Coordinator: Hey, Josh, we have time for one more.

J: One more. Oh.  How’s this, Ben: A question, and then, if I may, a request as a fan?

B: Yeah.

J: Cool. So, my final question, one of the things I noticed in the press release was you had said all you wanted to say about the divorce on the “Silverman” album. And that sort of caused me to go back and listen to “Silverman” again, and I’m sort of hearing it in a whole different light now.

B: Mmmm…

J: When you were going out and doing all of the press for this, was it going through your head “man, if these people only knew,” or were you just, how were you able to do that, is what I was wondering?

B: Yeah, well, it’s difficult, because people… well, first of all, it might be obvious that although I’m a big fan of writing from my heart and being as direct as I can and really putting things out there that maybe not a lot of people wouldn’t, I also am kind of private, so that makes it kind of tough because people catch up. By the time that the public catches up to what’s going on in my life, you know, I’ve moved on and don’t really like to go back to it. But yeah, it was weird, the process of writing is also, part of it is discovering what’s actually going on in yourself. Not to get too damn touchy-feely-new agey about it, but you know, when I listen to that album, when I was writing that album I was actually going “Wow, this is all kind of going down” (laughs). It’s funny because if you don’t tell the general public what’s going on, I remember people listened to “Brick” like it’s a love song.

J: (laughs)

B:  You know and they used to dedicate that to their boyfriends and girlfriends and stuff. It’s a pretty song, so I understand and I don’t think it’s stupid or anything. It’s just bizarre, to me, everyone’s asking about specific songs on this new album if they pertain to a divorce and it just made me think “God, you know, go back to ‘Silverman.’ That’s got more break up material on it than the new album, it just wasn’t proclaimed as such.

J: Right on. Yeah, it’s really interesting.

B: I think that’s awesome.

J: It’s like hearing it for the first time almost, so it’s pretty cool.

B: That’s cool. No, and it’s good. That’s the thing too. “Songs for Silverman” is a bad salesman. “Songs for Silverman” as an entity I don’t think of as a living being. He’s just got a little bit of low self esteem and he’s not a very good salesman (laughs). But there really fine moments on that record that I’ll stand by and I know that in years when I have to make a best-of album, that record will be represented and it’ll be obvious that it was worthwhile.

J: Awesome. So, I have one request to you, and this is as a fan for a decade and a dozen or so of your shows.

B: Yeah.

J: My friends and I have a game where, pie in the sky, if we could have one artist record one song, a cover song, and I know you do a lot of covers.

B: Yeah.

J: If you could ever, you know, just poop it out on iTunes or wherever, to do a cover of Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love.”

B: (laughs). Okay, I’ll put that up there and I’ll smoke that one. That’s good.

J: I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night in D.C.

B: Hey, what do you think of “Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?

J: Pretty good.

B: That would sound pretty good on piano. But “The Power of Love.” That would be a statement.

J: “The Power of Love” would be hot. That would be hot. (laughs)

B: (laughs). Okay, thanks for the tip! All right, see ya man.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike now needs to interview Mel Brooks before a happy retirement. He can be reached at 703-878-8072 or jeiserike@insidenova.com.

Want to go?

Ben Folds
8 p.m. Wednesday
DAR Constitution Hall
1776 D Street NW
Washington, D.C.



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